A Poison Tree - Language, tone and structure
Language and tone
The obsessional nature of the speaker's feelings is suggested by the restrictions in the diction. The first stanza works purely in terms of ‘friend' ‘foe' ‘angry' and ‘wrath'. Each line begins with ‘I', suggesting also the speaker's obsession with himself. In the remaining stanzas, key words continue to be ‘I' ‘my' and ‘mine'. The foe is given no name; what is important is his relationship to the speaker.
The negativity of the speaker is implied in stanza two. His only true emotions are fears and tears. All that is positive is false – the sun of smiles, and the softness of deceit.
Concealment is achieved through the language, as we do not see what is growing until the apple appears. It suggests that the nature of what is being nurtured is only apparent when it is fully developed, even to the one who nurtures it.
Investigating language and tone
- Try re-reading the poem in the third person (substituting s/he and his/her, for I and my etc.)
- In the light of that, do you think that the emphasis on ‘I' ‘my' and ‘mine' makes a significant contribution to the meaning and tone of the poem?
Structure and versification
The stanzas are rhymed closed couplets. The poem proceeds by this series of closed statements which allow no argument and echo the blinkered vision of the speaker. Each stanza after the opening one begins with ‘And', as do many of the lines. The trochaic metre of stanzas two, three and four emphasises this word, thus increasing the obsessive drive of the poem. We are invited to follow the logical progression of the speaker's behaviour to its climax. We are also encouraged, therefore, to see it as inevitable.
When the metre alters to iambic, in l.2, 4 and the final line, there is a sense of the forward momentum decelerating, as the situation is summed up. The regularity of the tetrameter is only broken once with the omitted syllable in l.7 before ‘smiles', which has the effect of ‘wrong footing' the reader, just as the smiles themselves are designed to trip up the speaker's enemy. The sibilants of the second stanza also indicates the presence of lurking evil.
Investigating structure and versification
- How would you answer someone who argued that Blake is simply using a popular form here?
- Make notes on the ways in which the speaker comes across as a child and also as very adult.
Lines of iambic pentameter which rhyme in pairs, that are logically or grammatically complete.
Use of a metric foot in a line of verse, consisting of a stressed syllable followed by an unstressed. It is thus a falling metre.
The particular measurement in a line of poetry, determined by the pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables (in some languages, the pattern of long and short syllables). It is the measured basis of rhythm.
A term used of speech rhythms in blank verse; an iambic rhythm is an unstressed, or weak, beat followed by a stressed, or strong, beat. It is a rising metre.
A line of verse consisting of four metrical feet (in modern verse) or eight feet (in classical verse).
Writing a response
When writing an essay about your interpretation of, or response to, a poem, you should consider the points below.
- Write a plan first, noting what you'll include in each paragraph.
- Begin with a brief overview of the poem.
- Go on to mention themes, form, structure, rhythm and language.
- Mention a range of views or perspectives.
- Compare the poem to another one.
- Mention any relevant details about the context of the poem.
- Conclude with a firm judgement about the poem.
- Support all you say with details or quotes from the poem.
A good approach to begin with is to highlight any key words which stand out for you. Make sure you use these key words in your essay.
How does William Blake make his message clear in A Poison Tree?
- Overview: poem has a moral message around the consequences of anger not being dealt with.
- First-person narrative: examining a basic human emotion which can be felt by anyone.
- Structure and language: quatrains, rhythm and rhyme scheme emphasises simplicity, use of extended metaphor of tree, simple vocabulary.
- Reader's reactions: different views, what message might be taken from reading the poem?
- Conclusion: there is a definite message but open to different interpretations, clarity achieved through simplicity and directness.
Some other essay questions to think about:
- What does William Blake have to say about human nature in A Poison Tree?
- Blake uses A Poison Tree to set out a moral lesson for his readers. Compare his approach to that used by Mary Lamb in the poem Envy.
More about planning an essay.