A Study of Human Softness as Depicted in a Poison Tree by William Blake
Human beings, along with the ability to reason and question, possess the capacity to hate, and yet also to forgive. Unfortunately, forgiving someone is not always as easy as holding a grudge against them, and this lack of control over ones actions is inherent to human disposition. In many of his poems, William Blake critically observes human nature and its different aspects, but in A Poison Tree, he specifically discusses human weakness and the effects of humans inherent flaws. Through the use of extended metaphors and vivid imagery, he compares two opposing forces in human beings. In A Poison Tree, William Blake uncovers the inherent weakness in humans by symbolically portraying characteristics of good and evil.
The first stanza introduces a comparison between a friend and a foe through clever parallelism. Blake begins his poem by writing I was angry with my friend: / I told my wrath, my wrath did end (1-2). He continues to say I was angry with my foe: / I told it not, my wrath did grow (3-4). The similarity of lines 1-2 and 3-4 acts as a parallel comparison, with the first part depicting forgiveness, and the second part portraying wrath. The parallelism makes the two opposites stronger, for it emphasizes the differences between them: letting go of his wrath and it ending, as opposed to suppressing his anger and it growing. This is the first point of human weakness that Blake conveys. One side of him is able to forgive, but the other side is not, and this weakness takes over and affects his judgment. The main difference in Blake’s relationship with his friend and his foe is that he can control his anger in his friend’s case, but shows no sign of forgiving his enemy. Therefore, he plants the seed of hatred, which, observing from the title, grows into a poison tree.
In the next stanza, Blake continues the symbolism of the apple tree, which he waterd in fears, / night & morning with my tears (5-6) and sunned with smiles, / and with soft deceitful wiles (7-8). Blake nourishes his anger with fear and dishonesty, for not only does he let it drive him crazy internally (night & morning with my tears ), but he covers it up with smiles (7) and deceitful wiles (8) as well. His foe, therefore, is oblivious to the hatred that exists between them. The tree of which Blake speaks of is most likely a reference to the biblical Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden, which enabled the person who ate from it to discern good from evil. Blake gives a similar look at good and evil in the first stanza, when he introduces his friend and his foe (Blake’s good and evil sides, respectively). Using evidence from later on in the poem, one notices that Blake acts as the serpent, tempting his foe with an apple. Unlike the serpent, however, Blake shows signs of a good conscience, for although the apple eventually destroys his foe, Blake does not knowingly plan for this. Rather, he lives in fear, specifically fear of his actions, which would produce the poison tree.
Lines 9-12 contain the highpoint of Blake’s hatred, namely an apple bright (10), which is clearly the manifestation of his wrath. All the fear and deceit that Blake was living in helped grow this apple, which is as poisonous as the hatred that he held. His foe beheld it shine (11), so without a doubt the apple is noticeable. Thus it is also tempting to his enemy, and Blake continues by saying he knew that it was mine (12). By this, Blake alludes to his foe’s jealousy (another aspect of human weakness), which will drive him to take the apple. Again, one may observe that Blake is symbolically acting as a serpent, but not consciously, for he does not explicitly tempt his foe with the apple. On the contrary; his enemy steals into his garden to take it.
The poem climaxes in the fourth stanza, in which Blake’s foe into [his] garden stole, / when the night had veild the pole (13-14). Enticed by the beauty of Blake’s apple, and jealous at the same time, the foe waits for complete darkness to break into Blake’s garden and steal it. The darkness of the night is representative of Blake’s role as the serpent, for the black night enables his evil side to emerge and tempt his foe. The last two lines of the poem read in the morning glad I see / my foe outstretchd beneath the tree (15-16). Obviously, Blake’s foe ate the apple from the poison tree, and therefore perished. Again, Blake makes a reference to the Bible, in which Adam and Eve ate from the Tree of Knowledge, leading to their demise. He also brings up another point of human weakness, namely joy of an adversarys downfall. Blake, a victim to human emotions, cannot help but feel happy about his enemy’s destruction.
In A Poison Tree, William Blake exposes the inherent weakness in humans by symbolically revealing characteristics of good and evil. In describing his relationship with a friend and a foe, Blake introduces good and evil. He then continues his poem by showing how his malicious side is symbolical of the Tempter, and eventually responsible for his foe’s death. The serpent in Blake is his weakness, and just like he, all humans have this inherent flaw inside of them. Adam and Eve’s lack of control and self-restraint led them to eat from the Tree of Knowledge, and the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized that they were naked (Genesis 3:7). This shows human beings imperfection, and how time and time again they are susceptible to the consequences of human weakness.
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