Friendship, Gardening, Literature, Plain Speaking

William Blake: When Friends Fall Out

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 (who 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, resentment, and grievance against another and we keep our feelings 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 anger with his enemy, 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–nor, by extension, the “garden.”)

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, tempting, apple set out for him. And what, to our narrator’s wondering eyes should appear in the morning, but the 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 showing off to his current set of “friends,” 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 asking you:

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?

William Blake, author of some of the most charming, as well as some of the most disturbing, poetry in the English language, died 196 years ago today, on August 12, 1827.

**The “featured image” on this post (the one you see on the home page) is from the 1510 Hunt Lenox Globe, the only antique map on which–all opinions to the contrary–the phrase Hic Sunt Dracones actually appears.

Leave a Reply