William Blake 1794
Published in 1794 as one of the Songs of Experience, Blake’s “The Tyger” is a poem about the nature of creation, much as is his earlier poem from the Songs of Innocence, “The Lamb.” However, this poem takes on the darker side of creation, when its benefits are less obvious than simple joys. Blake’s simplicity in language and construction contradicts the complexity of his ideas. This poem is meant to be interpreted in comparison and contrast to “The Lamb,” showing the “two contrary states of the human soul” with respect to creation. It has been said many times that Blake believed that a person had to pass through an innocent state of being, like that of the lamb, and also absorb the contrasting conditions of experience, like those of the tiger, in order to reach a higher level of consciousness. In any case, Blake’s vision of a creative force in the universe making a balance of innocence and experience is at the heart of this poem.
The poem’s speaker is never defined, and so may be more closely aligned with Blake himself than in his other poems. One interpretation could be that it is the Bard from the Introduction to the Songs of Experience walking through the ancient forest and encountering the beast within himself, or within the material world. The poem reflects primarily the speaker’s response to the tiger, rather than the tiger’s response to the world.
It important to remember that Blake lived in a time that had never heard of popular psychology as we understand it today. He wrote the mass of his work before the Romantic movement in English literature.
He lived in a world that was in the opening stages of the Industrial Revolution, and in the midst of political revolutions all over Europe and in America. As we look at his work we must in some way forget many of the ideas about creativity, artists, and human nature that we take for granted today, and reimagine them for the first time as, perhaps, Blake did himself. It is in this way that Blake’s poetry has the power to astound us with his insight.
Born in London on November 28, 1757, Blake was the second of the five children of James and Catherine Blake. Unlike many well-known writers of his day, Blake was born into a family of moderate means. His father was a seller of stockings, gloves, and other apparel. Though he had no formal schooling as a child, Blake was apprenticed at the age of fourteen to engraver James Basire. In 1779 he began studies at The Royal Academy of Arts, but it was as a journeyman engraver that he was to make his living. In 1782 Blake married Catherine Boucher, the illiterate daughter of a vegetable grower. Blake taught her to read and write, and under his tutoring she also became an accomplished draftsman, helping him with the execution of his designs. Throughout his life, booksellers employed Blake to engrave illustrations for a wide variety of publications. This work brought him into contact with many of the radical thinkers of his day, including bookseller Joseph Johnson and fellow artists John Flaxman and Henry Fuseli. Blake drew literary notice at gatherings in the home of the Reverend and Mrs. A. S. Mathew, where he read his poems and occasionally sang them to his own music. In 1783 Flaxman and Mrs. Mathew funded the printing of Poetical Sketches, Blake’s first collection of verse. Around this time Blake also developed his technique of illuminated printing. His method was to produce the text and illustrations for his books on copper plates, which were then used to print on paper. Final copies of the work were individually colored by hand. This laborious process restricted the number of copies Blake could produce, thus limiting both his income and the spread of his reputation.
At the time of the French Revolution in 1789 Blake was acquainted with a political circle that included such well-known radicals as William Godwin, Mary Wollstonecraft, and Thomas Paine, and the democratic revolutions in America and France became major themes in much of Blake’s poetry. In 1790 Blake and his wife moved to Lambeth, where Blake began developing his own symbolic and literary mythology, which used highly personal images and metaphors to convey his interpretation of history and vision of the universe. This mythology is expressed in such works as The First Book of Urizen (1794) and The Song of Los (1795). During this time Blake also wrote the poems included in Songs of Innocence and of Experience (1794). Very little of Blake’s poetry of the 1790s was known to the general public, though he continued to work as an engraver and illustrator.
From 1800 to 1803, Blake and his wife lived at the seaside village of Felpham before moving back to London. Upon his return to London, Blake was met with accusations that he had uttered seditious sentiments while expelling a soldier from his garden at Felpham. He was tried for sedition and acquitted in 1804. In 1809 Blake mounted an exhibition of his paintings which he hoped would publicize his work and help to vindicate his visionary aesthetic. The exhibition caused some interest among the London literati, but was otherwise poorly attended. Blake’s later years were distinguished by his completion of Jerusalem, his last and longest prophetic book, and by his work on a series of illustrations for the Book of Job, which is now widely regarded as his greatest artistic achievement. The latter work was commissioned in the early 1820s by John Linnell, one of a group of young artists calling themselves “The Ancients” who gathered around Blake and helped support him in his old age. Blake died in 1827.
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 seize 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’s tiger is a passionate, fiery creature. It is a creature, a beast, who lives in the shadows and dark hours of life. Some have considered this tiger representing the dark shadow of the human soul, much as Carl Jung would describe it more than a century later. This is the beastly part of ourselves that we would prefer to keep only in our dreams at night if it has to be anywhere. Night in Blake’s poetry often seems to suggest this sort of dream time. The forests might represent the wild landscape of our imagination under the influence of this beast.
These two lines should be familiar in context to the first two lines in Blake’s poem, “The Lamb.”
- Brown, Greg. “The Tyger.” Songs of Innocence and of Experience, (record) Redhouse Records.
- Tyger, Tyger. (film) Time-Life Films, 1969.
- William Blake, (recording) Argo, 1964.
Lined up next to each other they even rhyme. Since they appear in the companion text to Experience, we can draw the conclusion that this poem is meant to be understood in comparison and contrast to that earlier power. We are asked not to consider the biological parentage of the tiger, but rather the Divine parentage of the tiger. In doing this we can begin to compare the nature of a lamb to a tiger, and begin to understand Blake’s philosophy about creation. The fact that perhaps the same immortal hand created both the domesticated and tame nature of the lamb, and the wild characteristic of the tiger is frightening in a way. There is a balance there, but perhaps not the kind of balance we would choose ourselves given the choice.
In contrast to the pastoral setting of the innocent lamb, the tiger is born out of the depths of consciousness, and our highest flights of fantasy. Again, Blake uses the metaphor of fire to describe the way the tiger sees and is seen. This is not the unpretentious vision of the lamb. The tiger has fury and grounds to believe in its own strength. The tiger could be understood as similar to our psychological view of the ego. It is the part of us that believes in its own power, in its own vision.
