Reflections on A Poison Tree

Poet Clare Crossman was one of our first contributing authors at Finding Blake, and we welcome Clare back with her reflections on A Poison Tree, a key poem in William Blake’s work, published in Songs of Experience in 1794.


I re-read A Poison Tree again recently because I run the south Cambridgeshire Poetry society, Stanza, and was looking for poems about Truth, which is the theme of this year’s national poetry day.

Adrian Mitchell, a great lover of Blake, was a necessary poet in the mix. The lyrics of his song The Truth were just what I needed and then there was Emily Dickinson, Don Patterson, WH Auden, and all the other poets on the National Poetry Day site.

I was reminded of A Poison Tree by one of the members during our discussion. The more we looked at poems the more it seemed that there was a very thin line between truth and lies, as we felt the truth can sometimes be unbearable. A Poison Tree was discussed because it was the one poem we all knew in which the effects of not saying how you feel or addressing anger can cause self-destructive anger and, as in the poem, death — or murder as some have suggested.

Directness and honesty is a tone that can be relied on in Blake. It is interesting to note that the original title of the poem was Christian Forbearance, an irony of course from Blake: a criticism of the buttoned-up and the easy Good. He disliked hypocrisy. 

The poison of soft, deceitful wiles

Blake stares into the face of what anger does to us by setting his thoughts in a simple balance.

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.

There is difficulty in speaking to the enemy and so, full of resentment, he nurtures the Poison Tree inside him (I imagine capillaries through which a cancer is spreading):

And I watered it in fears,
Night and morning with my tears:
And I sunned it with smiles
And with soft deceitful wiles.

Blake notes that how he responds to the enemy is to pretend to be pleasant: ‘soft deceitful wiles’. He smiles through his anger. As Shakespeare wrote, “A man may smile and smile and be a villain”.

Hand-painted copy B of William Blake’s “A Poison Tree”, 1794 currently held at the British Museum.

In the third verse there is an elegant reversal, the apple in the Garden of Eden becomes a glittering object as if it has been touched by King Midas, not a beautiful piece of fruit:

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.

This apple does not belong in the Garden of Love, it has been created by things left unspoken and has become a symbol of deception and anger (‘My precious, my precious’). This apple does not cause the fall of man by being picked and eaten; it causes death destruction and an eerie acknowledgement of the way evil can fascinate and entangle.

Then there is the last verse.

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

I don’t agree with literal interpretations of the last verse. I think it is too deliberately ambiguous, and my feeling is that it means more that the evil has somehow spread and been recognised by both the foe and the speaker in the poem. In the dark ‘night had veiled the pole’ both people in the poem have become part of the destructive anger.

A destructive anger

I wonder what started this poem off? We have all had relationships that end in anger and silence, with both people involved feeling damaged. The singer-songwriter Beth Orton has written a wonderful melancholic setting for this poem which can be found on one of her finest albums, Sugaring Season.

But the poem I think is about real hatred and real dislike, where those involve dissemble and pretend to be opposite to who they are while harbouring a deep, destructive anger… The scenes in the last series of Peaky Blinders, showing Oswald Mosley at full throttle come to mind. In that instance, hatred of the other is masquerading as good sense and decency — which is in his case fascism.

Blake seems to be saying that however difficult we find it we must stand up to our real foes, and express our angers because if we don’t the consequences are terrible. Courage and forgiveness are also required, which can be found for a friend — but someone you really don’t like? That’s another matter. It is easier with a friend but maybe not impossible with a foe.

Good advice from 225 years ago. Oh, William Blake you were wise. You looked directly at hatred and what it does.

As Adrian Mitchell  (a great admirer of Blake) wrote 150 years later:

The truth is the truth it’s a strange kind of animal, so I stay awake listening for the truth.


Notes

Adrian Mitchell’s The Truth is published in Come on Everybody – Poems 1953-2008, published by Bloodaxe Books. And you can read The Guardian’s obituary for Mitchell, “in whom the legacies of Blake and Brecht coalesce with the zip of Little Richard and the swing of Chuck Berry…” who wrote Tyger for the National Theatre in 1971, “a time-travelling musical about a visionary 18th-century poet in today’s fallen times, with music by long-term collaborator Mike Westbrook.”

You can hear Beth Orton’s song, Poison Tree, on YouTube – and of course Finding Blake guest contributors Astralingua and Mick and Kate Stannard have also shared their own adaptations of Blake’s poem with us.

Clare has previously shared her reflections on Blake’s poem London with us here Finding Blake. And you can find her own poems at Clare Crossman – Poet & Writer as well as on ClimateCultures and the website for her project with James Murray-White: Waterlight — A Journey Along the River Mel.

You can explore more of Blake’s poems from Songs of Innocence and of Experience, with summaries, analysis and images of the original illustrations, at The Tate’s pages.

The Unveiling

Sunday 12th August 2018 saw the long-awaited gathering for the ceremony to unveil the new gravestone for William Blake. Finding Blake was there - filming, interviewing speakers and participants and taking part in the moment of communal respect for and reflection of this great artist, poet and visionary and his legacy for us. Here, Linda Richardson looks back on the day, and James Murray-White shares his short film from the day.

