Quote of the Day: A Poison Tree

 

I was angry with my friend;
I told my wrath, my wrath did end.

What is the best way to handle disagreements? Between friends? Between foes?

William Blake, eccentric and brilliant man, early Romantic Poet, Biblical scholar, anti-establishmentarian, advocate for the Free Love movement (He once asked his devoted wife Catherine if it would be alright to introduce one of his many concubines into their marriage bed; To the best of my knowledge, her response isn’t recorded anywhere for posterity), thought he knew.

I was angry with my foe;
I told it not. My wrath did grow.

Blake’s short poem, A Poison Tree, is a cautionary tale about what happens when we feel anger and resentment against another, and we keep it bottled up inside.

And I waterd it with fears,
Night and 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.

In the second and third stanzas, in simple language, Blake’s narrator describes the course of his wrath, metaphorically equating it to a tree that he nourishes and tends with crocodile tears, sunny smiles and crafty tricks, loving it, obsessively cherishing it, polishing the fruit of it, until at last, he has formed a beautiful shiny, delicious apple which he brings to the attention of his foe (not the first time this sort of metaphor has been used, by the way).

And into my garden stole.
When the night had veild the pole:
In the morning, glad I see:
My foe outstretched beneath the tree.

So. It’s a dark, but apparently not a stormy, night. The pole star isn’t even visible. It’s really, really dark. And probably evil. And the “foe” has fallen for our angry narrator’s trick, and has snuck into the garden to eat up the lovely apple set out for him.  And what, to our narrator’s wondering eyes should appear in the morning, but the apparently dead foe, “outstretched beneath the tree.” Aha! Success! Just what our narrator wanted!  Mission Accomplished! All is well!

Except I don’t think that “All is well!” is the point of the poem.

Surely the point of the poem is the corrosive effects of this bottled up, and carefully nourished, hatred on the poem’s narrator, and the awful person he becomes because of it–he’s “glad!”  His “foe” is dead! The foe’s hands aren’t clean either; we don’t know who caused the problem between them to start with, but we do know he stole the apple–perhaps he was a greedy, jealous sort, perhaps he was just a gullible fool. Anyway, by the end of the poem, he’s very likely dead, a victim of his enemy’s wiles.

What’s less clear to me, though, has always been the first stanza, which sounds just a little too pat. Blake was adept at simplifying complicated things, usually to good effect, but I can’t help thinking he backed his way into this one because he could fit it into the rhyme structure: friend-end; foe-grow. But much as I agree with him about the destructive effects of holding onto anger (no matter who it’s directed at) it’s never been obvious to me that it is easier to “tell” your wrath to a friend than it is to tell it to a foe. Sometimes, for me, the opposite is true: In truly important matters, I’d often rather not tell a friend that he or she has upset me, for fear of damaging a relationship I treasure, but I have no difficulty letting someone I’m not fond of having it with both barrels. And in these cases, I am far more likely to stew in my own bile when I’m angry with a friend than I am when I tell someone I don’t care for, or don’t have much invested in, to go pound salt.

Perhaps it’s just me, I’m not sure. Which is why I’m throwing this open to the wisdom of the Ricochetti:

Do you think Blake is right about pent-up anger, and the person who is most hurt by it? How do you handle disagreements with friends? With people you’re not fond of? Is it better to bottle it up, or let it fly? If you decide to let it fly, how do you stay on point, and not go completely overboard until one of the other of you is “outstretched beneath the tree?” If you decide to bottle it up, is it possible to stay constructive, and move beyond it, or will you only be happy when your opposite number (friend or foe) is “outstretched beneath the tree?”  What works, and doesn’t work for you?

What is the best way to handle disagreements? Between friends? Between foes?

Please weigh in.

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  1. KentForrester Coolidge
    KentForrester
    @KentForrester

    She, I’ve seen people work themselves into a lather when they express their hate. That is, bringing the words to mind and uttering them exacerbates the emotion. 

