Author’s Note: A deconstruction of any work should never end upon a declaration of aporia; the discovery of aporia is where the work begins. In this paper I tried to explore the opposing meanings in “A Poison Tree,” but in my zeal to cut page count I lost much of my point regarding aporia and my belief that aporia doesn’t exist. I tried to recover some of the lost pages and put them back into this paper, I hope my meaning is clearer now.
“A Poison Tree” by William Blake (Source: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poems/detail/45952) ostensibly deals with the speaker’s refusal to communicate his anger to a tree, but the overdetermined nature of the words used in the poem render a final determination of the poem’s meaning impossible. In this paper, by using methods like those Derrida uses in Spectres of Marx and Dissemination, I will examine how the contradictory imperatives contained within this poem’s metaphors draw a reader away from their initial assumption (i.e. this poem is about a man accepting his feelings of wrath) into interpretations Blake may not have intended, I will demonstrate how the variety of meanings for both the overdetermined words and the contradictory imperatives do not cause the poem to lose its ultimate effect. Instead, these variations and conflicted meanings highlight the complexity of the speaker’s situation.
To begin my study of the overdetermined nature of the words and metaphors in this poem I must begin with the title, “A Poison Tree” cannot simply refer to a poisonous tree or a tree that causes one harm upon contact or ingestion. If this was the case, if the tree was, in fact, a poison tree, why would the speaker keep it in his garden? The following lines:
“I told my wrath, my wrath did end.
I told it not, my wrath did grow.” (Blake lines 2 and 4)
serve to highlight the internal/external[i] or within/without conflict inherent to the tree/wrath metaphor. How does the poison tree relate to the speaker’s wrath? And, how does telling his wrath to this tree (or his wrath via the tree) stop his anger from growing? It is nonsensical to imagine an actual tree growing when one is angry. The tree must represent something that grows within the speaker’s self rather than an actual tree growing in an actual garden. Certainly, it must signify some feeling inside one’s self rather than some thing one grows. To continue down this thread of reasoning, simply calling the poem “A Poison Feeling” seems more apropos and accurate to the tenor (feelings) and vehicle (tree) of this metaphor. But conversely, I cannot simply transpose all the incidences in the poem of the word “tree” with “feeling.” To illustrate this problem, the final line of the poem “my foe outstretched beneath the tree” (Blake 16) gains no clarification from such a transposition, having one’s foe outstretched beneath one’s feeling is nonsensical. To determine this poem’s ultimate meaning I cannot rely on a simple transposition of words.
Compounding the within/without contradiction presented by the tree metaphor further, the second stanza of the poem indicates the speaker needs to care for his poison tree by watering and sunning it. Furthermore, the phrase “waterd it in fears” (Blake 5), and specifically the word “waterd” makes an absolute determination of this metaphor’s vehicle extremely difficult. To clarify, the need to water some thing with fears (or anything at all) indicates the need to care for something outside of one’s self, as watering one’s self from within is impossible both logically and physically. And moving to the final line of the second stanza, the phrase “deceitful wiles” (Blake 8) indicates the speaker needs to deceive his tree to care for it. To clarify, deceit indicates the need for the speaker to conceal something from an outside actor. If the tree is a metaphor for the speaker’s feelings, how is it possible for the speaker to hide his own feelings from himself? In addition, if the tree is meant as a symbolic representation of something from without, how can deceit cause it to grow? In other words, how can one hide from something that comes from within? And conversely, how does deceit or concealment benefit something that comes from without? This poem’s conflicting imperatives are already becoming impossible to reconcile; specifically, this poetic contradiction may reflect the speaker’s own conflicted internal experiences in relation to his foe.
Moving on to the third stanza, we find a tree that has “bore an apple bright” (Blake 10) and the speaker’s “foe beheld it shine” (Blake 11). This seems to indicate that the “deceitful wiles” of the previous stanza were not meant for the tree, but for the foe (Blake 8). Now, we have the speaker’s wrath existing without while also existing within, and this wrath has been hidden from both the tree (via itself) and the foe simultaneously. Thus, the contradictory imperatives contained in this poem make an interpretation of “tree” as “feeling” (something within) and “foe” as “enemy” (something without) impossible. If the tree needs care and attention it can be either a metaphor for a feeling within the speaker or a physical tree. Furthermore, if the foe is the tree, deceiving the foe should cause the tree to suffer, and so on ad nauseam. Is the speaker (via the tree) his own enemy? Or, is the foe (also via the tree, but acting externally) the enemy? It is impossible to determine if the foe is the tree or vice versa.
Furthermore, in the first line of the third stanza we discover the tree “grew both day and night” (Blake 9) which indicates that the tree does not require sunlight to grow, only deceitful wiles and fear. And, this impossible within/without tree managed to defy the laws of nature and grow an “apple bright” (Blake 9) for the speaker’s foe to behold and know “that it was [the speaker’s]” (Blake 10). This is to say we now have an inside/outside tree bearing possible/impossible fruit being held by a present/not-present foe in a garden which exists within/without simultaneously. In addition, this foe is holding the possible/impossible apple and “knew that it was [the speaker’s]” (Blake 12), indicating that the foe has been in the garden all along, thus adding another irreconcilable contradiction to the poem. If the foe, who the speaker is hiding from, is — and possibly always has been — within the garden, what is the speaker hiding from? If he’s hiding from the foe, why do we need the tree? And if he’s hiding from the tree, why do we need the foe? The fact remains, with an uncanny similarity to many of life’s problems, there are no singular answers to these questions.