It is a cool August day in Bunhill Field’s cemetery, and hundreds of people have gathered to watch the unveiling of William Blake’s new gravestone on the 191st anniversary of his death. The stone, cut by Lida Cardozo of the Kindersley Workshop in Cambridge, lies beneath a white cloth, and we assemble in a deep circle — people who continue to be inspired and changed by the life and work of this astonishing man. Vaulting above us in a green dome, plane trees create a dappled shade upon the human proceedings and we listen to the sparkling speeches of men and women to whom Blake is alive and galloping around in their conscious minds, enlightening and troubling this new generation of Blakeans.

The cameras are rolling and clicking as these modern-day experts capture the unfolding ceremony in all of its diversity. Speeches are made, the cloth is gently and slowly unfolded and there, at our feet lies a large slab of Portland stone

I give you the end of a golden string …

We all feel the privilege of being part of this holy gathering, each of us having internal speeches of our own.

Blake’s new gravestone unveiled
Photograph: Lida Cardozo Kindersley © 2018
www.kindersleyworkshop.co.uk

Later I watch Lida, apart from the crowds, circling her stone; the dust of it is in her blood from the months of intimate contact, and I wonder if she is saying ‘goodbye’, ‘farewell’, or if the intensity of her feelings are too complex to comprehend, and I remember another great Blakean woman, Patti Smith. A week earlier she had led us in a surprising rendition of We Three Kings of Orient Are, at the Cambridge Folk Festival, and called from her heart to us to be at peace with one another, to bring gifts of love to our troubled and turbulent world.

An unveiling and an awakening

On the train home with Malcolm Guite, one of the speakers at the unveiling, we talked about our delight in being at the ceremony, ‘astonishing’, he said. Malcolm is a prolific modern-day poet, priest and musician, and is tireless in his work of promoting kindness and compassion, and of awakening our minds to the power of imagination as the prime agent of human perception.

Here, then, is our short film showing the edited highlights of the speakers invited by the Blake Society to address the crowd at the unveiling ceremony at Bunhill Fields, London, on Sunday 12th August 2018. The speakers featured are: Tim Heath, Chairman of the Blake Society; writer and theologian Reverend Malcolm Guite; scholar & creator of Zoamorphosis, the Blake 2.0 Blog Jason Whittaker, Reverend Lucy Winkett of St James, Piccadilly; poet Stephen Micalef; lettercutter Lida Cardozo; rock musician Bruce Dickinson; and satirist and actor Will Franken. The film also shows the unveiling itself — by Carol and Luis Garrido, who discovered the exact location of Blake’s burial spot — and features part of the performance of the hymn Jerusalem by the vocal group, Blake.

Further material from the special day will appear here on Finding Blake & later in the final film. Watch this space!

Unveiling Ceremony – speakers from James Murray-White on Vimeo.

“... I rest not from my great task! To open the eternal worlds, to open the immortal eyes of man inwards into the worlds of thought, into eternity ever expanding in the bosom of God, the Human Imagination.”

Notes

Linda Richardson is an artist. Based in Cambridge, England, she makes work that engages the imagination and intuition and tries to make a creative space for the viewer to connect their inner nature with their outer nature to form ideas that are not rooted in convention, reason or rationality. However neither are they pure fantasy that provides an escape from humdrum life. Linda wants instead to awaken the senses to the beauty and wonder of the world in which we live, to activate the attention to the mystery of the human experience.

You can share many of the stages by which William Blake’s new gravestone has come to share its resting place with the man it commemorates:

  • Our films show how Lida Cardozo selected the block from the Jordans Mine quarry, the work of the quarry itself, and Lida’s careful and painstaking marking and cutting of the letters into the stone’s surface.
  • Our posts mark some of the encounters the Finding Blake team have had with the stone and the people who have brought it to its final state over that time.
  • Our timeline brings the whole experience into chronological order — up to the unveiling and beyond.

And of course, the life of the stone and of William Blake continue to resonate in the story that so many Blakeans who assembled on the 12th August, or who were there in spirit, will share with us on Finding Blake.

The story of how the site of William Blake’s exact burial spot came to be lost and then rediscovered by Blake admirers Carol and Luis Garrido is told in this excellent new piece by James Tapper in The Observer: “Finding it proved a bigger challenge than they imagined. Bunhill Fields was a cemetery popular with Dissenters, and when Blake died, largely unrecognised, in 1827, his was the fifth of eight coffins to be buried in the plot. The graveyard had been arranged in a grid, and the coordinates were in the Bunhill Fields burial records, given as ’77, east and west, 32, north and south’. But after bomb damage during the second world war, the Corporation of London decided to transform part of the site into gardens, leaving only two remaining gravestones, and moving Blake’s stone next to a memorial to an obelisk commemorating Daniel Defoe.”

