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Literary Devices Study Guide (page 2)

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Updated on Aug 25, 2011

A Poison Tree

1 I was angry with my friend:
2 I told my wrath, my wrath did end. wrath = anger
3 I was angry with my foe: foe = enemy
4 I told it not, my wrath did grow.
5 And I water'd it in fears,
6 Night and morning with my tears;
7 And I sunned it with smiles,
8 And with soft deceitful wiles. deceitful = making others believe what isn't true
  wiles = trickery, deceit
9 And it grew both by day and night,
10 Till it bore an apple bright;
11 And my foe beheld it shine, beheld = saw
12 And he knew that it was mine,
13 And into my garden stole
14 When the night had veil'd the pole; veil'd = hidden
15 My foe outstretch'd beneath the tree.

The entire poem builds on an implied metaphor, so we need to recognize it to understand the author's ideas. First, you need to look carefully at what happened and then look at why it happened. The poem is organized both chronologically and by cause and effect, so let's break down the action in the first stanza. Let's use the word speaker to refer to the narrator of the poem.

In the first four lines, Blake sets up two situations. First, the speaker is angry with his friend (line 1) and he tells his friend about it (line 2). As a result, the anger goes away (line 2—"my wrath did end"). But he acts differently with his enemy. He doesn't tell his foe about his anger (line 4), and as a result, the anger grows (line 4).

Now look at the second stanza. It's important to know what "it" refers to in line 5. What is "it"? Tears? Smiles? Wrath? Reread the first stanza carefully and then read the second stanza.

Poems are broken up into lines, which is one of the things that can make poetry seem tough. Sometimes ideas are carried from one line to another, so that the end of a line doesn't mean the end of a thought. A line is not always a sentence. Likewise, ideas can be carried from one stanza to the next. Here, "it" connects the first and second stanzas. "It" is the speaker's wrath. How can you tell? "Wrath" is the last thing mentioned in the first stanza.

In the second stanza, the speaker "water'd" his wrath in fears and "sunned" his wrath with smiles and wiles. How can this be? Can you water and sun your anger?

No, not literally. The difficulty and beauty of poetry lies in this kind of language. Blake isn't being literal here; rather he's drawing a comparison between the speaker's anger to something that grows with water and sun. It's like some kind of plant. How do you know exactly what it is? Blake tells you in two key places: in the title, and in the last line. The poem is called "A Poison Tree." "Tree" is mentioned again in the last line of the poem.

Pay close attention to similes and metaphors, because they are important clues to meaning. Blake, for example, could have compared the speaker's anger to anything, but he chose to compare it to a tree. Why? Trees have deep, strong roots and often flower or bear fruit. (This tree bears an apple.) They need sun and water to grow. Keep these traits in mind as you work through the rest of the poem.

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