August 29, 2021

From Gerald R. Lucas
The Tyger BM b 1794.jpg
The Tyger[1]
By: William Blake (1794)

Tyger Tyger, burning[2] bright,
In the forests of the night;[3]
What immortal hand or eye,
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?[4]

In what distant deeps or skies, 5
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?[5]
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand, dare seize the fire?[6]

And what shoulder, & what art,
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?[7] 10
And when thy heart began to beat,
What dread hand? & what dread feet?[8]

What the hammer? what the chain,
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? what dread grasp, 15
Dare its deadly terrors clasp![9]

When the stars threw down their spears
And water’d heaven with their tears:[10]
Did he smile his work to see?[11]
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?[12] 20

Tyger Tyger burning bright,
In the forests of the night:
What immortal hand or eye,
Dare[13] frame thy fearful symmetry?

Notes & Commentary

  1. From The Songs of Experience, “The Tyger” is perhaps Blake’s most famous poem. It concerns creation and the Romantic emphasis of seeing in new ways and perhaps the revolutionary impulse and its consequences. The tiger seems to symbolize the way Blake saw the major changes at the turn of the 18th and 19th centuries brought about by the French revolution on people’s everyday lives. The tiger might symbolize the experience or wisdom precipitated by the many contemporaneous events of Blake’s lifetime, both beautiful and terrifying, that influenced Romanticism.
         Note the image of the tiger that Blake includes with the poem does not seem to reflect the picture painted in his poem. Perhaps he meant to mitigate the the fierce image conjured by his words, as this tiger seems to be the opposite of the tiger in the poem. This might be an attempt to mitigate or disguise the underlying intensity of the poem. Paulin (2007) states that the image of the tiger was likened to the Paris mob during the French Revolution. The ambiguity here seems to reflect Blake’s own discomfort with revolution: perhaps what replaces tyranny might be just as bad, or worse.
         Read this poem along with its contraryThe Lamb” from the Songs of Innocence where the speaker asks similar questions about creation, but here with a feeling of deeper mystery (Battenhouse 1958, p. 55)—as if, in Makdisi’s words, he is raising the stakes: going from “who made thee” to who could possibly have made thee? (Makdisi 2015, p. 215). While the lamb is cuddly, cute, and innocent made by a benign creator, the tiger was made by a unimaginable and perhaps not-so-benign power. Consider which each symbolize—here, the tiger with his burning eyes seems to stand for experience, wisdom, fear, or disillusionment.
  2. A dominant metaphor in the poem, burning, according to critic Hazard Adams, purifies something or is being purified (quoted in Bloom 2003, p. 21). The image is brilliant, but Blake also seems to be suggesting something about knowledge and experience: it comes at a price.
  3. Maybe innocence or ignorance—the dark night of the soul—where the tiger brings in the burning light. “The contrast between fire and night,” states John E. Grant, “of course, corresponds to the contrast of yellow and black stripes ringing the Tyger itself” (quoted in Bloom 2003, p. 23).
  4. Simple and powerful, this first stanza introduces the tiger and the poet’s admiration of it beauty and his wonder at the creative impulse behind its existence. The tiger could symbolize Lucifer—the fallen angel who is dark and ominous but also intriguing and solitary (Bloom 2003, p. 17). Tomlinson suggests that the tiger is God’s anger in contrast to the Lamb which signifies His gentleness and love (Tomlinson 1987, p. 30).
  5. The fire in the tiger’s eyes could be passion or animal intensity, but could also be associated with a knowledge or vitality (Bloom 2003, p. 19). Knowledge and experience, in contrast to the lamb, have given the tiger it power and ferocity, and this fact is reflected in its eyes.
  6. The questions the imagery continues from the first stanza. The fire might be that of Hell, contrasting with the wings of the angels. The tiger itself seems to reconcile these contrasting images in its symmetrical form. The tiger, again, is both terrifying and beautiful. There might also be a suggestion of Greek mythology: of the wings of Icarus, the forge of Hephaestus (which are made explicit and emphasized below), or the guile of Prometheus who stole fire from the gods.
  7. Paulin (2007) sees this question echoed in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein where the monster was also a symbol of the French mob, or a new force overwhelming politics at the time.
  8. The poet reflects on the creator of the tiger and the characteristics that it must have possessed to make such a beast. Likely, the tiger is a reflection of its creator: strong and beautiful and terrifying.
  9. As the poem continues, the tiger becomes more terrifying, as does the image and responsibility of its creator. What was the creator thinking? What was its reason for creating and releasing such beauty and power in the world?
  10. Bloom suggests that the raw power and beauty was too much for heaven to contain, so it gave up rather than try to dominate or master the animal (Bloom 2003, p. 17).
  11. One could picture Blake, the creator of both “The Lamb” and “The Tyger” smiling over his poetry: or his acts of making/creation (Makdisi 2015, p. 215).
  12. Again, the poet wonders at the psychology of the creator and its responsibility to its creation. How could the same entity be responsible for the tiger and the lamb, or as Paulin (2007) puts it: how can the god of wrath also be the god of mercy? Perhaps the suggestion here is reflected in Blake’s songs as a progression of the “two contrary states of the human soul”: the innocence of the lamb must eventually give way to the worldliness of the tiger. Bloom asks: “Did Blake believe that transformation from the gentle lamb into the powerful tiger is an integral part of maturation?” (Bloom 2003, p. 18). Blake reminds us that a creator of our nature is not necessarily akin to a Christian God of love, but one who contains all facets of creation, like his Urizen. Yet, the tiger, while terrifying, is not necessarily evil, but one of the multifarious states of nature—or perhaps humanity.
         Nevertheless, the speaker here is unable to reconcile the the complexities, since his questions go unanswered in contrast to those in “The Lamb” (Tomlinson 1987, p. 30). The tiger, then, becomes a power he cannot understand but something he fears and must submit to (Tomlinson 1987, p. 31).
  13. This word is changed form the first stanza (echoed from the last line of the fourth), showing the shift on the narrator’s frame of mind: from observing the beautiful fierceness of the tiger to wondering what power would dare to create it (Tomlinson 1987, p. 31). The object or creation seems to be less important than the process of creation and the ineffable power of the ambiguous/ambivalent creator (Makdisi 2015, p. 215).

Bibliography

  • Ackroyd, Peter (1995). Blake: A Biography. New York: Ballantine Books.
  • Battenhouse, Henry M. (1958). English Romantic Writers. New York: Barron’s Educational Series, Inc.
  • Bloom, Harold (2003). William Blake. Bloom’s Major Poets. New York: Chelsea House.
  • Frye, Northrup (1947). Fearful Symmetry: A Study of William Blake. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
  • Gardner, Stanley (1969). Blake. Literary Critiques. New York: Arco.
  • Greenblatt, Stephen, ed. (2018). The Norton Anthology of English Literature. The Major Authors. 2 (Tenth ed.). New York: W. W. Norton.
  • Makdisi, Saree (2003). "The Political Aesthetic of Blake's Images". In Eaves, Morris. The Cambridge Companion to William Blake. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge UP. pp. 110–132.
  • — (2015). Reading William Blake. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
  • Paulin, Tom (March 3, 2007). "The Invisible Worm". Guardian. Retrieved 2021-09-04.
  • Thompson, E. P. (1993). Witness Against the Beast. New York: The New Press.
  • Tomlinson, Alan (1987). Song of Innocence and of Experience by William Blake. MacMillan Master Guides. London: MacMillan Education.
  • Wolfson, Susan J. (2003). "Blake's Language in Poetic Form". In Eaves, Morris. The Cambridge Companion to William Blake. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge UP. pp. 63–83.

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