On first contact with "A Poison Tree," a reader may be deceived by the apparent simplicity of the poem. It seems like one more example of the children's verses and nursery rhymes that had become popular and were being published in the later part of the eighteenth century. The most famous collection was the one attributed to "Mother Goose." Such verses were intended to teach children moral lessons through easy-to-remember rhymes and catchy rhythms.
"I was angry with my friend; / I told my wrath, my wrath did end," Blake begins. The language and sentiment are simple and hardly need to be explained even to a young child. Someone is speaking of his direct experience: He was angry at his friend. He told his friend that he was angry, and the result was that his anger went away. The whole thing is presented in a neat package tied up and resolved by the rhyme of "friend" and "end." In contrast to this way of handling anger, the speaker says, "I was angry with my foe: / I told it not, my wrath did grow." Again the verse seems clear and simple, and so, too, the lesson. When people do not say how they feel, the bad feeling becomes worse. The latter two lines of the quatrain, furthermore, seem to reinforce the wisdom of the first two: Say what you feel; do not suppress it, or things will get worse.
The analogy the reader is led to draw between the first set of two lines, or rhyming couplet, and the second couplet is not exact. The situations are different. In the first couplet, the speaker is angry at his friend; in the second, at his foe. This difference immediately makes the simple poem less simple. The lines are not really moralizing about confessing or concealing anger. They are referring to the way people classify other people as friends and foes and to the different ways people treat friends and foes. By extension, the poem considers the nature and consequences of anger, exploring how it grows and what it grows into.
The second quatrain, composed of two more rhyming couplets, seems less like a child's verse than the first quatrain. "And I waterd it in fears," the speaker says, "Night & morning with my tears: / And I sunned it with smiles, / And with soft deceitful wiles." In these lines, the speaker tells how he has tended and cultivated his anger, how he has made it grow. He is not suggesting a moral, as he does in the first quatrain, but he is examining a process. He is revealing the pleasure he takes in his own slyness. He also begins to speak using metaphor. Metaphor allows one thing to suggest or stand for something else. The "it" of the first line of the second quatrain refers to the speaker's wrath, but he speaks of his wrath not as if it were an emotion, which it is, but as if it were a small plant. He "waterd" his anger with his tears, and, using another metaphor, he "sunned it with smiles / And with soft deceitful wiles."
Wiles are sly tricks, strategies intended to deceive someone into trusting. The speaker is laying a trap for his foe, tempting him to desire something that seems alluring but is harmful. As he pretends to be friendly to his foe, the very act of being friendly strengthens his wrath. The false smiles he bestows on his foe act like sunshine on the plant of his wrath. The friendlier the speaker seems, the more hostile he really is, and the worse are his intentions. The clarity of innocence is gone. The speaker's behavior does not look like what it is. He is not what he seems. By using metaphor, by talking about anger as if it were a plant and about hypocrisy as if it were sunshine, the speaker represents the duplicity of his behavior in his language. He makes his behavior appear more attractive than it is.
What is a figure of speech, a metaphor, in the second quatrain seems to become the thing itself, an actual tree, in the third. "And it grew both day and night," the speaker says. The "it" must refer to his wrath, which he has been cultivating with "smiles, / And … soft deceitful wiles." In the second line of the third quatrain, however, "it" bears "an apple bright." The wrath has become an actual tree. Anger does not bear apples. Apple trees do. A feeling has been given so much weight that it has become a presence, an actual thing. The fruit of the speaker's...
(The entire section is 1782 words.)