‘Jerusalem’ – a Song, an Idea, Few Can Resist

James Murray-White reflects on the enduring, but shifting, resonance of Blake's famous lines on 'Jerusalem' for visions of 'England's green and pleasant land.' His choice of this iconic poem also introduces the launch of Finding Blake's series of powerful readings of this and other Blake poems, which we recorded in Blake's house in South Molton Street, London.

This month on Finding Blake we’re launching a series of eight short video posts featuring readings of some of Blake’s best known poems.

We took actor Matt Ray Brown to London recently to film him reading these poems in Blake’s flat in South Molton Street. In this exclusive series, filmed and sound recorded by Finding Blake’s Jonnie Howard, we showcase eight pieces — some well known, some not so well known — and delight in that they are being read probably in the very place they were written!

We will start the series with Matt’s powerful reading of Jerusalam, Blake’s most famous poem; so do watch out for that in the next few days. In the meantime, I wanted to share my own reflections on what that poem has come to mean in different contexts today.


I recently watched this new version of composer Hubert Parry’s interpretation of Blake’s Jerusalem:

In this version, featuring athlete Jazmin Sawyers singing the poem, musician Tokio Myers interprets it as the anthem ushering the England Team into the recent Commonwealth Game. The athletes stand by, humming the words as a chorus, rather unsuccessfully I feel (you may differ, and other versions of the same arrangement are available).

However, it stands as yet another take on the anthemic nature of the words, and the unusual way Blake has been taken to the heart (possibly quite a superficial heart) of the British nation. And of British culture — whatever that means, particularly in these difficult Brexit days as we try to understand a national psyche. So Jerusalem is sung at the Last Night of the Proms in the Albert Hall; it’s sung by the Women’s Institute at their annual general meeting, and by rugby players and old Etonians at their dinners; and in the piece below, featured in a Classic FM post, we travel from the pomp and spectacle of a Royal Wedding no less, to the continued ignominy of more sports stars mugging it for the cameras, led by a pretty terrified looking soprano:

Are we a nation that constantly needs a rallying call to the depths of ourselves to build a better place around us? And if so — and if Parry’s version keeps getting trundled out and we use it as a national salve — why haven’t we built Jerusalem here, in England’s green and pleasant land?

Why do we build on the countryside, allowing our cities to expand? Why do we value industry — any industry, from mining, through the exploitation of labour, to the current media industry and coming obsession with digital technologies and artificial intelligence — over rural agrarian values, or simple spiritual inquiry?

From my experience a few years ago, deep in a Sussex woodland (see The Unfolding and Unveiling) bringing forth these lyrics amongst a group of ‘we once were strangers and now we’re friends’ festival-goers, to seeing all these versions online, it feels that Blake has caught the culture, and the culture has caught a small, fragmented part of him and his experience and vision. Finding Blake continues and honours that.

And for the record, my favourite version is as arranged by folk singer and musician Chris Wood, who has kindly allowed us to use the opening bars on some of our clips. Chris has been deeply influenced by Blake and by fellow poet John Clare: their empathy for the man in the street, the simplicity and ability to look deeply at every situation, every moment. I love the slower, measured pace of Chris’s version – it seems to encourage, while remaining rooted in a pastoral idyll. This is exemplified in this performance, filmed in the wonderful Green Backyard, a few miles up the road from me in Peterborough. Rather that than imperious Britain at its worst, pulling itself up by the short and curlies in the midst of the battlefields and times of despair that our corrupt leaders have walked us into……..

Shine Forth.


Notes

This recent post at Interesting LiteratureA Short Analysis of William Blake’s ‘Jerusalem’, does it what it says on the can and looks at the meaning of the words. Is it a patriotic paean to England or,  perhaps, scathing satire? Interesting Literature also discusses other Blake poems, A Poison Tree and London, and is well worth checking out.

Poet Niall McDevitt, in his piece Urban shaman and psychogeographer,  signposted on our Blakean Articles page, says of Jerusalem: “Blake is a British-Israelite who sees ancient parallels between Albion and the Holy Land. His hymn Jerusalem is such a powerful statement of this belief that it unites all the warring factions of his country, and draws in everyone. Though unofficial, it must be the finest national anthem available to humanity. What could be more charmingly perverse than a national anthem which contains the word ‘satanic’ and which is named after somewhere else? … Despite his British-Israelism, there is no doubt that if Blake were alive today he would look upon modern Jerusalem with despair, and would be furious at the conditions in which Palestinians are forced to live.”

And musician Jah Wobble said that “For years, people were telling me that I’d love William Blake, but I had never felt like poetry related to me. When I thought of Blake I thought of Jerusalem and Last Night of the Proms and all that flag-waving, which put me off … I don’t think anybody really understands Blake. Songs of Innocence and of Experience seems pretty straightforward, but even there if you scratch the surface it gets really heavy. He’s been hijacked by retired colonels in Surrey who think he represents their Albion, and he absolutely doesn’t. Blake was nonconformist and imaginative and rule-breaking. If Blake had been my age in the 1970s, he would have been on the punk scene, without a doubt. He was a regular London bloke who worked for a living.” You can find Perspectives: Jah Wobble, musician, on William Blake via our Blakean Articles.