The first stanza juxtaposes the idea of friend and foe in a rather elegant way. The stanza reads, “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” (Songs of Experience Pg.38). The contrast in actions relating to a “friend” in distinction to a “foe,” is the relevant theme in this stanza. The different ways in which Blake, if he indeed is referring to himself in this poem, deals with anger towards a “friend” and conversely towards an adversary is striking. When angry with a friend, Blake is able to control his anger and enclose it in a finite sense. On the other hand, Blake shows little forgiveness for an enemy. Blakes harshness and lack of repentance toward the man in this poem cannot be fully realized until looking at the final two stanzas as well as the illustration. The second stanza reads, “And I waterd it in fears,/ Night & morning with my tears:/ And I sunned it with smiles./ And with soft deceitful wiles” (Songs of Experience Pg.39). This stanza is completely centered on the tree that the “foe” would later steal an apple from. Blakes is obviously making a symbol and allegory in reference to the Bible and the Garden of Eden. Now the question is whether the Blakes tree symbolizes, from the Bible, the tree of good and evil or the tree of life. Does it even matter which tree was being symbolized here? These are questions that should be answered to fully understand the poem. Some knowledge of the Bible is in order to accomplish this.
One tree from the Garden of Eden is the tree of good and evil; this is the tree from which Eve took the fruit (however not an apple) and shared it with Adam. Satan, in the form of a serpent, tempted Eve by telling her that she would be wise and know the difference between good and evil if she ate the fruit off the tree. The second tree is the tree of life which also contains fruit, that if eaten will bring the eater eternal life. Because Adam and Eve ate from the tree of good and evil, they were not allowed to eat from the tree of life and therefore banished from Eden.
From the second stanza alone, it is impossible to make a reference towards what tree is being referred to. Interesting is that Blake states, “And I waterd it in fears” (Songs of Experience Pg.39). Blakes “wrath” was accompanied with “fear.” Fear from what? Could it be the fear from Blakes foe? Or could it be fear that fruit from the tree could be stolen? One can assume that Blakes fear stems for his actions in lines 6-9; “Night & morning with my tears:/ And I sunned it with smiles./ And with soft deceitful wiles” (Songs of Experience Pg.39). Blake was fearful of his actions that would ultimately produce a “poison tree” that could entice and inflict pain on his enemy. Blake is showing some signs of a conscious such as creating something that was tempting and yet also deadly. However, the one instrumental difference from the Bible is that the serpent never had a conscious.
Blake mentions that he, referring to the tree, “sunned it with smiles./ And with soft deceitful wiles” (Songs of Experience Pg.39). It is Blakes “deceitful wiles” that allow him to nurture this poison tree and return the deceit that Blake has received to his “foe.” It is important to note that Blakes enemy didnt become so by stealing an apple from his tree. Blake was already angry with this man. Evidence of this can be seen in third stanza.
The third stanza reads, “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” (Songs of Experience Pg. 39). Blakes foe “beheld it shine.” If his enemy saw the apple then one must conclude that this man was Blakes adversary before he watered and nurtured the tree. Knowing that is crucial because it helps to understand the first stanza fully. For example, if Blake were mad at his enemy only because he stole from his tree, then the first stanza would serve as summary to the upcoming three stanzas. The first stanza is not a summary but an introduction to the rest of the story in the poem.
With the third stanza understood, one can now go back to my original question of the tree. Is the tree a representation of the tree of good and evil, the tree of life, or neither? Since both trees in the Garden of Eden contained fruit as Blakes does, that only adds to the remarkable similarity in imagery that Blake is using in reference to the Garden of Eden. There is still not enough evidence to make a convincing case either way.
An instrumental line in the third stanza is in line thirteen, which states, “And my foe beheld it shine” (Songs of Experience Pg.39). Evidence is given to the fact that the apple is tempting. By the apply shining, imagery of a very alluring and breathtaking fruit is constructed. Blake does this to create even more reinforcement to the fact that he is playing the part of the serpent. Blake was the one who created this captivating apple and his purpose was to entice his rival to his downfall.
The climax of the poem comes in the fourth and last stanza. It reads, “And into my garden stole./ When the night had veild the pole./ In the morning glad I see./ My foe outstretched beneath the tree” (Songs of Experience Pg. 39). The night covered or veiled Blakes garden and allowed the enemy to steal the tree. One might even conclude, although complete evidence of this is not present, that the night directly refers to Blakes role as the serpent or Satan. In the literary world, such as Dantes Inferno, and more conventional means such as the Bible, it is understood that God is everything. This includes light and abandons everything else. Since evil things are what God is not, the darkness of the night would be a logical companion for the serpent to possess as a tool for tempting the foe toward the tree.
The last two lines of the poem capture the entire mood of the poem as a whole. Blake affirms, “In the morning glad I see./ My foe outstretchd beneath the tree” (Damrosch 125) Blakes adversary ate the apple and is now lying “beneath the tree.”
Knowing that the man whom ate the apple is dead, resolves the dispute of the tree that he ate from. As mentioned earlier, the tree of life, if eaten from, will beget eternal life. It is secure to say that Blakes tree was not an allegory for the tree of life. The tree of good and evil permits the knowledge of differentiating good from evil. Evidence for Blakes reference to this tree is not indisputable, however Blake was ultimately referring to the tree of good and evil because, as in the first stanza, the poem revolves around good and evil, “friend” and “foe.”
The problem is that death does not directly come from eating off the tree of good and evil. However, Blake deliberately left room for speculation on how the man ultimately ended up “outstrecthd beneath the tree.” Adam and Eve were eventually banished from the Garden of Eden for eating from the tree of good and evil and ultimately denied eternal life. In a sense, the tree was responsible for their downfall just as Blakes tree could be seen as the reason for his foes demise. Not only did the apple lead to the mans downfall, but also the lack of restraint that is a symbol of the desertion of self-control in all man.
The illustration that guides the poem is such a way that one can consider it one of Blakes greatest works. The artwork centers around a man, on his back, lying lifeless under the barren branches of a leafless tree. The sky is blue but one can make out that with such nice environment, it gives evidence to the fact that conditions are such that a tree should flourish; however the tree that the man lies under is dead. Blake represents his own poison tree and contrasting that to the real world.
Another striking aspect of the illustration is the way the man is position beneath the tree. His arms outstretched. What is odd is, in reference to the poem, the man being the one who lacked restraint and ate the apple is actually a symbol for the man who died for sins such as the one he just committed Christ. Blake may have been making a point on the ability to take for granted the sacrifice Christ made in dying for our sins. Blake was an avid reader of the Bible, and references like that were very characteristic of the time.
A Poison Tree” is the ideal poem for Blakes Songs of Experience. Blake realizes that innocence is not just purely good or experience purely evil. Although Blake uses “A Poison Tree” to point out the lack of self-control and restraint in man, he also shows the tempter, the serpent, with a conscious, which differs from the Bible greatly. Overall, I believe that the poem is one of Blakes best works from Songs of Experience. I feel that Blakes use of imagery, allegory, symbolism and illustration really set this poem apart from others.