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 smilesAnd 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”.
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 nightTill it bore an apple bright.And my foe beheld it shineAnd 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.
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.
Finding Blake creator and filmmaker James Murray-White checks in from a four-day retreat in Tewksbury, where he’s been Exploring the Divided Brain with fellow participants and been sharing Finding Blake.
I’ve been lucky to have been invited to come and film this deep immersion into the divided brain with renowned neurosceptic philosopher and noted Blakean Iain McGilchrist.
Organised by powerhouse trainer and facilitator Samantha Field of Field & Field, this retreat has run for the past four years, and participants gather for four days to go on a deep journey with Iain into the thinking and research behind his work looking at our divided brain hemispheres, its relevance to modern life, and the implications of left-hemisphere dominance for our humanity, health, and happiness.
Iain has been taking us on a journey through fourteen detailed lectures, ranging from ‘The value and limits of Intuition’, ‘ The value and limits of Imagination’, ‘What is language for?’, ‘Are we becoming machines?’, and so much more. The days are long and intense, and the thirty of us participants roll into bed late in the evening full of stimulation and questions; Iain’s talks are complemented by a range of optional workshops from within the group.
I offered a workshop on the first day, explaining the Finding Blake project, showing a few clips of the film so far, talking about why Blake feels so relevant now, and encouraging the participants to respond creatively to Blake in their own way, using a quote from Iain that very morning: “attention is how you dispose your consciousness into the world”. One participant wrote a magnificent poem about a tree, which she has given permission to share later.
I’m delighted to have been invited to come and film and participate in this retreat. It has pushed at the edges and given the tools to see and sense the world in new and exciting ways, ever mindful of this divided way of thinking; and some new tools to heal this split, which clearly manifests in humanity and the external world. Iain is a big believer that the arts stimulate the imagination, and without that we are nothing, hence the relevance of Blake. I’ve been invited to do a few more Blakean workshops across the summer, including one in early July in Nenthead in Cumbria with the noted poet Josephine Dickinson.
The media from the retreat will be available once Samantha and I have had time to work through the images and footage and decide how best to use it to promote the next retreat, next year. But I can give Finding Blake readers one wonderful shot, of Iain discussing Blake’s use of the spiral in his work.
Iain McGilchrist gave the 2016 Blake Society Lecture, The Infinite Brain and the Narrow Circle. You can explore Iain’s ideas and work at hiswebsite— including a download of the introduction to his 2009 book The Master and His Emissary. There is a 2015 interview with Iain McGilchrist at InteraliaMagazine.
In this series for Finding Blake, James Fox has described psychological experiences he later came to understand through William Blake’s writings. The series is adapted from a talk James gave to the Mental Fight Club — a charity assisting recovery from mental illness through inspiring creative events and projects — and in this final part he outlines Pantheisticon, a Blakean-inspired project he is working on for cultivating the experience of feeling at home in the world.
In my previous posts, l described my own experiences of both the manacled egoic state (Blake’s Satanic mills) and the liberated ‘mystical’ state (Blake’s awakened Albion). I then elaborated Blake’s doctrine of the four zoas, relating them to underlying ideas of the psyche that may be met with in various belief systems throughout history and across cultures. (See also my previous post, Divine Madness.)
My own response to Blake’s vision and the task he announces is a manifesto, a programme of practice and study, to effect a nature spirituality. I call it Pantheisticon, a term I’ve borrowed from the eighteenth-century philosopher and pantheist John Toland.
Based on the four zoas and working with these functions or aspects of ourselves, this Pantheisticon manifesto includes four components: a mental engagement with natural philosophy (which corresponds to Urizen); a sensual engagement with the landscape (which corresponds to Tharmas);an intuitive engagement with the Imagination (which corresponds to Urthona); and an engagement of the feelings through the artistic expression of mystical experience and philosophy (which corresponds to Luvah or Los).