In the final stanza, this poem’s whole system of metaphors comes apart, the line “and into my garden stole” (Blake 13) renders the poem undecidable. To illustrate the problem, in this quote the speaker steals into his own garden, indicating he always knew his foe was there. Moreover, continuing to focus on Blake’s use of the word “stole” only creates further problems. To explain, Blake uses stole as a verb, but the modern definition of stole deals primarily with property crimes in the past tense (i.e. he stole my book). When Blake uses the verb stole c. 1780, the verb could also be defined as to hide, or to sneak (i.e. he snuck into my garden) (“Steal, v.1.”). The speaker’s need to sneak into his own garden is both troubling and confusing, if it is his garden what is his foe doing there? Is the foe something internal to the speaker? Is the speaker hiding from himself? No amount of contorted différance can explain away this poem’s various contradictory imperatives, there are no singular answers to any of these questions. To continue down this line of reasoning, a reader’s desire to force this into an either/or statement (the foe is an enemy or the foe is the narrator himself) has a double effect; the narrator is presented as having known all along that his foe is present in the garden, thus a reader must consider the possibility that the narrator himself is the foe. This is to say that this aporia does not render the poem meaningless, but, through the impossibility of a literal interpretation, demonstrates that the foe hiding in the garden is not an actor external to the narrator. A detailed analysis of this conflict renders the internal/external nature of the foe obvious and creates, within the reader, a reflection of the narrator’s own internal conflict.
Moving on from these conflicts and continuing to the next line, Blake’s “veild pole” is yet another example of undecidability. And as such I cannot determine “pole” into a singular meaning, rendering the word an aporia within the context of the poem. To explain this aporia further, the word “pole” can mean various things: a pole in the ground, a pole holding something up, a ship’s mast, etc. (“Pole, n.1.”), but within the context of this poem none of these definitions seem to apply. Consequently, I must look at other, less obvious definitions for this word. To pick one possible interpretation, if the word pole is used to indicate the polar star — the north star — then the idea of night veiling a star is, although strange, one interpretation I could assume. And moving forward with this assumption, we now have a man sneaking into his own garden on a night so dark he cannot see the stars, to gain access to a tree that grows both inside his self and in his garden, to confront a foe who is both present in the garden and not present in the garden – and might be something internal to the speaker himself – at the same time. And after sneaking into his own garden the narrator inexplicably decides to wait all night in total silence and as the sun rises is surprised to see his foe — who may have been there all along, or may be a part of the speaker himself — “outstretched beneath the tree” (Blake 16), a tree which is both a figurative example of the speaker’s feelings of wrath and simultaneously an actual tree growing in an actual garden.
In conclusion, “A Poison Tree” is an excellent example of what Derrida refers to as an undecidable: the text, when studied carefully, becomes something it cannot possibly be while simultaneously remaining unable to become anything other than what it already is. In other words, after a study focused within the context of the poem itself the poem’s meaning comes apart and becomes something different than what it was before deconstruction, while – at the same time – always remaining unchanged. Through a detailed analysis focused on deconstructing Blake’s metaphoric “trees as feelings” into internal and external constructs acting simultaneously as both part of the narrator’s self and independent of the narrator’s person, a deeper, possible/impossible meaning is uncovered. And furthermore, by dissecting these undecidable meanings the narrator’s deeply personal and hidden emotions are revealed. While this poem relies on overdetermined words and conflicting imperatives to convey meaning, it does not suffer from an overall loss of meaning, as the conflicts within the poem’s metaphors mirror the speaker’s internal emotional conflicts as he attempts to deal with his foe.
Blake, William. “A Poison Tree.” Poetry Foundation, https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poems/detail/45952. Accessed 31 Oct. 2016.
Derrida, Jacques. “Plato’s Pharmacy.” Norton Anthology, Leitch et al., editors, translated by Barbara Johnson, 1972, pp. 1697–1734.
—. Specters of Marx: The State of Debt, the Work of Mourning and the New International. Translated by Peggy Kamuf, Routledge, 1994.
Leitch, Vincent B., et al., editors. The Norton Anthology of Theory & Criticism. Second Edition, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2010.
“Pole, n.1.” OED Online, Oxford UP. Oxford English Dictionary, http://www.oed.com.ezproxy.lib.ucalgary.ca/view/Entry/146777. Accessed 5 Nov. 2016.
“Steal, v.1.” OED Online, Oxford UP. Oxford English Dictionary, http://www.oed.com.ezproxy.lib.ucalgary.ca/view/Entry/189461. Accessed 5 Nov. 2016.
[i] Throughout this essay I use the / symbol to indicate “at the same time” not “either/or.”