It could be debated that Blake argues here that the Fallen Archangel Lucifer is the creator of the tiger, or the beastly part of our own nature. Another fallen God was Prometheus. He was damned to having his liver picked out by a bird of prey and have it grow back again every day throughout eternity, because he gave the power of fire to humanity. In mystical thought, Lucifer in creating evil and darkness actually fulfills God’s plan that humanity may see what is good and light more clearly in contrast and comparison. Since “The Tyger” seems to be meant to be seen in comparison to “The Lamb” one can begin to guess at Blake’s intentions for our interpretation of the poem. Fire suggests a hellish beginning, and yet, it is daring that makes this very world possible. God could have imagined this world, but decided to create it. This is the challenge of every artist. What is daring if not courage?
These lines speak to the very power and strength of the tiger, and of its maker. Shoulders and art both carry responsibilities and burdens. Sinews are the very tendons that make the heart work, and they are also known as a source of strength and power. Blake seems to be suggesting that the creator of this powerful creature is awesome in its own right. Here we also get the very image of creativity as it happens. We see the shoulders in action. We see the process of the imagination in blending together the elements that make up a tiger. We see the twisting of the material heart into shape. The heart represents not only the biological engine of the tiger, but perhaps its passion for living.
Now, the creation itself, the tiger, has a life of its own. No longer under the control of the artist, Blake wonders what the artist could have been thinking in creating it. Notice that Blake, or his narrator, speaks directly to the tiger, as did the speaker to the lamb. We perceive the narrator’s reaction to speaking directly to the tiger in the descriptive language, and in these lines “dread” is the main idea. There seems to be an unspoken question implicit here, namely, “Why?” Perhaps, this is an attempt to reconcile the wild beast with a sense of order about the universe and its workings. Can God have created a dreadful creature, and if so does this task make God’s hands dreadful? If the artist is an earthly reflection of God’s creative nature, what does that say about the artist’s hands?
Again, the imagery in these two lines is more infernal than heavenly. Hammers, chains and furnaces sound like an industrial factory more than an artist’s workshop. One of the themes throughout Songs of Experience is the condemnation of the Industrial Revolution. These lines could suggest that the encroachment of industry on the pastoral world of Blake’s childhood was the tangible hell to which the poet was referring. Again, we must return to the image of a fiery tiger whose very thinking began in a furnace. Here creation doesn’ t come so much from divine inspiration as divine perspiration.
The anvil is a tool of both industry and art. The artist or God or devil clasps and grasps in passion and with courage. What makes this courage and enthusiasm so deadly and terrifying? The nature of creativity is also a favorite theme of Blake’s. In these lines he confronts his worst fears about what it means to create. He never suggests, however, that the tiger shouldn’ t have been created.
These lines reinforce the idea of defeated and fallen angels. Lucifer’s minions, when defeated and condemned to hell, were thought to have created the milky way with their tears. Their battle had been over making angels superior to humanity in God’s eyes, but God refused. The difference, it is said, between humankind and the angels, is that humans were created with the capacity to improve. Lucifer, as the Devil, would have us forget this possibility. What does this myth have to do with the tiger? Perhaps, Blake is playing with the idea of perception. It is how we perceive the tiger that makes him terrifying or passionate. Remember, if we continue with the Judeo-Christian-Islamic canon, God created Lucifer and his followers, as well as the lambs. This is a fairly awesome concept. Something beautiful comes out of even the fallen angel’s descent—the stars themselves.
Finally, Blake gets down to business, and asks the fateful question. Did the same God who made the lamb also make the tiger? This makes all the more awesome the concept of God, if it is true. It suggests that God knows something that we human beings do not. It suggests that God has the capacity for tenderness and dread, and that neither one or the other is more pleasurable. This also speaks to the romantic view of artists. Artists sometimes create art that is distasteful to the public, but does that mean that they should not smile at their own work, and realize that in time it may be better understood? This must have been something that Blake himself struggled with during his lifetime, as his poetry was not embraced by the public until much later in his career.
Blake uses repetition to reinforce his ideas, and to ask us to take another look at the meaning. If the tiger is not only burning, but it is burning brightly, then isn’ t it a creature of light? If it is a creature of light, walking through the darkness, then doesn’ t it serve to illuminate the shadows within ourselves, and out in the world? Finally, if this tiger, with its inner strength and prowess, serves as a guiding light through the darkness then doesn’ t our fear of it become rather shortsighted? Again, it is highly recommended that a student of Blake’s poetry attempt to view his illustrations in concert with interpreting his poetry. There are several different illustrations of the tiger, and in some it does appear to be a ferocious beast, but in some drawings the tiger appears to be more of a guiding light. Blake seems to have enjoyed creating the same ambiguity that he perceived in God’s creations.
This is a fearless immortal who made both the docile lamb, and the fiery tiger. To consider the creature, we are asked to consider the creator. In reflection, we must also look at the creativity in the microcosm of this world by the artist. It is significant that Blake chooses the word “dare” in the last line, instead of “could” because once again it emphasizes the concept of courage in relationship to creation. Finally, we must once again compare and contrast the beast with the tamed one, and consider the proper balance of nature framed by the hand of the Divine.
“The Tyger” was written to accompany Blake’s poem “The Lamb.” Both are creation poems, and together they explore the power and grandeur of God. This is especially clear in “The Lamb,” in which the speaker asks “Little Lamb, who made thee? / Dost thou know who made thee?” An answer is soon provided:
Little Lamb I’ ll tell thee!
He is called by thy name,
For he calls himself a Lamb:
He is meek and he is mild,
He became a little child:
The lamb is symbolic of Christ, the Son of God. It is natural to assume, therefore, that Blake’s awesome and “fearful” tiger might also be God’s
Topics for Further Study
- Write a description of a tiger, giving concrete visual descriptions for the physical details that Blake only mentions.
- Compare the idea of God that this poem gives with the one given in James Weldon Johnson’s “The Creation,” also included in Poetry for Students. Do the two poems have conflicting ideas, or are they talking about the same God? What is the specific purpose of each poem?