    I’m not much of a fan of talk therapy. 

    Blake’s paintings are terribly amateurish, aren’t they?  But then I’m not much of a fan of Romanticism, which too often glorifies the spontaneous and personal. 

    That could be my conservative ideology talking.  In fact, I really like certain 19th-century Romantic landscapes and many of the poems of Keats, Shelley, and Byron. 

    I enjoy “The Tyger” (it’s about a tiger and it rhymes!) but not much else of Blake. 

    • #1
  2. Mike-K Member
    Mike-K
    @

    I thought for a moment the topic was the Mueller investigation. Seemed appropriate.

    • #2
  3. She Member
    She
    @She

    KentForrester (View Comment):

    She, I’ve seen people work themselves into a lather when they express their hate. That is, bringing the words to mind and uttering them exacerbates the emotion.

    I’m not much of a fan of talk therapy.

    Blake’s paintings are terribly amateurish, aren’t they? But then I’m not much of a fan of Romanticism, which too often glorifies the spontaneous and personal.

    That could be my conservative ideology talking. In fact, I really like certain 19th-century Romantic landscapes and many of the poems of Keats, Shelley, and Byron.

    I enjoy “The Tyger” (it’s about a tiger and it rhymes!) but not much else of Blake.

    Don’t hold back, @kentforrester tell us what you really think!

    I agree that many of Blake’s paintings are amateurish.  His engravings, though, are another matter as an examination of some of the plates of his illustrations for the Book of Job  indicates.

    I have read that his wife was an illiterate girl who Blake taught to read, and to  illustrate some of his poems.  I have no idea if that explains the apparent “diversity” (to use the politically correct term) of Blake’s talent, but it might.

    Although if I’m to be dealing with almost certainly mad, half-mystic, late eighteenth century poetry genii, I’ll take poor Kit Smart (slightly before Blake in the chronological pantheon) over most of Blake in a heartbeat.  Jubilate Agno is one of my favorites.  I had a cat named Jeoffry once, and

    He [could] spraggle upon waggle at the word of command

    and

    He [was] of the tribe of Tiger.

    I just love that bit of writing, and I’m not sure I want to know anyone who’s fond of cats who doesn’t like it.

    If you’re a Pope, Swift and Dryden guy, though, I can see why Blake would get to you. On the other hand, he did write a couple of the most arresting lines in all of English Literature, which I can’t reproduce here, in the opening paragraph to “Songs,” from An Island in the Moon (language warning).   So there’s that.

    I think “talk therapy” is fine as long as both parties are engaging about equally in talking/venting/explaining, and trying to solve the problem.  If it becomes about one side doing all the heavy lifting while the other sits like a bump on a log, then it will fail.  If it’s about one side not listening to the other then it will fail.  If both sides aren’t invested equally in problem-solving and moving forward, then it will fail.

    What usually works better, IMHO, is something called a “conversation.”

    • #3
  4. She Member
    She
    @She

    Mike-K (View Comment):

    I thought for a moment the topic was the Mueller investigation. Seemed appropriate.

    Yeah.  I think it’s almost universally applicable.  

    • #4
  5. Nanda Pajama-Tantrum Member
    Nanda Pajama-Tantrum
    @

    Usually, with both friend and foe, I vent by myself – loudly – then pray and think quietly about what, when, and whether to say anything at all.  Journaling is a good outlet.  

    • #5
  6. She Member
    She
    @She

    Nanda Pajama-Tantrum (View Comment):

    Usually, with both friend and foe, I vent by myself – loudly – then pray and think quietly about what, when, and whether to say anything at all. Journaling is a good outlet.

    All good advice.  Yes, writing it out can be helpful and clarifying.  I’ve also, on occasion contemplated things I’ve read about like writing stuff down and then setting fire to the thing and watching it float off in the breeze (best to do this outside, probably), or scrunching up the bit of paper and freezing it inside an ice cube.  I’m not sure, really, what either of those things actually accomplishes (nothing really), but I think it is more the thought of “doing” something as opposed to sitting and stewing.

