Have a Contentious and Uncomfortable Holiday; You May Save Humankind: Thoughts on “A Poison Tree”

19 11 2012

 A Poison Tree

By William Blake

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 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,

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’s a whole spectrum of confrontation styles out there.  On one end we have people who do almost anything to avoid it, and on the other we have people who seem to thrive on it.  You know the type; they throw conflict wherever they go as haphazardly as a little flower girl tossing flowers before a bride. 

Happily, with the exception of teenage girls, most people occupy a space somewhere in between the two extremes. 

I don’t think Blake is espousing an overly combative lifestyle in this poem, but he does have a pretty strong message for those of us who lean too far toward avoiding conflict at all costs.  He reminds people like me, who tend to avoid conflict like I would avoid a snotty nosed child, that when anger is not expressed and resolved, it is dangerous. 

This poem consists of four quatrains, or four-lined stanzas, and the first couplet of the first stanza covers what happens when you tell your friend that you are angry—just like in real life, it is over and done with fast. 

The rest of the poem, however,  delves into what happens when you swallow that anger and “plant” it like a seed inside you. The tree metaphor extends throughout the poem. 

Blake believes that when you swallow your anger, the seed that grows within you is nurtured by all the attention you give it.  Let’s face it, when you are mad at someone, don’t you just keep stewing over it until you do something about it?  It can take over your whole life if you’re not careful.  Anger can easily turn into hatred, and hatred and fear are really indistinguishable twin sisters.  I can’t think of a time when hatred exists for a reason other than fear.  Can you? 

The tree grows and grows with your fears and the tears you water it with. 

Eventually, you start to grow fond of  it and really care for it.  There is a sick pleasure in holding onto grudges—all the rehashing, the plotting for revenge, the sneakiness, the victimized feeling. 

The tree grows and grows till it bears fruit, a shiny poisoned apple, which you offer to your enemy. 

He takes a bite, dies, and you are glad to see him dead beneath your tree. 

Harsh. 

Poison Apple

Poison Apple (Photo credit: andy castro)

What Blake is saying is that anger, when not dealt with, can take hold of your life and destroy it.  You can become transformed from someone who may have been legitimately wronged into  someone who, like a wicked stepmother, delights in murder—or if you want to take it down a notch—delights in hurting other people. 

Alert! Anytime you see an apple in literature, especially one that brings about destruction, you can be

Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472-1553): Adam and ...

Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472-1553): Adam and Eve. Beech wood, 1533. Bode-Museum, Berlin (Erworben 1830, Königliche Schlösser, Gemäldegalerie Kat. 567) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

pretty sure it is an allusion to the biblical apple in the Adam and Eve creation story.  The apple represents man’s downfall, so it is possible that Blake is saying that one of the faults that leads to man’s destruction and fall from a utopic life is repressed anger. 

This anger too easily develops into violence. 

 

Hopefully this poem can help us all deal with the uncomfortable nature of confrontation and calmly tell people when we are mad for any reason.

 Maybe we can stop some of the hatred/ fear in the world by doing so. 

For many of us, there is going to be a lot of family time coming up soon with the start of the holiday season.  Consider blowing away any seeds of anger that you may have by expressing your feelings, even if they are slightly confrontational.  You don’t want to grow any poison trees. 

And, if you happen to have a poison tree already fully grown, chop that sucker down before it bears any poison apples.

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Meaningful Work Beats Perfect Work at the End of the Day: A look at “After Apple-Picking” by Robert Frost

11 10 2012

After Apple-Picking

My long two-pointed ladder’s sticking through a tree
Toward heaven still,
And there’s a barrel that I didn’t fill
Beside it, and there may be two or three
Apples I didn’t pick upon some bough.  
But I am done with apple-picking now.
Essence of winter sleep is on the night,
The scent of apples: I am drowsing off.
I cannot rub the strangeness from my sight
I got from looking through a pane of glass  
I skimmed this morning from the drinking trough
And held against the world of hoary grass.
It melted, and I let it fall and break.
But I was well
Upon my way to sleep before it fell,
And I could tell
What form my dreaming was about to take.
Magnified apples appear and disappear,
Stem end and blossom end,
And every fleck of russet showing clear.  
My instep arch not only keeps the ache,
It keeps the pressure of a ladder-round.
I feel the ladder sway as the boughs bend.
And I keep hearing from the cellar bin
The rumbling sound
Of load on load of apples coming in.
For I have had too much
Of apple-picking: I am overtired
Of the great harvest I myself desired.
There were ten thousand thousand fruit to touch,
Cherish in hand, lift down, and not let fall.
For all
That struck the earth,
No matter if not bruised or spiked with stubble,
Went surely to the cider-apple heap
As of no worth.
One can see what will trouble
This sleep of mine, whatever sleep it is.
Were he not gone,
The woodchuck could say whether it’s like his
Long sleep, as I describe its coming on,
Or just some human sleep.

