A Poison Tree By William Blake Study Guide


“A Poison Tree” is one of the less well-known of William Blake’s twenty-six Songs of Experience poems, which also include “The Tyger,” “Ah, Sun-flower,” and “London.” Songs of Experience was released in 1789 as a companion volume to Blake’s Songs of Innocence. In 1794, Blake combined Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience into a single volume, with the subtitle “Shewing the Two Contrary States of the Human Soul.” The Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake (1982), edited by David V. Erdman and published by Doubleday, is one of the greatest sources for “A Poison Tree.”

About the poet

A great poet, painter and engraver, William Blake, wrote poems that earned him the title of ‘Prophetic Poet.’ His works mostly were philosophical. The Bible had put a great influence Blake and it is also reflected in his works. Blake was born in Soho, a London town. He left school at ten years of age and attended the Henry Pars Drawing Academy for five years. The works of Raphael, Michelangelo, Giulio, Romano and Dürer influenced him considerably as a child. His famous works include Europe, America, Albion’s Daughters’ Visions, and Urizen’s Book. He was aware of the social injustices of his time which made him write Songs of Experience in 1794. He wrote Innocence songs before that in which he sees the world from the perspective of a child who finds joy in the beauty of nature. His poems were inspired by the romantic poets’ recurring themes of good and evil, heaven and hell, knowledge and innocence.


A Poison Tree is taken from a collection of Blake’s poems, Songs of Experience, which was published in 1793. His work focuses on the theme of human nature. In his Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience, he tries to contrast the innocence seen in a child with how this change as a child matures and learns the ways of the world that bring with it the harsh reality known as experience. It is a very simple poem that speaks volumes about human nature, a habit of keeping anger in one’s mind and acting outwardly in a good manner. This poem consists of four sets of rhyming couplets.

Blake could be referred to as a mystic poet. He reveals his soul’s relationship with God in his poetry. He thinks profoundly about the purpose of man on this earth. He attempts to answer the question of why and where the soul of man originated. His mysticism was a present realisation. ‘The Kingdom of Heaven is with you The object of Blake’s mysticism is such a realisation. This is his mysticism’s practical side. The poem highlights the need to allow suffocating emotions such as anger to be lost, which continue to grow every day if kept inside your mind. The poem begins with the poet telling us about how his friend expressed his anger and got rid of it. But he kept it within himself when it came to his enemy, and it grew inside him to such an extent that he later had no control over it. Here he used the metaphor of a tree to show how with ‘fears’ he watered his ‘wrath’ and ‘sunned it with smiles’ and ‘soft deceitful wiles’ allowing it to grow into a ‘poison tree’ as he calls it that bears fruit as well. When this shiny fruit is consumed by the greedy enemy, it leads to his death. However, we can see that there is irony in the poem because although he says not to nurture the wrath of your enemy in the mind, he seems to be happy to see the death of his enemy in the end.

Lines 1-8

The poem’s original title was “Christian Forbearance.” This title suggests that the poem is against self-restraint. Blake thinks that it is wrong to resist the natural impulses of man because restraint produces an apple of hatred that destroys friendship and leads to a strained relationship. The speaker was able to put an end to his hatred of his friend, as he had given an outlet to his emotions. But when he had a problem with his enemy, he did not express it and as a result, he accumulated it. Here too, it wouldn’t have been so intense if he had expressed it to his enemy. Instead, the speaker caressed and nurtured his emotions. He kept imagining that his enemy was going to harm him, and he was living in suffering. This increased his agony and watered down his emotions of anger against the enemy. Then he put on a mask of friendship with his enemy. He pretended to be good to him and he smiled at him whenever he saw him. He was a hypocrite, giving his enemy the impression that he was a friend. But in reality, he was in fact nurturing the feeling of hatred inside.

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Lines 9-16

Blake attempts to bring out his idea of free expression of emotions through this poem. Blake opposed the suppression of emotions and the control over one’s behaviour that is necessary in our society. As part of the hypocrisy promoted in our society, even when it is unpleasant, people refuse to freely express their feelings to a friend. Hypocrisy teaches us to put a smile on our faces and to go inside and nurture anger. According to Blake, inexperience replaces sincerity, frankness and truthfulness with this type of falsehood, hypocrisy and selfishness. The sense of anger and enmity of the speakers continued to grow inwardly, but he put up a pleasant face externally. Finally, his anger brought forth a fruit in the form of a bright apple. His enemy was greatly attracted to this apple and attempted to steal from the speaker this fruit because he too had remained hostile to the speaker inwardly. The enemy slowly entered the speaker’s garden and stole the apple. Without realising the consequences, he ate it. The apple being poisonous leads to the enemy’s death. The speaker was glad to see the enemy lying dead under a tree in the morning. He had succeeded in his purpose. The fake friendship of the speaker had tricked the enemy into believing he was true at heart and had cheated the enemy. The enemy had attempted to cheat the speaker, feeling safe, but he fell for the speaker’s trap and met a catastrophic end.

