One of the most interesting elements of art is its ability to allow one particular thing to stand in for something else. A single piece of poetry can be interpreted in countless different ways depending on who the reader is and what their experiences in life have been. It is this kind of element that makes poetry so interesting to read and analyze, because for all of the incredible amounts of thought that can be placed into understanding a single poem, any other person could be relied upon to provide an entirely different meaning. In the case of Vernon Scanner’s Nettles, there is a story present that follows multiple themes and settings, and frames the author’s thoughts in a story that is simultaneously literal and entirely figurative. It is powerful for its simplicity, a kind of story that is easy to read and easy to understand, until the reader looks beyond the presented words and delves deeper into what they might mean.
The Poem Nettles
Nettles is not divided into verses, and is rather told as one whole; it can still be analyzed piece by piece, but there are a number of themes that run through the entirety of the poem that are easier to look at in the whole. You can read Scannell’s poem, Nettles, in full here.
While the poem itself can be understood fairly easily without knowing its historic context, it is helpful to know Scannell’s story before analyzing the poem. Vernon Scannell was born under the name John Vernon Bain, and was enlisted in the British army in 1940, at the age of eighteen. He changed his name after deserting the army — though he was arrested and sentenced despite this. His desertion came from his personal distaste for the war, and his belief that there was nothing inside of him that was fit for a soldier’s life. His first desertion was brought on by watching his fellow soldiers advance down a battlefield filled with dead bodies on both sides; the living soldiers were looting the dead ones, and he walked away from the field, earning himself six months inside a harsh prison facility. After the war, he settled down to work on writing as his primary focus.
The structure of the poem is an interesting one — the entire story is presented as a single verse, and although it rhymes in an ABAB pattern, and is mostly written in Iambic Pentameter. At face value, the story told is simple — the narrator is the parent of a young boy of three years who falls into a group of nettle plants, well-known for being incredibly sharp. The young boy is hurt, and the parent decides to do what they have to to protect their child in the future — they console their child back into smiling before destroying every nettle plant in the area and burning the fallen spikes. It is of no use, however — within two weeks, they have all grown back, and the parent looks at them as a danger, just waiting to hurt their child once more.
On the first layer of inspection, the primary theme of the poem appears to be the nature of a parent’s lose, and the futility of trying to protect a child against the world. The parent here vows to keep their child safe, but realizes that there will always be another danger waiting — although they killed the nettle plants that hurt their child, there are always more, and even if they were to burn these plants every other week for as long as the child lives, there will always be more nettles. This is accepted in a rueful way by the parent, who knows they can’t keep their child safe forever.
One odd thing that might strike the reader is the dominance of war-related imagery. The nettles are “green spears” with a “regiment of spite;” the nettles stand in a “fierce parade,” and are replaced by “tall recruitments” after two weeks. In this light — and in light of Scannell’s history and distaste for war — it makes sense to think of the nettles as being a metaphor for the battle, but also then his son as being a metaphor for himself, constantly enduring battles that never seem to end no matter how many funeral pyres are lit for the dead. It may also reflect a strong desire by the author to keep his son (he had six children) away from the hard and cruel world that threw him into a war and then punished him severely both of the times he tried to leave it behind. Despite this, he understands that life is under no obligation to be either fair or just, and that he cannot protect his son from a war should it break out — not entirely, anyway. While he is by no means helpless, there are always more nettles on the horizon, so to speak.
Vernon Scannell uses a parent’s love for their children as a frame through which to examine the harsh nature of the world, the grim realities of war, and also the memory of it — while the wartime analogies may sound crude to some, they do create the image of someone who’s mind is still trapped in a war that ended physically long ago. To combine all of these themes and ideas together into a single poem, into a single story even — a story of nettles — demonstrates a spectacular affinity for poetry that Scannell uses to the fullest in the lines of this short, powerful poem.