The poem “Poison Tree” by the classic English poet William Blake uses complex and obscure imagery which at first glance makes the poem difficult to understand on a preliminary reading. However, upon closer analysis of the imagery, as well as the poem’s structure, it appears that Blake is discussing the consequences of when anger, directed to a close companion, is not dealt with: this growth of anger, in other words, leads to contempt towards another, a contempt that also can take the form of wishing for the death of another. Blake is thus discussing in the poem, in this interpretation, the extreme consequences of anger felt towards another.
One of the difficulties, as mentioned, in understanding the poem, is that it uses ambiguous imagery which is not always straightforward. Perhaps, for this reason, the poem’s rhyme structure itself is, in contrast, very straightforward. The poem is divided into only four stanzas, and follows a simple A-A-B-B rhyme scheme. Blake, in this regard, can maybe be attempting to not overuse complex poetic structure, since the imagery in itself is already complex: therefore, the basic rhyme scheme adheres to the basic structure of a poem, giving it a lyrical and rhythmic quality, that is easy to grasp, while the intellect is faced with the more subsequent challenge of untangling the poem’s imagery itself and therefore its theme and message.
The central relationship of the poem is between the narrator and the anonymous “friend.” The poem itself tells about a rift in their relationship. This is very clear from the poem’s first line: “I was angry with my friend.” However, after this simplistic line, the poem becomes more obtuse. Blake speaks about anger, wrath, about how they grow in the mind of the narrator. There is then the use of complex imagery, such, for example, an “apple bright” and a garden and pole. This imagery makes the poem almost resemble a riddle: how is Blake using this imagery to account for what clearly appears to be the situation of a deteriorating relationship with a close friend? This deteriorating relationship is clear not only from the first line of the poem, but also the last two lines, where it appears that Blake is celebrating the eventual death of his friend: “In the morning glad I see/My foe outstretched beneath the tree.”
In this regard, the poem possesses a fundamentally dark and violent mood. This is clear from the outset, with the references to anger and wrath, and the concluding lines that celebrate death. Hence, the theme of the deteriorating relationship, although taking time to decipher through the poetic symbols, becomes explicit. At the same time, upon a second or third reading, after making more sense of the ambiguous imagery, it can also be said that Blake is regretting the last lines of the poem that seem to celebrate the death of his friend. This is apparent in the first stanza: “I was angry with my friend: I told my wrath, my wrath did end. I was angry with my foe: I told it not, my wrath did grow.” Blake seems to be saying that one has to come to terms with some anger someone might feel towards a close companion: it is only by coming to terms and admitting this anger, that one could overcome it. If one hides these feelings, they can have destructive thoughts and wishes, as shown in the previously quoted last lines of the poem.
Therefore, there is two messages, one immediate and one that is more foundational: the immediate message of the poem is the narrative of the poem itself, showing how anger can lead to one even wishing death upon a close friend. The deeper message, however, is that this is avoidable, if one admits one’s feelings and confronts the, attempting to deal with them, as opposed to letting these same feelings consume one with hatred and contempt.
Some of the poetic devices Blake uses seems to support this interpretation. For example, he uses figurative language throughout the poem, such as personification, “speaking” to his wrath and anger. This shows the deeply personal nature of his resentment. Furthermore, there is a great deal of metaphor and symbolism in the poem. Blake discusses how he “watered it in fears”, “it” being his wrath, showing therefore through the allusion to vegetable life, how he nurtured his anger, to destructive effect. This is also repeated with “sunned it with smiles”, once again showing how his anger, rather than being confronted and challenged, was allowed room to grow, with the aforementioned negative results.
Some of the imagery, however, is extremely obscure. For example, Blake discusses how his anger gave birth to an “apple”, and that his friend beheld this apple “shine.” This leads the friend to “stealing” into Blake’s garden, the morning after which, comes the closing lines about the happiness at seeing the “foe outstretched beneath the tree.” It would seem, in this complicated imagery and symbolism, that Blake is using these metaphors to show the deterioration of the relationship, some point of final conflict that emerged between the two, and thus eventually lead to the friend’s death. In this sense, it can even perhaps be interpreted that Blake himself killed his friend, however, the imagery is simply too dense to make any concrete conclusions. Nevertheless, Blake here clearly relies on poetic symbolism and metaphor, arguably to force the reader of the poem to think about the poem’s message, not providing any answers, and thereby drawing the reader into the labyrinth of imagery and symbols so as to contemplate Blake’s central theme.
The poem is here clearly related to the unit question: a meaningful relationship with a person, if it will not end up disastrous, must be an open dialogue. Restricting communication can led negative feelings and animosity grow, leading to hatred, and perhaps, even death. The poem of Blake is therefore deeply about how human relationships can go wrong.
At the same time, on a personal level, I find the poem’s message clearly correct: dialogue and open communication is needed, hiding feelings only leads to a growing of hatred. Although Blake uses complex imagery that makes a novice reader of poetry perhaps confused as to what is exactly occurring in the poem, multiple re-readings do allow a glimpse into this deteriorating relationship that is the poem’s focus. The poem, therefore, I think challenges on two levels: on its formal poetic level, with complex figurative language us that forces us to think, and also on a thematic level, where we are forced to think about how our relationships to those close to us are truly structured.