Urizen: mental engagement
The first component of Pantheisticon is mental engagement with natural philosophy. I use this term instead of ‘science’, not to be deliberately archaic, but to emphasise that this is an activity of the ratio when it acts in the service of spiritual nourishment. In our study of natural philosophy we draw on the products of the ratio as applied to the natural world.
Technology enables us to probe the world beyond the limits of our own senses:
new and strange creatures are revealed in the depths of the oceans;
life forms such as bacteria that are too small for us to see with our eyes are brought into experience through the microscope;
spacecraft provide us with a view of the atmosphere which, whilst beautiful in itself, reveals it to be the thinnest of envelopes, its apparent vulnerability and preciousness to all life on Earth made plain;
the Apollo programme enabled humans to watch the Earth rise from the Moon — and the beauty and preciousness of our planet, a droplet of blue in a bottomless void, is shockingly revealed to us;
and the great space telescopes peer beyond the stars of our galaxy and reveal the universe to be a soup of galaxies, each containing billions of stars — a glimpse towards the infinite and the eternal.
All this provides an awesome spatial and temporal backdrop to our own sense of being: it is Urizen rehabilitated; it is the rational faculty nourishing our spiritual selves.
The world is a manifestation of the infinite, and our particular human experience of the world we divide into the solid, the liquid, the gaseous and radiant energy. These elemental forms of our experience — earth, water, air and fire — we explore in our first component of Pantheisticon — the mental engagement with natural philosophy, or science — as we familiarise ourselves with the principal forms, processes and histories of our rocky world, its oceans and rivers, its climate, and that supreme source of energy without which there would be no life — the Sun.
We also familiarise ourselves with the basic nature of organic life, of the kingdoms of life and the history of their development. Finally, we familiarise ourselves with the universe beyond our little planet. Not extensive in-depth study; we do not become experts in these different sciences. But we gain sufficient of their essential flavour that we obtain a mental grasp of our place in the world and experience the awe, beauty and wonder of the forms that are all around us.
Tharmas and Urthona: sensation and intuition
Having utilised the power of the intellect through natural philosophy to grasp our place in the natural world and engage with its forms and processes, we proceed to our second component of pantheisticon: we inject into this mental engagement with the wider world the power of our faculty of sensation.
We venture into the landscape and experience those elemental forms most vividly, at first hand: the touch of a rock – its hardness, its smell, the little crystals embedded in it glistening in the Sun, the colourful strange lichens spreading across it. We hear the bubbling of the brook, we smell its earthy cool wetness rising up. We hear the bleat of a lamb, the swoosh of a crow cutting through the air. We feel the breeze on our face, hear it stirring in the trees. We feel an expansiveness in our hearts as we look up, the horizon stretched away, and we feel the warmth of the Sun on our skin.
In our third component, we engage our power of intuition. We find ourselves a secluded place where we will not be disturbed. We may be by a stream in a wood; we may be on a cliff top; but we are comfortable as we sit facing the Sun. We seek now to open ourselves to what Blake calls Urthona or the power of Imagination: to allow into our awareness that which seems to come from nowhere; to enable ourselves to become vessels as it were for spontaneous, intuitively received insight. This is the source of spiritual awakening. We cannot make it happen at will. Indeed trying to will it is a sign that the mental-ego is active — yet it is precisely this ego that must be annihilated, or at least disempowered.
So we close our eyes, we observe our body as a vessel empty of thoughts, and we simply observe the feeling of the movement of the breath inside that vessel; returning the attention when we discover it has been hijacked and taken outside the body into the world of ideas of things.
We maintain our meditation for fifteen minutes, or more. Then, we contemplate the intention of the practice, the spiritual ambition or goal one might say, which is to cultivate a mental state of clarity and tranquillity and to use the good qualities we happen to have in the service of others, and of oneself.
This is a process that disempowers the ego and allows the opening of one’s awareness to the intuitive and the imaginative. This results in the enhancing of the sensual experience of the place and a sense of existential immersion in the natural environment. It might even lead to mystical experience or the spiritual awakening to oneself as both divine and eternal. It is also the occasion in which one can become aware of those desires, those forces of nature, whose realisation as action in the service of others provides a purpose in life — a felt joy, meaning and vitality that arises when these forces flow through you.
