Literature

A Short Analysis of William Blake’s ‘A Poison Tree’

A critical reading of a classic poem – analysed by Dr Oliver Tearle

‘A Poison Tree’, one of the most famous poems by William Blake (1757-1827), was first published in Blake’s 1794 volume Songs of Experience. Below we offer some words of analysis on this classic poem.

A Poison Tree

I was angry with my friend:
I told my wrath, my wrath did end.
I was angry with my foe:
I told it not, my wrath did grow.

And I watered it in fears.
Night and morning with my tears:
And I sunned it with smiles.
And with soft deceitful wiles.

And it grew both day and night.
Till it bore an apple bright.
And my foe beheld it shine.
And he knew that it was mine.

And into my garden stole.
When the night had veild the pole;
In the morning glad I see;
My foe outstretchd beneath the tree.

A Poison Tree: summary

Blake originally gave ‘A Poison Tree’ the title ‘Christian Forbearance’. More on the significance of that earlier title below.

In summary, the speaker of the poem tells us that when he was angry with his friend he simply told his friend that he was annoyed, and that put an end to his bad feeling. But when he was angry with his enemy, he didn’t air his grievance to this foe, and so the anger grew. Whereas we can trust our friends with our true feelings and be honest with them (Blake elsewhere famously said that ‘Opposition is true friendship’), a foe is someone who – almost by definition – we cannot be so honest with.

blake-a-poison-treeIn the second stanza, Blake turns to the central, title metaphor of his poem, likening his anger to a tree that he ‘watered’ with fear and resentment. Then, more curiously, he says that the false ‘smiles’ he put on whenever he saw his enemy acted like sunlight helping a tree to grow: by bottling up his anger he made it worse, and by putting on ‘soft deceitful wiles’ (i.e. tricks and cover-ups to hide his true feelings), his anger continued to grow and morphed into something more devious: the need for vengeance. He is smiling at his enemy while all the while he is (inwardly and secretly) plotting his revenge.

Why? The implication of this ‘poison tree’ is that anger and hatred start to eat away at oneself: hatred always turns inward, corrupting into self-hatred. The Blake scholar D. G. Gillham, in his informative and fascinating study of Blake’s poetry, Blake’s Contrary States: The ‘Songs of Innocence and Experience’ as Dramatic Poems, has observed that it is not merely the speaker’s foe who is poisoned by the speaker’s actions: the act of poisoning his enemy diminishes and corrupts him, too. The brooding enmity and resentment borne by both parties not only diminish the other party but rebound upon the bearer: hatred eats away at us as much as it affects our foes.

Because the speaker was forced to hide his anger, it made him act in a deceitful and false way, and thus his anger for his friend led him to despise himself for being driven to act deceitfully.

And it grew both day and night.
Till it bore an apple bright.
And my foe beheld it shine.
And he knew that it was mine.

In this third stanza, an apple sprouts from this poison tree of anger. This ‘apple bright’ attracts the attention of his enemy, who then sneaked into the speaker’s garden one night and ate the apple from this tree; when the speaker finds his enemy the next morning, his foe is lying dead under the tree, having eaten the poisoned fruit.

A Poison Tree: analysis

This powerful and curious little poem is about the power of anger to become corrupted into something far more deadly and devious if it is not aired honestly. The enemy may have stolen the apple (and trespassed on the speaker’s property – he ‘stole’ into his garden, after all), but he was deceived into thinking that something deadly and poisonous (the speaker’s anger) was something nice and tasty (the apple). In other words, both the speaker and his foe are deluded: the speaker because he seems unaware that he has diminished himself by his actions, and the foe because he little realised that the apple he stole was poisoned. Since the apple represents human enmity and resentment, the line ‘And he knew that it was mine’ resonates with bitter irony, because in actual fact both the foe and the speaker fail to realise that the poisoned apple has infected both of them, and belongs to them jointly. Their mutual hatred has corrupted them both.

And I watered it in fears.
Night and morning with my tears:
And I sunned it with smiles.
And with soft deceitful wiles.

What are we to make of this rather involved metaphor? One possible interpretation is as follows: Blake is saying that repressing our righteous anger makes us scheme into finding underhand ways to get back at our enemies, and – consciously or unconsciously – we end up setting traps for our enemies in order to bring them down. The fact that the speaker has ‘sunned’ his tree with smiles (because we talk of sunny smiles, and both the sun and smiles being beaming, etc.) implies that putting on a friendly front and being two-faced towards our enemies grows the tree in ways we little understand. Pouring our anger – our sense of having been wronged – into the ground (implying suppression or even repression) like watering the soil is only a way of breeding more unhappiness, not a way to solve or cure the hurt we feel. Only by bringing such hurt out into the open and confronting our foe with it can we hope to cure ourselves of it.