Key themes

Anger – although anger itself is not wrong, the way we deal with it can be harmful to us and others.

Deception – the speaker bottles up his feelings, and the foe sneaks into the garden at night. Both actions have devastating consequences.

Communication – the speaker communicates with his friend, which ends well; he hides his feelings from his foe, which does not.

Language, form and structure

  • Poem is written in quatrains, and the metre alternates between iambic and trochaic tetrameter.

– Poem makes allusions to Biblical story of Adam and Eve, and fairy tales, such as Snow White.

– Simple language throughout the poem makes it seem as if it is a parable aimed at children.

– Subject matter is more complex; simple language is deceptive.

– Speaker does not realise how he has been corrupted by his own anger (“glad I see”)

Analysis of The Poisonous Tree

William Blake was an English poet who was born in the eighteen century, the Renaissance period. He had an inherent talent for making artworks, mostly engravings. William was raised in a strong Christian family, thus, had made him ardently worship to God. As being an artist, he was susceptible to everything in his daily life. Every tree and bush could be an inspiration for his next work. A Poison Tree, which was written in 1794, was one of his literary productions. In this poem, the poet illustrates the seriousness of growing hatred from a foe and the innermost struggle held during the critical period.

I will say the first stanza is like a brief introduction of this poem Words like angry, wrath, friend and foe give us a basic notion. But he explicitly claimed that he is going to discover more deeply about the growing wrath from a foe, because there is no point continuing a matter that “did end”. Therefore, as a reader, I got curious about what will happen when he “was angry with his foe” (line 3), and “his wrath did grow” (line 4). Notice that the first and second lines rhyme to each other as well as the third and the forth. This could be a trick that the poet tried to help readers make a connection of the relation between “friend” and “end”, “foe” and “grow”. Also, the first stanza is the only section that has regular syllables (7878). The purpose of doing this might be another tactic to attract readers’ attention.

Once the quarrel happened with a foe, the seed of wrath was planted and started to germinate. Since he didn’t show any expression or action of this affair, and the foe might don’t even perceive such a problem, this awkwardly unsolved situation had made the fury plant grow secretly and furtively strong and powerful. Fear literally means scare or afraid of. The person was afraid that his foe would find out the existence of the tree, and would take offensive action to him, put himself into a potentially dangerous condition. Moreover, he fertilized the tree “night and morning with his tears” (line 6). Tear exhibits fragile, delicate, sensitive and emotional, therefore, reflects the personalities that the man possessed. He was easily affected by other external influences. He barely offended others even if he was the victim. He was the kind of person who only silently tolerates and doesn’t utter a sound or a word rather than stands out to defend himself. In addition, a tear can also reveal that the man was kindhearted. He felt guilty letting the wrath of the tree grow. He felt sorry for himself having such an evil thought. However, he chose to cover it up with smiles and wiles, which mean that he still behaved friendly toward his foe, pretended there was nothing happened. Even though he was conscious that every smile and kindness he showed to his foe was fake and deceitful, he somehow tacitly agreed and allowed it to keep happening.

As we all realize fake friendship cannot last forever. Sooner or later, the foe is going to notice that. Since the tree was nourished persistently “both day and night” (line 9), the fruits of its own must look delicious and desirable. According to the biological theory, the more colourful an organism has, the more poisonous it could be, such as ladybugs, snacks and wisteria. The bright and flesh redness of the apple eventually caught the foe’s attention. Again, although the foe might understand the danger of eating the apple from the tree, which matured in his equivocal “friend’s” garden, considered the attitude and behaviour that his “friend” had given him, which was friendly and amiable, he unloaded his suspicion. Hence, we can say that the motivation of his desire towards the apple was justified. Notice that the syllables in this stanza are all sevens and the previous and following lines rhymes to each other, same as the second stanza. Read aloud, you can hear that they are very fluent and flowing. It helps readers build a clear understanding and ability to follow the poem.

