AQA Poetry 'Nettles' by Vernon Scannell
by Vernon Scannell
About the poet
Vernon Scannell (1922 - 2007) published his poetry from the 1950s right up to the last year of his life, but seems to be less well-known than he deserves, despite being the recipient of the Heinemann Award for Literature and the Cholmondely Award. In addition to his poetry, he wrote poems for younger readers, novels, autobiography and criticism, and reviewed poetry for Ambit magazine and The Sunday Telegraph regularly, until ill-health prevented this towards the end of his life. He was an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and was awarded a Civil List Pension for Services to Literature.
His background is fascinating, including serving with the Army in the Middle East and the Normandy Landings. He is a Second World War war poet, the experience of which is clear in 'Walking Wounded' in its ability to look closely, without false pity or false glory, at victims of "last night's lead', and which lends credence to his poems of the Great War, in which his father fought. More uncommon for a poet is his career as a boxer, winning championship titles at both school and university, and working in a fairground boxing-booth; this also appears in his poetry, such as in 'The Loving Game', where love, he insists, hurts more. Love, requited and not, or lost, or familial, is another theme that runs through his work. The kinds are often bound together, as in 'Growing Pains', which binds the strength of the father's love for his son with the son's unrequited love for a girl at school, and shows that it cannot do anything to ease the pain save empathise. (Scannell quotes, approvingly, Housman saying "the business of poetry is to harmonise the sadness of the universe".)
Herbert Lomas describes Scannell's method as "life's little and big ironies in polished stanzas and complicated verse-forms", which is true of many of the poems in this recording. But Scannell also uses fine blank verse and invented forms, and, in his introduction to a villanelle, talks helpfully about the form in use. Other introductions discuss the inspirations, obscurities or insights to the poems. His reading voice matches the paradoxes of his poems, being gravelly and mellow at the same time, but always welcoming the listener into the experience of the poem.
Vernon Scannell died on November 17th, 2007, aged 85. His recording was made for The Poetry Archive on 21 May 2001 at his home in Yorkshire and was produced by Richard Carrington.
Nettles by Vernon Scannell
My son aged three fell in the nettle bed.
'Bed' seemed a curious name for those green spears,
That regiment of spite behind the shed:
It was no place for rest. With sobs and tears
The boy came seeking comfort and I saw
White blisters beaded on his tender skin.
We soothed him till his pain was not so raw.
At last he offered us a watery grin,
And then I took my billhook, honed the blade
And went outside and slashed in fury with it
Till not a nettle in that fierce parade
Stood upright any more. And then I lit
A funeral pyre to burn the fallen dead,
But in two weeks the busy sun and rain
Had called up tall recruits behind the shed:
My son would often feel sharp wounds again.
Analysis of the poem
'Nettles' is a poem that offers several different interpretations and a fascinatingly ambiguous final line: 'my son would often feel sharp wounds again'. Scanning through the poem you will see that there are several references to conflict, war and the military, such as 'spears', 'regiment' and recruits' as well as many references to wounds and violence. Taken together, these different allusions to war and injury would suggest a connection between an early, parental memory of a child falling into the stinging nettle patch, and possibly the son's later injury or wounding in combat. Clearly the speaker has powerful, mixed feelings about his son, war and the consequences of war. We should also remember that this poem is taken from the Relationships collection of the poetry anthology, so we should be trying to understand what type of relationship is being explored here, whether or not it changes and what we learn about the people in this relationship.
As you first read the title of the poem you probably had something of minor flashback to your experience of stinging nettles - those spiky, green, knee height weeds that tend to grow on neglected land that leave a painful, white rash on the skin. Some of you might know that the cure for a nettle sting is to rub a 'doc leaf' onto the rash. Nettles, or 'stingers' as they are sometimes known, are one of those things, like wasps and insect bites and stings that etch themselves into childhood memory. I for one was always falling into them, and amongst my friends there was even a game where you had to grab a nettle plant at the base of the stem and then quick draw your hand up through all the leaves without getting stung, proving how tough and daring you were. Most gardens have a nettle patch and most people will have fallen into one at some point in their childhood. So the poet gives us a very emotive title that immediately chimes with what could be called a collective memory. The first line clarifies this further by telling us that the speaker's son fell into the nettle bed behind the shed when he was three years old. The speaker reflects that the name 'bed' is incongruent since a bed is supposed a refuge and a place of comfort, and in drawing attention to this apparent contradiction the reader is reminded that this could be a poem about contradictions.