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The Sunday Reading Challenge: A Poison Tree by William Blake

Written by Rachael Norris, 26th April 2020

I admit to having a bit of a head start on learning this particular poem, ‘A Poison Tree’ by William Blake. When I studied A Level English Literature (some years ago now), Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience was part of the exam syllabus, and I vividly remember the whole class panicking when we first knew that we would need to familiarise ourselves with the 40-odd poems in there, well enough so that we could write confidently about any of them that could turn up in the final exam. A daunting task for a group of 17/18 year olds to contend with.

Our tutor recognised the collective fear, and had a tool up her sleeve to aid our learning. To several classes, she brought along a CD player (they were still widely used when I was taking my A Levels, before the days when streaming music became popular) and played us a CD of the poems in Songs of Innocence and Experience, recorded in a folk-rock styling. As a music lover, I was appreciative of this method but also a little bit sceptical of how effective it would prove in getting Blake’s work embedded in my brain. My parents had bought me a cassette tape (yes, we’re going even further back in time now) of multiplication tables set to music when I was about 10, but I never took to it – listening to the Spice Girls first album on repeat was much more appealing to me. Looking back, I think it was also the fact that I didn’t really like maths all that much; English was a different story altogether.

It ended up working well, and certain poems turned into songs caught my attention more than others – similar to having favourite tracks on an album. ‘A Poison Tree’ was one of these stand-outs, and subsequently the opening stanza is one which has stuck in my head ever since, the four lines as vivid now as they were several years ago. That’s the first part taken care of, then. But it has been a long time since my A Levels, and since then that part of my brain has been given over to other tasks, namely absorbing hundreds, or perhaps even thousands, of other song lyrics.

Revisiting the poem from this ‘learning by heart’ perspective (I have read it since as part of Shared Reading) has been great fun. It’s a little bit surprising how quickly I recalled the tune of the ‘song’, and it definitely helped me pick up the lines quicker than if I would have been trying to learn the words from scratch. If you’re looking to take on your own Sunday Reading Challenge with a poem you like or that means something to you, I would recommend setting it to a tune – whether it’s repurposing a song you know well, or otherwise making up a new melody. This is fairly easy to do if the poem has a defined rhythm and regular rhyme, and as someone who has a soundtrack of music playing on a daily basis, it’s a method I feel at home with.

As others who have taken on the Sunday Reading Challenge before me have already said, it doesn’t matter if you don’t get it right straightaway. It’s a huge achievement to learn two or four lines of poetry. Keep going, even if it takes months, and remember, it’s all about having fun.

Now, to see how I’ve got on…and I’ve spared you my singing the poem as, as much as I adore music, sadly I don’t possess the talent for keeping in tune!

A Poison Tree

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 my 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 veil'd the pole;
In the morning glad I see;
My foe outstretched beneath the tree.

William Blake

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