Finding Meaning in Literature Help (page 2)

Updated on Sep 21, 2011


What happens in the first stanza?

  1. The speaker was angry with
    1. a friend.
    2. a foe.
    3. a friend and a foe.
  2. How did the speaker handle his anger toward his friend?
    1. He told his friend about it and it went away.
    2. He kept it to himself and it grew.
    3. He kept it to himself and it went away.
  3. How did the speaker handle his anger toward his foe?
    1. He told his friend about it and it went away.
    2. He kept it to himself and it grew.
    3. He kept it to himself and it went away.

Now look at the second stanza. The key to understanding this stanza is knowing what it refers to. Reread the first and second stanzas carefully in order to answer the next question.

  1. It refers to
    1. tears.
    2. smiles.
    3. wrath.

Now, given these clues (and the best clue of all, the title of the poem), to what exactly is the speaker comparing his wrath?

  1. The speaker compares his wrath to
    1. a flower.
    2. a tree.
    3. the sun.

    What else happens in the third stanza?

  1. In the third stanza, the foe
    1. grows his own apple.
    2. shines the speaker's apple.
    3. sees the speaker's apple.

Finally, what happens in the fourth stanza? This stanza is somewhat trickier than the others, because in this stanza, something happens that is not directly stated. You know that the foe sneaks into the speaker's garden ("And into my garden stole"), but what else happens?

The poem doesn't exactly tell you, but you can guess. The speaker had an apple; you know that this apple grew on a tree and that this tree is a metaphor for the speaker's anger. You also know that the poem is called "A Poison Tree." You read in the fourth stanza that, in the morning, the speaker finds his foe "outstretch'd beneath the tree." What can you conclude?

  1. At the end of the fourth stanza, the foe
    1. is waiting to ambush the speaker and kill him with the apple.
    2. has been killed by the apple he stole because it was poisonous.
    3. is waiting to share the apple with the speaker.

Okay, so that's what happened in the poem. But what does it all mean?

Look again at the action. What the speaker did was to tell his friend about his wrath. What the speaker didn't do was to tell his enemy about his wrath. The results of the speaker's action and his inaction are your clues to the meaning of the poem as a whole, its theme.

  1. Which of the following best summarizes the theme of the poem?
    1. Don't steal; it can kill you.
    2. Choose your enemies carefully.
    3. If you don't talk about your anger, it can be deadly.

Before you go any further, think about your answer again. Like a main idea, a theme must be general enough to encompass the whole work, not just a piece of it. Does the answer you chose encompass the whole poem and not just part of it?


  1. c
  2. a
  3. b.
  4. Choice cwrath—is the last thing mentioned in the first stanza, so it follows that wrath is what it refers to. The second stanza tells us that the speaker "water'd" it (his wrath) with fears and "sunned" it with smiles and wiles. How can this be? Can you literally water and sun your anger? No, but the speaker is not being literal here. Instead, he is using figurative language. Like the similes we saw earlier about Coach Lerner, comparing his voice to a foghorn and his haircut to that of a drill sergeant, this stanza uses a metaphor—a comparison that doesn't use the words like or as—to compare the speaker's wrath to something that grows with water and sun.
  5. The answer is b, a tree. The title gives this away. Also, a tree is the only plant that could bear "an apple bright," as in the third stanza.
  6. The answer is c, the foe sees the speaker's apple ("my foe beheld it shine").
  7. Which answer do your clues add up to? The only one that can be correct is b. The speaker was angry; the tree (and so the apple) was poisonous. You know that the foe, seeing the apple, snuck into the speaker's garden. Apparently he ate the apple, because now he's "outstretch'd beneath the tree." You also know that the speaker is "glad" to see his foe outstretched this way—he's glad to see him dead.
  8. You should have selected choice c, for this is the idea that sums up the message or "lesson" of the poem. In the first two lines, the speaker's wrath for his friend vanished when he talked about it, but he did not talk about his wrath for his enemy. Instead, he let it grow until it was poisonous and deadly.
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