The Sea in ‘Hide and Seek’ by Vernon Scannell

I was covering this poem with my Y11 class this week when I finally came to some kind of understanding of the recurring sea imagery. I find it sometimes takes someone else talking about a text to give me focussed thinking space in order to consider these things; and, as the group were feeding back their analysis of the poem, I had one of those wonderful moments when I saw something that had previously eluded me.

Scannell uses a number of sea references in the poem. He refers to the ‘sacks in the toolshed [that] smell like the seaside’; to the ‘salty dark’ experienced by the child; to the ‘dark damp smell of sand’ that ‘moves’ in his or her throat. Much can be made of the language here itself: the contrast between the claustrophobic toolshed and the vast openness of the seaside; the foreshadowing in the description of the ‘salty dark’ of the loneliness of the character at the end of the poem; and the uncomfortable description of the child breathing in the seaside air as he or she becomes more isolated and the setting more oppressive. (This links to Scannell’s increasing deployment of personification throughout the poem; the control and command experienced by the character at the start is replaced by uncertainty and fear at the end.)

This overall shift from confidence to insecurity is not uni-directional, however. It ebbs and flows. The opening lines convey a sense of control through the imperatives to ‘call out’ and ‘call loud’. Here Scannell conveys the exuberance of the child. This confident opening, however, slowly changes into uncertainty. ‘Probably’ and ‘whatever happens’ literally convey that the child has no knowledge of what the seekers are owing due to his or her confident location; yet they also introduce elements of uncertainty and doubt, which are expanded at the end of the poem. Scannell then retreats from this insidious uncertainty in the four lines that begin: ‘It’s time to let them know that you’re the winner’. The success experienced here is something of a Pyrrhic victory though, and short lived as ‘the darkening garden watches’. This returns the tone to one of uncertainty, asserted through the final rhetorical question, ‘But where are they who sought you?’.

It is this ebb and flow between certainty and uncertainty that mirrors the cycle of the tides and connects to the oceanic imagery. The child, as happens throughout childhood and adolescence (and even adulthood, though perhaps less swiftly), moves back and forth between confidence and doubt, certainty and uncertainty, hope and fear. Like the tides, these changes are inevitable and inescapable. That the poem ends on a pessimistic – or at least questioning – tone rather than an optimistic one helps to convey the uncertainty of the future faced, adroitly encapsulated in his choice of title. As such, Scannell’s poem tackles the movement between the known and the unknown – between order and chaos – with the sea an exemplary metaphor for this eternal cycle.