William Blake’s A Poison Tree: Critique and Appraisal

Human beings, along with the ability to reason and question, possess the capacity to hate, and yet also to forgive. Unfortunately, forgiving someone is not always as easy as holding a grudge against them and this lack of control over one’s actions is inherent to human nature. In “A poison tree”, William Blake critically discusses these two opposing forces, uncovering the inherent weakness in humans, and the effects of these innate flaws.

Through the use of extended metaphors and vivid imagery, Blake symbolically portrays this fundamental flaw through the poem. The central theme in the poem is hatred and anger, dominating much of the author’s thoughts. Blake expresses this through the introduction of a clever parallelism – the treatment of anger between a friend and a foe. Through this, Blake emphasizes the nature of anger – while expressing and letting go of wrath ends it, suppression nurtures it.  Blake startles the reader with the clarity of the poem, and with metaphors that can apply to many instances of life. A Poison Tree is an allegory. The tree here represents repressed wrath; the water represents fear; the apple is symbolic of the fruit of the deceit which results from repression. This deceit gives rise to the speaker’s action in laying a death-trap for his enemy. The deeper meaning of the poem is that aggressive feelings, if suppressed, almost certainly destroy personal relationships.

“And it grew both day and night
Till it bore an apple bright”
Blake further symbolizes this in the next two stanzas. He appears to metaphor the repression of anger and hatred to ‘a poison tree’, thus giving it an identity. The personification in “A Poison Tree” exists both as a means by which the poem’s metaphors are revealed, supported, and as a way for Blake to forecast the greater illustration of the wrath. The wrath the speaker feels is not directly personified as a tree, but as something that grows slowly and bears fruit. In the opening stanza the speaker states, “My wrath did grow.” The speaker later describes the living nature of the wrath as one which, “grew both day and night,” and, “bore an apple bright.” This comparison by personification of wrath to a tree illustrates the speaker’s idea that, like the slow and steady growth of a tree, anger and wrath gradually accumulate and form just as mighty and deadly as a poisoned tree.
“And I water’ d it in fears,          
Night and morning with my tears;
And I sunned it with smiles,
And with soft deceitful wiles”
To understand the metaphorical sense of the poem, one must first examine the title, “A Poison Tree,” which alerts the reader that some type of metaphor will stand to dominate the poem. In the second stanza, Blake employs several metaphors that reflect the growing and nurturing of a tree which compare to the feeding of hate and vanity explored by the speaker. The verses, “And I watered it …with my tears” show how the tears life lead an object of destruction. The speaker goes further to say, “And I sunned it with smiles” describing not only false intentions, but the processing of “sunning”, giving nutrients to a plant so that it may not only grow and live, but flourish. In both of these metaphors, the basic elements for a tree to survive, water and sunlight are shown in human despair and sadness.
Blake called the original draft of “A Poison Tree” “Christian Forbearance,” suggesting that what is meant to appear as a gentle attitude is often a mask for disdain and anger. Furthermore, Blake believed that the attitudes of piety that adherents of conventional Christianity were taught to maintain actually led to hypocrisy, causing people to pretend to be friendly and accepting when they were not. The righteousness that the conventional religion prescribed, Blake believed, allowed people to hide evil intent and to perform evil deeds, such as stifling the healthy growth of children, under the cover of appearing virtuous.
“And into my garden stole
When the night had veiled the pole
In the morning glad I see
My foe outstretched beneath the tree”
The religious context of the poem is also evident in two metaphorical allusions made by the speaker towards the end of the poem. Blake, being a religious visionary, has also criticized the views and actions of Christianity. This is evident in the symbol of the ‘poison tree’, which can be seen to make direct biblical reference to the tree of knowledge, representing the evil existing within man. Thus, as the garden is symbolic of the Garden of Eden, the apple is symbolic of apple which brought Adam and eve to their demise. It is the evil and poison that is bared from anger, the fruit of the poison tree. As in the biblical story, the apple here is beautiful on the outside, while poisonous and deadly underneath. By presenting the apple, Black is symbolic of the Serpent, maliciously deceiving his foe and bringing his demise. The serpent in Black is his weakness, and just like he, all humans have this inherent flaw inside of them. Black uses this to criticize Christian forgiveness, expressing that while Christians believe in ‘turning the other cheek’, by forgiving and repressing anger, they are ignoring the basic flaw existing in our human nature.  Symbolically, the speaker represents God, the foe and garden represent Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, and the tree represents the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil in Genesis. If this analogy is true, it shows God rejoicing in killing his enemies, which most people think the God they know would never do.
Conclusively, “A Poison Tree” teaches a lesson and asserts a moral proposition rather than offering a critique of a theological system, the lesson is less concerned with anger than with demonstrating that suppressing the expression of feelings leads to a corruption of those feelings, to a decay of innocence, and to the growth of cunning and guile. Repeatedly in Songs of Experience, not just in “A Poison Tree,” Blake argues that the religious doctrines intended to train people, especially children, in virtue are cruel and cause harm. In addition, Blake depicts those who implement religious discipline as sadistic. Blake’s poetry, while easy to understand and simplistic, usually implies a moral motif on an almost basic level. The powerful figurative language in “A Poison Tree” is so apparent that it brings forth an apparent message as well. The poem is not a celebration of wrath; rather it is Blake’s cry against it. Through this, Blake warns the reader of the dangers of repression and of rejoicing in the sorrow of our foes.

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