What are the most important themes William Blake’s poem ‘A Poison Tree’? The poem is from Blake’s 1794 volume Songs of Experience, the companion-volume to his earlier Songs of Innocence. ‘A Poison Tree’ is a powerful poem about anger, and how anger eats away at us, causing us to behave in deceitful and dishonest ways, but anger isn’t the only theme Blake explores in this fascinating but ambiguous poem.
Let’s take a closer look at some of the most significant and salient themes of the poem.
Anger is perhaps the most prominent theme in ‘A Poison Tree’. The first stanza immediately introduces this theme:
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.
Blake uses the word ‘wrath’ partly for scansion (otherwise ‘anger’ would have too many syllables for the metre of the line) but also, we suspect, partly because of its Christian connotations. ‘Wrath’, which is another word for anger, is one of the Seven Deadly Sins and so this invites a religious reading of ‘A Poison Tree’.
The ‘message’ of Blake’s lines is that it is better to have it out in the open when you’re angry with someone, because then we often find our anger disappears. But if we keep our wrath to ourselves, it festers inside us and only grows with time.
Forbearance or Self-Control.
As well as the suggestive word ‘wrath’, another fact leads us towards a Christian interpretation of Blake’s poem: the original title he gave to it.
Rather than ‘A Poison Tree’, the poem was initially called ‘Christian Forbearance’, which gives us an indication of how Blake wished us to respond to the poem (although, of course, it’s also worth bearing in mind that he didn’t decide to stick with this title, and so perhaps he didn’t want the poem’s ‘Christian’ aspects to be too explicitly stated).
‘Forbearance’ means ‘self-control’ but also ‘tolerance’ or ‘self-restraint’. The original title, ‘Christian Forbearance’, reveals Blake’s distrust of the idea of Christian forbearance as a supposed virtue. In the Bible, Jesus enjoins his followers to ‘turn the other cheek’, when an enemy strikes them.
But for Blake, taking such an idea to extremes, at least where righteous anger is concerned, is not a good Christian precept (his problem was probably more with organised religion and how the church taught forbearance or restraint as an unalloyed virtue, rather than with Jesus’ teachings themselves), because it is an act of cowardice but also hypocrisy. So, let’s explore these two important themes.
Bravery versus Cowardice.
For Blake, restraining one’s true feelings when angry was an act of cowardice: it amounts to refusing to stand up to your enemies and instead resorting to more underhand means to attack them. But such acts of subterfuge are carried out under the banner of pious Christianity: in other words, it’s taught as the proper thing to do, when it’s really a failure of nerve and an absence of moral courage.
In the poem, the speaker’s foe is only vanquished when he sees the apple belonging to the speaker – an apple formed from the speaker’s own deceitfulness – and steals it to eat. The apple, being poisoned by the speaker’s own cowardly hypocrisy, kills the enemy of the speaker, but Blake is suggesting that the speaker himself has been tainted by achieving his ‘victory’ in such a manner.
It would be much better, Blake appears to imply, to confront one’s enemy directly and air one’s grievances in the open. Then everything can be conducted in an honest manner, rather than using trickery and dishonesty to achieve a victory which is hollow in the extreme.
Consider the beginning of the poem’s second stanza:
And I waterd it in fears,
Night & morning with my tears:
Keeping his anger to himself makes the speaker unhappy and fearful, and his tears of worry and sadness help to ‘feed’ his anger, much as watering the roots of a tree will cause it to grow.
This is certainly true of most people: if we hate someone but realise we’re not brave enough to stand up to them and confront them, we will come to hate ourselves for being so cowardly. And thus we will hate them all the more for making us feel that way.
Of course, as well as being cowardly, the speaker of ‘A Poison Tree’ also exhibits hypocrisy, and this is another key theme of the poem. The second stanza of the poem continues:
And I sunned it with smiles,
And with soft deceitful wiles.
So his ‘tears’ of fear and sadness water the ‘poison tree’ of his anger, but his two-faced behaviour towards his enemy is like sunshine on a tree’s leaves: again, it helps it to grow stronger and bigger.
Once again, if we feel we are being forced to act in a duplicitous way because we are too cowardly to stand up to someone, we will come to hate ourselves – and, again, to hate the source of our anger, our enemy, even more because they have made us hate ourselves.
In other words, being hypocritical in our dealings with people, even our enemies and rivals, diminishes ourselves, because it makes us hate ourselves as well as them. And this is why the enemy eating the fruit of the poison tree is not the glorious victory the speaker may believe it to be: true, his enemy is dead and vanquished, but the tree still stands, much as an apple tree continues to exist even when an apple has been plucked from it.