How does Vernon Scannell convey his strong feelings about the incident in 'Nettles'?How does the poet describe the nettles and his son's pain?

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morningvictoria | High School Teacher | (Level 2) Adjunct Educator

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Scannell emphasises the speaker's strong feelings about the stinging incident by personifying the nettles as an aggressive regiment of soldiers in contrast to his description of the boy as a soft, innocent victim.  The semantics of war are used throughout the poem as Scannell describes the nettles as "green spears", "a regiment of spite" and a "fierce parade" capable of inflicting "sharp wounds".  Scannell loads extra venom and power into these phrases by using vicious "sp" sounds (listen to "fierce parade") which give an angry spitting effect when read aloud.  By contrast, the boy is portrayed as gentle and vulnerable with his "tender skin" which is described with minute attention as having "White blisters beaded" on the surface, showing the speaker's intense concern for the boy.  The "watery grin" makes the boy seem insubstantial and ill-equipped for self-defence and this is compounded in Scannell's choice of the verb "offered" which makes the boy seem tentative.

The repeated use of "And" conjunctions in the middle of the poem further shows the speaker's strong vengeful feelings as he attacks the weeds to protect the boy.  

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...

The repeated "And" gives a sense of energy and intolerance which is emphasised by the pounding rhythm of the section, which begins with two shorter phrases, "And then I took my billhook, honed the blade", before diving into the longer angry third phrase which shows the vigour of his "slashing".  The poet's tone is also tight and direct here.  He uses strong, monosyllabic verbs, such as "took", "honed" and "slashed" to show his anger.  The coherent internal rhyme in "took my billhook" and the "d" sound in "honed the blade" also show how definite he is about his actions.

It's important to read this poem as a war poem, even though it is ostensibly about an accident in an ordinary back garden.  Scannell, who fought in WWII, seems to be exploring the injustices of war and the philosophy of revenge.  Perhaps his message is that aggression doesn't stop or solve aggression.  Despite his energetic cutting down of the nettles, they simply grow back at the end of the poem, ready to cause more damage.

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