- Explain why you think Blake chose to write about a tiger, of all animals. Also, why does he speak directly to the tiger, instead of just talking about it?
creation. In many ways the tiger resembles Christ’s opposite, Lucifer:
In what distant deeps or skies
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand dare seize the fire?
The angel Lucifer, like Prometheus who gave divine knowledge of fire to humanity, committed the ultimate insurrection against God, resulting in his fall from divine grace. Evidence of Lucifer also appears in the lines “When the stars threw down their spears, / And water’ d heaven with their tears.” One of the more difficult portions of the poem, it may be interpreted as referring to the battle between Lucifer and the angels, or “stars,” of heaven, who wept after losing their battle to him and all that that loss implied.
Many scholars of Blake have found a profound connection between “The Tyger” and another publication, his The Four Zoas, which was published in 1795. In this mythical work, the repressive god Urizen falls from divinity to create the material world, an unimaginative universe marked by proportion or “symmetry.” The tiger, then, is a product or natural extension of Urizen. Still other reviewers of “The Tyger” have suggested that mankind is responsible for the beast. The forests of the poem have often been compared to the dark, industrial cities of Paris and London; and the fact that the tiger was created through heat and force suggests that he was produced in a blacksmith’s shop rather than through divine imagination. Moreover, the line “On what wings dare he aspire?”—which is reminiscent of Icarus, who perished after flying too close to the sun with wings made of wax—suggests that an excessively proud, rebellious, and creative mortal produced the tiger through unnatural means.
While the lamb’s creator is revealed, the tiger’s engineer remains undefined at the poem’s conclusion. However, given the link to Blake’s “The Lamb,” especially in the cryptic verse “Did he who made the Lamb make thee?” it is highly likely that Blake is in fact referring to God. At the very least, the fact that the question is asked at all confirms the existence of a single, powerful, and awe inspiring creator, one who dares to produce both the tiger and the lamb.
Good and Evil
Blake philosophically rejected socially accepted views of morality. His predilection toward exuberance and the imagination is intelligible in all of his works, especially in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell where he exposes the evils inherent in orthodox conceptions of virtue and the virtues inherent in orthodox conceptions of evil: “The tygers of wrath are wiser than the horses of instruction.” Blake’s distinctive moral position is likewise evident in “The Tyger,” which is perhaps best understood when compared to his “The Lamb”:
Little Lamb, who made thee?
Dost thou know who made thee?
Gave thee life and bid thee feed,
By the stream and o’ er the mead;
Gave thee clothing of delight,
Softest clothing wooly bright;
Gave thee such a tender voice,
Making all the vales rejoice!
Little Lamb, who made thee?
Dost thou know who made thee?
The meekness of Blake’s lamb makes his “fearful” and “deadly” tiger appear all the more horrific, but to conclude that one is decidedly good and the other evil would be incorrect. The innocent portrayal of childhood in “The Lamb,” though attractive, lacks imagination. The tiger, conversely, is repeatedly associated with fire or brightness, providing a sharp contrast against the dark forests from which it emerges—“Tyger! Tyger! burning bright / In the forests of the night.” While such brightness might symbolize violence, it can also imply insight, energy, and vitality. The tiger’s domain is one of unrestrained self-assertion. Far from evil, Blake’s poem celebrates the tiger and the sublime excessiveness he represents. “Jesus was all virtue,” wrote Blake “and acted from impulse, not from rules.”
“The Tyger” contains six four-line stanzas, and uses 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:
Tyger! / Tyger! / burning / bright ...
This pattern has sometimes been identified as trochaic tetrameter —four(“tetra”) sets of trochees, or pairs of stressed and unstressed syllables—even though the final trochee lacks the unstressed syllable. There are several exceptions to this rhythm, most notably lines 4, 20, and 24, which are eight-syllable lines of iambic tetrameter, or four pairs of syllables that follow the pattern unstress/stress, called an iamb. This addition of an unstressed syllable at the beginning of each of these lines gives them extra emphasis.
The French Revolution: On July 14, 1789 a Parisian mob, exasperated by the excesses of the French nobility, stormed the Bastille, resulting in the onset of the French Revolution. In the two years that followed, nobles were stripped of their titles, landowning men were empowered with the right to vote, and unions were abolished to protect individual solidarity. By 1789, more than 100 newspapers had been created, testifying to rising intellectual freedom in France. On September 21, 1792 the French monarchy was officially abolished and France was proclaimed a republic. King Louis XVI was executed in January of the following year for treason. Between September 1793 and July 1794, Jacobin Maximilien Robespierre arrested, tried, and executed more than 17,000 people considered dangerous to the revolutionary cause in what later became known as the Reign of Terror. Robespierre himself was executed in 1794, the same year
Compare & Contrast
- 1765: James Watt perfects the steam engine, giving rise to the Industrial Revolution. England’s landless poor migrate to the country’s industrial centers in the thousands in search of work.
1981: IBM introduces the personal computer, which gives people the freedom to work in any environment they choose. Millions flock to the suburbs.
- 1789: The French Revolution, spurred by the American Revolution(1776-1781), erupts with the storming of the Bastille. Promises of political and civil liberty soon dissipate with the violent Reign of Terror.
1991: Boris Yeltsin is elected president of the Russian Republic in the first democratic election ever held in that country. Subsequent economic and political crises make for an uneasy transition from communism to democracy.
- 1827: Blake dies in near poverty. Little known as an artist, he is even less recognized for his poetry.
1920s-1990s: Blake is one of the most widely recognized poets in the English canon.
William Blake published “The Tyger” in Songs of Innocence and of Experience.
In his early poetic work The French Revolution (1791), Blake, a supporter of the Revolution, openly condemns the oppressive authoritarianism of the old regime. As revolutionary activity in France grew increasingly more violent, however, such political views became dangerous. Some scholars of Blake believe that he therefore obscured his ideas behind a veil of mysticism to circumvent government censure. Blake wrote “The Tyger” during the Reign of Terror, the violence of which must have tempered his enthusiasm somewhat. The unrestrained energy and horrific violence of “The Tyger” most likely reflect Blake’s mixed emotions concerning France at the time.
