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.
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