Study Guide

A Poison Tree

by William Blake

A Poison Tree Analysis

Historical Context

Swedenborgianism

Religious dissent in England, which first appeared in 1662 when a group of English Puritans broke away from the Church of England, refusing to take communion in the Church or accept its doctrines and authority, took many forms. Dissenters were persecuted until 1689, when the Act of Toleration was passed. The form of dissent to which Blake was drawn in his youth was known as Swedenborgianism. Emanuel Swedenborg (1688–1772), a Swedish mystic, philosopher, theologian, and scientist, established the doctrine of correspondences, teaching that the spiritual world and the natural world were joined—that the tangible objects of the natural world were actually physical instances of spiritual realities. Consequently, Swedenborg asserted, it was possible for human beings to communicate with spirits, an experience Blake himself had on a number of occasions, most notably with the spirit of his younger brother Robert immediately after Robert's death.

Swedenborg taught that God is the source of love and wisdom and that humankind, to the degree that it manifests and is guided by love and wisdom, is the seat of the godhead. Christianity, as perverted by the tenets of the established Christian churches, Swedenborg proclaimed and Blake believed and suggests in "A Poison Tree," leads humankind away from God. That loss of touch with God is, according to Swedenborg, the Fall. The Second Coming of Christ, similarly, is not to be thought of as a tangible historical event but as an event of the human spirit to be realized when humankind becomes, again, the source of and is guided by love and wisdom. In his later writing, Swedenborg saw God as a god of wrath and judgment, and the churches founded on his teachings began to emphasize the importance of sin. After 1790, Blake...

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A Poison Tree Literary Style

Iambic Tetrameter

Poetry is measured speech. Its words are organized in rhythmic patterns called meter. The most common pattern or meter for English poetry is the iambic foot, which is composed of two beats, the first unaccented and the second accented. Most often in English poetry, the iambic foot appears in lines of five feet called iambic pentameter, but lines can be shorter or longer. Blake's "A Poison Tree" is in iambic tetrameter, four iambic feet, but a variation on that pattern is common throughout the poem. In most of the lines, the second beat of the last foot is truncated, or cut off.

The first line of "A Poison Tree" offers an example of truncated iambic tetrameter. "i WAS / an-GRY / with MY / friend" is a line with three and a half feet. The second line is a full tetrameter line. There are four complete iambic feet: "i TOLD / my WRATH, / my WRATH / did END." The missing beat at the end of the first line signals the incompleteness of the thought. The full fourth foot at the end of the second line gives a sense of completion. The pattern is repeated for the same result in the second rhyming couplet. This pattern distinguishes the first quatrain from the ones that follow, as do the straightforward, nonmetaphorical nature of its language and the didactic nature of its content.

In the two middle quatrains and the first couplet of the last quatrain, Blake writes only in truncated iambic tetrameter lines, such...

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A Poison Tree Compare and Contrast

  • 1790s: In his poetry, Blake opposes the emotional repression advocated by the morality of his time and posits that it has harmful spiritual, social, and individual effects.

    Today: Conservative cultural voices call for sexual abstinence among young and unmarried people. Many people who have been influenced by psychologists such as R. D. Laing (in his books The Divided Self and Knots) argue against the defenders of conventional morality, asserting that the repression of honest emotional and sexual expression is responsible for mental health problems and for many of the problems facing society as a whole.

  • 1790s: Revolutionary upheaval against monarchy and the Reign of Terror in France causes the British government to enact measures intended to guard against attacks on English soil and limit freedom of expression.

    Today: In response to acts of terrorism by members of fundamentalist Islamic sects in the United Kingdom, the British government seeks to draft tough antiterrorism legislation and to strengthen the power of the police.

  • 1790s: Because of the factory system, workers, including children, are confined to factories for as long as fourteen hours a day, engaging in painful drudgery that ruins their health and breaks their spirit.

    Today: Although it has been abolished in Britain, child labor exists in many...

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A Poison Tree Topics for Further Study

  • In "A Poison Tree," Blake maintains that restraining anger, rather than preventing cruelty and aggression, gives extra energy to aggression and strengthens cruelty. Organize a class debate to argue whether it is better to tell other people how you feel when you are upset with them or have a difference of opinion or to keep it to yourself and try to be accommodating.
  • Stated perhaps overly simply, Blake's idea of correspondences suggests that the way people imagine or think about something affects the way it actually is in the concrete world. Choosing an event from your own experience, write an essay that shows how the way you thought about or imagined something influenced how it "really" was. As an alternative, choose a social, national, or historical event and discuss how expectation influenced outcome.
  • After assembling a questionnaire, conduct a series of interviews with at least ten people. Find out what they think about a widely held or controversial moral or religious value or about a current law. Try to determine whether these people believe the law or moral stance accomplishes what it is supposed to accomplish and whether that goal is a worthy one. Make sure to interview people of different ages, races, sexes, religions, and class backgrounds. Report the results to the class, highlighting both individual differences and similarities among the respondents.
  • Write a poem in rhyming couplets in which you describe a...

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A Poison Tree Media Adaptations

  • Famous Authors: William Blake (1996), a documentary on the life and work of the poet, with commentary from scholars, was produced by Kultur Video.
  • Pioneers of the Spirit: William Blake (2005), put out by Vision Video, looks at the visionary and mystical elements of Blake's art and writing.

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A Poison Tree What Do I Read Next?

  • In Othello (1604), one of Shakespeare's great tragedies, Iago, who hates Othello, pretends to be Othello's friend in order to destroy him.
  • In The Scarlet Letter (1850), Nathaniel Hawthorne's novel of New England Puritanism, Roger Chillingworth, a physician, pretends to be the Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale's friend and takes on the care of the clergyman's troubled soul in order to discover his terrible secret.
  • A. E. Houseman's poem "Is My Team Plowing?" in his collection A Shropshire Lad (1896), is written in a rhyming pattern similar to that of "A Poison Tree." In Houseman's poem, one of the two speakers gently deceives his dead interlocutor, or the other person in the discussion,...

(The entire section is 231 words.)

A Poison Tree Bibliography and Further Reading

Sources

Blake, William, "The Garden of Love," in The Poetry and Prose of William Blake, edited by David Erdman, Doubleday & Company, 1965, p. 26.

――――――, "The Human Abstract," in The Poetry and Prose of William Blake, edited by David Erdman, Doubleday & Company, 1965, p. 27.

――――――, "A Little Girl Lost," in The Poetry and Prose of William Blake, edited by David Erdman, Doubleday & Company, 1965, p. 29.

――――――, "The Marriage of Heaven and Hell," in The Poetry and Prose of William Blake, edited by David Erdman, Doubleday & Company, 1965, pp. 34, 36, 37.

――――――, "A Poison Tree,"...

(The entire section is 405 words.)