Analysis of Poem "A Poison Tree" by William Blake

Updated on June 26, 2017
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Andrew has a keen interest in all aspects of poetry and writes extensively on the subject. His poems are published online and in print.

William Blake

William Blake and A Poison Tree

A Poison Tree is a poem that focuses on the emotion of anger and the consequences for our relationships should that anger be suppressed. It deals with the darker side of the human psyche.

The speaker tells of how he talked to a friend about his anger and everything was fine but with an enemy he could not do so and kept the anger inside. It began to grow, eventually becoming a metaphorical tree with poison fruit.

The enemy or foe ends up under the tree, destroyed by the speaker's pent up anger. The speaker seems ok about this but is there some doubt about the destructiveness of his anger? Early communication of anger seems the best way to deal with it.

William Blake's poem was written in 1794 and first appeared in his book Songs of Experience which followed on from his earlier Songs of Innocence.

Society at that time was encouraged to bottle up emotions and to present a polite and unruffled persona to the world.

Blake thought this approach unhealthy and advocated a more expressive mode of being, especially with regards to potentially festering emotions. His ideas were against the prevailing attitudes of the church and state. The original title Blake had for this poem, Christian Forbearance, reflects this.

A Poison Tree uses metaphor, antithesis and biblical associations to highlight the self-damage that can proceed from suppressing anger. The emphasis is on letting go of negative emotions and moving on with life before this energy impacts on the health and wellbeing of others.

A Poison Tree

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.

Analysis of A Poison Tree

A Poison Tree is a four stanza poem with a rhyme scheme: aabb, sets of rhyming couplets with full rhyme make up each quatrain.

The metre (meter in USA) is predominantly trochaic trimeter, that is, there are three feet to each line with the beat of DAdum DAdum DAdum DA....the stress falling on the first syllable. Look for this in lines 1,3,5,6,7,8,9,10,11,12,13,14,15. For example:

I was angry with my friend;

So the first line has three full feet plus the extra stressed beat at the end, making a total of seven syllables. The trochees seem to force the line on, reflecting the pushiness of the speaker.

In contrast, the iambic lines steady the beat and slow the pace down somewhat:

I told my wrath, my wrath did end.

Note the comma, splitting the line down the middle - syllabic symmetry which balances out.

One special line, line seven, deserves focus:

And I sunned it with smiles,

This becomes two trochees and an iamb, with a natural pause between it and with, to slightly wrong foot the reader.

Biblical Connection - Apple and Tree

The wrath of the speaker becomes a metaphorical tree bearing a poison apple. This allusion to the book of Genesis, chapter 3, is a clear one. The Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil is the poem's tree. The Serpent is the speaker, both tempting and deceitful. And Adam and Eve are the foe, both guilty of disobedience.

Antithesis and Metaphor

Antithesis

The poet uses antithesis to make opposites contrast. This is when a line contains opposing ideas or arguments. For example:

  • in the first stanza the opening lines focus on telling a friend about anger which then lessened; in contrast the last two lines depict not telling an enemy about anger which made it grow.

Some of the language reflects this: end/grow,fears/tears,smiles/wiles,day/night and so on.

Metaphor

This poem is an extended metaphor - the wrath (anger) becomes a tree, a fruit, a poison apple.

Further Analysis

This poem in one sense reads like a nursery rhyme but carries with it a potent message that is still relevant for today. Anger management has become a focal issue for many in society and Blake's prescient poem hits the nail on the head with its antithetical argument for letting go of negative energy.

With repeated emphasis on the self - seventeen times I, my, mine - the speaker courageously suggests that responsibility for managing anger is personal. If it is left to fester and not dealt with then the consequences could be dire.

  • Something has upset the speaker, be it trivial or serious, but things have been smoothed over because the anger (wrath) was released - he told his friend - the air has been cleared and they can both move onwards and upwards.
  • In contrast, the speaker's relationship with an enemy has gone badly wrong, simply because the anger he felt was not communicated. The anger began to grow, like a tree, inside his heart and mind. This troubled him greatly, he cried tears of anguish, and despite appearing happy enough in the outside world, inside things were turning toxic. He lost all trust in himself and started to make up stories to try and cover things.
  • After a certain length of time the anger became a metaphorical poison apple, bright and shiny perhaps like the one in the fairytale Sleeping Beauty, like the apple Adam and Eve shared in the Garden of Eden. His enemy is taken in by this shining attractive fruit - they are both affected by this toxic emotion - but one more than the other.
  • Tempted, the enemy, in the dead of night, when both are at extremes in their relationship (poles apart), takes the forbidden fruit, eats it and dies. The conflict hasn't been resolved in an amicable manner and the outcome is disaster. Both have suffered from the destructive effects of the suppressed (unconscious) anger.

Questions & Answers

    © 2017 Andrew Spacey

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