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.

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