I came across the Romantic poet William Blake’s “A Poison Tree” while in graduate school. It became an instant favorite.
Ironically, Blake made his money as an artist (engraver, painter, literary illuminator) not as a poet. My introduction to his work began with this illuminated version of the poem, “A Poison Tree,”a poem he had written actually to show off (sell) his artistic talent.
A Poison Tree
I was angry with my friend;
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.
There is the obvious symbolism of the cruciform beneath the tree–Blake certainly had his inner battles with religion. But what struck me most is the depiction of the tree growing upside down. The roots search for life force in thin air, while leaves and branches wend their way beneath the earth supposedly to rot.
The trouble for me comes when sorting out friend from foe in the poem. Trouble really comes with the realization that both are me. I can be angry with something friendly me has done, forgive myself, get on with life. Deep, deep down, however, there lurks the demon within: he who will not let go. Unworthiness overtakes joie de vie.
Friendly me wants to be carefree forever. The foe in me rejects that as naïve nonsense. So I go to war with myself every day.
What Blake does not reveal in this illuminated poem is the forest within which the tree exists. I know in my bones that there are countless healthy trees surrounding and supporting me. I also know that the foe who lies beneath the tree can be defeated.
The illustration at the blog’s top is the Combat Infantryman’s Badge. The blogger is a Vietnam Veteran, 1966-67. He is an author and past state chaplain for a major veterans organization. He welcomes comments on posts and encourages readers to subscribe to PTSDOutreach; two benefits: 1) it is free, 2) posts appear directly in your e-mail in-box.