Free online reading
In Defence of Existence as an End in Itself On "Tall Nettles" by Edward Thomas
The poem "Tall Nettles" by Edward Thomas is divided into two stanzas each of which consists of four lines in iambic pentameter and alternating rhyme.
Corresponding to this formal division into two parts the stanzas differ as to their content.
In the first stanza we are given the description of a calm scene: various old and rusty agricultural tools are overgrown with "tall nettles". Only the tree stump of an elm still towers over the weed.
In this first part of the poem there's no speaker discernible - the impression of the scene as such is more important than the one who might perceive it. However, there are some hints that the whole scene is seen through the eyes of somebody: there is mention of "these many springs". Referring to the springs gone by as "these many springs" instead of just "many springs" implies that the statement is made by a specific person who has experienced these springs. Another hint is the use of "now" at the very end of the fourth line. It suggests not only that there has been a change and another change is yet to come but also that there's somebody perceiving these changes. And so "now" links the first to the second stanza - in the first line of the second part the ominous somebody is introduced.
While the merely descriptive first stanza of the poem presents a scene, the speaker or lyrical I presents his thoughts on this scene in the second part (In the following I will refer to the speaker as a male person because the author is male as well). While he doesn't give any personal judgement in the first part, he now states that he particularly likes this overgrown part of the farm. He also likes the dust on the nettles and treats both flowers and nettles as equal. as well as blooms and dust.
This short summary of the contents of the poem shows that there is no real action going on in it. It is rather about the description of an impression - its subject is the sheer existence of the nettles. This complete absence of action emphasizes the poem's calm mood. Another factor supporting this mood is the utter lack of movement. The nettles have been covering up the scene since several years ("these many springs") - at the moment the speaker looks at the scene, he doesn't perceive any movement but a state: the tools are not being covered up this very moment but have already been covered up. Motionlessness is also expressed by the tools themselves: firstly they were originally designed for moving but now lie there motionless, secondly the sheer heaviness of especially the "roller made of stone" supports the impression of immobility. Now we should remember that this scene is observed on a farmyard - in the context of a farm that is naturally tied to the laws of the market this immobility means futility. The once useful tools are now "worn out", they don't serve their purpose of helping man to make profits any more - they are useless. And so are the nettles: man is not able to exploit them for economic purposes and make a profit from them - they're not even nice to look at. From an anthropocentric and profit seeking point of view, the nettles are unworthy of their existence as they don't serve a purpose, that means, they don't serve MAN - that's why they are regarded as weed.
And yet, in this scene, the conditions are stood on their heads: while the useful tools fall into decay, the useless nettles gain ground and dominate the scene. We can think of the tools as symbols for civilization as a whole and conceive of the nettles as nature. One could now interpret the covering - up nettles as a threat for civilization. In the eyes of the speaker, however, the taking over of the nettles is not a cause for alarm but for hope. As we've said before, the mood of the poem is rather calm and does certainly not express the danger of imminent destruction. On the contrary: the nettles have been covering up the tools for "these many springs" - not these many autumns or winters, but springs! The most common connotations of this word have to do with life starting anew. While the nettles are thus connected to life, it becomes even clearer that the tools are just inanimate objects when the speaker describes the roller as made of stone. The speaker might not consider the nettles to be beautiful, but he is aware of their quality of sheer life force. And in his eyes they don't need any other justification to exist. As we've seen, both the nettles and the tools don't move - but the nettles live while the tools don't - they are "covered up " like dead bodies. The only "dead" thing that still towers over the nettles is the "elm butt". But as "now" suggests, this is about to change in the future, so that the living nettles will eventually dominate the whole scene. Not only is the speaker able to accept the fact that the "useless" nettles have covered up the "useful" tools - he even points out that this is just this part of the farm he likes most. He thinks that the tall nettles are on a par with flowers, that are commonly believed to be beautiful and even enjoys it when the dust blown from the nettles leaves him standing in quite a dirty but, in his eyes, "sweet" shower.
In his poem, Edward Thomas contradicts the opinion that only life which is useful has got the right to exist. Correspondingly, a poem doesn't have to have world - shattering contents to be a good poem. Like in this case, a mere description of a scene without any narrative elements might do the trick just as well. Just as the nettles have a right to exist without serving any purpose, a piece of art doesn't have to be useful but may exist just for its own sake. It is the poet's right to produce art that is, at first glance, useless.
- Quote paper
- Florian Janner (Author), 1999, In Defence of Existence as an End in Itself - On Edward Thomas` poem "Tal! l Nettles", Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/97561