Give a summary of the poem "The Poison Tree" by William Blake.

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carol-davis eNotes educator| Certified Educator

“The Poison Tree” by William Blake provides a clear lesson on how to handle anger both with a friend and enemy.  The narration is first person point of view with a nameless speaker.

The poetic form has four quatrains with a set rhyme scheme: AABB.  This means that each quatrain has two couplets.  This rhyme scheme creates a simple and easy way to follow the flow of the poem.   It makes a powerful statement about how conflict should be handled. In his poem, Blake warns about the ill effects of holding malice inside oneself. The poem is a metaphor for what happens when one allows anger to grow within.

The first quatrain describes a friend getting angry at his friend.  Because the speaker knew and liked this person, he explained his feelings and the conflict was resolved. The anger ended.  On the other hand, the speaker clashed with a person that he did not like.  He held that irritation inside and did not express or tell the other person what was wrong. That resentment began to grow inside the speaker.

The second quatrain begins the extended metaphor with the comparison of the anger and the poison tree. Initiating the idea of the narrator cultivating his rage,  he  waters the budding tree with fear and tears every day and even the night. Still, the enemy does not know of this growing fury.  Fear can make a person act out of character and lose his emotional balance. Deceptively, the speaker employs his smiles as though it was the application of the sun to this toxic tree. With charm, he allows no interjection or awareness of his wrath. 

And I watered it in fears,
Night and morning with my tears;
And I sunned it with smiles,
And with soft deceitful wiles.

The third quatrain nurtures the  tree/ire metaphor.  Anger poisons the human spirit; furthermore, it endangers the ability to use logical reasoning.  Finally, this tree bears the fruit of the narrator’s fury in the form of a beautiful, appealing apple as in the Biblical forbidden fruit.  The enemy desires the apple and realizes that it belongs to the speaker. 

The final quatrain brings the anger to an end; however, the narrator has lost his humanity.  He now is glad that the enemy is dead.  The fruit of his antagonism [the poison apple]  lured the enemy into the garden; he ate the apple; and now the foe has been eradicated.  The last couplet indicates that the narrator finds comfort in the death of the other man.

Blake uses the poem as a warning to those who harbor grudges and allow the feelings of resentment to stay inside without dealing with them. Communication becomes the only way to avoid the fruit of the poison tree.