Enlightenment: An intellectual movement of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the Enlightenment upheld rationalism. Authors of this period—especially John Dryden, Alexander Pope, and Ben Johnson—believed that knowledge is born of experience rather than from sense perception. Blake’s works, including “The Tyger,” emphatically assert otherwise. In addition to breaking from traditional poetic form in this poem, he exalted the creative powers of the imagination through the tiger.
Industrial Revolution: The perfection of the steam engine in 1765 by James Watt stimulated the Industrial Revolution. Thousands flocked to England’s industrial cities where they labored for starvation wages under poor conditions. Repulsed by the onset of industrialization, Blake often spoke against it in his poetry. The hellish environment of the tiger as depicted in the fourth stanza(“What the hammer? What the chain? / In what furnace was thy brain? / What the anvil? What dread grasp / Dare its deadly terrors clasp?”) is reminiscent of a smithy or factory of the time.
“The Tyger” has long been recognized as one of Blake’s finest poems; in his 1863 Life of William Blake, biographer Alexander Gilchrist relates that the poem “happens to have been quoted often enough ... to have made its strange old Hebrewlike grandeur, its Oriental latitude yet force of eloquence, comparatively familiar” and that essayist and critic Charles Lamb wrote of Blake: “I have heard of his poems, but have never seen them. There is one to a tiger ... which is glorious!” In his 1906 work William Blake: A Critical Essay, British poet and critic Algernon Charles Swinburne similarly calls the lyric “a poem beyond praise for its fervent beauty and vigour of music.”
Many critics have focused on the symbolism in “The Tyger,” frequently contrasting it with the language, images, and questions of origin presented by its “innocent” counterpart, “The Lamb.” E. D. Hirsch, Jr., for instance, notes that while “The Tyger” satirizes the lyrics found in “The Lamb” that is not the poem’s primary function. As the critic asserts in his Innocence and Experience: An Introduction to Blake, in combining tones of terror and awe at a being that could create the tiger as well as the lamb, the poet “celebrates the divinity and beauty of the creation and its transcendance of human good and evil without relinquishing the Keatsian awareness that ’ the miseries of the world Are misery.’” Hazard Adams believes that the poem demonstrates that “creation in art is for Blake the renewal of visionary truth.” He explains in his 1963 study William Blake: A Reading of the Shorter Poems 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.”
While “The Tyger” can be read in a variety of ways, Mark Schorer asserts in William Blake: The Politics of Vision that “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 exprience. 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.” Jerome J. McGann, however, asserts in a 1973 essay that the poem defies specific interpretation: “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.”
Derek Furr is a freelance writer and has taught composition and literature courses at the University of Virginia and at Virginia Commonwealth University. In the following essay, Furr points out the complexity of Blake’s work that leaves questions concerning both the poem’s meaning and the identity of the Tyger’s creator unresolved
Given that William Blake’s “The Tyger” is composed exclusively of questions(note that nearly every line asks a question, and none is answered), you shouldn’ t be surprised if, upon first encountering it, you come away puzzled. As a matter of fact, it seems fitting to begin a discussion of this “interrogatory” poem with a question: what does “The Tyger” mean?
Perhaps some information about the original context of “The Tyger” might bring us closer to its meaning. The poem first appeared in 1794, in an illuminated book by William Blake titled Songs of Innocence and Experience—Shewing the Two Contrary States of the Human Soul. A master engraver, Blake conceived of his “Songs” as a set of integrally linked poems and illustrations; for example, the text of “The Tyger” ends with a picture of the animal. As the title suggests, the “Songs” are divided between “innocence” poems and “experience” poems, and several of the first set have companion works in the second; “The Tyger” is a companion of the innocent “The Lamb.”
Understanding the difference between the “two contrary states,” innocence and experience, is fundamental to understanding “The Tyger.” “Innocence” in Blake’s book is characterized by the trustfulness and spiritual resilience of childhood. In “The Lamb,” for example, a child begins by asking a lamb: “Little lamb, who made thee/ Dost thou know who made thee?” And, in his innocent state, the child has an unequivocal answer for his question, just as a parent might to his or her child: God, who became incarnate in the lamb of Christ, made the lamb. The contrast with “The Tyger” is evident: when the speaker asks who made the tyger, he has no clear answer. Unlike innocence, experience is characterized by darkness, confusion, and pain. Critic E. D. Hirsch has argued that the innocence poems, which Blake actually completed and first printed alone as “Songs of Innocence” in 1789, constitute the poet’s celebration of the interdependent and loving relationship between adults and children. In the five years between 1789 and 1794, however, Blake witnessed the French revolution, riots in England, and increasing poverty and pain in London. His “Songs of Experience,” therefore, satirize the naivete of innocence; “The Tyger” is a disillusioned response to the naive illusions of “The Lamb.” While not all readers have agreed with Hirsch, most of Blake’s critics do agree that Blake believes both innocence and experience are necessary “states” in the development of the human spirit. We are all born innocents, but when we begin to recognize evil or wrong, and are inevitably tempted by it, we pass into a state of experience. Thus, in our lives we reenact the myth of the Fall of Man described in the Book of Genesis in the Bible. But without the fall, without experience, we could not experience redemption—what one of the great twentieth century reader’s of Blake, Northrop Frye, has termed a state of higher innocence, in which we knowingly choose to live with childlike trust and vision.
So “The Tyger” is a song of experience, spoken by someone who once felt he had all the answers, but is now unsure. We can derive at least this much information from the poem’s original context, but we still haven’ t answered our fundamental question: what does “The Tyger” mean? The trouble with this question is that “The Tyger” is about many things at once, and its meaning is deliberately elusive. The wonderful paradox at the heart of “The Tyger” is that its carefully crafted rhythms, vivid imagery, and poignant allusions work together to generate obscurity. Critic and Blake editor Geoffrey Keynes maintains that trying to decipher the meaning of “The Tyger” “will only spoil its impact as poetry.” But while we may be remiss in trying to define the fundamental meaning of “The Tyger,” this poem, filled with puzzling questions, certainly demands thoughtful investigation. Perhaps the best question to begin with, therefore, is not “what does the poem mean?”, but “how does the poem work?” Analyzing the “fearful symmetry” of Blake’s poem helps us feel its “impact as poetry” and, consequently, may help us comprehend some of its meanings.
