‘They Did Not Expect This’ is a five stanza poem, the first four stanzas of which have four lines and the last, five. The poem has no rhyme scheme or discernible pattern of meter. Each line is roughly the same length, except the last which is a repetition of the title of the poem, providing an important emphasis on this main theme of the piece.
The poem begins with the couple as naive newlyweds, progresses through the various decisions they make, most of which seem to be the wrong ones. It concludes as the two have grown increasingly distant and now do not even make eye contact as they are absorbed in their own worlds, separate from one another. They transfer their passion for one another into other pursuits and finally realize that at the beginning of their lives together they had no idea what they were getting into, they did not expect their lives to turn out the way that they did.
You can read the full poem here.
Analysis, Stanza by Stanza
They did not expect this. Being neither wise nor brave
And walked quickly without looking back even once.
The poem begins with a repetition of the title, the same five words that will reappear at the end of the piece. Scannell’s decision to reuse this phrase was very purposeful, he wants to reinforce the idea that this couple, truly did not realize how their lives were going to turn out. They did not know what to expect when they entered into their relationship but it certainly was not how it turns out in the end. The speaker of this poem is an omniscient narrator who is able to look into the minds of both the man and the woman and describe their lives. This narrator, or speaker, immediately informs the reader that the man and the woman were,
neither young nor brave
And wearing only the beauty of youth’s season…
When they made the first major decision in their relationship. This first decision is described as “the first turning.” Perhaps this first decision is the one to get married and is made too hastily without real thought into what the rest of their lives were going to be like. They took this turn without questioning their choice, and walked quickly away from their previous lives, into their new one, without looking back, “even once.”
It was of course the wrong turning. First they were nagged
Only the street and the rows of houses stern as soldiers.
The second paragraph begins with the narrator showing a slight superiority, seeming to know before the couple does that “of course” they took the wrong turning. It is clear from an outsider’s perspective that this couple did not know what they were getting into and made immediately the wrong decision. At this point, things begin to go wrong for the couple. The elements turn against them, anthropomorphizing and tugging at their clothes, nagging at them. The wind acts like a dog, trying to get them to change directions or perhaps like a voice in the back of their minds they don’t want to acknowledge. They only have an inkling that all is not well. Then the rain begins to fall and there is nowhere to get away from it, only the solemn street; the houses of which are described as being
stern as soldiers.
The reader can assume that the couple has begun to disagree and become uncomfortable with one another, and because they are committed to each other, there is nowhere for them to escape to. There is not an easy way out of the rain or out of the relationship.
Though the blood chilled, the endearing word burnt the tongue.
Enormous and still like a great sleeping seal.
The third stanza begins and the couple is still out in the metaphorical rain. They are chilled to the bone by each other and their decision even though the world around them burns them by how endearing it seems. These two opposite provide a visual contrast that helps the reader understand how the two are feeling. They are at odds with each other and the world. Scannell continues on the description of the city they are in. There is no reprieve from the stern houses and streets,
…no parks or gardens or public houses:
Nowhere the couple could stay together or individually that would take them out of this solemn place they have entered. Gardens and parks in a city are often a much-needed break from the monotony of concrete and brick, but not in their relationship. At last, they seem to get a break, the rain is pausing, but this pause is not the end, it is a calm before a different type of storm. It is,
…still like a great sleeping seal.
They are able to find accommodation in a room that although cold, is furnished. This place does not seem to do the couple any good though as it is quickly filled with ghosts. These ghosts are metaphors for things left unsaid and undone. They are thoughts of how things could have turned out differently. Their hope for the future, something that is strong at the beginning of any new life, or “turning,” as Scannell puts it. Has been domesticated and taken down in size. It has lost all its grandeur and potential becoming just a stuffed object on the mantel. It has died, and they have attempted to keep it alive but stuffing it. But it is no longer what it was. Even though it is in this place of honor, they eventually forget it’s even there. So far have they come from what they intended.
At last they found accommodation in a cold
But found, after a while, that they did not notice it.
The final stanza contains five lines and brings the couple into what can be considered a waiting period. They have ended up where they never expected and are stuck. The woman,
…spends many hours looking in the bottoms of teacups
He reads much about association football…”
Both are looking for something to occupy their time, something to give their lives purpose. She is seeking out an answer in tea leaves, some prediction about her future. She seeks to find knowledge about where her life is going. He has found a passion in something other than the relationship, transferring his feelings to a hollow pursuit. The addition of these pursuits adds a level of realism to the poem that will be accessible to many reading it. They both wait for something to change and
Their eyes are strangers and they rarely speak.
They did not expect this.
They have reached the end of their story and it ends with the understanding that in the beginning, they had no idea what they were getting into. Their lives of today were completely incomprehensible to who they were when they were “wearing the beauty of youth’s season” at the beginning of the poem.
About Vernon Scannell
Vernon Scannell was born in Lincolnshire, England in 1922 to a poor family. He left school when he was only 14 to start working and would eventually enlist in the army. He was wounded and deserted after the end of the war and spent his time on the run writing poetry. When he was finally captured, court-martialed for desertion, and admitted to a military hospital, he devoted himself to poetry. He died in 2007 in Leeds.