Robert Frost (1874-1963)

 

How are you doing?   Really, how are you doing?

Do you stop and think about it often?  Do you consciously evaluate yourself?  When you do (if you do) do you tend to see what you have done well, or are you pretty critical and think mostly about what you did wrong or how you can improve?

Do you ever question whether the work you are doing is what you really want to do with your life? 

 I really like this poem for its ability to refocus my attention to what I am doing right, rather than getting mired down in what that jerk of an internal critic likes to spew out at me.  (Most of us have that nagging voice, right?  The one who tells us that we aren’t good enough?)

This poem shines light on the importance not of being perfect, but of living a life full of meaning.  It doesn’t matter what the work is, what matters is that you find it meaningful and you want to do it.

There are layers of meaning in this poem, like in most great poems, so let’s start with a look at the literal level. 

We have a speaker who is reflecting and evaluating himself after the season’s apple harvest. 

The harvest wasn’t perfect; there might have been some apples he missed, but he is done and overwhelmingly tired from his hard labor.  In fact, he has been tired since the early morning when he looked through a sheet of ice he scooped out of a water trough.  He holds the ice up and things look distorted through it; he lets the ice fall to the ground. 

He has been working so hard that he knows he will even dream of work. (Don’t you just hate those work dreams!  It’s not fair, right?!)

  He knows trippy distorted apples will appear and disappear in his dreams; he will even be able to feel the pressure and ache of the ladder on his feet, feel the sway of the tree limbs as he reaches out to pick his apples, and he will hear the rumbling sound of apples being unloaded into the cellar. 

The tense changes to the present when he describes his dream, and lots of critics like to focus on that.  Dream and reality intermesh in this poem, and it becomes unclear, but  I think it is because he knows exactly what his dreams will be, since he has had many similar dreams after a hard day’s (or season’s) work. 

Next come the most important lines of the poem, at least in terms of developing tone:

“For I have had too much
Of apple-picking: I am overtired
Of the great harvest I myself desired.
There were ten thousand thousand fruit to touch,
Cherish in hand, lift down, and not let fall.”

He is very tired, but it is what he wanted

Did he have an unreasonable harvest goal that left him exhausted?  Or is he saying that he is exhausted from his hard work that yielded a great harvest? 

Either way, what is most important is that it was what HE wanted. 

He loved his work—he cherished those ten thousand thousand apples.  He was careful with each and didn’t let them fall to get bruised and sent off for cider. 

So, yes, he is tired, but it is a good tired.  The harvest was a wonderfully satisfying experience. 

But still, he says his sleep will be troubled.  What is he troubled by?   Is it because he doesn’t know what kind of sleep he is preparing to enter?  He wonders if it is going to be like hibernation or human sleep. 

In this poem, apple-picking serves as a metaphor for anyone’s life work, anyone’s life purpose. 

Instead of apple-picking, what are you doing?  Is it what you desire?  If so, no matter how hard you work, it will be worth it, even if you are not perfect at your work.

You may get tired, but it will be a good tired if you are doing what you want to do.  If it is what someone else desires, all the work will be drudgery, misery.

We can also read this poem as a metaphor for life itself. 

If I was teaching this poem in a class, I would discuss the symbolism of the seasons before reading this.  It is nearly winter in this poem, and that usually means death is approaching. 

Not only is it the end of autumn, it is the end of this man’s labor for the season, and the end of a day.  Lots of “ends” here, right?  Add to that all of the talk to sleep (six times) and dreaming, and being tired, drowsing. . .and LONG sleep, and it becomes highly probable that the speaker is dying. 

He is evaluating his life’s work, and feels confident that he did the best he could with it, even though he realizes that it wasn’t a perfect life. Maybe he didn’t get to fill all the barrels he wanted to fill. Even so, he is all set; he is done with whatever he wanted to do in this world. He has had “too much of apple-picking” and is ready to go.  The only trouble that remains is the uncertainty about what death will be like.

Ah, and that is a little “fruit of knowledge” that we all try to pick, isn’t it?

What a pretty little poem. 

Apple: the fruit of knowledge. What does he still want to know?