Historical Context

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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 rejected Swedenborg but not all of his ideas.

Revolution

The latter half of the eighteenth century was an age of revolution. In philosophy, John Locke and Thomas Paine, among others, advocated greater individual liberty, democratic government, and human rights. In science, Isaac Newton altered the way the natural world—indeed, the universe—was understood. Rather than finding in Newton's mathematical reasoning and laws of nature grounds for enlightenment, however, Blake thought of them as a source of obscurity. Blake favored the intuitive knowledge produced by visionary revelation.

It was in the realm of politics that the beliefs of the past exploded with warlike fury. The revolutions in the American colonies in 1776 and in France in 1789 brought to an end the predominance of autocratic and monarchical government; extended among citizens the right to own property and to determine taxation; and instituted systems of representative republican democracy based on principles of liberty, brotherhood, and equality. Blake was an ardent supporter of these revolutions and celebrated them and their principles in his work. He saw them as eruptions of suppressed energy and understood their excesses as inevitable consequences of the suppression of energy.

In England, the conservative reaction to these radical events influenced the way Blake wrote, causing him to express himself symbolically to avoid political persecution. Nevertheless, in 1803, at the height of the English wars against Napoleon, Blake was brought before a magistrate on charges of sedition, against which he successfully defended himself.

The Industrial Revolution and the Factory System

During the latter half of the eighteenth century, England was transformed from a country of people who worked on the land or, if they manufactured things, such as spinning cotton or weaving cloth, in their homes, to a country where most people labored in factories using newly invented machinery for the manufacture of goods. The Industrial Revolution and the advent of the factory system not only brought a great increase in commodities and wealth for some members of society—the owners of the factories, importers and exporters, and merchants, for example—but also turned most of the men, women, and children who toiled for pittance wages in the factories into commodities themselves. People became items bought and sold as implements of labor.

Blake found the industrial system abhorrent. It violated the spiritual integrity of each human being and alienated workers from their work by turning them into machinery. The system also produced goods that were uniform and lacked the impression of the hands that had made them. Blake not only wrote against the evils of the Industrial Revolution and the factory system but also resisted them in the manufacture of his works by etching, printing, coloring, and binding his books in his own workshop.

Literary Style

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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 as "and I / waTERD / it IN / fears" and "and HE / knew THAT / it WAS / mine." Although the recurring rhymes tie the lines of each couplet together, the missing beat at the end of each line gives a subtle sense of process rather than resolution. In the last couplet, however, Blake returns to the pattern of the first quatrain. The first line of the last couplet, "in THE / mornING / glad I / see," lacks a complete fourth foot. The last line, "my FOE / outSTRETCHED / beNEATH / the TREE," completes the utterance, resolves the poem, and places a final emphasis on the subject and central image of the poem, the word "tree."

Metaphor, Simile, and Allusion

A metaphor is a figure of speech in which one thing represents another. A metaphor helps to make an abstract idea concrete by turning something intangible into an image. It also reveals the subtle relatedness between things that may seem unrelated to each other. In "A Poison Tree," Blake represents anger as a plant and compares the angry person's relationship to his anger to a gardener's relationship to the plants he tends. Comparison is implicit in metaphor. Blake is saying anger is like a plant. A person who cultivates his anger is like a gardener. Stating the word "like" produces a special class of metaphor called a simile. In "A Poison Tree," the metaphor of the tree, the apple, and the garden not only represents the speaker's anger, its result, and its boundaries but also alludes to the biblical Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil and the forbidden fruit that grows on it in the Garden of Eden. An allusion is an indirect reference a speaker or a figure of speech makes to something else not specifically named. By means of allusion to the story of the Fall in Genesis, Blake gives greater depth of meaning to "A Poison Tree."

Compare and Contrast

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  • 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 third world countries, which supply the people of the United Kingdom with consumer goods. The British Broadcasting Company reports that "more than half of British workers are suffering from stress" and that "companies [are] adding to employee stress levels by demanding long hours." In the United Kingdom, one third of employees work more than forty-eight hours a week, and "three out of five people are working unpaid overtime."

Media Adaptations

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  • 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.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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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," in The Poetry and Prose of William Blake, edited by David Erdman, Doubleday & Company, 1965, p. 28.

Erdman, David, ed., The Poetry and Prose of William Blake, Doubleday & Company, 1965, p. xxiii.

Heims, Neil, "Biography of William Blake," in Bloom's BioCritiques: William Blake, edited by Harold Bloom, Chelsea House Publishers, 2006, pp. 23, 34, 35, 75-77.

"Long Hours 'Stress British Workers,'" BBC News, November 7, 2001, available online at news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/health/1642472.stm

Further Reading

Bentley, G. E., Jr., The Stranger from Paradise: A Biography of William Blake, Yale University Press, 2001.

Bentley's highly regarded biography of Blake contains more than five hundred pages of careful and profound scholarship that draws on documents from Blake's time, which Bentley weaves into a narrative analysis of Blake's life, work, beliefs, and thought.

"Book of Genesis, 2:8-19," in The Torah: The Five Books of Moses, Jewish Publication Society of America, 1980.

This passage of Genesis tells the story of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, which God plants in the Garden of Eden. The forbidden fruit, the satanic temptation, and the divine punishment appear.

Erdman, David V., Prophet Against Empire, 3rd ed., Dover, 1977.

Erdman, Blake's major modern editor, offers a thorough and scholarly examination of the political and historical contexts of Blake's work.

Frye, Northrup, Fearful Symmetry: A Study of William Blake, Princeton University Press, 1947.

This book is a classic study of the development of Blake's religious symbolism and mysticism set in the context of the eighteenth-century background against which he rebelled.

Ruskin, John, "The Nature of Gothic," in The Genius of John Ruskin, edited by John D. Rosenberg, Riverside Press, 1965.

In this excerpt from his book The Stones of Venice, the nineteenth-century art and social critic John Ruskin, who was a great admirer of Blake, reacts against the Industrial Revolution by analyzing the medieval workmanship and the philosophy of craftsmanship that characterized the building of the great cathedrals in the Middle Ages.

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