If a feeling of reverence towards our natural surroundings has arisen through this meditation process, we express this by a simple devotional ritual of sensually engaging with the presence of the Infinite and its elemental manifestations. For example, the placing of the lips to a rock, the placing of a hand in a stream, feeling the breeze on the face and inhaling deeply of it, facing the Sun and feeling its heat on the skin, and, by shielding the eyes from the Sun, we see the azure dome of the sky: we become aware of the stars and the cosmos beyond, a vision towards the Infinite – which is eternal, unmoving, all-pervasive, and which manifests itself to us as this fire of the Sun, this air of the breeze, this water of the stream, this earth of the rock and of all the living creatures and ourselves made thereof.
Luvah: artistic expression of mystical experience
Finally, in the fourth component of pantheisticon we concern ourselves with the artistic expression of mystical experience and models of the mystical conception of the universe. This may be through the mediums of literature, poetry, painting or music, and concerns the expression of our own experiences, if we have had any, and also the experiences of others, so that, in the words of John Middleton Murry which I quoted in Universal Awareness, the first post in this series, about moments of mystical experience, “if we have not known them, there — in those four simple lines [of Blake’s poem] — one is offered to us”.
About others’ experiences of feeling profoundly at home, of a sense of existential immersion, in the world, we may read for example the English mystic Richard Jeffries. We may engage with its expression in poetry, in the English Romantics (e.g. Tennyson, Shelley, Wordsworth); or in painting (e.g. Turner, van Gogh, Caspar Friedrich), or in music (e.g. Vaughan Williams, John Tavener, Beethoven).
We examine the basic pantheistic model of the universe, before comparing it with other theological/cosmological models, such as the panentheism found in Kabbalah, Sufism and Christian mysticism. We then focus on the expression of pantheism in Eastern mysticism, in modern physics, in the work of Friedrich Nietzsche and finally in the poetry and painting of Blake.
Being at home in the world
Those are the four components of my manifesto of study and practice, of natural and mystical philosophy, of meditation and landscape experience. No doubt some will find this pantheisticon eccentric, peculiar even. But there is a serious point behind it, which is this. We modern men and women, we sons and daughters of Albion, cannot return to the Stone Age, before Urizen became misplaced.
We cannot remove from the world or our memory all that our excessive and misplaced ratio has brought about. But I share Blake’s vision, which is of a future in which we have awakened from our present human condition of feeling shut out from the sense of being at home in the world, and instead find ourselves living in our day to day world as one that is experienced as suffused, more or less, with the Countenance Divine; a living in which we have ceased to experience ourselves as separate, finite beings, trembling and sick in fear of the annihilation we suppose is inevitable, and instead experience all things, creatures and human beings, the Earth and the heavens above, as suffused with divinity: as radiant, at one and timeless.
And from this springs inevitably a sense of care towards our precious environment, and a compassion towards all creatures and human beings. Then we awaken spiritually. Then we begin to feel at home in the world once more; to open ourselves to the creative forces of the imagination which provide us with our purpose, joy and vitality.
My manifesto is an attempt to help bring about this kind of spiritual awakening which would avert the increasing psychological, social and environmental damage that our misplaced Urizen is causing. Pantheisticon is a Blakean-inspired re-imagining of nature spirituality for the twenty-first century.
James Fox is a philosopher and former researcher at the Open University and is a co-author of A Historical Dictionary of Leibniz’s Philosophy (Scarecrow Press, 2006). He is now mostly interested in mystical texts, especially pantheistic nature-based doctrines and practices which he sees as key to transforming our conception of ourselves in relation to the world: a transformation that can lead to the spiritual experience of total at-homeness in (at one with) the natural environment and hence to the feeling of a reverence and duty of care towards that environment. Prior to pursuing philosophy, he held a position in a climate research department at the UK Meteorological Office.
You can find out more about John Toland, the eighteenth-century philosopher, and his original writing on pantheisticon at Wikipedia.