The 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 water’d 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 veil’d the pole;

In the morning glad I see;

My foe outstretched beneath the tree.

 

William Blake

 

Like last week’s poem, The Poison Tree has its roots both in common sense English proverbs, the Bible and fairy tale. Starting with a folksy reflection on the dangers of keeping ones grievances to oneself, it ends with a frank and gleeful confession of murder. As with many of Blake’s poems, its apparent simplicity belies a hidden complexity and ambiguity.

The opening stanza, one suspects, began life as a self-contained epigram, of which Blake penned so many. It works as the kind of moral lesson that we tell young school children as we instruct them in the ways of human nature, and there is a kind of basic truth in it: how often, when we keep our hurt emotions to ourselves, our sense of grievance grows out of proportion to the crime that inspired it.

In the stanzas that follow this grievance – or ‘wrath’- is described as a sort of plant which the speaker grows with tears and smiles, a fitting metaphor for the way we cosset and nurture our grievances and they grow in our imaginations.

And after that, the imagery becomes all the more ambiguous and hard to interpret. The tree grows an apple, of which the speaker’s foe grows envious. The foe steals into the speaker’s garden for the apple and lies dead (or anyway lies) at the tree the next morning. Just what is this all about?

My edition has two notes, first tracing the origin of the phrase ‘night had veil’d the pole’ to the William Cowper poem ‘On the Death of Mrs Throckmorton’s Bullfinch’ about the demise of a poor woman’s bullfinch at the paws of a cat… More pertinently, it notes a parallel of the last line with these lines from Milton’s Paradise lost, as Adam lies on the ground cursing his life and his crime:

                     … on the ground

Outstretched he lay, on the cold ground, and oft

Cursed his creation, death as oft accused

Of tardy execution…

Reading a semi-messianic (strictly unorthodox) Christian poet like Blake, you can’t fail to notice the Biblical echoes of walled gardens and forbidden fruit; but why are they here in this poem, and what do they signify? Is Blake, rather blasphemously, making a God of the speaker whose enemy plays the role of Adam taking the forbidden fruit? Surely not.

More likely, the speaker – in his pride and resentment – parallels Satan: smilingly, patiently, he leads his enemy to his downfall by tempting him with a mortal crime, just as Satan led Adam to the forbidden fruit and rejoiced in man’s downfall. Is Blake warning us that such cruel, devious behaviour puts us in the company of the evil one himself?

It is interesting that, in comparison to Milton’s epic poetry (and some of Blake’s more cosmic poetry), the setting of this poem is so very homely and mundane. But this is only fitting: the battle between good and evil takes place in every man’s soul in everyday life. Unorthodox he may have been, but Blake was Christian enough to believe that.

And the very homeliness – and yet uncanniness – of the poem’s setting brings to mind to the atmosphere of a fairy tale – of long held grudges, secret curses and poison apples – of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, basically. The Grimm version of the story – the story we know today, wasn’t around when Blake wrote this poem – they published it in 1812, and this poem was in Songs of Experience of 1793; but it’s entirely possible that Blake was familiar with another variant of ‘story 709’, and many others that contained poison apples, walls, woods and wicked stepmothers… and murderous jealousy: especially jealousy, because pride, jealousy and resentment is at the heart of this poem, at the heart of ‘Snow White’ and at the heart of ‘the fall of man’.

And come to think of it, though we often use ‘Disneyfication’ pejoratively, the Disney witch in ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarves’ was one of the scariest villains in early celluloid – I remember being distinctly spooked by her as a child: it’s the way that she is, I think, motivated by such recognisable human emotions, and yet demands monstrous things and she takes on, in the end, such a monstrous guise, that so disturbed my four year old self . Indeed, she follows the same trajectory as this poem – from ordinary human foibles, to gleeful, murderous vanity.

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4 Comments

Filed under Literature, Poetry

4 responses to “The Poison Tree

  1. This is a bit far afield, but in surfing YouTube links you provided I was struck by the difference between Disney 1950’s and the LPS versions of Snow White. Like you, I was frightened by the witch in that earlier film. But today’s animation, like the toys with their big baby heads and doe eyes are cute, unrealistic and without any sharp edges. Even if we’re told they’re evil, it’s hard to believe because they don’t “look” evil. What frightens children these days? And where is the promise that it can be vanquished? I realize we’re
    looking at Experience and not Innocence in the Blake poem, and his belief in the reality of Evil may be too much for kiddie fare. But evil did seem to ghost the early Disney (as it does all the old fairy tales) and doesn’t’ seem to haunt the Littlest Pet Shop at all.

  2. It’s an interesting question, this Evil business – when and why did children’s stories stop giving us convincing portrayals of wickedness? Is it to do with the decline in religious belief, or the pervasive irony of moden culture? These days, the baddies in kids’ movies get a lot of the best lines, and, as you’ve described, are too cool and cutesy to be truly sinister. Either that, or they’re so bombastic and bad for bad’s sake as to be unbelievable. Is this all because adults, as storytellers, don’t truly belive in Evil either?

  3. I guess among our current comforts and great variety of escapes we have the luxury –less available in the past– to psychologize Evill away….to dumb it down, as it were. Then dealing with remnants of fear might be just a question of choosing to refuse to acknowledge…..

  4. That’s an interseting phrase there ‘psychologize evil away’ – Poets like Milton Blake, of course, give us a convincing psychology of evil, but don’t presume to believe they can make it go away…

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