A Poison Tree by William Blake: How to Prevent Self-Damage

The Poison Tree cover image

A simple yet eloquent poem that explores the complex idea of rage, anger, jealousy, deception, and how it corrupts the one holding it. A Poison Tree is a poem that can teach everyone about holding in malice for someone and unbeknownst to them, it does more harm to the person growing the poison tree than to the one for whom it is grown for. 

The poem also explores the idea of self-control, philosophies of stoicism, and other moral concepts. This simple, mostly-monosyllabic poem is surprisingly dense in terms of the moral concepts it holds. The words are simple, the poem is simple but the message is a complex one, not limited to any religion, and is universally applicable. Take a look at the poem.

A Poison Tree

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.

The meaning of the poem 

The poem is about nurturing hatred and anger, turning small, controllable anger into a fruiting tree. Not just any tree, but a poisonous one. It is also about our choice in deciding whether we want to keep the anger or subdue it. What we decide to do with it has large implications for our lives. What seems like a small, simple thing soon grows and becomes a major part of you, turning you into a monster. And all of this is avoidable.

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.

The first stanza is about the nature of anger. Anger is the same in all situations in the beginning. It is how we act towards it, whether we decide to take over it or let it take over us. The poet says that he was angry at both his friend and foe, but he decided to subdue the anger for his friend, and it was gone. But he let the anger for his foe grow, and it kept growing. From this point on, whatever happens to him or his foe was the poet’s choice.

And I watered it in fears

Night and morning with my tears,

And I sunned it with smiles

And with soft deceitful wiles.

This stanza shows how the anger was nurtured. But there is more to it. The foe that the poet is talking about is not an enemy. The poet and the foe are not enemies, rather the poet holds resentment for the foe. He holds ill-will towards him while putting up a facade, covering up his malice with his smiles and soft deceitful wiles. So it is not about enmity, it is about repressed and hidden ill-intent, jealousy, anger, and malice that is never revealed. 

Blake represents these hidden feelings as a seed that grows, receiving fear, tears, fake smiles, and cunningness as the nurturing elements. 

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 hidden poison grew into a tree and it grew day and night, meaning that it never slowed down. The thoughts kept running inside the poet’s mind day and night. Finally, it bore an apple that looked beautiful, shining bright. This could indicate the deceptive nature of the poet, trying to lure his foe in. 

And into my garden stole

When the night had veiled the pole;

In the morning, glad, I see

My foe outstretched beneath the tree.

Finally, with his deception, the poet lured his foe inside his garden, indicating that whatever he had planned was successful. The poisonous apple succeeded as the poet found his foe lying under the tree. His foe consumed the apple and died. This made the poet glad, but he is unaware of something devastating. 

The poet nurtured and grew a tree inside his mind that bore a very poisonous apple. Just the little apple was able to kill his foe. But what the poet is unaware of is inside his mind, he has housed a poisonous tree. If its fruit is so dangerous, imagine what the tree is capable of. 

The poison tree poem by William Blake
The poison tree poem by William Blake

Before the poet knows, his garden will no longer be a garden, but a dangerous forest of poisonous trees.

Not just that, but what happens when the tree bores more apples? What if there are no foes to feed? The apples fall in the poet’s garden (which indicates the mind of the poet). And those poisonous apples will bring out more poison trees. Before the poet knows, his garden (mind) will no longer be a garden, but a dangerous forest of poisonous trees.

What this poem says about self-control is also worth noting. The same anger he had for his friend was removed with ease at his own will, just because he wanted to before it grew into something destructive. But for the anger for someone he did not like, he let it grow. So we are responsible for our own anger, not the external factors. 

It is in our control to get rid of all the malicious feelings we might have for someone before it completely changes who we are. Before it turns our own garden into a deadly forest. The anger will grow and help you achieve its own goal (of hurting the person you don’t like), but it will also take a toll on you, changing you completely. Like a disease, the anger must be removed as soon as it appears. 

Blake conveys the message in this beautiful poetic way with simple words. The philosophical indications and message have a lot that one can learn from. One must understand that your anger is not you, but a separate entity that is there to deceive you, just the way it deceived the poet’s foe. This concludes the article.

Read more articles about poems by William Blake, because there are a lot of great poems by him. Take a look;

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