The sounds of Blake’s poem create tension. We, the readers, cannot escape the relentless drumbeat of “Tyger Tyger, burning bright/ In the forest of the night.” Blake creates this effect by drawing on three poetic devices. The first is trochaic meter, in which a stressed syllable is followed by an unstressed one, as in “tyger” and “burning.” Strung together, trochees sound like a chant. Each trochee in a poem represents one “foot” of the line; so if a poet strings together four trochees, for example, his or her line of poetry has four feet. This brings us to the next device. Blake drops the unstressed syllable from the last foot of each line. We’ re stopped in our tracks, as it were, held in suspense—just as Blake’s questions hold us in suspense. Each line begins and ends with a thud, and the preponderance
What Do I Read Next?
- Blake’s complex symbolism and unorthodox philosophy are present in all of his works. Other Romantic poets whose writings are similar to Blake include William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, George Gordon(Lord Byron), and Percy Bysshe Shelly. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Faust and Herman Melville’s Moby Dick also contain romantic elements reminiscent of Blake’s poetic works.
of stressed syllables, in such short lines, makes for a relentless thumping. This thumping is made even louder by the third device: alliteration, or the repetition of initial consonant sounds. Notice the “t” in “Tyger” and the “b’s” in “burning” and “bright,” each falling in the first, stressed syllable. Another form of consonant repetition, called consonance, reinforces the alliteration. Notice how often hard consonant—“t,” “m,” “n”—appear. In combination, these various poetic devices impel “The Tyger” forward, driving toward a conclusion that is decidedly inconclusive.
The sights in “The Tyger” contribute equally to the tension we feel in the poem’s rhythms. Throughout the poem, Blake flicks the lights on and off, blinding us with sudden light then plunging us into darkness. Again, notice the first two lines. We’ re dazzled by “burning bright,” then suddenly it’s “night”; the two states are held in tension by the rhyme. This evil and threatening “tyger” wanders in the darkness. Yet he is luminescent, even beautiful, like a work of art. His eyes burn with fire. Fire is the pervasive image in “The Tyger.” Is the fire a good or bad thing?
Our question about the poem’s imagery brings us to the speaker’s fundamental question in “The Tyger”: who made the tyger? If the tyger is associated with darkness and fire and is “fearful,” his creator is doubly so. Indeed, the speaker in “The Tyger” seems as “fearful” of the creator as he is of the “tyger.” But who is this creator? Through the technique of allusion, Blake associates the creator with a host of characters from Western mythology: Daedelus and Icarus(line 7), the daring Greek god Prometheus(line 8), Vulcan the blacksmith(lines 9-10 and 13-14), Lucifer and his angels(lines 17-18) and finally the God of the Old Testament. This creator seems to be both daring and foolhardy, creative and destructive, a craftsman, a creator, one who succeeds and one who invariably fails. Like the tyger, he seems to be simultaneously good and evil.
Just as we cannot answer what the poem means, neither can we easily answer who made the tyger and what that maker’s intentions were. But while it’s clear that the speaker fears the creator, he also respects him. “Fearful” can mean “scary”—the meaning to which we’ re accustomed—or awe-inspiring. The speaker is in awe of whomever made the tyger and of the tyger as well. Perhaps the point of Blake’s poem is to inspire us with awe of the tyger and its maker. Notice the line “Did he who made the Lamb make thee?” On one hand, this is a reference to the God of the Bible; but on the other, it could be a reference to Blake himself. Didn’ t Blake make a lamb, in his poem from “Songs of Innocence?” And hasn’ t he here made a tyger? Surely, the poem is as awe-inspiring as it is ambiguous. And its carefully crafted obscurity invites constant revisitation and constant questioning.
Source: Derek Furr, in an essay for Poetry for Students, Gale, 1997.
Inder Nath Kher
The use of metaphors and his interpretation of “The Tyger” is presented.
The view of the world as metaphor forbids purely literal interpretation of the human experience. Within the context of this vast metaphor, every little act of perception becomes “a vortex of experience”, and it represents, in microcosm, the totality of one’s experiential being. The swallowing vortex contains in it the “Visions of Eternity” which every great artist aspires to articulate and/or approximate in terms of his/her art. The Blakean world is one such large metaphor. The poetry of Blake is an enormous endeavour to translate that “Spiritual Sensation” which is felt by “human consciousness at its greatest height and intensity”. However, this poses a problem for the literary critic who happens to approach Blake with a “split consciousness”, to use Karl Shapiro’s phrase. Blake cannot be rationalized. His Vision of Reality is unique in that it manifest itself in and through the creative act which is unitive, and not through polarized forms of thinking. Therefore, Blake must, of necessity, be approached through the principle of the archetype in poetry, and the language of symbolism. It is not possible to establish the final meanings of the apocalyptic vision in which the implicit can never become completely explicit...
Poetic truth belongs to the realm of higher reality which is beyond the range of ordinary words and ideas, as we understand them. It is rooted in man’s pure Consciousness which is neither subjective nor objective. It is that primordial mode of apprehension which reveals to the human psyche “the auguries of innocence”, and one sees “a World in a Grain of Sand/And a Heaven in a Wild Flower”, or one holds “Infinity in the palm of [one’s] hand/And Eternity in an hour”. It compels deep involvement of a perceptive reader and it creates in him the sense of humility and submission when poetic knowledge is shared...
“The Tyger” fully embodies Blake’s great vision and his theory of art. In order to arrive at a rewarding appreciation of this microcosmic poem, we must remember that it is only through the “cleansed doors of perception” that the knowledge or the awareness of the symbolic structure will dawn upon the human consciousness. However, I am not presuming / claiming a better degree of perception than most critics have displayed. This paper only hopes to achieve one more level of appreciation, different in intensity of response, though not altogether exclusive. It can be equally satisfying or it can be equally inadequate—the sense of inadequacy stems partly from the complexity of the Vision of “The Tyger” and partly from my own sense of inability to comprehend its total meaning...
