By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
What are the most important symbols and images in William Blake’s ‘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.
With its prominent use of fruit and trees, the poem is full of ripe (no pun intended) symbolism and imagery which is both suggestive and, at times, ambiguous. So let’s take a closer look at some of the most important and illustrative symbols from the poem.
There are two central symbols in ‘A Poison Tree’, and the first is the tree itself. But one of the curious things about the poem – and one which many readers are likely to miss – is that nowhere in the poem does Blake actually mention the tree, apart from in the poem’s title.
Instead, when we come to the second stanza, he simply tells us:
And I waterd it in fears,
Night & morning with my tears:
And I sunned it with smiles,
And with soft deceitful wiles.
‘I watered it’, note: but this pronoun does not refer back to a tree, but to the ‘wrath’ (i.e., anger) mentioned in the previous stanza.
So instead of mentioning the metaphor of ‘wrath = tree’ specifically and explicitly in the poem itself, Blake instead lets it grow, appropriately, in the reader’s mind, suggested by that title but subsequently unmentioned and merely implied. The poison symbolises the toxic and destructive nature of anger when it is not allowed out into the open, but instead forced down into ourselves as we try to hide it and pretend it isn’t there.
The outcome of such concealment isn’t that the anger dissipates or disappears: instead, it poisons us, so we become consumed by our own hatred.
We can interpret the tree as a metaphor or symbol for the speaker’s own anger towards his enemy. Because the tree is a poisoned tree, he shouldn’t be making it grow. But he is, by ‘watering’ it with his own hand-wringing and his tears (because he’s letting not only his anger, but his failure to address the source of his anger directly, eat away at him and make him unhappy), and making sure it gets plenty of ‘sunshine’ (namely, his deceitful smiles he directs at his enemy while secretly plotting his revenge).
Much as a tree bears fruit, so this metaphorical ‘poison tree’ bears its own fruit: an apple. Blake tells us:
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.
The apple symbolises the outcome of the speaker’s brooding resentment. Just as he encouraged his anger to grow by ignoring it and pretending it didn’t exist, so he eventually caused it to ‘come out’ and show itself, in the form of a ‘bright’ apple.
The apple is bright and shining in order to attract his enemy to it. His enemy knows it belongs to the speaker, but he sneaks into his garden to steal it for himself all the same. 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. So the apple in Blake’s poem certainly glimmers with biblical associations of temptation (after all, it tempts the speaker’s enemy to his garden) and corruption (the apple is the fruit of the speaker’s wrath, after all).
But the poem is an allegory, we need to remember. So what does the apple symbolise here, and what does it mean that the speaker’s foe has tried to steal it from him?
One way to interpret this detail is to keep in mind the central message of the poem: namely, that anger which we ignore and conceal from others will eventually destroy our moral character. It will, in effect, poison us.
So we might paraphrase ‘A Poison Tree’ as follows: ‘I was angry with my enemy, but I didn’t tell him, but instead pretended to be nice to him while plotting my revenge. He thought I was weak because I didn’t retaliate, and so my cowardly behaviour lured him into striking out at me because he spied a golden opportunity to defeat me. But when he made his move – haha! He was tricked into eating of the same poison which was slowly consuming me, and he fell dead of it.’
In other words, the speaker of the poem has triumphed and defeated his enemy, but only through luring him into partaking of the same cowardly and deceitful behaviour that the speaker himself has been guilty of. True, he has vanquished his foe, but what of his own soul? Presumably that, too, is being slowly destroyed and corrupted by the poison growing within him.
Of course, some trees bear poisoned fruit (berries, for instance) but they suffer no ill effects from bearing such toxic fruit themselves. Indeed, they have evolved to do so. But even here, people are likely to avoid such trees for fear of being destroyed by the fruit they bear. So what of the speaker of ‘A Poison Tree’? Will he retain that ‘friend’ mentioned in the first line of the poem for much longer?