Blake published his first book of poetry, Songs of Innocence in 1789. The poems dealt with lighthearted topics and celebrated the simple joys of human existence. Five years later, he published Songs of Experience, which addressed the darker aspects of life. In Songs of Experience, Blake focuses on mankind’s fallen nature and the various failings and sufferings that plague the human race. His poem “A Poison Tree” highlights the damaging effects of anger and deceit and specifically contradicts the anger management etiquette of his contemporaries. In the 1700s, many Westerners considered anger an impolite sentiment and encouraged one another to suppress their anger. Blake disagreed with this practice and believed that suppressing one’s anger led to increased emotional disturbance. In “A Poison Tree”, originally entitled “Christian Forbearance”, Blake implies that the healthy practice is to express one’s anger frankly and move on.
To fully understand “A Poison Tree”, many students will find it helpful to review the biblical story of Adam and Eve. The poem contains a number of allusions to Chapter 3 of the book of Genesis. In the story, Adam and Eve eat from the forbidden Tree of Knowledge. After disobeying God by eating the fruit of the tree, Adam and Eve gain new knowledge, but at a high price. As a result of their first sin, they are banished from the Garden of Eden and lose the peaceful, immortal existence they had led there. Instead, they face suffering and eventual death. The knowledge that Adam and Eve gain by eating the fruit is a kind that strips them of the peaceful innocence that had previously known. In this way, their story echoes Blake’s emphasis in Songs of Experience. Experience, like the fruit, leads to pain and even death. The link between Blake’s “poison tree” and the story of Adam and Eve continues in the poem’s symbolically poisonous apple, the use of the garden setting, and the snake-like sibilance of the alliterative “s” sounds. Students intrigued by “A Poison Tree” will find further discussion of this metaphorical tree and humanity’s fallen nature in Blake’s poem, “The Divine Image.”