In the opening stanza, the Bard or the speaker of “The Tyger” confronts in his Imagination the “fearful symmetry” of the Tyger who is “burning bright/In the forests of the night”. The question as to the framer of this awesome symmetry is not ambiguous, it carriers its own answer insofar as it suggests the immortality of the “hand or eye” of the Creator. But the tone of the question builds up the initial tension between the knower and the known, and it is essential to the awe-inspiring nature of the encounter. The symbol of fire is dominant in the structure of the poem, and our understanding of “The Tyger” depends very much on our apprehension of the functional value of this great symbol. On one level of experience the bright burning of the whole Tiger can be understood as the wrath or the destructive strength of the Tiger or its Creator. “The forests of the night” symbolize the dark illusions of the human brain. Man under the domination of analytical reason loses his integral nature and wobbles in the world of self-created doubts and delusions. But since the Tiger is the manifestation of immortality, it can not be purely destructive or only terrifying. It must stand for both creation and destruction, both love and anger, and like fire it must perpetually create and consume. Man in his superfluous acts of intellection doubts... gives rise to separateness, which is the source of all human tragedy. The Tiger with his burning brightness releases man from the shackles of slavery to his own ignorant laws and traditions. In other words, the fire creates visions and destroys hallucinations. It is the “forests of the night” which take us away from the center of our own reality and germinate in our mind the suspicion about the idea of a “benign Creator”, to borrow Harding’s phrase. The fire burns and consumes all suspicions; it destroys “as well man’s stupid obedience to moral precepts that hinder the full power of his creative will to assert, to love and to build.” Nietzsche called it the “slave-morality.” It is through the fire that man sees the marvellous though inexplicable face of the Creation. His wonder grows every moment, and he asks questions to which there is no explicit answer. The Bard intensifies the sense of wonder by asking
In what distant deeps or skies
Burnt the fire or thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand dare seize the fire? [Second stanza]
To some critics, the images of “deeps” and “skies” indicate usual theological expressions for Hell and Heaven, and give rise to questions—“Did the immortal dare to fly like Satan through Chaos?” or “Did he dare like Prometheus to bring the fire from Heaven?” This leads to the ambiguity of “the doubleness of the tiger”, and it suggests that either God or the Devil, or both, could have been responsible for Creation. Bateson suggests quite erroneously that the “deeps” are “perhaps volcanoes rather than oceans”. The problem about the origin of the “fire” is not that simple. But one thing is certain: the Tiger being the creative aspect of Creator himself, the “fire” of the eyes of the Tiger is also one of the aspects of the Creator. To know the source of the “fire” is to know the origin of the Creator. It is interesting to note in this connection that D. G. Gillham concentrates heavily on the word “distant” and writes that “the theme of the poem is the “distant deeps” beyond space and before time where a mysterious Being undertook the creation”. This would mean that Blake is creating timeless,
“Blake cannot be rationalized. His Vision of Reality is unique in that it manifest itself in and through the creative act ...”
spaceless archetype of the human Consciousness. This seems to correspond with the psychic motive of “The Tyger”. In lines 3-4 of the second stanza, Blake achieves the effect of complete unity between the Creator and his Creation; the poet and his art. The “wings” symbolize the Imagination, and the act of creation is contained within the daring act of “seizing” the fire. The Blakean “Bard” is fully aware of the sublimity of his Vision, but since the Vision cannot be discussed in terms of prose statements, the comprehensive tonality of questions and the increasing sense of awe have to be maintained as part of the poetic design of “The Tyger”. In identifying the creative imagination of the poet with the creative power of the Maker of this world, Blake’s poetry becomes mythopoetic. The notion of God or Creator as an artist is reinforced in stanzas third and fourth. The Creator is shown to be the strongest of creatures and the greatest of artists in the first line of the third stanza. It is only He who can “twist the sinews” of the “heart” of His Creation. The masculinity of the image “sinews” indicates the strength and hardness of the creation juxtaposed upon the feminine softness and tenderness of its heart. In the third line, the “beating” of the “heart” of creation shows both its terror and beauty. For Blake, the act of Creation is the most terrifying and most sublime truth. It requires the most powerful “hands” and “feet” to “grasp” and behold its full grandeur. But underlying the physical images(shoulder, heart, hand & feet) is the spiritual essence which leads man to resolve the contraries of human existence into a pattern of Unity. The fourth stanza, with its spotlight on the images of the “hammer”, the “chain”, the “furnace” and the “anvil” introduces the concept of blacksmith-artist Los who “works steadily with anvil and forge, hand and eye; the wonders of his labour are his creations of forms out of miasma”. Since art created out of the “fire” in “The Tyger”, it brings out the value of Blake’s symbolism. Fire as a symbol stands for deliverance as well as resurrection; death as well as rebirth. But the “fire” does not work here alone: it functions, quite paradoxically, through the instrumentality of the “hammer”, the “chain”, and the “anvil”—all signifying iron, the symbol of intellectual confinement and slavery to earthly existence. Iron is a condition of soul bound by the human limitations and circumscriptions. The greatest artist and the greatest art always transcends this condition by living/passing through it; and the man who undergoes a similar process, who burns through the furance of Experience is reborn to a higher level of awareness. He can then both “grasp” and “clasp” the “deadly terrors” of the human existence, mysteriously manifested in the “mundane shell”. They are the dim light of the human ego and reason; they are as well the fallen angels of Experience. When the broken and scattered lights of the human reason fail to comprehend the mystery of Life, they surrender their inadequate and puny instruments. They finally melt into the dawn of heavenly vision. Their tears appear in the form of dew-drops. The “tears” also symbolize the human compassion and intuitive understanding, as opposed to the hardness and coldness of the “spears”. The image of “water” quickens the process of rebirth. The symbolism of “fire” merges into symbolism of “water”, and both intensify the paradox of creation—destruction—recreation. Hirsch has rightly pointed out that “the stars of night are part of the same awesome design as the forests of the night and the fearful symmetry of the tiger”. The act of creation becomes an awesome mystery: everything merges into every other thing; both cruelty and love, indifference and attention fit into the pattern of the divine plan. But then, the greatest of all questions remains to be asked, and ever more so to be answered:
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?
