A Poison Tree (Poem Summary

Poem Summary

First Quatrain On first contact with "A Poison Tree," a reader may be deceived by the apparent simplicity of the poem. It seems like one more example of the children's verses and nursery rhymes that had become popular and was being published in the later part of the eighteenth century. The most famous collection was the one attributed to "Mother Goose." Such verses were intended to teach children moral lessons through easy-to-remember rhymes and catchy rhythms. "I was angry with my friend; / I told my wrath, my wrath did end," Blake begins. The language and sentiment are simple and hardly need to be explained even to a young child. Someone is speaking of his direct experience: He was angry at his friend. He told his friend that he was angry, and the result was that his anger went away. The whole thing is presented in a neat package tied up and resolved by the rhyme of "friend" and "end." In contrast to this way of handling anger, the speaker says, "I was angry with my foe: / I told it not, my wrath did grow." Again the verse seems clear and simple, and so, too, the lesson. When people do not say how they feel, the bad feeling becomes worse. The latter two lines of the quatrain, furthermore, seem to reinforce the wisdom of the first two: Say what you feel; do not suppress it, or things will get worse. The analogy the reader is led to draw between the first set of two lines, or rhyming couplet, and the second couplet is not exact. The situations are different. In the first couplet, the speaker is angry at his friend; in the second, at his foe. This difference immediately makes the simple poem less simple. The lines are not really moralizing about confessing or concealing anger. They are referring to the way people classify other people as friends and foes and to the different ways people treat friends and foes. By extension, the poem considers the nature and consequences of anger, exploring how it grows and what it grows into. Second Quatrain The second quatrain, composed of two more rhyming couplets, seems less like a child's verse than the first quatrain. "And I watered it in fears," the speaker says, "Night & morning with my tears: / And I sunned it with smiles, / And with soft deceitful wiles." In these lines, the speaker tells how he has tended and cultivated his anger, how he has made it grow. He is not suggesting a moral, as he does in the first quatrain, but he is examining a process. He is revealing the pleasure he takes in his own slyness. He also begins to speak using metaphor. Metaphor allows one thing to suggest or stand for something else. The "it" of the first line of the second quatrain refers to the speaker's wrath, but he speaks of his wrath not as if it were an emotion, which it is, but as if it were a small plant. He "watered" his anger with his tears, and, using another metaphor, he "sunned it with smiles / And with soft deceitful wiles." Wiles are sly tricks, strategies intended to deceive someone into trusting. The speaker is laying a trap for his foe, tempting him to desire something that seems alluring but is harmful. As he pretends to be friendly to his foe, the very act of being friendly strengthens his wrath. The false smiles he bestows on his foe act like sunshine on the plant of his wrath. The friendlier the speaker seems, the more hostile he really is, and the worse are his intentions. The clarity of innocence is gone. The speaker's behavior does not look like what it is. He is not what he seems. By using metaphor, by talking about anger as if it were a plant and about hypocrisy as if it were

