‘Nettles’ by Vernon Scannell uses images from war and conflict to describe a patch of stinging nettles and how they hurt his son. Scannell is a former soldier whose work often includes representations and descriptions normally associated with war, using his experiences to help inform his writing. He was born in Lincolnshire and died in Yorkshire aged 85 in 2007.
This poem is part of the Relationships Poetry Anthology for the Edexcel English Literature GCSE.
Unlike many other poems, ‘Nettles’ does not have a hidden meaning in its title. Instead, it is simply a statement of the main subject matter of the poem. That said, there are still a variety of questions that a reader may have, such as what the nettles are and why they are significant.
Scannell’s experiences in World War Two resulted in him using lots of war and conflict-related imagery in his writing, informing the various descriptions used in ‘Nettles’ such as “regiment of spite” and “tall recruits”. He actually deserted when he was in North Africa during the War, and again while recovering in military hospital, and as a result, he was tried in a military court and discharged from the Army. One of the key reasons he abandoned the Army was because of the horrors he saw during battle, perhaps giving insight into this poem and the attempt to prevent future harm and injury to others.
Glossary of Terms from the Poem
- Regiment: A group/unit of soldiers in the army.
- Spite: Hate, malicious feelings.
- Billhook: A type of gardening tool with a sharp edge used for cutting plants.
- Honed: To make something sharper.
- Funeral pyre: Bonfire on which a body is cremated.
“those green spears”
“spears” is the first reference in the poem to conflict and war, but by being described as “green” it is likely that the reader would understand that this adjective is being used to describe the stinging nettles. Many readers are likely to relate to the connotations of pain and injury from “spears” to the pain of stinging nettles.
“It was no place for rest.”
This sentence is one of the shortest in the poem, helping to break the overall flow and rhythm and place emphasis on the line. The definitive “It was no” removes any question over its suitability, but “was” indicates that there is still potential for change.
“White blisters beaded”
The consonance of “blisters beaded” is effective at drawing attention to this line, arguably one of the most striking of the poem due to the effective imagery. The fact that this injury happened to a “boy” would make this description even more memorable and highlights the vulnerability of children.
“slashed in fury”
The sibilance in “slashed” helps to show the danger and power of this motion, particularly with the term “honed the blade” being used. The use of “fury” emphasises the intrinsic bond between parent and child and the desire for protection and safety. The connotations of the two words may encourage some readers to think of a monstrous or demonic image.
“My son would often feel sharp wounds again.”
The poem ends on a downward note, with the narrator acknowledging that their son would inevitably feel pain again in a similar situation. This line would be particularly effective for those with children who would likely recognise that it is impossible to protect children from every possible cause of harm.
Themes in ‘Nettles’
- Relationships: ‘Nettles’ is part of the relationships anthology. The poem considers the relationship between parent and child, and how a parent strives to ensure the safety of their child.
- Childhood: The poem acknowledges that children will inevitably feel types of pain and come across certain hardships when growing up.
- Protection: Readers would recognise that despite the best efforts of parents and carers to offer protection for children and those close to them, that can’t always be achieved.
Quick Focus Questions
- Normal: Make a list of words from the poem related to the semantic field of conflict and consider which would be most memorable for a reader.
- Hard: A simple rhyme scheme is used throughout ‘Nettles’ – what could one reason be for the inclusion of rhyme?
- Challenge: The first line and the last line of the poem both begin with “My son”. How could this cyclical nature of the poem be effective for a reader?