The answers lie in the spontaneous act of creation itself. Of course, “Eternity is in love with the productions of time”. Blake knows the answers, and so does the “Bard”. Man, in order to know the answers, needs creative imagination, and not the “narrow chinks of his cavern”. Through the faculty of reason alone man can never know why “roses are planted where thorns grow”. Since the poet is the creator of man’s myth and his primordial existence, he does not deal with the stuff of ordinary consciousness. He does not feel the urgency of giving answers to all questions, or perhaps, answers can not be given to the questions of Scriptural dimension. In his complete acceptance of the mystery of this Creation, the “Bard” of “The Tyger” ends exactly where he had started—though he points out the mystery of the moral force of Creation by using “dare” instead of “could” in the last line of the poem:
Tyger, Tyger, burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?
The “Bard” is too absorbed in the “fearful symmetry” of the “burning” Tiger to answer even his own questions. It seems as if the “Bard” has seen with divine sight “the glory of the Shape of Infinite God”. Alicia Ostriker, in her brilliant book, Vision and Verse in William Blake, suggests that “if the poet could answer his own questions, the tiger might look quite different”. Blake makes the “Bard” only concentrate and finally meditate upon the “fearsome Spiritual Form” of the Tiger. Much of the poetic effectiveness is due to this complex design and the intention of the poem. Ostriker also points out that “the tension established between the simple rhythms and their apparently complex sense” leads to poetic effectiveness. In Blake, verse and vision are intertwined. T.S. Eliot pays Blake a great compliment by saying that “Blake’s poetry has the unpleasantness of great poetry” because it has “honesty”... And this honesty never exists without great technical accomplishment”. Ostriker confirms this view by writing that in “The Tyger”
Almost every word is knit up through sound with every other word, and this in itself suggests the idea of the demiurge’s infinitely painstaking design. Of the vowels, the long i with its great symbolic impact dominates. It is balanced by the deeper vowels of burning, forests—of, immortal—or, which in turn become the broader, almost rhyming Dare—fearful...
She comments on the metrical quality of Blake’s poetry in the following words:
He dared to think thoughts and hear melodies whose precise expression required breaking some universally accepted metricel conventions ... Probably Blake did not realize the extent of his boldness, for his “peculiar honesty” kept company with a peculiar oblivion to certain things in the world about him.
I think Blake’s rhythms and metrical originality deserve more attention than the size of this essay permits. Therefore, at present, I would rather choose to close this brief study with the following verses from Blake:
We are put on earth a little space,
That we may learn to bear the beams of love.
Source: Inder Nath Kher, “William Blake’s ’ The Tyger’ and ’ The Doors of Perception,’” in The Literary Half-Yearly, Vol. XXXII, No. 1, January, 1991, pp. 72–85.
An introspective discussion of the religious imagery and biblical meanings in William Blake’s “The Tyger.”
The “Preludium” to Blake’s America (dated 1793, midway through the French Revolution [see plate 7-1]) opens with a chained youth being fed by the daughter of Urthona, his tyrant captor; he snaps the chains and takes her:
The hairy shoulders rend the links, free are the
wrists of fire;
Round the terrific loins he seiz’ d the panting
It joy’ d: she put aside her clouds & smiled her
In fact, “Soon as she saw the terrible boy then burst the virgin cry,” and her joyous cry connects him with the spirit of freedom “who dwells in darkness of Africa” and has succeeded in a revolution “on my American plains.”
The text talks about the revolution in America and the antislavery movement in England, with the image of the boy, “fiery Orc,” chained down, rising, and breaking his chains. The illustration, however, shows something else. He is helplessly chained to the ground, wept over by a pair of parental figures who resemble Adam and Eve. The youth is involved in a complicated system of lines that make him appear entangled in the roots of a great tree, which evokes the Tree of Knowledge(as well as Edmund Burke’s symbol of political evolution).
The lines in which(a few pages later) Albion’s Angel addresses him as “Blasphemous Demon, Antichrist, hater of Dignities; Lover of wild rebellion, and transgresser of Gods Law” are accompanied by an illustration of children sleeping peacefully with a sheep. Erdman interprets this scene as a projection backward in time—“an emblem of peace before the [American] war and prophesied to follow the [French] revolution”—but clearly the main point is the violence of the juxtaposition of visual and verbal texts...
This is a kind of visual catachresis that is centered on the representation of the French Revolution. I shall begin by examining it as a transvaluation of accepted images of the Revolution and then go on to examine it as a representation of the revolutionary process itself.
Perhaps what we associate more than anything else with revolution is renaming. The revolution made words mean something else. “So revolutions broke out in city after city,” Thucydides wrote in a famous passage; “To fit in with the change of events, words, too, had to change their usual meanings.” Thus the French recreated a calendar starting with a new Year One, renamed streets(and people renamed themselves Gracchus or Brutus), turned Notre Dame into a “Temple of Reason,” and reversed the meaning of conventional images like the red flag. The transvaluation of sun/light, from the king to the free human reason that exposes the darkness of ignorance or tyranny, is only one of many examples that could be adduced from the French Revolution. This re-creation of meaning is a characteristic of the revolutionary spokesmen in France, but we should not be surprised to find it even more glaringly, because more desperately, employed in nonrevolutionary(counterrevolutionary) England by a sympathizer of revolution, William Blake...
My example is one of the Songs of Experience,“The Tyger,” which in the annotation of college texts is usually explained as a poem addressing the question of how we are to reconcile the wrath of God and punishment of sin(the tiger) with the forgiveness of sin(the lamb of Songs of Innocence). This interpretation sees the tiger as another of the wrathful father figures in Experience; he is, however, more closely akin to the natural energy of the tigers in Innocence who may also, among other energetic acts, devour sheep or children.