sunshine, the speaker represents the duplicity of his behavior in his language. He makes his behavior appear more attractive than it is. Third Quatrain What is a figure of speech, a metaphor, in the second quatrain seems to become the thing itself, an actual tree, in the third. "And it grew both day and night," the speaker says. The "it" must refer to his wrath, which he has been cultivating with "smiles, / And soft deceitful wiles." In the second line of the third quatrain, however, "it" bears "an apple bright." The wrath has become an actual tree. Anger does not bear apples. Apple trees do. A feeling has been given so much weight that it has become a presence, an actual thing. The fruit of the speaker's wrath, then, is not like an apple on a tree, it is an apple. The speaker has made his anger seem like something else, and then it actually becomes something else. He has made something deadly become alluring and tempting to his foe. By association, the speaker's anger, which has become a tempting apple, can remind the reader of the apple on the forbidden Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden. That fruit seems as if it would offer a world of good, but in the Judeo-Christian story, it actually offers a world of woe. The apple of "A Poison Tree" is the same kind of apple. The reader may have the uneasy feeling that Blake is suggesting that in the Bible story, what is called God's love is really a form of wrath, that the God of the established Judeo-Christian religion is a god of wrath, not of love. Blake does believe that, as his longer poems repeatedly demonstrate. "A Poison Tree," a poem using metaphors becomes a metaphor. The relation of the angry speaker to his foe comes to stand for the story of an angry god and humankind. Fourth Quatrain The climax of "A Poison Tree" comes rushing on so swiftly that a break between verse paragraphs, which has marked movement from one quatrain to the next, no longer seems necessary. The first line of the final quatrain follows without a pause after the second couplet of the third: "And my foe beheld it shine. / And he knew that it was mine. / And into my garden stole." The repeated use of the word "and" — a poetic device called polysyndeton — at the beginning of each line shows how clearly one action leads to and follows another. Blake also accelerates the action of the poem by the way he uses the word "stole." "And into my garden stole" means that his foe came secretly into his garden. "Stole," however, also suggests thievery, what the foe sneaks into the garden to do under cover of darkness. By giving the word "stole" the strength he does, the speaker is emphasizing the culpability of his foe. The culpability, in large part, has been created by the speaker himself. The speaker, the tempter, is the one who has laid snares for his foe and is responsible for them. The poem never reveals whether the person called the "foe" has a feeling of enmity, or ill will, toward the speaker or whether he realizes the speaker even considers him a foe. The poem tells nothing about what sort of person the "foe" is, why the speaker considers him a foe, or why he is angry with him. Stealing into the garden and eating the apple, moreover, is not necessarily an act of enmity. It is foremost an act of appetite, of desire, which, in fact, has been induced and stimulated by the speaker. The speaker, by using the word "stole," shows his own excitement at luring his foe into blameworthiness and transgression, and, unknowingly, he is indicting himself. The only thing Blake allows the speaker to say about his foe is that he "stole" into the garden "when the night had veild the pole." The polestar, that is, the fixed North Star, the star that mariners use to keep them on course, is obscured. In other words, the foe steals into the garden at a moment when, the metaphor of the veiled polestar reveals, his sense of moral direction has been impaired by the speaker's subterfuge.

The final couplet, "In the morning glad I see; / My foe outstretched beneath the tree," is more ambiguous than at first it may appear. How one decides to understand it determines how to understand the entire poem. The first problem of interpretation is whether "outstretched" means dead. If it does, as the reader is entitled to believe it does because the tree bears poison, then the couplet reveals the baseness of the speaker. It shows the pleasure the speaker takes at the fall of his enemy: In the morning, I am glad to see that my foe lies dead beneath the tree. If, however, "outstretched" means only outstretched — that the foe is not dead but that the apparently friendly relationship is poisoned and the foe realizes that his apparent friend is not his friend — then the problems of human confrontation, anger, and enmity remain, as they do for all people. Another problem is that Blake's punctuation of the penultimate, or next to the last, line — "In the morning glad I see;" — allows two readings of the line. There is no punctuation until the semicolon at the end of the line. The word "glad" can be read as describing either "morning" or "I." If "glad" describes "morning," the interpretation is that in the happy morning, bright with light, as opposed to the "veiled" night, the speaker is seeing. If "glad" describes "I," the interpretation is that in the morning the speaker is happy to see the sight of his fallen foe. The first reading allows readers to see the speaker enlightened, even shocked by the effect of his anger, that it is fatal to his foe. The glad morning contrasts to the speaker's sober realization. The second interpretation allows readers to see the effect of anger on the character of the person who cultivates it. It is fatal to his innocent regard for humankind. Blake has changed the focus of the story from the Fall of human beings to the fall of God. By making it a metaphor for the story of the Fall, Blake has constructed the poem so that the speaker's behavior, modeled on God's behavior in the Old Testament, represents God's behavior and the speaker represents God. Through his analysis and implicit condemnation of the speaker, Blake analyzes the vision that has created the god of the Old Testament and the attitude that this god embodies. Blake warns against that vision, that attitude, and that kind of god, identifying him as a god of wrath and cruelty rather than of love.

