By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘A Poison Tree’ is one of the poems from William Blake’s 1794 volume Songs of Experience, the companion-volume to his earlier Songs of Innocence. This poem – one of his most popular and widely studied – is about the ways in which anger eats away at us when it is ignored and not addressed, with Blake using the ‘poison tree’ as a metaphor for this abstract phenomenon.
The poem contains a number of illustrative quotations which help Blake to make his point using pithy and memorable language. Let’s take a closer look at some of the most memorable and important quotations from the poem.
‘I was angry with my friend:
I told my wrath, my wrath did end.’
The opening couplet of ‘A Poison Tree’ begins the poem in abstract terms, using the Christian term ‘wrath’ as a synonym for anger. (‘Wrath’ is one of the Seven Deadly Sins which Christians are commanded to resist; indeed, the original title for ‘A Poison Tree’ was ‘Christian Forbearance’, with ‘forbearance’ meaning ‘resistance’.)
This couplet presents the ‘correct’ scenario for dealing with anger between friends: talk about it, address the source of your anger, and watch it melt away. A great deal of anger will evaporate when we actually communicate our feelings with someone, but this is easier to do with someone who is already our friend.
‘I was angry with my foe:
I told it not, my wrath did grow.’
The first quatrain or four-line stanza of ‘A Poison Tree’ concludes, however, with a very different, though complementary, scenario: what if you are angry with someone who is not your friend, but your rival or enemy?
Then, you will probably be tempted to keep the anger to yourself, either because you don’t feel that you can talk to the person you’re angry with, or because you simply don’t want to. After all, if they’re your enemy, you’re probably not on speaking terms with them, or at least not polite speaking terms.
Blake’s point, then, which these two quotations neatly spell out in their complementarity and repetition, is that anger which we ignore, hoping it will go away, will simply fester and infect everything else – including ourselves.
‘And I sunned it with smiles.
And with soft deceitful wiles.’
This is a key quotation from the poem because it highlights the ways in which we deceive ourselves when we keep our anger and resentment bottled up inside. It encourages to act in a ‘two-faced’ manner, smiling at our enemies while secretly plotting our revenge on them.
Blake’s image here is inspired, and very clever. We often talk about smiles being ‘sunny’ and ‘radiant’ because they lift the mood of both the smiler and the one who sees the smile; but here, such smiles are like sun nourishing a tree in the ground. The more we smile – while privately cursing our enemies and wishing ill will to them – the more the ‘poison tree’ of resentment will grow.
‘And it grew both day and night.
Till it bore an apple bright.’
In time, this brooding resentment will bear fruit. Blake develops the ‘poison tree’ motif and makes the ‘fruit’ of this resentment a literal fruit, an apple.
Of course, apples have long been associated with temptation thanks to the story of Adam and Eve from the Book of Genesis: according to a long tradition, the forbidden fruit, which Eve was tempted to eat despite God telling her to keep her hands off it, was an apple.
In actual fact, the Bible does not specify what the forbidden fruit was, but John Milton – whose work Blake knew well – made it an apple in his well-known epic poem retelling this story, the 1667 work Paradise Lost.
‘In the morning glad I see;
My foe outstretchd beneath the tree.’
‘A Poison Tree’ ends with the supposed ‘victory’ of the speaker over his ‘foe’. But these closing lines are worth considering more closely.
Although this quotation depicts the speaker’s triumph over his foe, Blake’s lines leading up to this point paint the triumph as something of a Pyrrhic victory for the speaker. He has only managed to vanquish him by deceiving him, rather than being courageous and honest and confronting him directly about his anger.
But it should be noted that, as the earlier quotations showed, the speaker is fully aware that he has behaved in an underhand and dishonest way. He presents his triumph over his foe in decidedly matter-of-fact terms, despite the use of metaphors and allegorical imagery (the tree, the apple). He tells us what he did and what happened to his enemy, but ultimately expresses neither shame nor pride: even the word ‘glad’ in that final quotation is less celebratory than it might otherwise be.