In other words, Blake does not condemn anger as invariably self-destructive, or even hate: sometimes it is right to hate things which seem to assault our moral sensibilities. But such (righteous) contempt and anger become corrupted when they lead us to deceive, because such behaviour reduces our own moral constitution.

Does the end of the poem represent the speaker’s triumph over his foe in positive terms? Perhaps, but it is a mixed victory. He was succeeded in defeating his enemy because his foe has shown his hand first: his enemy’s deceitful behaviour in sneaking into the speaker’s garden to steal the apple causes the foe’s downfall, leaving the speaker victorious and his enemy destroyed. How far this represents a positive victory for the speaker, who could only bring about his enemy’s downfall by being deceptive himself, is an open question which deserves close analysis and discussion.

Ultimately, it depends on our own perspective on issues of vengeance and retribution. In terms of Blake’s own view on the matter, it is perhaps enough to observe that he originally planned to call the poem ‘Christian Forbearance’ before deciding on the less obviously religious ‘A Poison Tree’. As Gillham observes in Blake’s Contrary States: The ‘Songs of Innocence and Experience’ as Dramatic Poems, this title shows Blake’s barbed distrust of the idea of Christian forbearance, because, for Blake, it amounted to cowardice and hypocrisy: refusing to stand up to your enemies and instead resorting to more underhand means to attack them, but carried out under the name of pious Christianity.

Nevertheless, the apple comes with its own Christian symbolism. The apple represents such wily and devious vengeance: it is significant that it is an apple that grows from Blake’s poison tree, and that the speaker’s enemy steals the apple, because this conjures up the Genesis story of Adam and Eve being deceitfully persuaded to eat the fruit from the forbidden Tree of Knowledge. Satan, disguised as a serpent, is the one responsible for cajoling Eve into eating the fruit, which is commonly depicted as an apple, like the apple in Blake’s poem. The Fall of Adam and Eve takes place, of course, in the paradise that is the Garden of Eden; Blake’s Edenic ‘garden’ is where his enemy meets his end. These parallels raise Blake’s parable of repressed anger and vengeance to Biblical heights.

‘A Poison Tree’ is written in quatrains or four-line stanzas rhymed aabb (i.e. rhyming couplets). The metre of the poem is what is technically known as trochaic tetrameter catalectic. This means that the metre used is the trochee: a stressed syllable followed by an unstressed syllable, e.g. in the line ‘And he knew that it was mine’ the stresses are as follows: ‘AND he / KNEW that / IT was / MINE’. There are four such trochees in a line, hence tetrameter. But note that the fourth and final trochee is cut short: the second half of it is missing. Rather than writing, for instance, ‘And he knew that it was mine, O’ (or something similar), Blake simply writes, ‘And he knew that it was mine’, cutting short the line before we get the eighth syllable. This gives the poem a clipped, even abrupt feel, which is reinforced by the short sentences and frequent use of full stops.

‘A Poison Tree’ is one of English literature’s most striking explorations of the corrupting effects of anger. It is one of William Blake’s miniature masterpieces. What do you think of ‘A Poison Tree’, and what would you add to our analysis?

Continue to explore the world of Blake’s poetry with our analysis of ‘The Lamb’, our overview of his poem known as ‘Jerusalem’, and his scathing indictment of poverty and misery in London. If you’re looking for a good edition of Blake’s work, we recommend Selected Poetry (Oxford World’s Classics). We’ve offered more tips for the close reading of poetry here.

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: William Blake’s illustration for ‘A Poison Tree’, via Wikimedia Commons.

7 Comments

  1. I’m featuring this as one of the poem examples in our betrayal unit. It’s indeed a classic.

  2. I love this poem and see it as the most excellent exploration of the shadow archetype.

  3. I love this poem. It’s great to read aloud.

    I haven’t seen it as a cautionary poem before though, because ‘In the morning glad I see/My foe outstretched beneath the tree.’ I suppose though that it is. The speaker seems to set a trap for his enemy and I suppose could be seen as complicit in his enemy’s death.

    • The 1st stanza is often quoted by therapists when pointing out the danger of holding onto hatred and anger. Fair enough! But what of Blake’s more obscure poems such as The Four Zoas and The Book of Urizen in which he creates his own private mental landscapes with so much symbolism as to make Milton seem simple! Have these longer poems anything of value to say to us today?

  4. Pingback: A Short Analysis of William Blake’s ‘A Poison Tree’ | Slattery's Art of Horror Weblog

  5. The poison tree is an archetype for betrayal and pure force of enemy or foe…. It tells us that we need to protect ourselves from people who are sheep in wolves clothing…. If simply put, we only have ourselves to defend ourselves…….

  6. So tell your anger to your friend or enemy

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