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.
On the surface, this poem is a simple account of how a three year old son comes in from the garden, has been stung by nettles and tells/shows his father, who comforts the little one and then how the father goes out and hacks at the things as if the same thing will not happen next time.
But it is so much more than just that little story.
Vernon Scannell’s poem is a tour de force of how to write poetry, with an easy rhyme scheme and an equally easy tonal quality in it to be able to read it. But it shows us something about the true nature of love, especially when something comes to challenge that love.
As usual, let us begin with the title. One word. Nettles. But when you first see or read or say that word, what is the one thing that pops into your head? For me, it is the memory of that pain and that rash when I was hit by these things as a child, or when I was an adult and gardening and the damn things got me in the join between thumb and hand, that fleshy bit where it hurts like hell and seems never to stop. No amount of water, or salt, or dock leaves seems to ease the pain. So for me, this is a poem more about pain than love, but underlying that is the theme of love that is shown from the child to the father and from the father to the son. It is also a metaphor for the poet’s own pain from his previous experiences in the British Armed Forces, where he saw things and did things that pain him now and play on his mind.
So, first things first; search for information on Vernon Scannell on Google. When you get it, then read this poem, for you will then see things that you would not normally associate with the poem. The first thing I see here is the reference to the son, which is meant to get your support, from the beginning of the poem. “My son aged three,” he says, to make you respond to him positively, “fell in the nettle bed.” Immediately, all those memories of nettle rash as a child come flooding back to us and we empathise, or feel his pain, but do we feel the pain of the father also? As a father myself, I remember when my two children got themselves into scrapes and came to me wailing in pain and abject agony. They were not in that amount of pain of course, but it was just the shock of something attacking them that made them respond.
We used to tell them “get up before it hurts” or some other thing, or make them laugh about it, or something, to take their mind off the issue, which is what the father does here. He then says that the use of the word “‘bed’ seemed a curious name for those green spears” making us think now of real spears that are used in battle. In this case, the spears are used for defence of the plant by the plant, but in times of war in days gone by, they have been more used to kill people or inflict real pain. Couple that military image with the one in the next line, of a “regiment of spite behind the shed” and you immediately see the poet’s preoccupation with the armed forces. When you do your research on him and where he ended up for therapy, you will see this poem in a new light entirely.
This place behind the shed, he says “was no place for rest.” It is a place of pain. It is a war zone. It is a field of battle. It is, in the poet’s mind anyway, a killing field, so he sees his child come to him “with sobs and tears” seeking “comfort” from the pain and he sees those usual “white blisters beaded on his tender skin.” Now, think of the word “tender” in the middle of all those words about pain and you see what he is doing with the language he is using. All the good exists in his son and all the evil exists in the plants. But they need to grow, just like everything else in the world and will not be stopped. He cannot see that or understand that at that point in time.
Now that the child is with him, seeking solace, he as a loving father treats his wounds just as a medic would in a war zone. He soothes his pain till it is “not so raw” and eventually, the child offers him “a watery grin,” which in itself signifies love between him and his father. This is a loving relationship between father and son, a two way, reciprocal relationship based and grounded in love and care. This is something special when this kind of relationship can exist. Believe me when I say this, it is not an easy relationship to perfect, especially when things go wrong.
But then, we move on in the plot line of this mini saga as we see the gentleness of the father turn to hatred and loathing for the plant that has caused so much damage and he takes his “billhook” [look it up] and hones “the blade” till it is incredibly sharp and venomous [just like the nettles themselves] and goes out to slash “in fury” at them “till not a nettle in that fierce parade” stands upright any more. The language used is that of the Army, with words like “blade” and “fury” and “parade” reflecting how they stand to attention in the wind and are incredibly venomous to all that come into contact with them. Likewise, he then burns the dying bits of nettle in a fire but describes it as a “funeral pyre to burn the fallen dead,” who remind him of soldiers in the heat of battle [no pun intended]. In times of warfare, they used to bury their dead en masse or burn them to destroy the bodies. This is a pyre of fallen dead nettles, that if left to rot on the ground would reform shoots and roots and grow back all the more.
Now, at this point, it is natural to think that this is all over, but any keen gardener knows that you can never stop nettles and weeds from sprouting up anywhere they want. When they are pulled up or cut up, their spores are released and drift to the ground and off they go again, blooming later in the year. Check out the story in the Bible about the sower who sows seeds on good ground, stony ground etc. There is a mention of weeds there too but they represent something else entirely.
Scannell knows that soon after this event, the things will begin to grow again. He says “in two weeks the busy sun and rain had called up tall recruits behind the shed,” continuing the metaphor and the language from the poem into the future. He says that his son will “often feel sharp wounds again” and that is total truth, for we never learn. They always manage to catch us with their barb and their sting. But when you think about the relationship between the boy and the father you see one of love and a paternal affection that exists between the two. Note it is the father who the child goes to when in pain, not the mother. Again, do your research and find out why.
In the end, this is in the relationships section because of the relationship between father and son, but it is also there because of Scannell’s relationship between himself and the Army. He hated his time in the armed forces and suffered because of it, spending some time in a mental institution, so we have to see this poem, as well as any of his, through those tinted glasses as if we are walking around in his shoes.
In the book, To Kill A Mockingbird, the father, Atticus Finch, tells his daughter, Scout, that until you have walked around in someone else’s shoes, you should not judge the way they lead their lives [my paraphrase] so when I see this poem and know about his inner turmoil and pain, I see a man who needs to write about pain and suffering, which he endured. I see a man who sees the pain of his son and is reminded of his own pain and suffering and I see a man suffering with PTSD most likely and having to write his way out of it. As someone who suffers in the same way, it is why I write poetry, as a cathartic response to the pain of life and love. This is why this is such a great poem.