    • #6
  7. Susan Quinn Contributor
    Susan Quinn
    @SusanQuinn

    I could write a book on this (don’t worry, I won’t do that here!) A couple of things come to mind. First, I have trouble thinking of a person I would call a foe. If I have one, I’d probably assume confronting the person wasn’t worth the energy. But a friend is a different story. First, I’d think about my reaction to what the person said or did, and decide (like @nandapanjandrum) if I’m overreacting or if it’s really all that important. If it niggles at me, I try to assume I misunderstood what the person said; 95% of the time that’s the issue. I ask the person to clarify, and we clean it up. The other 5%, if it’ a good friend, I just agree to disagree and move on. A treasured friendship shouldn’t be jeopardized by a difference in opinion. I will add if the person said something that hurt my feelings, I’ll own it with the request for the person not to do/say that around me again. All this seems to work pretty well, since I’m admitting that I’m the one who has the problem!

    • #7
  8. Mark Camp Member
    Mark Camp
    @MarkCamp

    She: is a cautionary tale about what happens when we feel anger and resentment against another, and we keep it bottled up inside.

    I read it the opposite way, because he never once expressed that idea, and a simple, symmetrical meaning can be taken that’s completely consistent with the symmetry of the text.  Always speak your wrath right away to your friend, always bottle it up in the case of your enemy.

    I don’t agree with him, but I can’t help but think that’s what he meant.

    • #8
  9. Susan Quinn Contributor
    Susan Quinn
    @SusanQuinn

    Another way to look at it–we might think that eventually a foe will “get his,” whether we confront him or not. A person who earns the title of foe obviously deserves punishment!

    • #9
  10. She Member
    She
    @She

    Susan Quinn (View Comment):

    Another way to look at it–we might think that eventually a foe will “get his,” whether we confront him or not. A person who earns the title of foe obviously deserves punishment!

    Well, I’m a great believer in the “what goes around comes” theory of retribution.  Also, I never forget the last two lines of Longfellow’s poem about same.

    I just don’t think that, in the normal course of things, the retributive piece of it is on me.  And that’s where I differ from @markcamp ‘s view of the poem.

    Mark Camp (View Comment):

    I read it the opposite way, because he never once expressed that idea, and a simple, symmetrical meaning can be taken that’s completely consistent with the symmetry of the text. Always speak your wrath right away to your friend, always bottle it up in the case of your enemy.

    I don’t agree with him, but I can’t help but think that’s what he meant.

    Your reading, but I can’t agree that Blake was advocating the actions of the narrator in the poem, otherwise he’d have written a much shorter poem, something on the lines of:

    I was angry with my friend;
    I told my wrath, my wrath did end.
    I was angry with my foe;
    I bottled it up, my wrath did go.

    Who would advocate for a narrator so consumed by his bottled-up wrath that it works on him as he conceives and carries out a lengthy, complex, steady, and concerted plan of deceit and wiles, resulting in the narrator functioning as judge, jury and executioner of his foe?  Not William Blake, I don’t think.  I also think the well established tradition of the imagery in the poem mitigates against the narrator’s course of action being something that Blake would prefer.

    But that’s what I have always liked about literature.  It’s open to many different interpretations, and there’s enough room in the world for plenty of them.  We don’t have to slug it out till one of us is “outstretched beneath the tree,” or until we’ve finally answered the question, “how many angels can dance on the head of a pin?”

    • #10
  11. Midget Faded Rattlesnake Contributor
    Midget Faded Rattlesnake
    @Midge

    Mark Camp (View Comment):

    She: is a cautionary tale about what happens when we feel anger and resentment against another, and we keep it bottled up inside.

    I read it the opposite way, because he never once expressed that idea, and a simple, symmetrical meaning can be taken that’s completely consistent with the symmetry of the text. Always speak your wrath right away to your friend, always bottle it up in the case of your enemy.

