The Tyger

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

In what dis­tant deeps or skies,
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand, dare sieze the fire?

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

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

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

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

Wil­li­am Blake, The Tyger, Songs of Exper­i­ence, 1794.
The Tyger is poten­tially the Led Zep­pelin of Blake poems — brash, bom­bast­ic and unnerv­ingly suc­cess­ful. It is sup­posedly the most antho­lo­gised poem in the Eng­lish lan­guage — sta­di­um poetry, if you like. Your chil­dren will prob­ably come across it at school. Along with Parry­’s ver­sion of Jer­u­s­alem, this is the Blake that people know. And as with Parry­’s hymn, its ubi­quity threatens to soften and wear down its rough edges, but read the right way, it is as vivid and sharp as ever.

As we live in a time when the nat­ur­al world is being surely des­troyed, we’re inclined to see Blake’s tyger in ret­ro­spect as a noble, mighty creature, to be revered as much as feared. Blake had a more com­plex image in mind. To con­fuse things fur­ther, there is a world of dif­fer­ence between the fire in the tyger­’s eyes as ima­gined in the poem, and the docile look­ing anim­al in Blake’s illustration.
Mary and Rod­ney Baine argue that the tyger depic­ted in both poem and image is the fallen, degen­er­ate and depraved anim­al of veget­able nature, reflect­ing the fallen nature of man. I think they are right to see some­thing ignoble in the tiger, and some­thing that can be con­tras­ted with the lamb that appears in Songs of Inno­cence, tra­di­tion­ally asso­ci­ated with the Christ fig­ure. But there is more to the tyger than that.

There is a world of dif­fer­ence between the fire in the tiger­’s eyes as ima­gined in the poem, and the docile look­ing anim­al in Blake’s illustration

It is a poet­ic con­ven­tion that the tyger (or lion) and the lamb are con­trar­ies. Blake’s Songs of Inno­cence and Exper­i­ence deal repeatedly with such con­trar­ies. I believe that Blake intends the con­trast with the lamb, but we need to ask fur­ther what pre­cisely this con­trary rela­tion­ship con­sists of. It is unlikely that Blake intends simply to con­trast good and evil, the ris­en and the fallen, because Blake delights in con­trar­ies not only between poems but with­in single poems, and noth­ing in his work is so straight­for­ward. He routinely uses con­trast­ing texts and images, so that even his indi­vidu­al poems con­tain con­trar­ies and con­tra­dic­tions, and are there­fore open to con­tra­dict­ory read­ings. That is part of his great­ness as an author, but also tied to his polit­ics, which provide you with a ‘golden thread’ that will lead you to truth, rather than a key to its door.

To get closer to the com­pet­ing ideas con­densed into Blake’s verse we should look at the strands that make up Blake’s sense of the tyger, and our own, and Blake’s sense of the rela­tions of energy and ideas, action and law, good and evil.

The iden­ti­fic­a­tion of the tyger with revolu­tion­ary viol­ence was not a new or par­tic­u­larly ori­gin­al image. In 1792 the Lon­don Times said of the French masses that they were now “loose from all restraints, and, in many instances, more fero­cious than wolves and tygers.“1 Through­out his work, Blake uses the tyger fairly con­sist­ently as a sym­bol of con­flict, war and oppos­i­tion. Else­where he speaks of ‘tygers wild’, and ropes in the tiger along with oth­er beasts when he wants to speak of rapine and viol­ence. But this is a double-edged usage, because this viol­ence is also the viol­ence of the oppressed. It is the viol­ence of lib­er­at­ory forces as well as repress­ive ones. In The Four Zoas, revolu­tion itself seems bound up with “wild fur­ies from the tygers’ brain”.

The Tyger­’s brain… from Vala / The Four Zoas.

We are far from deal­ing with a simple oppos­i­tion between war and peace, good and bad. In his ‘Pro­verbs of Hell’, in The Mar­riage of Heav­en and Hell, Blake points out that “The tygers of wrath are wiser than the horses of instruc­tion.” There is much in this thought that resembles Hegel­’s ‘mas­ter-slave dia­lectic’, and the pro­cess by which the sub­al­tern comes to under­stand its con­di­tion and empowered to free itself. In any case we are not deal­ing with a pious injunc­tion against viol­ence. In The Mar­riage of Heav­en and Hell the dev­il reminds us that the lion’s roar and the wolf’s howl too are “por­tions of etern­ity”.

When it comes to ush­er­ing in uto­pia, the lamb gets all the cred­it while the tyger does the heavy lifting

In the course of the poem, Blake ima­gines a ‘throw­ing down of spears’ that is anoth­er tra­di­tion­al image, this time rep­res­ent­ing the onset of peace and recon­cili­ation. He seems to ask what the divine cre­at­or would think at that moment of the ter­rible force he had to cre­ate in order to get to that point. What is nev­er­thess degraded in the being of the tyger is the fact of the neces­sity for it to use its power in acts of violence.

In Blake’s poem, then, we have the tra­di­tion­al con­trast between the lamb of peace and the beast of cor­rup­tion and viol­ence, but the sym­metry is refrac­ted by Blake’s sym­pathy for the forces of energy and pas­sion — and hence the revolu­tions in Amer­ica and France — that he hymns in The Mar­riage of Heav­en and Hell. When he asks, “did he who made the lamb make thee?”, it is rhet­or­ic­al, and his point is that revolu­tion­ary viol­ence is as much a part of God’s plan as the pacific lamb that lies down with the lion in Rev­el­a­tions. When it comes to ush­er­ing in uto­pia, the lamb gets all the cred­it while the tyger does the heavy lifting.

While this image of the tyger works well in think­ing about the storm and stress of revolu­tion gen­er­ally — mak­ing it an image of Black Lives Mat­ter, for instance — it works too on a per­son­al level. I pic­ture the tyger­’s burn­ing eyes peer­ing out of the forest of the night, and think of my own pas­sions and instincts peer­ing out from the forest of my per­son­al­ity and day-to-day social inter­ac­tions. Often these things are point­ing in dif­fer­ent dir­ec­tions. Did he who made the lamb make thee? Indeed.

Blake, The Tyger, Songs of Inno­cence and Exper­i­ence, Copy L, 1789, prin­ted 1794.

The Tyger, illus­trated by Andy Wilson, from The Bril­liant New Her­cules.

Notes

  1. Quoted in Dav­id Erd­man, Blake: Proph­et Against Empire, New York: Dover Pub­lic­a­tions, p 195.