Summary and critical analysis of the poem ‘A Poison Tree’ by William Blake

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.

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

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,–

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

‘A Poison Tree’ is a poem by William Blake. It was published in 1794 as part of his collection Songs of Experience. This poem is titled as ‘Christian Forbearance’ in the manuscript of the poem. The subject matter is simple.  Instead of redressing the vindictive elements, the manipulating murderer cherishes his contempt and suffers from the inner commotion caused by wild emotion. Very assiduously he pretends friendship for his antagonist who, on taking advantage of this superficial affection, is slain. The poem uses an extended metaphor to describe the speaker’s anger as growing into a tree that bears poisonous apples. The speaker’s enemy then eats an apple from the tree and dies. In the “Human Abstract”, there is similar growth of a tree from the mind of man and the fruit of it is deceit’.

The first stanza is of a proverbial nature. Blake elucidates it later in the following stanzas adopting the imagery of a fructifying tree. The poem is directed against self-restraint and Blake establishes that it is wrong to thwart natural impulses because suppression brings out the apple of abhorrence which ultimately jeopardizes all amity. Because of our hypocrisy originating from the artificial and false norms of society, we adapt ourselves to the extraordinary and unnatural modes of life. Provided we are candid and frank, we shall not in the least forebear from expressing our feelings to our bosom friend even though these feelings are unsavory. Hypocrisy leads us to wear the mask of friendship towards an enemy whereas inside us there are raging passions. For the sake of social manners and formalities, we bridle our instincts and impulses lest their expression should disconcert somebody, especially if we cannot take his friendship for granted. This kind of mask replaces the sincerity, frankness, and honesty in experience.

Also read; Summary and Critical analysis of the poem The Lilly by William Blake

The speaker fosters the wild passion of resentment in his mind and it grows in his mind and it grows in intensity. He finds it extremely troublesome to be on good terms with his enemy just to keep up appearances. His pent-up instincts mature and at last cause the death of his enemy. Had he emptied his heart there would not have been such a mishap.

The speaker is ‘glad’ to see that his enemy is dead. The speaker is not self-critical in the sense that he deplores his own initial cowardice and eventual deliberate hypocrisy, but he is explicit enough to give a complete description of  the poisoning, not only of his enemy, but of his own life, soured by suspicion and the anxieties of keeping up a pretence of friendship. His wrath is deliberately fostered in secret. Eventually, he is victorious in the sudden struggle because he succeeds in getting his enemy to show his spite first- his foe is lured into taking mean revenge and that, morally, is the end of him. The speaker is too exultant to realise how much damage he has done himself, though he is aware that the triumph is basely taken.

We can never say that the speaker is not superior to his victim or vice versa. Both of them are maligned and cherish spite. The poem is psychological with regard to the human passions it deals with.

Also read; Summary and critical analysis of the poem “Laughing Song” by William Blake

Also read; Summary and Critical analysis of the poem The Little Vagabond by William Blake