Because I Could not Stop For Death
Lines 1-2 Death is personified, or described in terms of human characteristics, throughout literature. Whether Death takes the form of a decrepit old man, a grim reaper, or a ferryman, his visit is almost never welcome by the poor mortal who finds him at the door. Such is not the case in “Because I Could Not Stop for Death.” Figuratively speaking, this poem is about one woman’s “date with death.” Dickinson uses the personification of Death as a metaphor throughout the poem. Here, Death is a gentleman, perhaps handsome and well-groomed, who makes a call at the home of a naive young woman. The poem begins with a comment upon Death’s politeness, although he surprises the woman with his visit. Knowing that the woman has been keeping herself too busy in her daily life to remember Death, he “kindly” comes by to get her. While most people would try to bar the door once they recognized his identity, this woman gives the impression that she is quite flattered to find herself in even this gentleman’s favor. Lines 3-4

It would have been shocking for a young, unmarried 19th century woman to take a carriage ride alone with a strange gentleman. In this instance, a chaperon named Immortality rides with them. This is another example of personification. Though the poem’s speaker offers no description of Immortality, one might imagine an ageless-looking little woman in a gray dress. In any case, the poem’s speaker hardly notices Immortality’s presence beyond a brief mention in line four. The young woman’s attention is still focused on Death, her gentleman caller. Line 5 There are many possible explanations for the slow speed with which Death drives the carriage. Perhaps, since the woman is now “dead,” the carriage has been transformed into a hearse, and they are moving at the slow, deliberate speed of the lead car in a funeral procession. Another possible explanation is that Death is has no concept of time. Time and space are earthly concerns, and Death, courier of souls from this world to the unknown, is not bound by such vague human concepts. Lines 6-8 People spend much of their lives keeping busy with work or amused with play so that they do not have to think about their own imminent death. The poem’s speaker seems to be no exception; however, she admits that she was willing to put aside her distractions and go with Death, perhaps because she found him so surprisingly charming. She comments upon his “Civility,” or formal politeness. She appears to be seduced by his good manners. If she had any expectations about Death, he has certainly exceeded them. Lines 9-12 This quatrain is rich with imagery. Death’s passenger does not seem as concerned with where they are going as she does with the scenery along the way. In spite of the fact that she “put away” her “labor” and “leisure” in the previous quatrain, she is still distracted by things of the mortal world. It is possible that she knows she is seeing the last of these things which are so common that she may not have noticed them before: children playing, wheat growing, the sun setting. Taken for granted in the daily grind of life, these things grow more meaningful in relation to this final journey. The children are playing “in a ring,” and rings have magical significance for human beings because they are a symbol of eternity. The grain represents the natural world as she knows it, only this time the grain seems to be “gazing” at her, or looking at her with great interest. The “setting sun” is the universal clock, the thing by which humans measure their lives on earth. As they pass it by, she seems to pass into a new dimension. Lines 13-16 Here again we see, as in line 5, that Death has no concept of time or earthly concerns. It is the Sun that is moving (“He passed Us), indicating the passage of time by its daily course across the sky. The carriage here seems to be going so slowly as to be nearly motionless. In any event, night appears to be falling, and a chilly dew is settling in. The references to the thinness of the woman’s clothing (her gossamer gown and her tulle tippet, or cape) suggest that she is growing cold — another reminder that she is now “dead.” Lines 17-20 This “House” is a grave, even though the speaker uses a euphemism to describe it. This is where her body will be housed while her soul journeys onward. She describes the house as a “Swelling of the Ground,” clearly an image of a fresh burial plot. She can hardly see the roof, and the “Cornice,” or ornamental molding near the roofline, is only just visible above the pile of earth.

She does not describe how long they “paused” there, but it could not have been long. This seems to be just a way station, though the woman does not seem to know it at this point. Her destination is still a mystery. Lines 21-22 These lines contain an excellent example of hyperbole, an intentional exaggeration or overstatement that is not meant to be taken literally. Naturally, centuries are longer than a single day. However, some great moments in human life seem longer than they are, and moments of great revelation seem to stretch out forever. The greatest revelation of all must be the moment when the mystery of death and the afterlife is revealed. Also, perhaps because that day was the last day that the woman experienced the temporal, or time-related, world, the memory of it is the last remnant of her previous existence. Lines 23-24 Sometimes the poetic experience is the closest thing to knowing the unknowable. In these final lines, Dickinson has attempted to describe what no living human can know: that moment the meaning of “forever” becomes clear. Oddly enough, there is no bolt of lightning or clap of thunder. Dickinson uses the word “surmised,” meaning that the woman guesses, through intuition, the answer to the riddle of human existence. She looks at the heads of the horses and sees that they are pointed “toward Eternity,” and suddenly she remembers that Immortality has been sitting beside her all along.

