Blake’s Universe Through A Tyger’s Eye
By Deborah AdamsThe 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?
“The Tyger” is probably the most anthologized poem of William Blake (1757-1827). It's from his Songs of Experience (1794), and even though his writing is difficult to explain, it's understandable that as a graphic artist who aspired to convey very complex ideas that he would apply his ideas, and then take the written word to his engravers to get his point across. Most of his colleagues deemed his work a joke, however in spite of how crazy he was his universe remained consistent and complex. When the reader understands this cosmos, his work becomes more readable, even anticipating some modern thinking by a century.
The insistent rhythm almost memorizes itself as Blake makes the composition of verse seem a simple task. While many poets of his day used blank verse or self-contained pentameter couplets to convey ideas he took simple language suggested by his reading of Elizabethan and Restoration authors and modified it to define his complex ideas. He contains them in six four-line stanzas, and used pairs of rhyming couplets to create a sense of rhythm and continuity. The notable exception occurs in lines 3 and 4 and 23 and 24, where "eye" is imperfectly paired, ironically enough, with "symmetry.” The majority of lines in this lyric contain exactly seven syllables, alternating between stressed and unstressed syllables and the pattern has sometimes been identified as trochaic tetrameter.
The clever trick here is that he has taken this musical force of versification with the intention of defying any sense of interpretation. First the reader must be aware of the ideas behind Blake's Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience:
Good and evil are not opposites but rather different aspects of the nature of God;
Good and evil are different and do matter in the natural (as opposed to spiritual) world, especially in the way that men react with God's creation.
With that discovery one can see that it is the first idea that Blake is expressing in “The Tyger” one of the natural symmetry in life.” The Tyger” is neither good nor evil, just the two ideas put together in a powerful and beautiful image where one spotlights an exposition, that one cannot resonate without the other. One would not see good if it were not for evil and vice versa; the simplicity and symmetry ingenuously echoed by the framing of his written words creates a clear picture of the engraver employing his poetical hand. “The Tyger” has long been recognized as one of Blake's finest poems and more than one scholar has attempted to explain it:
(The Tyger)..."happens to have been quoted often enough ... to have made its strange old Hebrew-like grandeur, its Oriental latitude yet force of eloquence, comparatively familiar"
-Alexander Gilchrist, Life of William Blake (1863)
"’The Tyger’, frequently contrasting it with the language, images, and questions of origin presented by its "innocent" counterpart, ‘The Lamb.’ (It) satirizes the lyrics found in ‘The Lamb’ that is not the poem's primary function. It is the combination of tones of terror with awe for a being that can create the tiger as well as the lamb, the poet ‘celebrates the divinity and beauty of the creation and its transcendence of human good and evil without relinquishing the Keatsian awareness that 'the miseries of the world Are misery.'"
-E. D. Hirsch, Jr, Innocence and Experience: An Introduction to Blake
...the poem demonstrates that "creation in art is for Blake the renewal of visionary truth" ...... that while the tiger may be terrifying, it presents an intensity of vision that should be welcomed with "a gaiety which can find a place in the divine plan for both the tears and spears of the stars, ... and for both the tiger and the lamb."
-Hazard Adams, William Blake: A Reading of the Shorter Poems, (1963).
"While 'The Tyger' can be read in a variety of ways, the juxtaposition of lamb and tiger points not merely to the opposition of innocence and experience, but to the resolution of the paradox they present." As the lamb is subjected to the travails of the world, "innocence is converted to experience. It does not rest there. Energy can be curbed but it cannot be destroyed, and when it reaches the limits of its endurance, it bursts forth in revolutionary wrath."
-Mark Schorer, William Blake: The Politics of Vision.
"As with so many of Blake's lyrics, part of the poem's strategy is to resist attempts to imprint meaning upon it. The Tyger tempts us to a cognitive apprehension but in the end exhausts our efforts." As a result, the critic concludes, "the extreme diversity of opinion among critics of Blake about the meaning of particular poems and passages of poems is perhaps the most eloquent testimony we have to the success of his work."
-Jerome J. McGann, “Essay” (1973).
It doesn't take much for the every day reader to understand this work from a certain point of view. At the its very heart lives the question humans reach for in struggles for enlightenment of God the benevolent creator of nature, Why is there horror, pain, and bloodshed? Blake refuses to answer that question for us. Here in lies his cleverness, by leaving it open it reflects back the all too human experience of not getting a completely satisfactory answer to this essential question of faith. Evil should not happen, and makes no sense, but there you go one would be blind to the goodness if evil was absent, yet when one sees this happen:
the stars throw down their spears
and water heaven with their tears.
Blake understands from his own cosmology that evil becomes sharply outlined and separable when the reader is left to decide whether the Tyger encompasses more.... maybe it is not "evil" for a real tiger to eat a lamb, but is part-and- parcel of the world. It's no wonder that 100 years after his death he is considered among the greatest of English poets.
Accessed Nov 28 2001
Public Domain text taken from The Poet's Corner
Accessed May 31, 2005
The Wondering Minstrels
Accessed Nov 28 2001Deborah Adams
is an Editor for Everything2 (http://evrything2.com
retired teacher from Saint Joseph's Catholic School in Tucson, AZ. She
researches poets and their poetry highlighting the history and era
with a desire to learn what may have inspired the verse. Deborah has a
Bachelor's from Southwestern College, Winfield, KS.