A Poison Tree by William Blake Study Guide
Summary of the Poem
“A Poison Tree” is one of the lesser-known of William Blake’s twenty-six Songs of Experience poems, which also include “The Tyger,” “Ah, Sun-flower,” and “London.” The companion volume to Blake’s Songs of Innocence, released in 1789, is Songs of Experience. In 1794, Blake combined Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience into a single volume with the subtitle “Shewing the Two Contrary States of the Human Soul.” The Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake (1982), edited by David V. Erdman and published by Doubleday, is one of the greatest sources of “A Poison Tree.”
Blake contrasts how the human spirit blossoms when allowed to roam freely, which he calls “innocence,” and how it turns in on itself after being restrained and compelled to adhere to laws, systems, and doctrines, which he calls “experience.” The two states harken back to one of the most pivotal moments in the Judeo-Christian storey: Adam and Eve’s loss of innocence after eating fruit from the forbidden Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil in the Garden of Eden. Blake’s poem’s poison tree alludes to the biblical tree.
Comment on Blake’s use of the ballad form.
Although it can be read on its own, “A Poison Tree” benefits greatly from being read in conjunction with the poems in Songs of Experience that come before it, particularly “The Garden of Love” and “The Human Abstract.” Blake critiques the imposition of religious and societal morality on human sensibility in the three poems, claiming that it suffocates the goodness and love inherent in a spirit free of such restrictions. The original title of “A Poison Tree” in Blake’s Notebook is “Christian Forbearance,” which the poem condemns as a source of hypocrisy.
Analysis of A Poison Tree
William Blake mentions someone, both a friend and a foe, with whom he is enraged.
After he claimed he was angry with his friend, he says “I told my wrath, my wrath did end” implying that he was able to get over his anger and forget about it. When he says, “I told it not, and my wrath did grow” he is implying the reverse. Blake is implying that he allowed himself to become enraged when dealing with his foe, and as a result, his rage grew.
Blake continues to make his fury grow in this stanza, and he enjoys it by comparing his wrath to anything, in this example, a tree or plant. According to the speaker, he “sunned it with smiles” and “and with soft, deceitful wiles.” This indicates he is constructing an illusion with his enemy by claiming to be nice in order to lure and draw him closer.
“And it grew both day and night” and “til it bore an apple bright” indicate that his illusion with his adversary grows and grows until it becomes a strong and tempting item. His illusion has a metaphor, and that metaphor is an apple. After that, his adversary believes it glows, implying that he feels it is true and meaningful, and he takes Blake’s illusion seriously. “And he knew it was mine,” he says, implying that he truly believes Blake is his friend.
Blake needed to come up with a conclusion because this was the final stanza. He has used the two lines “in the morning glad I see” and “my foe outstretched beneath the tree” to suggest that his foe ultimately succumbed to his enticing illusion and figuratively eaten his poison apple and died. So, evidently, his malevolent intents were masked by illusion, and he triumphed over his adversary.