An introduction to a classic Edward Thomas poem with an analysis of its meaning
Like much of the poetry written by Edward Thomas (1878-1917), ‘Tall Nettles’ takes a small and specific detail from nature and describes it in clear, plain language. Here is the poem, along with some comments on its language and imagery.
Tall nettles cover up, as they have done
These many springs, the rusty harrow, the plough
Long worn out, and the roller made of stone:
Only the elm butt tops the nettles now.
This corner of the farmyard I like most:
As well as any bloom upon a flower
I like the dust on the nettles, never lost
Except to prove the sweetness of a shower.
It’s worth noting at the outset something rather pleasing about the poem’s use of rhyme: namely, that all rhymes play on an ‘o’ sound, suggesting quietly the sense of wonder and joy the speaker of the poem finds in the simple sight of the nettles covering up the farming implements. It also covertly reflects the surprise the speaker feels at finding pleasure in such an unusual sight: the sight of flowers blooming is traditionally beautiful, but dust on nettles is a slightly unexpected source of enjoyment.
The poem is in two quatrains, rhymed abab – but with an important subtle difference from the usual abab scheme. Whilst the b rhymes chime perfectly together, the a rhymes are not perfect matches for each other. So although ‘plough’ and ‘now’ are rhymes (as are ‘flower’ and shower’), ‘done’ and ‘stone’ (and ‘most’ and ‘lost’) are only half-rhymes or near-rhymes. (This is sometimes called an ‘eye-rhyme’, where two words look as though they will sound together – e.g. ‘through’ and ‘though’ have the same ‘ough’ endings, but those endings aren’t pronounced the same.) This slight misstep with the alternate rhymes in each quatrain reinforces the sense of surprise: others may get their aesthetic pleasures from flowers alone, but the less neatly or typically beautiful scene of the nettles obscuring the farming tools is, whilst a little unconventional, nevertheless worthy of beauty.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.
Image: Edward Thomas in c. 1905, from the Hutton/Stringer Archive; Wikimedia Commons.