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William Blake's “A Poison Tree”

Poetry became my passion after I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class circa 1962.

William Blake

Introduction and Text of “A Poison Tree”

From William Blake's Songs of Experience, the piece, "A Poison Tree," consists of four quatrains, each with the rime-scheme, AABB. As with most of Blake's efforts, “A Poison Tree” has its charm, despite its problematic use of metaphor. Blake, who claimed he saw angels, was a much better engraver than poet. His reputation as a poet has been greatly exaggerated, and his works have garnered a cult-like following among the chronically immature and other poetry-challenged readers.

(Please note: The spelling, "rhyme," was introduced into English by Dr. Samuel Johnson through an etymological error. For my explanation for using only the original form, please see "Rime vs Rhyme: An Unfortunate Error.")

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 water'd 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 veil'd the pole;
In the morning glad I see;
My foe outstretched beneath the tree.

Reading of "A Poison Tree" by Sir Ralph Richardson

Commentary

William Blake's didactic poem becomes unworkable despite the potentially useful advice of talking with one's enemies.

First Quatrain: Friendly vs Unfriendly Anger

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 quatrain finds the speaker explaining that he experienced a disagreement with a "friend," which made him "angry." He confided his anger over the disagreement to the friend, and all was well. However, the speaker then experienced a disagreement accompanied with anger with what he calls a "foe." The negative attitude at the outset toward this latter individual suggests that even if the speaker had told his foe about his anger, that emotion would not have dissuaded the foe of remaining an enemy.

It is likely that the speaker and his foe were simply not close enough to come to an amicable understanding, regardless of how much talking they would engage in. It is also likely therefore that even if they had attempted to converse on the subject they would have remained enemies. So the "wrath" toward his enemy grew.

Second Quatrain: Growing Ire

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

In the second quatrain, the speaker attempts to shed light on the growth of his ire toward his enemy. His hatred of his enemy grew because he fostered it in his mind, and he hid it behind a smiling face and deceitful interaction with the enemy.

This attitude of bottling up complaints and allowing them to grow has become a cliché in modern social interaction. And while it remains common sense that airing grievances is the first step in overcoming them, how they are aired and the nature of the original relationship as well as the disagreement itself hold considerable sway in determining if the relationship can continue in harmony and balance. Thus, it is not enough simply to air grievances with a perceived “enemy”—the ability to fully reconcile must come into play.

Third Quatrain: Consumed by Hatred

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 third quatrain finds the speaker consumed with that fostered hatred of his enemy. He offers a drama of hatred and metaphorically likens it to a “poison tree” that produces a bright, shiny fruit that looks appetizing.

When his foe observes the bright, shiny fruit that belongs to the speaker, he fails to understand the poisonous nature of that “fruit." He falls for the smiling face and deceptive demeanor of the speaker. The speaker's foe is led to believe the speaker likes him.

Fourth Quatrain: Failure of Metaphor

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

Finally, the foe makes his way into the speaker's garden, where he apparently eats the poison fruit. In the morning, the speaker discovers a dead enemy beneath his tree. The speaker appears to celebrate the foe's death. But how exactly did the foe die?

A Logical Fallacy and a Failed Metaphor

This Blake poem goes off the rails because of two main problems: a logical fallacy and an unworkable metaphor.

A Logical Fallacy

As already mentioned, the speaker and the foe were originally not on friendly terms. That status inserts into the equation a vast difference between the friend with whom he could remain amicable and the foe with whom he likely could not. Despite this important difference, the speaker suggests that talking things out with this already avowed enemy would have assuaged the final outcome, but sometimes foes remain foes regardless of the good intensions of the parties to change that status.

It is quite possible that a discussion in which the speaker confides this anger to his foe might have exacerbated the enmity between them. This fact reveals the advice as a logical fallacy because the speaker cannot know that airing his grievance to his “enemy” would have prevented the unfortunate final result, that is, the death of the enemy. One act does not logically follow from the other. This attempt to instruct others in moral behavior is, therefore, rendered as naïve, shallow, and simply unworkable in a poem.

A Failed Metaphor

The metaphor of the “poison tree” further renders the poem unworkable. The speaker's wrath is dramatically and metaphorically portrayed as a poison tree, which would be growing in the garden of the speaker's mind. Thus, the suggestion is that the foe entered the speaker's mind, ate from the poisoned fruit and died. If stealing into the speaker's mind means that the foe could see that the speaker hated him immensely, how does that necessarily kill the foe? This metaphor does not work.

The metaphor of a poison tree in the mind killing someone is nonsensical, unless that poison tree caused the speaker to commit homicide. And one would have to be of unsound mind to confess such information in a poem. It must be out of naïveté or carelessness that such a metaphor would be used in such a nonsensical and unworkable way. Despite the charm of many of Blake's efforts, he did often fall victim to such naïveté and carelessness in his poems.

Questions & Answers

Question: In Blake's "A Poison Tree," what is the result of his not talking about his anger to his enemy?

Answer: The speaker's anger grew until it killed his enemy. However, this Blake poem goes off the rails because of two main problems: a logical fallacy and an unworkable metaphor.

A Logical Fallacy

As already mentioned, the speaker and the foe were originally not on friendly terms. That status inserts into the equation a vast difference between the friend with whom he could remain amicable and the foe with whom he likely could not. Despite this important difference, the speaker suggests that talking things out with this already avowed enemy would have assuaged the final outcome, but sometimes foes remain foes regardless of the good intentions of the parties to change that status.

It is quite possible that a discussion in which the speaker confides this anger to his foe might have exacerbated the enmity between them. This fact reveals the advice as a logical fallacy because the speaker cannot know that airing his grievance to his “enemy” would have prevented the unfortunate final result, that is, the death of the enemy. One act does not logically follow from the other. This attempt to instruct others in moral behavior is, therefore, rendered as naïve, shallow, and simply unworkable in a poem.

A Failed Metaphor

The metaphor of the “poison tree” further renders the poem unworkable. The speaker's wrath is dramatically and metaphorically portrayed as a poison tree, which would be growing in the garden of the speaker's mind. Thus, the suggestion is that the foe entered the speaker's mind, ate from the poisoned fruit and died. If stealing into the speaker's mind means that the foe could see that the speaker hated him immensely, how does that necessarily kill the foe? This metaphor does not work.

The metaphor of a poison tree in the mind killing someone is nonsensical unless that poison tree caused the speaker to commit homicide. And one would have to be of unsound mind to confess such information in a poem. It must be out of naïveté or carelessness that such a metaphor would be used in such a nonsensical and unworkable way. Despite the charm of many of Blake's efforts, he did often fall victim to such naïveté and carelessness in his poems.

© 2020 Linda Sue Grimes