A Poison Tree – William Blake [OCR]

A Poison Tree – 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 waterd it in fears,
Night & 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 veild the pole;
In the morning glad I see;
My foe outstretched beneath the tree.


When you opened the anthology and saw the section you are studying entitled “Conflict” what did you think would appear each lesson? If it was me, then I would have expected a series of War Poems the like of Dulce Et Decorum Est, the great war poem by Wilfred Owen. I absolutely adore that poem and used to love teaching it in all its extreme, gory detail, before telling Year 10 that they could now go to lunch and enjoy their food. The fun I had! But did you expect to see one about another form of ‘conflict?’ I bet there will not be many that did. For we tend to think of conflict in terms of warfare, not the kind of conflict that can exist between two friends or even enemies. That is another form of conflict. So, as we go through the anthology in these posts, consider just how many uses of the word “conflict” there are and how they can be subverted, turned upside down as it were. Then you will not be surprised by the different takes on the theme that may appear.

So, a little bit of William Blake.

The first thing to know about such a poem as this is the age it was written in and when Blake was alive. Do some research on him, his life, his work and world and you will be all the more wiser. Then consider just what Blake is trying to say in this poem. Consider for a moment the structure of any good storyline you have read. There is the beginning, the build up, then the conflict and then the resolution. Sometimes, there is more conflict than normal, as in the first Harry Potter story, but when conflict shows itself, the thing to do with prose [story writing] is to fix that conflict with a suitable ending, where Harry defeats Voldemort in his ugly hideousness and all is well again in Hogwarts.

With poetry, the theme of conflict works differently. With poetry, we express angst and conflict where it shows its head and we leave it there in a cathartic release, to make us feel better as writers, like when you tell someone where to put themselves, or maybe as a lesson for others. In this instance, Blake tells us he “was angry with [his] friend.” That first line explicitly says everything we need to know in that right from the beginning, there is anger [conflict]. But there is a sense of paradox [one thing opposing the other] in this first verse, for the poet says that even though he was angry with his friend, he expresses that and “my wrath did end” whereas when he is “angry with [his] foe: [he] told it not” and his “wrath did grow.” In plain English, when he told of his anger to his friend, his anger subsided but when he chose not to express that anger to an enemy, or held it in, then the anger did not go away.

Instead, he “watered it in fears,” which is saying that his fears made it far worse than it should have been allowed to become. “Night & morning with [his] tears,” he let the flame of anger burn brightly inside himself, allowing thoughts of what he might do next. Think about those times when someone has said something unkind to you and you have allowed it to fester into something bigger than it should be. Perhaps, what we should do in those times is the opposite, where we should have “sunned it with smiles and with soft deceitful wiles” as the poem suggests. The simple rhyming couplets used in this poem offer a powerful image to the reader as he discusses the aspect of this inner conflict he is experiencing because as he lets the emotion fester, it grows “both day and night” making it so he is now unable to do something about it.

This is allowed to go on for some considerable time until we see the extent of his angst. It is described as “an apple bright,” which is a very interesting image because a lovely, shining apple, so fresh and so lovely to behold is not the sort of image you would normally associate with any kind of conflict. But his “foe beheld it shine” says the  poet, or saw it shine, so now the question is, who, or what, is the “foe?” Is he referring to the friend who has now become a foe or is he thinking that the act of turning something small and insignificant into something it isn’t, or blowing something out of all proportion, is the foe he now faces in order to bring back the once given friendship? Or perhaps ‘friend’ and ‘foe’ are two different people or times when something has been said, or not.

We are led to wonder about this for we know that “he knew that it was mine” and as the next verse begins, we see a movement in this poem, where the poet says “into my garden stole, when the night had veild the pole; in the morning glad I see my foe outstretched beneath the tree.” But the problem with Blake is that you are in danger if you take him literally, like this, all the time and do not think in terms of other possible alternative meanings to his word. To understand him, you need to think deeper than that. You have to think in terms of metaphor, which in my experience, is one of the hardest things for a Y10 or Y11 student to grasp and understand. Then you have to extend that metaphor into something else, to represent how something else is living, existing, operating etc.

In this instance, the extended metaphor is the garden in the poem. If you think of “the garden of life,” then you see two images in the mind, a garden and life itself. That is a metaphor. It is like when we say “the traffic is evil today.” Two images in the mind brought together in one descriptive comment or title. The extended metaphor extends that idea, in this case a garden, into something that represents something else entirely. The foe enters the poet’s garden, or mind, in ways that mean the foe cannot be eradicated. It is like a germ that plants itself in the mind. We can, like the poet, express our angst at a friend, but at a foe is a different matter altogether. When the foe or the enemy does something to us, it is nigh on impossible to forget or to forgive.

Such evil infects the mind and so now, via the extended metaphor Blake uses, we have something much deeper, much larger and much more sinister in terms of the person being able to figure out their emotions. “Into my garden stole” becomes such a great way of describing just how the element of hatred begins in the mind of us all “when the night had veild the pole” and we are no longer able to work out right from wrong, good from bad, love from hate. As this happens, the fruit that is our goodness goes bad and turns into poison and when you link this with the Bible’s words about “bearing fruit” fit for the Christian life, something Blake will have held to largely, we see something emerging, where he is saying that we can so easily be overcome with anger if we are not too careful about how we process conflict in our life and then communicate it properly. Check out James chapter 3 in the bible and what it says about the tongue and you will begin to see what I mean.

Let me ask you a question therefore and one that is important. When was the last time you allowed someone to say something to you and you let it get out of hand? If it as a friend then the chances are that you said something to them and they realised they had overstepped the mark, but if it was someone who you would not classify as a friend, then you may have felt hurt by them and wanted something bad to happen to them. Now imagine that you had the chance to make a change and make it so that even if your enemies cursed you, did something bad to you, or even verbally abused you, you would be able to respond in such a way as to make it so that it does not hurt any more. Now that would be a blessing indeed if we could all learn to take what someone says and does, that is terrible, and ignore it in terms of what makes us hurt. If we could learn to do that, the poet is saying, then we can move on from reactive people, to proactive ones who can love without reserve.

For me, that is the essence of this poem, but for other ideas, may I suggest that you look at this website, where there is more specialist knowledge about some of the stylistic devices used.