A Suit of Nettles

A Suit of Nettles


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A new edition of James Reaney's classic long poem which has been described, variously, as 'the toughest and funniest, most literary and most serious long poem in English-Canadian literature' (Germaine Warkentin) and conversely as 'whimsical self-indulgence' (W. J. Keith). A Suit of Nettles won the Governor General's award for poetry in 1958.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780889843301
Publisher: Porcupine's Quill, Incorporated
Publication date: 04/01/2010
Edition description: Third
Pages: 80
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.60(h) x 0.40(d)

About the Author

James Reaney was born on a farm in South Easthope near Stratford, Ontario in 1926. He has won the Governor General's Award three times for his poetry, though he is perhaps better-known as a playwright, especially for his landmark Donnelly trilogy (1974-75). Reaney's theatrical adaptation of Lewis Carroll's Alice Through the Looking-Glass returned to the stage at Stratford in the summer of 1996.

His work includes: The Red Heart, poems, 1949; A suit of Nettles, poems, 1958; Twelve Letters to a Small Town, poems, 1962; The Killdeer & Other Plays, drama, 1962; Colours in the Dark, drama, 1969; Collected Poems, 1972; Listen to the Wind, drama, 1972; The Donnellys, a trilogy of plays, 1974-75; Baldoon (with C.H. Gervais), 1976; The Boy With an R in His Hand, young adult, 1980; Take the Big Picture, young adult, 1986; Alice Through the Looking-Glass, stage adaptation, 1994. James Reaney died in 2008.

Read an Excerpt

Invocation to the Muse of Satire

With Punch's stick (he holds it in his hand)
Beat fertility into a sterile land,
With hands of hawthorn branches in the winter,
And teeth of cold March rain that bite the soft snow,
And bristly porcupines on which the hunter sits for hair;
With skin of mildew and botfly holes poked through
In hide of long impounded, ancient cow,
With eyes whose tears have quotaed out to ice long ago,
Eyes bright as the critical light upon the white snow;
With arms of gallows wood beneath the bark
And torso made of a million hooked unhooking things,
And legs of stainless steel, knives & scythes bunched together,
And feet with harrows, and with discs for shoes-
Speak, Muse of Satire, to this broken pen
And from its blots and dribbling letter-strings
Unloose upon our farm & barnyard-medicine.

With those feet, dance upon their toes
With those legs, grasp them lovingly about the thighs
With that torso, press against their breasts
With those arms, hug them black and blue
With those eyes, look at them you love
With that cheek, rub against their cheeks
With that hair, put your head down in their laps
With those teeth, give forth playful bites
And shake their hands with hour-long explorations
Of their life and heart and mind-line,
But with that stick of which new ones spring ever
From that vine where it was barbarously cut off,
Beat them about the ears and the four senses
Until, like criminals lashed in famine time,
They bring forth something; until thy goad
Grows so warm it bursts into blossoms.
Here, lady, almost blind with seeing too much
Here is the land with spires and chimneys prickly,
Here is the east of the board and here the west,
Here may you enter and there, before you depart,
May you make the sky red with doom and axey wrath.

Has no one seen the country where your cure has nursed?
It is a land of upturned privies with occupants inside them
Crawling out through new tops like astonished moths
Bursting from their unusual, foul and dark cocoons.


This poem was written out of interest in a number of things: geese, country life in Ontario, Canada as an object of conversation and Edmund Spenser's Shepherd's Calendar. My publisher assures me that at the risk of insulting everyone's intelligence I had better explain several matters beforehand.

The Shepherd's Calendar, published in 1579, is a collection of dialogues between shepherds named Hobbinoll, Colin, Cuddie, Piers, Thomalin, Morrell, Thenot and so on. Since there is a dialogue for each month we are able to watch a complete English year pass before our eyes with its variety of weathers, crops and animals. Hobbinoll wishes to be Colin's friend; Colin loves Rosalind for the entire calendar without any encouragement. At the end of the poem she has gone off with someone else. Cuddie is rather saucy to an old shepherd, Thenot, who reproves him with a fable about the Oak and the Briar. Willie and Thomalin discuss Cupid who has shot Thomalin in the heel and was once captured by Willie's father in a fowler's net. Piers and Palinode argue about Protestant and Catholic shepherds — which are the better. In August Willie and Perigot put on a singing match judged by Cuddie and so on. There are plaintive love-sick eclogues caused by Colin's miserable love affair, merry careless eclogues when the shepherds dance or sing and dark bitter eclogues when the sad state of the church and the poet are reviewed.

In A Suit of Nettles readers will notice that there are dialogues between geese named Mopsus, Branwell, Effie, Dorcas, Raymond, Duncan, Fanny and others. Branwell is the slightly ridiculous figure of melancholy itself wrapped up in a suit of nettles he has put on in order to emphasize his sorrow at a fair goose's inattention. The reader will find fables, sestinas, singing matches, the passage of a year in the Ontario countryside — many of the things already mentioned as being in the Shepherd's Calendar. The Church satirized in A Suit of Nettles is that defined by Coleridge as comprising all the intellectual institutions of the age. These institutions sometimes nourish the educational theory and the literary criticism condemned in July and August, and the mental attitude described in May. Scrutumnus stands for Scrutiny, the famous critical quarterly edited by Dr F. R. Leavis which ceased to be published some years ago. May arises from an incident reported in Life concerning some fanatics in the populous Kentucky mountains. July springs from a fabulous CBC Citizens' Forum in which Dr Hilda Neatby trounced a progressive educational theorist. The system of education suggested by Valancy's remarks resembles that of the ancient Irish bards. In the long note 'appended' to August, for 'God's Universe' and 'God's Tiger' read Finnegan's Wake and Blake's Tiger, both victims of evaluation. In September, Bishop Bourget is the Pouter Pigeon, his victim is Guibord. Creighton's history of Canada, Dominion of the North, gives you the facts, as well as the background for 'Dante's Inferno', an attempt to compress Canadian history and geography into a single horrific scenic railway ride. Some of the things said about glaciers and their products have their source in a book by D.F. Putnam and L. J. Chapman called The Physiography of Southern Ontario. By the way, 'Mome Fair' is a careful imitation of the annual Fall Fair held in many small Ontario towns; the prize animals, birds and flowers as well as the carnival rides. Last of all, in Ontario there are, as I count them, forty-three counties, the forty-three fields mentioned in the second eclogue.

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