Criticism

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Neil Heims is a writer and teacher living in Paris. In this essay, he argues that Blake deconstructs the meaning of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, which appears in the story of the Fall in the book of Genesis, by his use of the apple tree, which appears as a symbol of hypocrisy and cruelty in "A Poison Tree."

For Blake, intelligence—the faculty of seeing, knowing, and understanding—is a function of imagination. The word "imagination" has so weakened since Blake's time that its meaning has degenerated and the word is commonly used to represent the capacity for make-believe or for pretending that things that do not exist do exist. For Blake, however, imagination signifies the organic capability to perceive the realities of the spirit world, which the eye, because its capacity to see is limited to the natural, tangible world, cannot do. The imagination is, therefore, a higher faculty than the eye. By means of imagination, for Blake, eternal things and beings, such as angels, which he holds to be real but invisible to the eye and which constitute the actual substance of the spirit, can be perceived in visions and represented by images. That Blake thought of imagination as a bodily organ and the experience of visions as the fruit of its operation is clear from the following anecdote: At a social gathering, after he had described one of his visions, Blake was asked by a woman challenging his credibility, if not his sanity, just where he had seen it. "Here, madam," he answered, pointing to his own head with his index finger.

The spiritual world, for Blake, is not independent of the natural world. Each is seamlessly a part of the other, fosters the existence of the other, and determines its quality. "Man has no Body," Blake asserts in "The Marriage of Heaven and Hell," "distinct from his Soul for that calld Body is a portion of the Soul discerned by the five Senses." Similarly, God for Blake is not an idealized, abstracted, unreachable presence in the distant heavens existing as an eternal force in a time sphere different from the one human beings inhabit, as Blake understood the Judeo-Christian God the Father of the Old Testament to be. God is a man-god, the ever-present Jesus existing as a person, in each person when each person follows the precepts of love and wisdom rather than hatred, suppression, and guile. The eternal power of God consequently becomes the ever-present capability of individuals to create the earth as a reflection of heaven rather than as a type of hell, which, according to Blake, it has been made by adherence to a Christianity perverted by belief in the repressive authority of a wrathful, beguiling father-god. Blake calls it an error fostered by "Bibles or sacred codes" to believe "that God will torment Man in Eternity for following his [Man's] Energies."

Two principles lie at the root of Blake's imaginative intelligence, are the basis for his belief system, and confirm his own visionary experience: the principle of correspondences and the principle of contraries. Blake derived the principle of correspondences from the writing of the Swedish mystic Swedenborg. Swedenborg taught that the spiritual world is represented in the natural world and can be apprehended through visions. Thus the two realms correspond to each other. According to Blake, the human being is the architect of this correspondence. Blake believed that the way human beings imagine the spiritual world determines how they fashion the physical world in which they live. Here, Blake uses the word "imagine" in its profound sense, meaning the way in which the human being forms his or her image of the world or concretely perceives that world, which is invisible to the unaided eye. Consequently, it matters greatly what conception of God humans imagine and what vision of the invisible world they behold.

The other principle, the one that provides humankind with the ability to choose, is the doctrine of contraries. According to this doctrine, there are forces and states in opposition to each other—innocence and experience, love and hate, attraction and repulsion, reason and energy. The list is Blake's own set forth in "The Marriage of Heaven and Hell," in which he writes that "without Contraries there is no progression" and that they "are necessary to Human Existence. From these contraries spring what the religious call Good & Evil." What is radical in Blake's understanding is not only that he challenges the way these two contradictory terms—good and evil—are conventionally valued but also that he identifies good and evil as lying on one continuum. Referring to how the terms are conventionally defined, Blake writes, "Good is the passive that obeys Reason. Evil is the active springing from Energy." Blake himself believes that "Energy is the only life and is from the Body and Reason is the bound or outward circumference of Energy." Blake defines reason as the force that contains energy—in the sense of keeping it within fixed limits. The degree to which reason is a virtue depends on how reason is guided by Blake's belief that "Energy is Eternal Delight." Reason that thwarts energy, according to Blake, is evil and promotes evil. It is not for reason to determine what boundaries to impose on energy, but energy must determine the boundaries with which reason ought to surround it.

If Blake's definitions and distinctions seem confusing, perverse, or even dangerous, it is clear from them that Blake is challenging the accepted categories and values of conventional Christian morality. Conventional Christian virtues, he insists, are not real virtues. They are the result of the repression of energy and themselves are dangerous—the source of ill, not of good. In Blake's understanding, the repression of human energy, fostered by state and church, for example, during the ancien régime, or the political and social system in France before the Revolution of 1789, was the cause of the brutal and violent explosion of energy called the Reign of Terror in 1793. "Sooner murder an infant in its cradle than nurse unacted desires," Blake writes, and "Prisons are built with stones of Law, Brothels with bricks of Religion." On the foundation of this reinterpreted idea of virtue and his associated condemnation of suppressing the energy of bodily passion, which is a position in direct contradiction to the behavioral precepts and moral regulations of conventional Christianity, Blake builds the vision and derives the values that support the implicit argument of "A Poison Tree." In "A Poison Tree," Blake argues that the repression of wrath, the form energy takes in the poem, is a fault that leads to hypocrisy and cruelty. The experience or the expression of energy (in the instance of the poem, wrath) does not. The idea that repression is what passes for virtue and is actually harmful is one that Blake develops in several poems in Songs of Experience. In "The Garden of Love," which comes five poems before "A Poison Tree" in the collection, Blake expresses the idea directly.

