“I told my wrath, my wrath did end.”

Dr Oliver Tearle writes at interestingliterature.com:

” ‘A Poison Tree’, one of the most famous poems by William Blake (1757-1827), was first published in Blake’s 1794 volume Songs of Experience.

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 watered it in fears.

Night and 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 outstretchd beneath the tree.

Blake originally gave ‘A Poison Tree’ the title ‘Christian Forbearance’. More on the significance of that earlier title below.

In summary, the speaker of the poem tells us that when he was angry with his friend he simply told his friend that he was annoyed, and that put an end to his bad feeling. But when he was angry with his enemy, he didn’t air his grievance to this foe, and so the anger grew. Whereas we can trust our friends with our true feelings and be honest with them (Blake elsewhere famously said that ‘Opposition is true friendship’), a foe is someone who – almost by definition – we cannot be so honest with.

In the second stanza, Blake turns to the central, title metaphor of his poem, likening his anger to a tree that he ‘watered’ with fear and resentment. Then, more curiously, he says that the false ‘smiles’ he put on whenever he saw his enemy acted like sunlight helping a tree to grow: by bottling up his anger he made it worse, and by putting on ‘soft deceitful wiles’ (i.e. tricks and cover-ups to hide his true feelings), his anger continued to grow and morphed into something more devious: the need for vengeance. He is smiling at his enemy while all the while he is (inwardly and secretly) plotting his revenge.

Why? The implication of this ‘poison tree’ is that anger and hatred start to eat away at oneself: hatred always turns inward, corrupting into self-hatred. The Blake scholar D. G. Gillham, in his informative and fascinating study of Blake’s poetry, Blake’s Contrary States: The ‘Songs of Innocence and Experience’ as Dramatic Poems, has observed that it is not merely the speaker’s foe who is poisoned by the speaker’s actions: the act of poisoning his enemy diminishes and corrupts him, too. The brooding enmity and resentment borne by both parties not only diminish the other party but rebound upon the bearer: hatred eats away at us as much as it affects our foes.

Because the speaker was forced to hide his anger, it made him act in a deceitful and false way, and thus his anger for his friend led him to despise himself for being driven to act deceitfully.

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 this third stanza, an apple sprouts from this poison tree of anger. This ‘apple bright’ attracts the attention of his enemy, who then sneaked into the speaker’s garden one night and ate the apple from this tree; when the speaker finds his enemy the next morning, his foe is lying dead under the tree, having eaten the poisoned fruit…

…In terms of Blake’s own view on the matter, it is perhaps enough to observe that he originally planned to call the poem ‘Christian Forbearance’ before deciding on the less obviously religious ‘A Poison Tree’. As Gillham observes in Blake’s Contrary States: The ‘Songs of Innocence and Experience’ as Dramatic Poems, this title shows Blake’s barbed distrust of the idea of Christian forbearance, because, for Blake, it amounted to cowardice and hypocrisy: refusing to stand up to your enemies and instead resorting to more underhand means to attack them, but carried out under the name of pious Christianity.

Nevertheless, the apple comes with its own Christian symbolism. The apple represents such wily and devious vengeance: it is significant that it is an apple that grows from Blake’s poison tree, and that the speaker’s enemy steals the apple, because this conjures up the Genesis story of Adam and Eve being deceitfully persuaded to eat the fruit from the forbidden Tree of Knowledge. Satan, disguised as a serpent, is the one responsible for cajoling Eve into eating the fruit, which is commonly depicted as an apple, like the apple in Blake’s poem. The Fall of Adam and Eve takes place, of course, in the paradise that is the Garden of Eden; Blake’s Edenic ‘garden’ is where his enemy meets his end. These parallels raise Blake’s parable of repressed anger and vengeance to Biblical heights…

…A Poison Tree’ is one of English literature’s most striking explorations of the corrupting effects of anger. It is one of William Blake’s miniature masterpieces. What do you think of ‘A Poison Tree’, and what would you add to our analysis?”

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