When I Have Fears that I May Cease to Be (Poem Summary)
Poem Summary

Lines 1-4 The central metaphor in the first quatrain is the comparison between writing poetry and harvesting grain. The speaker compares the pen with an implement of harvest(“glean’d my teeming brain”) and books with the buildings(“garners”) where grain is stored. The metaphor expresses the first of the speaker’s three main concerns: that death will cut short his poetic career. Just as a person’s natural life spans youth, adulthood, and old age, so the growing of grain follows the natural progression of the seasons. For the poet to die young, however, precludes his chance of “harvesting” the fruits of his mind, which become “ripen’d” only as the poet ages. These fruits, which are poetic works, grant the poet fame, represented by the “high-piled books” in line 3. The fear of obscurity was one Keats carried to his death only three years after composing “When I Have Fears That I May Cease To Be”. Though he had no way of knowing his life would indeed be cut short before he achieved the kind of recognition he sought, he echoes this concern in the final line of the sonnet. Lines 5-8 Some readers believe that the second quatrain continues to discuss the fear that death will cut short the speaker’s poetic career. These readers infer that the “high romance” symbolized by the night clouds is a literary concept, a level of artistic expression the speaker will never “live to trace,” or to realize. But another reading is possible. The night sky as a symbol for the ultimate

questions that haunt man dates back to ancient times. The Hebrew Psalmist, for instance, reflects on die stars in Psalm 8(in the King James Bible) and asks himself, “What is man?” While Keats’s use of the word romance” might suggest a literary meaning, die reader must also acknowledge more philosophical implications. The clouds move across die moon and stars, making “shadows” that recall Plato’s analogy of me cave wall. These shadows, cryptic and insubstantial as they are, reveal die greater mystery of the heavens. By living, the poet hopes he can divine the explanation for — die “Truth” of — the universe, and by extension me riddle of his own existence. Whether or not he lives to do so, however, remains at the discretion of “the magic hand of chance,” or fate. If he dies too soon, he knows, he will not be able to solve the mystery of the heavens, to “trace their shadows.” This fear that he will die in ignorance of the soul’s ultimate destiny is one mat goes far beyond the question of poetic fame in the first quatrain. It is also a concept mat remains unsettled by the final two lines of the poem — not dissolving, as do “love” and “fame,” to “nothingness.” Lines 9-12 The third quatrain speaks of another kind of “high romance,” that of “unreflecting love.” In these lines, the speaker first addresses his beloved in typically romantic terms(“fair creature”), yet the quatrain’s main concern is not the beloved at all. Instead, it is the self. The speaker’s meditation on his beloved leads instantly to his twin fears of time and death. Because of life’s fleetingness, his love is only “of an hour.” Further, the consciousness of time — and of love’s transience — precludes what the speaker suggests is the best kind of love: love devoid of analytical scrutiny and therefore free of the fear of loss and death. This kind of love has a “faery power” (in mythology, fairies are immortal) precisely because it is “unreflecting.” Because the speaker’s nature is to be self-conscious, die opposite of “unreflecting,” he fears he will never experience this kind of love. Lines 13-14 In the end, the speaker’s recognition that he lacks the qualities of “unreflecting love” leads him to the state of alienation described in the final couplet. Because he is too self-conscious to love, he is forced to “stand alone.” Isolated, he continues to “think.” But thinking is, in this poem, equal to death. As he reflects on time’s inevitable course, two things the speaker holds most valuable in life — “love and fame” — are shown to be insubstantial given the fact of death, and they dissolve into “nothingness.” Thus the speaker stands on “die shore/ of the wide world,” at die edge of what we perceive in life but also close to what might exist beyond. In this state, there is only a hint of solace. While love and fame prove illusory, me “high romance” of the universe discussed in the second quatrain does not “sink” into “nothingness.” It is this mystery, represented by the “huge cloudy symbols” of Line 6, that the speaker comes closest to in die poem, his fear of death leading to the ultimate question of his own existence.

