Nettles and thistles, love and hate, serene and ghastly. These are but three small comparisons of two very symbolic poems written by two great men. ‘Tall Nettles’ by Edward Thomas and ‘Thistles’ by Ted Hughes are poems about the battle between nature and the race of men, but at the same time are very different. This essay will compare these two poems by looking at how the subjects have been treated, the style of the poem (both the language and structure) and finally how the poet himself has an influence on the poem.
Both composers tackle the idea of nature’s struggle against man, but they do this in their own individual way. In ‘Tall Nettles’ Edward Thomas uses time as the dominant feature of this struggle, how inevitably, through time and the elements, nature will win over man. There is also an underlying meaning used in this poem by representing man as machinery and man made objects, especially made for the killing of nature, which really represents to me everything man is, that being: ever expanding, trying to build empires and at the same time ruining what nature we have. So by having nature destroy and overpower this machinery, even though it is drawn out over a long period of time, tells us that nature will always win. Also using the idea that the only thing left that tops the Nettles in height, is nature itself, in the form of the elm butt, re-enforces the idea of the Nettles completely over-running man.
However Ted Hughes in ‘Thistles’ approaches the same subject in a different manner. He, unlike Thomas, creates a very violent feeling in the poem, forcing the reader to associate the feeling with war, battle and intense hate. Hughes does this by introducing such images as weapons, Vikings (these being a very strong image of war and violence) and by the recurrence of fighting imagery. So by evoking these graphic images into the reader Hughes creates a sense of immediacy in the poem and struggle between man and nature to win. This is almost a direct contrast to the slow, drawn out approach Thomas used to represent the same thing, but both are effective in their conveyance of the theme using individual styles.
In order to create the moods mentioned above in each poem, the separate poets had to employ sound techniques to do the job, so to speak. So in ‘Tall Nettles’ Thomas uses very few harsh and abrupt sounds. In the absence of these sounds Thomas uses various sibilants, nasals and liquids, to create a very long, drawn-out and smooth sounding poem, helping to portray the idea of time and nature’s serenity. These sounds within the words help to set the tone of the poem, which is in this case warm, peaceful, tranquil and at times refreshing, e.g. ‘except to prove the sweetness of a shower.’
Whereas in ‘Thistles’ Hughes opts for harsher more prominent sounding consonants, to help enact the scene of war and hatred, proving effective in his purpose. With the use of strong and rough sounding consonants e.g. plosives, dentals, gutturals and fricatives, images of hostility and death are prompted in the reader’s mind. He also uses these sounds to generate impact and put emphasis on the words. Overall these bring about a sharp and hard poem setting a very deep and gloomy tone. Again the two poems use contrasting ideas to portray the same subject.
The structure of the poem is as important in poems to help convey the idea and feeling to the reader, as the words are at times. ‘Tall Nettles’ and ‘Thistles’ are structured completely different from each other, therefore the urgency or climax of the poem is placed at a different part. First ‘Tall Nettles’, here the poem is broken up into two stanzas with four verses in each. The four lines in both the first stanza and the second follow on from each other so are said as one sentence, creating a flowing rhythm within the poem, again portraying an extended period of time. Personally I interpret this as the first stanza being where Thomas describes the nettles and their actions and the second, where he describes his own feelings and emotions towards the nettles, giving the poem a personal touch, because this is where we get the warm tone of the poem from. Also contributing to the soft tone of this poem is its rhyme scheme. This poem has crossed rhyme and within the crossed rhyme there is eye rhyme like done and stone, false rhyme like plough and now, and true rhyme like flower and shower, all examples from the text.
Secondly, ‘Thistles’ is broken into four stanzas, each consisting of three verses in each. In the first two stanzas the lines flow onto each other and in between stanza one and two, leading up to the climax and ending of the poem. It is important to note that stanzas two and three are enjambered together as if the poet wanted to carry first two stanzas on for impact, but from here we have a serious of short, sharp sentences stopping both mid verse and at the end. These short sentences create tension in the reader and picks up the pace of the poem slightly. Thistles also has a distinct rhythm but no rhyme scheme to it, but with the absence of rhyme the poem demands more attention therefore is more gripping and causes a stronger sense of alertness in the reader or listener. All these techniques provide a basis for the words of the poem to further portray the meaning.
There are many things that can influence any poem whilst being written, mainly these are events in the poets life, the social, economic and political environment, the school of the poet and in fact the poet’s mental state. So with this in mind it is important, for a deeper understanding of the poem, that we know at least a few of the noted things above.
Edward Thomas was born in London, England and was known during his time as a critic essayist and writer of books about the countryside. This explains somewhat the subject and setting of ‘Tall Nettles’. He was encouraged to write from an early age, presumably by his teacher at St Paul’s School then in his further education at Lincoln College, Oxford, he then went on to write prose. Thomas was moving towards poetry when he met Robert Frost, an American poet, who further encouraged him. From there he crammed all his poetry into the next two years and was killed in action in 1917. Thomas wrote his poems during wartime but was not largely influenced by this major event instead wrote about his love for the English countryside.
Ted Hughes was born in England, in the grip of the Great Depression. However Hughes found solace and seclusion in South Yorkshire where he escaped from his life in West Yorkshire. His father was one of the sole survivors of the WW1, Gallipoli Expedition and this would have had a significant impact on Hughes as a young boy. Hughes was educated at Pembroke College then moved onto Cambridge University in 1951, but it was at Mexemborough Grammar School that he began to write poetry. Ted was also a naturalist which would explain his passion for nature. All of these biographical details of both poets help us to understand these two poems with a greater depth of understanding and clarity.
Nature at its simplest against man at its best; plosives and fricatives compared to fluids and sibilants; rhyme, rhythm and punctuation; finally Oxford against Cambridge. Comparisons between these two poems have been made in the hope to give a better understanding of the two poems mentioned, and hopefully it has been achieved through the in depth analysis of these two very complex but at the same time simple poems, Tall Nettles by Edward Thomas and Thistles by Ted Hughes.
Thistles – By Ted Hughes:
* Class room analysis work – Ms Pearson
Tall Nettles – By Edward Thomas
* Class room analysis work – Ms Pearson