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A NOTE ON COWPER AND A POISON TREE

Cowper’s incidental poem, On the Death of Mrs. Throckmorton’s Bullfinch (1789, 1792) offers a likely source for a description in Blake’s A Poison Tree, in the Songs of Experience (dated 1794). In Blake’s poem the wrath of the speaker grows to bear “an apple bright”; this is beheld by the envious “foe” who—the last stanza relates—

. . . into my garden stole,
When the night had veild the pole;
In the morning glad I see;
My foe outstretched beneath the tree.
In Cowper’s poem, “Bully” leads a peaceful existence in his well-latticed cage, since his “Dire foe” the cat is not permitted to live in the house. Unfortunately, on one occasion his foe was a rat:
Night veil’d the pole—all seem’d secure—
When led by instinct sharp and sure,
Subsistence to provide,
A beast forth-sallied on the scout,
Long-back’d, long-tail’d, with whisker’d snout,
And badger-colour’d hide.

(31-36)
“Poor Bully’s beak,” like Orpheus’ head, is all that “remain’d to tell / The cruel death he died.”

Blake’s adaption or unconscious echoing of this material is hardly central to his poem, but it does offer further evidence of his early attention to Cowper. The poem could have been seen by Blake on its first appearance in the Gentleman’s Magazine, February 1789; again in the Speaker, 1792; or possibly in the offices of Joseph Johnson, who published it in the 1794-95 edition of Cowper’s Poems (see Cowper, Poetical Works, ed. H. S. Milford, 4th ed., corr., add. Norma Russell, Oxford Standard Authors [London: Oxford Univ. Press, 1967], p. 383).

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