An Irishman's Diary


I GRASPED a nettle once, in the interests of research, and it stung like hell. So much for folk wisdom. Maybe the 18th-century writer Aaron Hill failed to perform this basic experiment before he wrote his influential verse: “Tender-hearted stroke a nettle,/ And it stings you for your pains;/ Grasp it like a man of mettle/ And it soft as silk remains.”

Or maybe it was a question of technique. Perhaps a slight mettle deficiency prevented me grasping the plant quite hard enough: unlike the former Sunderland football manager Howard Wilkinson, who once famously used a bag of nettles during a team talk against Liverpool.

His message was that Liverpool would seek to lull Sunderland into a false sense of security before striking on the counter-attack. To illustrate, he first stroked the nettles gently (and painfully): then he grabbed them, vice-like (relatively painless, he claimed) as he wanted his players to do Liverpool. The stunt worked: Sunderland won 2-1, a rare success in a disastrous season.

Being stung by a nettle, however it happens, is like a visit to the doctor. The plant is covered by thousands of hairs, each a perfect miniature syringe, full of drugs. The walls of these tiny tubes are stiffened just enough to function, but break at the slightest pressure, leaving a needle point that penetrates your skin and injects you with a cocktail of acetylcholine, histamine, 5-hydroxytryptamine, and other substances.

Like a trained nurse, Mother Nature is often standing by with a comforting swab, in the form of the dock-leaf: a natural antidote to nettle stings that grows in the same places. The pain only lasts a few minutes anyway. And yet the nettle’s calling card is so effective that it rarely has to be given twice. Even city-slickers who pride themselves on being at two with nature tend to know what a nettle looks like, from hard experience.

In the Language of Flowers – a Victorian invention by which tortured lovers and the like used to send coded messages – nettles signified “cruelty” or “slander”. So in a sense, Shakespeare’s Cordelia is defaming the symbol of defamation when she lumps nettles (in King LearAct IV) with “cuckoo flow’rs, darnel, and all the idle weeds that grow in our sustaining corn”.

Against the nettle, of all plants, a charge of idleness would never stand up in court. When not injecting passersby, or conveying coded messages between overheated Victorians, the plant provides food for caterpillars and other insects. And the range of uses to which humans can put it is bewildering.

Once its syringes have been decommissioned by hot water, the nettle is a serviceable substitute for spinach. Nettle soup is staple of many European diets (and may become popular here soon, thanks to the Budget). Nettle pasta has admirers too. And I’m told that nettle beer has classic status in home-brew circles.

The medicinal properties attributed to the plant are just as wide-ranging, purporting to treat everything from anaemia to rheumatism. It has also been used as a textile fibre, notably during the first World War when, with cotton scarce, the Germans made uniforms from it.

And then there were the Romans, who brought the nettle to Britain and whipped their legs with it to insulate themselves against the cold. They whipped other parts of the body too, apparently believing that nettles could cure impotence, or at least heighten sensation in the affected areas. In fact, the verb to “urticate” (from the plant’s Latin name) still survives in the OED meaning: “whip (paralitic limb, etc) with nettles to restore feeling”.

Apart from all that, the nettle has given us a useful figure of speech; although I suspect that the popularity of grasping nettles as a way of proving your character is largely a result of the same rhyming property that Aaron Hill exploited. If “mettle” didn’t go so well with “nettle”, the concept would hardly be well known.

But it does. Indeed, among the many problems Shakespearian scholars have to argue about is that the two words are sometimes confused in the bard’s plays. Take The Twelfth Night, my copy of which has Sir Toby playfully greeting somebody: “How now, my metal of India!” Maybe that made sense to the typesetter. But most scholars think the author meant “nettle of India“: a variety of the plant that causes itch.

In any case, most of us grasp metaphorical nettles, if not real ones, regularly. And, as Sunderland found against Liverpool, this is generally a good thing. Any pain you suffer is lessened by the knowledge that at least you took the initiative and got it over with quickly.

The lesson was lost on Alexander Pope, it seems, when he had a famous disagreement with the aforementioned Hill. Pope had included him, thinly-disguised, in his satirical poem The Dunciadas a poet shortlisted for a prize by the goddess of dullness.

There followed what critics called an “epistolary duel” – an exchange of letters – which left Pope slightly wounded.

His lengthy (and dishonest) protestations of innocence to Hill were at odds with his public persona as a man who told the truth fearlessly. So much so that he later asked for the correspondence to be suppressed. Or so claimed Hill, who, echoing his own advice about nettles, suggested that Pope had grown embarrassed about the letters “after being stung into a sense of the gross openings he had left in them against himself”.