The "I" of this poem is a different "I" from the "I" of "A Poison Tree," in which the "I" indicates a corrupted actor. In "The Garden of Love," the "I" indicates an observer of the world's corruption. The contrast and the conflict presented by the "I" of "The Garden of Love" are between love (energy) and repression (the priests who thwart love). In the poem, Blake has inverted the values that governed the morality of his time. The same moral inversion is at the root of "A Poison Tree" and is the source of the cruelty the poem recounts.

The central image cluster of "A Poison Tree"—the tree and the bright apple—begins as metaphor. It is a figure of speech that represents wrath and its result as a tree and the apple that grows on it. As the poem progresses, this image cluster is transformed from metaphor into concrete actuality. In "The Human Abstract," a poem coming once removed before "A Poison Tree," Blake prepares the reader for this transformation of metaphor into the thing itself and states directly the doctrine of correspondence between the spiritual and natural worlds that is effected by the mind.

In "The Human Abstract," Blake turns humility into a tree. First, he shows how "Cruelty," which Blake personifies, that is, writes of as if it were a person rather than a behavioral characteristic, "knits a snare, / And spreads his baits with care" in a way that is quite similar to the way the speaker sets his trap in "A Poison Tree." Cruelty "sits down with holy fears, / And waters the ground with tears." This is the same process as the one described in "A Poison Tree," and the same rhyming words are used to describe it. After "Humility takes its root / Underneath his [Cruelty's] foot," a "dismal shade / Of Mystery" spreads "over his [Cruelty's] head." Finally, "it [the tree grown from Humility] bears the fruit of Deceit, / Ruddy and sweet to eat." In the last stanza of the poem, Blake explains the nature of the tree itself by pinpointing its location:

   The Gods of earth and sea,
Sought thro' Nature to find this Tree
But their search was all in vain:
There grows one in the Human Brain.

By constructing the two trees in "The Human Abstract" and "A Poison Tree" and showing them as visionary structures representing the negative characteristics cruel humility and deadly hypocrisy, Blake offers a reinterpretation of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil planted by the Judeo-Christian father-god of the Old Testament in the Garden of Eden, the story surrounding it, and the very nature of God himself. In "A Poison Tree," implicitly relying on the formula of correspondence presented in the last stanza of "The Human Abstract," Blake deconstructs the Tree of Knowledge and its story and re-presents them according to what he sees as their true nature. Thus, from the circumstances of the Bible story, Blake derives the contrary state, which he believes is deeply embedded in those circumstances.

What is understood in "A Poison Tree"—that the behavior of the god of Genesis is the model for cruel and unloving human behavior because of humankind's corrupt vision of virtue—is made explicit in "The Human Abstract." The Old Testament story is the cause of human evil because of the belief and value systems it instills, and the story itself is a projection of a faulty vision. The deadly tree grows in the human brain, not in nature. Taken from the imagination, the tree is planted in culture. It is transplanted from inside the mind, where it is a cruel mental image, into literature (the Bible), where it becomes a cruel concrete representation of a mental image and from there reenters the mind as a cruel religious value. Thus, through the process of correspondences, an insubstantial, mental construction is given concrete form as the poisonous tree, as Blake construes it, of the Garden of Eden. The trees Blake represents in "A Poison Tree" and "The Human Abstract," which he derives from the biblical tree, are visions resulting from a corrupted imagination, as is the Edenic tree, in his view. They are visions produced by an imagination formed by the priests who have destroyed the garden of love and installed within it both a chapel with "Thou shalt not" written over the door and the tombstones of those felled by that doctrine.

Blake's deconstruction of the story of the Fall brings the force of the doctrine of contraries into play. By implicitly opposing his vision of the story of the Fall and the nature of the tree that figures in that story to the story in Genesis, Blake endeavors to heal the imagination and restore its power. He supplants what he sees as the false vision of an imagination beguiled by repression and a false idea of virtue with a vision that plants in its stead an implied contrary model of love and wisdom expressed freely in the graceful energy of bodies, and therefore spirits, freed from the "Priests in black gowns" who bind "with briars" our "joys & desires."

Source: Neil Heims, Critical Essay on "A Poison Tree," in Poetry for Students, Thomson Gale, 2006.

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