The last stanza is the climax of this poem. It ends up the greed of his foe put himself closer to the death and finally taken away from the death. As we generally think, stealing usually happens during the dark night. Veil means to cover up and conceal from someone. The poet used this word trying to distinguish him from causing the death of his foe. Because it was in a vaguely dark night, supposedly he had an excuse of not being there and knowing what was going on at that night. Thus, he cannot be a suspect of murdering the foe. However, when the morning comes (morning generally means a brand-new start), implies that everything was back to usual. He saw his foe “outstretched beneath the tree” (line 16), and his reaction was happy and satisfied. According to the movie or what we have seen on TV news, whenever a person surrenders, he is expected to drop off his weapons and put his hands across his head. The position that the poet depicted the foe, “outstretched”, was similar to the situation we’ve known above. Extending his arms and legs shows that he has no threat to the man anymore. And by reading the preceding content, we can conclude that the foe ate the apple on the poison tree, and was gone forever. It’s also ironic that he finished his life in his “enemy’s” territory.

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Despite the limited words that the poet used, digest it carefully, we can receive more than we thought we could. To sum up the poem, I strongly believe that anger is not the key message that the poet was intending to convey. Instead, he was trying to display a more important material which is the suppression of the anger. People often neglect the seriousness of the repression of the anger and let it lead to the cultivation of the anger. Consequently, they struggle among the wrath, forgiveness and guiltiness.

Works Cited
Black William, “A Poison Tree.” Literature for Composition. Eighth edition. Barnet Sylvan, Burto William, and Cain E. William New York 2008

Important Questions

Q. The persona is angry with his enemy but stays silent. Which line in the poem shows the result of this action?

Ans. I told it not, my wrath did grow (line 4).

Q. What do you think the apple represents?

Ans. The apple represents the poisonous fruit of suppressed anger/hatred/vengeance.

Q. Which word in the poem means “to move quietly without being notices”?

Ans. The word is “stole” (line 13, stanza 4)

Q. In stanza 1, which word in the poem means “terrible anger”?

Ans. The word is “wrath”.

Q. In stanza 2, how did the persona tend to his plant?

Ans. The persona watered it in fears/ The persona sunned it with smiles and deceitful wiles.

Q. Identify a phrase in the poem which effectively describes the silent, cunning scheming of the persona.
Ans. “soft deceitful wiles”

Q. In your opinion, who is the real victim in this poem – the persona or the foe? Give a reason for your answer.
Ans. I think the real victim is the persona because he cannot let his anger go by not able to forgive and forget (any possible answer).

Q. What emotion is expressed in Stanza 1?
Ans. Anger.

Q. Which word in stanza 2 that has the same meaning as “dishonest”?
Ans. Deceitful.

Q. What happened to the persona’s foe eventually and how did the persona react to this?
Ans. The persona’s foe eventually
died. He was glad to see his foe outstretched beneath the tree.

Q. Which scene makes the poet happy?
Ans. In the morning when he saw the enemy dead under the poison tree.

Q. The persona in the poem is angry with a friend. If you were the persona’s friend, what advice would you give him or her?

Ans. Advice 1: I would suggest to my friend to talk about his anger or dissatisfaction to the friend he is angry with

Advice 2: I would advise my friend to forgive the person who makes him angry (any possible

Q. What does the poison tree symbolise?
Ans. William Blake’s “A Poison Tree” basically uses two symbols (an apple and a tree) to relate its meaning. The tree represents the growing anger in the speaker’s heart against his enemy and the apple represents the “fruit” of that anger, an action, in the poem, murder.

Q. How does the conclusion of the poem impact the poem’s theme a poison tree?
Ans. In my opinion, the conclusion of this poem impacts the poem’s theme by showing the reader that when we do not communicate with someone we have a conflict with, no matter who is “in the wrong”, both sides suffer in the end. Wounds fester if they are not treated, much like our unattended emotions.

Q. What is the metaphor in a poison tree?
Ans. 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.

Q. What type of poem is poison tree?
Ans. A Poison Tree is written in quatrains. This straightforward grouping of sets of four lines is one of the simplest and most recognisable poetic forms.

Q. What is the conflict in a poison tree?
Ans. A Poison Tree is the first poem of the anthology and it’s a great one to start with. It’s about conflict, but not obvious conflict, like war – instead, its key focus is on how internal conflict can ruin a person.

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