Kubla Khan (Poem Summary)
Poem Summary

Lines 1-2

In these lines, Coleridge introduces Kubla Khan, ruler of the Mongol Empire in China during the thirteenth century A.D. His kingdom symbolized wealth and mystery to Europeans ever since Marco Polo first wrote about his travels there; throughout the poem, Coleridge builds a sense of the exotic and mysterious. The second line emphasizes Kubla Khan’s power as he orders a fitting palace for himself. It also hints at one of the many contrasts that will appear in the poem as the word “stately” conveying the grandeur and majesty of Kubla Khan’s creation, is paired with the idea of a pleasure dome, a place of luxury and leisure. The opening images of the poem bear striking similarities to the following quotation from Purchas’s Pilgrimage, which Coleridge said he was reading immediately before he drifted into his deep sleep: “In Xamdu did Cublai Can builde a stately Palace, encompassing sixteene miles of plaine ground with a wall, wherein are fertile Meddowes, pleasant springs, delightful Streames, and all sorts of beasts of chase and game, and in the middest thereof a suptuous house of pleasure.” As you look through the first eight lines, notice the words that Coleridge has borrowed. It is also interesting to notice the changes which he made. For example, Xanadu fits the poem’s iambic tetrameter, where Xamdu would not. Line 3 Khan chooses to build this dome on the site of a sacred river, which Coleridge calls the Alph. Although no river with this name exists, the name itself suggests or has the connotation of a beginning. This is because Alph is so similar to Alpha, the first letter of the Greek alphabet, which has as an alternate meaning, beginning. Coleridge, like many poets, likes to experiment with language and invent words to provide added guides to meaning. Critics have also identified the Alph with such different rivers as the Nile, the Alpheus river in Greece, and the fourth river to flow out of the Garden of Eden. Note that the word river is always accompanied by the adjective “sacred.” Since rivers and water are life-giving, the sacred river may be seen as a symbol of life. Lines 4-5 A second contrast is introduced with these lines. After the river leaves the area where Kubla Khan creates his kingdom, it flows beyond man’s reach into a series of underground caverns. “Measureless to man” conveys not only caverns that man cannot physically map, but areas that are beyond the reach of his full comprehension. The river has as its ultimate destination the sunless sea, a place without light and life and a complete contrast to the earlier impression of the river. Lines 6-7 In these lines, Coleridge returns to the construction of Khan’s kingdom. Ten miles of land, which are exceptionally rich, are enclosed behind a wall with towers to protect it. The pleasure dome is not a public sight available to anyone who wishes to visit. It is a private domain. This makes it quite different from the poet’s creation that will be discussed later in the poem. Lines 8-11 Here another contrast is introduced. The gardens, planted or cultivated areas designed by humans, fill part of the area with brightly colored flowers and sweet smelling trees, watered by numerous winding brooks that branch off from the sacred river. These gardens are set among ancient forests, which have been there as long as the land itself. The river and forests provide an ageless backdrop for Khan’s dream. Although Coleridge notes the differences between Khan’s

planned estate and nature’s realm, both seem to exist in a harmonious balance. The kingdom described in lines 6 to 11 is created by using an evocative series of images of an earthly paradise, perhaps even a type of Eden. Lines 12-13 Line 12 begins by signaling new and even greater contrasts that the following lines will develop as they describe the deep crack in the earth hidden under the grove of cedar trees. Line 14 This is no artificial or manmade place. It is unreached by cultivation and civilization, a magic and even blessed spot that exists outside of man’s understanding. The calm and balance of lines 8 through 11 are missing in this primitive, wild place. When holy and enchanted are joined together in this description, they convey a sense of the pagan and the supernatural. Lines 15-16 Coleridge uses a simile to show the distance of this site from Khan’s imposing gardens. The waning moon describes that period as the moon decreases from full, so less and less of it is visible. Thus, this mysterious chasm is compared to a spot haunted by a woman crying in anguish, as the moon’s light diminishes, for her demon lover. Any relationship between a human and the supernatural would be impossible in the balanced garden of Khan. It could only exist in the passionate upheaval of the chasm. Lines 17-19 This mysterious chasm is pictured in constant turbulence, very different from the garden’s calm. Symbolist critics point out sexual and birth imagery in these lines. The language makes it easy to picture the earth in labor, giving birth to the fountain. Lines 20-22 The power of the fountain that pours forth the river is apparent as huge boulders are tossed up with the water. Two similes are used to illustrate this force. In the first, the huge boulders are compared to hail. The second makes them seem even lighter. A thresher is a person or machine who separates the useful, heavier part of a kernel of grain from its lighter, useless shell or chaff. When the grain is hit with a flail, the kernel drops down immediately into a container; the chaff is blown away by the wind. Lines 23-28 The next lines reveal all the contradictions in the river’s path. Along with the boulders, the river emerges. The previous similes describing the boulders both use images involving striking: hail hits the earth; the thresher hits the grain. The mood of lines 12-22 is of turmoil and upheaval. After the rocks leave the chasm, they are described again, using a gentler metaphor, as “dancing rocks.” This phrase is also an example of personification, where inanimate objects are given human characteristics. After its tumultuous beginning, the river slowly takes a wandering path through the gardens. The poet uses alliteration in line 25 to add a slow, humming sound, with the words “miles,” “meandering,” “mazy,” and “motion.” The repetition of lines 3 to 5 in 26 to 28 slows the pace as well. Lines 29-30 Although Khan’s gardens initially seem a place of peace and balance, Khan himself hears a different message coming from the distant rumbles of the chasm and the cave. The tumult of the river issues a warning that human creations are not permanent. The voices of his ancestors