    I don’t agree with him, but I can’t help but think that’s what he meant.

    It may have been. Although I wonder when the foe became a foe — before or after the narrator began practicing “soft deceitful wiles”?

    Even who’s being told of the wrath isn’t clear. It doesn’t say, “I was angry with my friend; / I told him so, my wrath did end.” Only that someone was told of the wrath.

    It’s certainly possible that Blake meant to teach his reader, “Always speak your wrath right away to your friend, always bottle it up in the case of your enemy.” It’s a contrarian lesson, of course, and Blake was contrarian enough. But even if that was the lesson Blake meant to teach, is it the most sensible lesson to get out of the poem?

    Telling someone of wrath toward a friend, even just a confidant, a piece of paper, or God, can be helpful in creating some distance between you and your wrath, at least if you want it to be.

    Sometimes, there’s nothing more helpful than jotting down the confrontation you wish you could have at the moment, setting it aside, then returning several days later to recognize why actually having that confrontation would be a spankingly bad idea, and you’re just better getting over it. The confrontation need not even be especially wrathful, just heartfelt, full of “hot” emotion of one kind or another. Until you’ve told it to someone, it may be harder to recognize why it’s better left as a bygone, rather than being nourished, like a poisonous plant, by the “hot sun” of your feelings in a little hothouse cool reason isn’t allowed to enter.

    • #11
  12. She Member
    She
    @She

    Midget Faded Rattlesnake (View Comment):
    Even who’s being told of the wrath isn’t clear. It doesn’t say, “I was angry with my friend; / I told him so, my wrath did end.” Only that someone was told of the wrath.

    A really good point.  Thanks!

    • #12
  13. GFHandle Member
    GFHandle
    @GFHandle

    Mark Camp (View Comment):

    . Always speak your wrath right away to your friend, always bottle it up in the case of your enemy.

    I don’t agree with him, but I can’t help but think that’s what he meant.

    “Bottle up” from the guy who said, “Better to strangle an infant in its crib than to nurse unacted desires”?  (One of the Proverbs of Hell in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.)

     

    • #13
  14. She Member
    She
    @She

    GFHandle (View Comment):

    Mark Camp (View Comment):

    . Always speak your wrath right away to your friend, always bottle it up in the case of your enemy.

    I don’t agree with him, but I can’t help but think that’s what he meant.

    “Bottle up” from the guy who said, “Better to strangle an infant in its crib than to nurse unacted desires”? (One of the Proverbs of Hell in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.)

    Although I suppose one could say he’s just being provocative here, I don’t think there’s much about William Blake’s life, from his politics to his amorous proclivities, that should lead one to believe that admiration for any sort of self-control was one of his core beliefs.

    • #14
  15. Mark Camp Member
    Mark Camp
    @MarkCamp

    Susan Quinn (View Comment):

    Another way to look at it–we might think that eventually a foe will “get his,” whether we confront him or not. A person who earns the title of foe obviously deserves punishment!

    This is the way I took it.

    • #15
  16. Skyler Coolidge
    Skyler
    @Skyler

    When the Comanches were slaughtering Texans it was right to keep the anger. After they were annihilated it was proper to let the anger go.

    When the Japanese were attacking us, it was proper to keep the anger.  After they were finally cowed and defenseless it was proper to let the anger go.

    When the communists were threatening to bury us, it was proper to keep the anger.  After they collapsed and disintegrated it was proper to let the anger go.

    When the fanatical Muslims were taking hostages, blowing up embassies, melting our skyscrapers and promising to kill us all until we obey and abide by the Koran it is proper to keep the anger.  I’m not done yet.

    • #16
  17. Raxxalan Member
    Raxxalan
    @Raxxalan

    Fire and Ice by Robert Frost Some say the world will end in fire,Some say in ice.From what I’ve tasted of desireI hold with those who favor fire.But if it had to perish twice,I think I know enough of hateTo say that for destruction iceIs also greatAnd would suffice. 

