I told my wrath, my wrath did end.
I was angry with my foe:
I told it not, my wrath did grow.
And I watered it in fears,
Night & morning with my tears:
And I sunned it with smiles,
And with soft deceitful wiles.
And it grew both day and night,
Till it bore an apple bright.
And my foe beheld it shine,
And he knew that it was mine.
And into my garden stole.
When the night had veiled the pole;
In the morning glad I see,
My foe outstretched beneath the tree.
My first impression of this poem was that Blake was saying that unexpressed anger is deadly, sometimes literally and sometimes figuratively. As I read about Blake, however, I learned that his message is larger than I first believed.
William Blake was raised by parents who were non-conformist on religious matters. They read and believed the teachings of the Bible but they did not ascribe to the teachings of the Anglican Church of the day. The Bible and religious/spiritual themes permeate both Blake's poetry and his visual art. He believed that he saw angels and spoke to spirits. He felt that he was used by such beings to communicate their messages.
"A Poison Tree" is one of 26 poems in a collection called Songs of Experience. This collection of poems is an attack on the Anglican Church's teachings that humanity's "sinful emotions", including anger, should be stifled. In fact, the first title for the poem was "Christian Forbearance", which he changed. Blake saw this effort to make human emotion conform to doctrine or rules as very detrimental to the human spirit. He called this existence a state of "experience".
Some see the apple in the poem as being suggestive of the apple in the biblical story of Adam and Eve. Biting the forbidden fruit brings spiritual death to Adam and Eve. "A Poison Tree" suggests that unexpressed anger grows and bears fruit that kills human spirit.
In the video below Martin Christopher does a beautiful reading of William Blake's "A Poison Tree". Enjoy.