A Poison Tree

A Poison Tree

by William Blake

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 waterd it in fears,
Night & 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 outstretched beneath the tree.

______________________

A Poison Tree is written in a first person perspective for its first two stanzas before switching perspectives in the third and fourth to 3rd person. Altogether, the poem is 16 lines broken into four separate 4 line stanzas, with an AABB rhyme scheme

Stanza One:

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.

The first stanza presents us with two types of anger – anger with a friend and anger with an enemy. The former kind the Speaker forgives where as the latter kind goes unforgiven – and thus grows.

Stanza Two:

And I waterd it in fears,
Night & morning with my tears:
And I sunned it with smiles,
And with soft deceitful wiles.

In this stanza, the Speaker tells us that he cultivated the growth of his anger with intention. Fears and tears might be an unknowing emotional reaction to an unconfessed anger and a lack of forgiveness, but smiles and deceitful wiles add an element of more overt action. In this stanza, the Speaker tells us that at a point, his anger and desire for vengeance – and all that might follow – are his own doing.

The anger for the foe is compared in the poem to a tree and we see the metaphor come into a sharper focus in this stanza. He waters his anger and he suns it – as one might a young tree. Blake uses ‘And’ to start lines 5, 7, and 8. The choice creates a sense of compounding or as is the case with the metaphor chosen herein, growth.

Stanza Three:

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 the third stanza, the perspective changes from first person to third person. The switch corresponds with the birth of an apple. The Speaker switches from use of the pronoun “I” to the pronoun “it.” The shift in perspective in conjunction with the continued use of the compounding “and” creates the sense that the anger is no longer controlled or owned by the Speaker. It is a thing unto itself. The apple is its own being.

The foe is aware that the fruit comes from the Speaker but does not fully understand the malicious designs of the Speaker.

Stanza Four:

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

A final “and” is used in this stanza only once. The last step of the growth of this anger is taken when it successfully tempts the foe into the garden. Keeping in mind that this is a metaphor, and not a literal apple theft, the night is symbolic of the Speaker’s state of mind. Morning only comes after the foe is dead. The first person perspective also returns after morning arrives.

The poem ends with an enemy dead. The Speaker’s own hatred ultimately drew his foe toward a conflict and his own demise. If the Speaker had forgiven his foe as he was willing to forgive a friend, perhaps the conflict with his foe would not have continued to escalate.

There is a subtext within the poem that the Speaker is himself perhaps trapped by his own anger as he lays a trap for his foe. The tone grows increasingly dark throughout. The work of vengeance is, well, work, and it is consuming. It is only after the foul deed is done that the Speaker experiences morning. We can read into the use of “glad” in line 15 a sense of joy at seeing an enemy dead or we might read into the use of “glad” that the Speaker is relieved that all of this work is over. Perhaps also it is both.

The poem can also be viewed as having a message from a wider perspective. Blake’s intention might be to relate the fallen state of mankind by telling a murder story with some striking similarities to The Fall of Man more generally. Embracing that particular parallel might also imply malice on the part of God toward mankind – and that is an idea not altogether out of place as concerns William Blake who is viewed quite favorably today by the Church of Satan. If you want to read from The Church of Satan itself, regarding William Blake, click the link HERE.

Blake’s paintings, The Great Red Dragon series, are the inspiration for the fictional antagonist in Thomas Harris’ novel The Red Dragon as well as various film and TV adaptations of said book.

A Poison Tree was first published in 1794 as part of William Blake’s Songs of Experience collection.

Who is William Blake?

William Blake (28 November 1757 – 12 August 1827) was an English poet, painter, and printmaker. Largely unrecognised during his lifetime, Blake is now considered a seminal figure in the history of the poetry and visual arts of the Romantic Age. What he called his prophetic works were said by 20th-century critic Northrop Frye to form “what is in proportion to its merits the least read body of poetry in the English language”. His visual artistry led 21st-century critic Jonathan Jones to proclaim him “far and away the greatest artist Britain has ever produced”. In 2002, Blake was placed at number 38 in the BBC‘s poll of the 100 Greatest Britons. While he lived in London his entire life, except for three years spent in Felpham, he produced a diverse and symbolically rich œuvre, which embraced the imagination as “the body of God” or “human existence itself”.

Although Blake was considered mad by contemporaries for his idiosyncratic views, he is held in high regard by later critics for his expressiveness and creativity, and for the philosophical and mystical undercurrents within his work. His paintings and poetry have been characterised as part of the Romantic movement and as “Pre-Romantic”. A committed Christian who was hostile to the Church of England (indeed, to almost all forms of organised religion), Blake was influenced by the ideals and ambitions of the French and American revolutions. Though later he rejected many of these political beliefs, he maintained an amiable relationship with the political activist Thomas Paine; he was also influenced by thinkers such as Emanuel Swedenborg. Despite these known influences, the singularity of Blake’s work makes him difficult to classify. The 19th-century scholar William Michael Rossetti characterised him as a “glorious luminary”, and “a man not forestalled by predecessors, nor to be classed with contemporaries, nor to be replaced by known or readily surmisable successors”

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