Annette is a language and drama teacher with a master's degree in education.
Methods of Poetry Analysis
When analysing a poem there are certain aspects to consider. The first consideration should be the context in which the poem was written, which includes the time period, the views and ideas of the writer, and other influences affecting them. All this might not always be available, but it is good to get some knowledge of what was happening at the time period of the poem. Look at art from the era as well as other literature, socio-economic and political conditions.
Next, a closer look at the ideas of the writer is important. What is the message that they want to relay to the reader? What is the tone and style of the writer and how does that relate to the message? To establish this, the reader will need to look at the language and structure of the poem with a keen eye. Poets often use limited words and strict concise writing to convey their ideas.
Context for "A Poison Tree"
Blake lived and worked in the late 1700s and while he is thought to have been a believer in Christianity, he was hostile to the Church of England and all forms of organised religion. His beliefs were not as simplistic as this, but for the purpose of analysing this poem, understanding that he used Christian themes and biblical stories as references is sufficient. He is believed to be one of the early key proponents of romanticism. Romanticism in literature deals with the sublime—the awe inspired by nature, emotions and feelings, and imagination.
With this knowledge, we can now look closer at the poem's four stanzas.
In "A Poison Tree", Blake uses an extended metaphor to describe the effects of anger on the writer as well as the person on the receiving side of his wrath. The antithesis and parallelism in the first stanza relate to the two scenarios. When he told his friend about his anger, his wrath ended, but when he did not share the same emotions with his enemy the anger continued to grow. He uses the image of the growing apple tree as an extended metaphor for how his anger is growing and the devastating effects the product of this growth has on his enemy.
Through the heavy employment of anaphora and the repetitive use of 'I' in the first stanza the poet draws the reader's attention to the agency of the speaker and makes it clear that it was the choice of the speaker to act in this way.
The polysyndetic use of 'and' in both this stanza and the following suggests the inevitability of the eruption of the speaker's suppressed anger. It also relates to Genesis 3.6 where Eve decides to eat the fruit and share it with her husband. Ample use of the word 'and' is employed to unfold the story from one stage to the next. This lends an allegorical weight to the poem; it makes it universal rather than an isolated incident only relevant to this speaker.
In stanza two, the use of sibilance with words such as ‘smiles’, ‘sunned’ and ‘soft’ produces a sinister effect. The words have positive meanings that refer to joyous occasions while the s-sound reminds us of the sounds of a snake. The association with the allusion to the garden of Eden where the snake played a central role is clear.
The writer's anger is growing, and it is done on purpose as emphasised by the direct contrast between ‘soft’ and ‘deceitful’. The speaker's active involvement in helping the tree grow by watering it with 'tears' and sunning it with 'smiles' implies the intention of the speaker to allow the anger to grow.
In stanza three there is an interesting transfer of power. In the first two stanzas, the word ‘I’ implies the power is in the hand of the writer, but in stanza three the power shifts to the tree with the references to ‘it grew’ and ‘it bore’. There is an indication that the suppressed anger is getting out of control and the power has shifted to the tree.
Therefore, the writer's ability to control the anger is not possible anymore. The use of chiaroscuro (contrasting light and dark imagery) with ‘night’, ‘day’, and ‘apple bright’ is used ironically. The immediate observation of a bright apple is a positive image of health and well-being but in this instance, it turns out to be the murder weapon that kills the enemy.
Stanza four is the culmination of many years of suppressed anger and the disastrous outcome. The use of personification here, where the night obscures the ‘pole’ (bright star), can suggest that nature conspires with the writer against the foe. Nature assists the enemy to steal the apple in the dark, but it turned out the enemy was manipulated to partake in their own demise.
In the daylight, the writer is ‘glad’ to see his enemy ‘outstretch’d beneath the tree’. Here the word ‘glad’ is significant as it shows that there is no remorse from the writer. This ties in with Blake’s concerns about Christianity’s idea of avoidance of sin and the importance of self-control. It is interesting to mention that the initial title of the poem was "Christian Forbearance". It is possible that Blake wanted to show how self-control, and in this instance, the suppression of anger not being best practice. It turns the bearer of the unspoken wrath into an evil and malevolent character.
Blake uses the structure of the poem especially effectively to reinforce the message that suppressing anger is dangerous and leads to dangerous outcomes. All but three lines of the poem are written in catalectic (incomplete) trochaic tetrameter. A trochee is one stressed syllable followed by an unstressed syllable and there are four of these in a line.
Catalectic trochaic tetrameter misses a syllable at the end of the line. Instead of DA-doom, DA-doom, DA-doom, DA-doom, it is DA-doom, DA-doom, DA-doom, DA. This creates an uncomfortable tone which suggests that the anger is unfinished and instead of suppressing it, it continues to grow and become uncontrollable.
The three lines (2,4 and 16) where iambic (opposite stress) tetrameter is used creates a more confident tone. In a sense, these three lines summarise the poem by telling the reader that when he dealt with his anger the poet’s wrath ended, but when he did not tell his foe, his wrath grew until he found his foe ‘outstretch’d beneath the tree’.
To complement the rhythmic pattern Blake employs a basic couplet rhyme structure. This in combination with the elementary and simple language used establishes a childlike effect. The contrast between this childlike effect and the actual circumstance of the poem adds a sinister feeling which again enforces the message of the poem.
These are but a few ideas about Blake's thought-provoking poem and there are many more possible interpretations and questions. To conclude, here are a few questions that have been asked during discussions of the poem.
Is anger the forbidden fruit? Is this only about the conflict between two people or is there an inner conflict at play as well?
Literature texts are seldom exhausted and there will always be more interpretations and more questions.
© 2022 Annette Hendley