provide testimony to the fact that the greatest creations of the world eventually come to ruin. Thus, too, the elegant dome is threatened with the destruction of war. Lines 31-34 The various contrasts Coleridge has described in the poem so far come together in these lines. The poem returns to that part of this earthly paradise which Kubla Khan has constructed, the pleasuredome; however, in these lines, it is not seen directly, merely as a shadow. Now the contrasting element, the turmoil of the fountain and the message of the caverns, seems to overshadow the dome’s image, warning that man’s creation is transitory; nature endures. Lines 35-36 In these lines, Coleridge ends the first part of the poem, describing Kubla Khan and his world. The meter returns to iambic pentameter here, giving the lines a slower, measured quality. This meter helps to emphasize the mood of regret and loss in these lines as they summarize Kubla Khan’s creative achievement. He harmonized opposing forces, sun and ice, in his miraculous dome, which has since vanished without trace. Lines 37-38 The poet himself becomes the subject as the poem moves from Kubla Khan’s physical creation to the poet’s vision as he recounts seeing a young girl playing a stringed musical instrument in a dream. The poem shifts from third person to the first person, I. Note that the meter also changes again and becomes even more regular as the poem returns to the light, upbeat tempo of iambic tetrameter throughout much of this stanza. Lines 39-41 Coleridge again invents or adapts names to conjure a sense of mystery or the exotic. The maid in the vision, like Kubla Khan, is from a foreign place. Abyssinia is another name for Ethiopia. Mount Abora, like Alph, is a name that Coleridge created. However, several critics note its similarity to Mount Amara in Milton’s Paradise Lost. The reader is not given any details of the vision; no images are provided. The reader may assume that Mount Abora is similar to Khan’s paradise only because the poet says that it creates such deep delight. Lines 42-45 This phrasing of these lines is unusual. Could is used as a conditional verb here, and the entire sentence becomes a speculation. If the poet can recover the dream, he will create a vision of Paradise; the beauty of the vision will transform the poet and enable him to use the music of his poetry to build with words what Kubla Khan had built in his kingdom. The poem leaves unanswered whether or not the poet will be able to capture that dream. Lines 46-48 Here, the poet describes the power of successful poetic vision; not only can he renew his vision, but he has the power to convey it to all who hear or who read his words. This serves as a contrast to the Khan’s pleasure-dome, bound by walls and not meant for all to use. Lines 49-52 All of those around the poet are wary of him because he is caught up in a kind of enchantment or madness during his vision. His eyes glitter in a frenzy of creativity. This creativity, like that of the sacred river, comes from tumult. He is viewed with “holy dread” because he has drawn his vision from a place similar to the chasm described earlier, a place sacred and enchanted, pagan

yet blessed. The idea of the poet being “possessed” by his vision is not new with Coleridge. The Greeks believed that creativity was often a type of momentary madness. Lines 53-54 Honey-dew refers to the sweet honey-like substance that certain flowers, such as honeysuckle, produce in the summer. Another word for this liquid is nectar, known as the food of the gods. With his words, the poet, when he achieves his dream, can combine the chasm and the gardens, thus tasting Paradise.

Master your semester with Scribd & The New York Times

Special offer for students: Only $4.99/month.

Master your semester with Scribd & The New York Times

Cancel anytime.