    With Respect to Mr. Frost, I think after reading your post I hold with those who favor Ice.   Hate seems likely to top desire as the emotion to end the world.

    • #17
  18. She Member
    She
    @She

    Skyler (View Comment):

    When the Comanches were slaughtering Texans it was right to keep the anger. After they were annihilated it was proper to let the anger go.

    When the Japanese were attacking us, it was proper to keep the anger. After they were finally cowed and defenseless it was proper to let the anger go.

    When the communists were threatening to bury us, it was proper to keep the anger. After they collapsed and disintegrated it was proper to let the anger go.

    When the fanatical Muslims were taking hostages, blowing up embassies, melting our skyscrapers and promising to kill us all until we obey and abide by the Koran it is proper to keep the anger. I’m not done yet.

    Perspective is important, and I have no quarrel with any of the above statements.  However, if Blake’s foe cut him off in traffic on the way to work, I’d consider his retributive actions, as expressed in the poem, rather extreme.

     

    • #18
  19. AUMom Member
    AUMom
    @AUMom

    I believe that hate poisons the hater far more than the hated. 

     

    • #19
  20. Skyler Coolidge
    Skyler
    @Skyler

    She (View Comment):

    Skyler (View Comment):

    When the Comanches were slaughtering Texans it was right to keep the anger. After they were annihilated it was proper to let the anger go.

    When the Japanese were attacking us, it was proper to keep the anger. After they were finally cowed and defenseless it was proper to let the anger go.

    When the communists were threatening to bury us, it was proper to keep the anger. After they collapsed and disintegrated it was proper to let the anger go.

    When the fanatical Muslims were taking hostages, blowing up embassies, melting our skyscrapers and promising to kill us all until we obey and abide by the Koran it is proper to keep the anger. I’m not done yet.

    Perspective is important, and I have no quarrel with any of the above statements. However, if Blake’s foe cut him off in traffic on the way to work, I’d consider his retributive actions, as expressed in the poem, rather extreme.

     

    Does anyone use the term “foe” for such trivial offenses?

    • #20
  21. She Member
    She
    @She

    Skyler (View Comment):

    She (View Comment):

    Perspective is important, and I have no quarrel with any of the above statements. However, if Blake’s foe cut him off in traffic on the way to work, I’d consider his retributive actions, as expressed in the poem, rather extreme.

    Does anyone use the term “foe” for such trivial offenses?

    I couldn’t tell you.  I do know that I’ve heard people describe others as their “enemy” when they’re talking about disagreements and stuff that wouldn’t even fussle my boogie, so I suspect some people might.

    Edit: I guess that’s why they call it “road rage.”

    • #21
  22. Midget Faded Rattlesnake Contributor
    Midget Faded Rattlesnake
    @Midge

    She (View Comment):

    Skyler (View Comment):

    She (View Comment):

    Perspective is important, and I have no quarrel with any of the above statements. However, if Blake’s foe cut him off in traffic on the way to work, I’d consider his retributive actions, as expressed in the poem, rather extreme.

    Does anyone use the term “foe” for such trivial offenses?

    I couldn’t tell you. I do know that I’ve heard people describe others as their “enemy” when they’re talking about disagreements and stuff that wouldn’t even fussle my boogie, so I suspect some people might.

    Edit: I guess that’s why they call it “road rage.”

    When I was first learning to drive, one of the boneheaded things I did led to some stranger getting out of his car at the next red light and pounding on my windshield while shouting obscenities. In retrospect, I can’t really be that surprised that he thought I was a menace on the road who must be vanquished — he probably assumed I drove like that all the time, in which case why was I allowed a license?

    I didn’t drive like that all the time, as it happens. But he’d seen enough that he was evidently quite comfortable chastising me as a general foe to society.

    Even if someone isn’t your foe to begin with, fussle up your boogie enough on their account, and they may find it difficult not to become your foe, since that’s how you seem determined to treat ’em.

    • #22
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