On a primary level the tiger reflects Blake’s intention to place the word “tiger” in its 1790s context. The London Times of 7 January 1792 tells us that the French people are now “loose from all restraints, and, in many instances, more vicious than wolves and tigers.” Of Marat the Times reports: “His eyes resembled those of the tyger cat, and there was a kind of ferociousness in his looks that corresponded with the savage fierceness of that animal” (26 July 1793).
John Wilkes, after his initial support of the Revolution, spoke of “this nation of monkeys and tigers,” conflating the double caricature of French fashion and French savagery, and Sir Samuel Romilly, another disillusioned supporter, wrote in 1792: “One might as well think of establishing a republic of tigers in some forest in Africa, as of maintaining a free government among such monsters.” Even Mary Wollstonecraft admitted that the Paris “mob were barbarous beyond the tiger’s cruelty.” Burke described the Jacobins in 1795 as so violent that “Even the wolves and tigers, when gorged with their prey, are safe and gentle” by comparison; and in a famous passage the next year he compared them to a “tiger on the borders of PEGU” (where it may have been considered safe) that suddenly makes its appearance in the English House of Commons. Years later Wordsworth looked back on the Paris of 1792 as
a place of fear
Unfit for the repose which night requires,
Defenceless as a wood where tigers roam...
Blake’s “The Tyger” is...an angelic formulation, spoken by a Burke who sees the French Revolution, politically and aesthetically, as a sublime spectacle/threat; or by someone like the Times correspondent who, adding fantasy to the facts of the storming of the Bastille and lynching of the governor and commandant, described “one man tearing from the mangled body of another pieces of flesh, and dipping the same into a cup, which was eagerly drained by the executioners.” The references in the poem to the creator(of the Revolution) and to the revolt of the fallen angels(“When the stars threw down their spears”) tell the story. The tiger is a natural force, but what sort of force depends on the beholder. The Job passage that Burke evokes in his discussion of sublime animals is also(with “The Lamb” of Innocence) the syntactic model for “The Tyger”: a series of questions addressed by God speaking from the whirlwind to poor Job, ending:
Canst thou draw out leviathan with a hook? or his tongue with a cord which thou lettest down? Canst thou put a hook into his nose or bore his jaw through with a thorn? Will he make any supplications unto thee? Will he speak soft words unto thee?
Burke’s animals are sublime precisely when they will not answer with Job, No I cannot; when they will not serve the wills of their masters. The wild ass, for example, “is worked up into so small sublimity, merely by insisting on his freedom, and his setting mankind at defiance.”
When in this context we look at the drawing that illustrates the verses, we see a tiger that looks more like a lamb. We see before us on the page... the Blakean image, the angel’s vision and the reality. Blake is making the contrast with his visual image in much the same way that he contrasts(in America) the words of Albion’s Angel, excoriating Orc for his revolutionary proclivities, with the image of children lying down to sleep alongside a peaceful sheep. He is not denying the vigor of the tiger—one of those “tygers of wrath” in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell that “are wiser than the horses of instruction”—but only redefining a counterrevolutionary image of revolutionary cruelty. The catachresis indicates not only a contrast with the words of Albion’s Angel but something positive about revolution. It is a kind innocence confronting experience, best seen in the brief scenarios of the Song of Experience...
What “The Tyger” and all the Songs of Experience show us is how Blake demystifies the word. The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, contemporary with the poems of Experience, is a much larger, more direct statement. When he writes that “the Eternal Hell revives,” he means that the French Revolution is taking place. “Hell” here is the counterrevolutionaries’ (and in particular Burke’s) word for it. In the same way these people exalt “all Bibles or sacred codes” and detest energy, exalt the Messiah and detest Satan. Blake collects his “Proverbs of Hell” during his walk “among the fires of Hell... as the sayings used in a nation, mark its character”: in other words, in France. But he is a visitor, an Aeneas in the underworld, a Dante in hell, and his writing is not about the Revolution in France but about the repression—the imaging of the Revolution as diabolic—that is being carried out at home in England. Satan is transvalued into Christ because this is the way Christ looked to the Pharisees and Levites, who noted that he healed on the Sabbath and kept company with wine-bibbers and harlots—just as the French Revolution seemed to Burke and as children appeared to their parents in Songs of Experience.
If the questions of “The Tyger” are parallel to those of Job’s God in the Leviathan passage, then we have something like the same context Burke elicited in the passage on Job in his Philosophical Enquiry. God pitted against his creature is a “sublime” confrontation. In the tiny revision of the story of the Fall called “The Poison Tree,” however, the relation of creator to created is hardly sublime. The speaker plants his tree(of the sort Blake visualizes differently in the preludium to America) as a trap:
And I waterd it in fears,
Night & morning with my tears:
And I sunned it with 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 veild the pole;
In the morning glad I see,
My foe outstretched beneath the tree.
Fallen man, like the revolutionary tiger, is in fact simply the product of God as tyrannical creator/destroyer. The speaker is the Old Testament God, renamed by Blake Urizen, and the poison tree is his Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Man is forced, or tempted, into the act of resistance, which is a Fall, accompanied by death, but also by knowledge—and with it double entendre, ambiguity, and irony...
If America celebrated the Pittite repression within England that greeted the Revolution, the later illuminated books reflected the cyclic pattern of revolutionary process that revealed itself in France from the autumn of 1792 on. The result is that the Revolution and Blake’s poems have become models for each other. This is a relationship in which the referent has begun to determine the signifier, and the artist is moving beyond the conventional images of sunrise, erupting volcanoes, hurricanes—even the Sublime—to equivalents that depend on the actual turn of events or that indicate the unreliability of any image as a guide to truthful representation of the revolutionary phenomenon.
Blake’s scepticism about the language of revolution may derive as much from revolutionary as from counterrevolutionary rhetoric(versus event). He transvalues the Bible stories and the accepted meanings of words. He shows that words have power when they are freed from such formulations as “Ten Commandments” or the charters or contracts he talks about in “London.” But he acknowledges that they are still words, ever ready to slip off into antitheses of the Divine Logos, to conceal meaning—or to produce “meaning” that conceals the reality of human desire, the Orc in us.
It is not surprising then that in the illuminated books of the 1790s the word and the image are in various ways at odds. One is not quite reliable without the other; more needs to be conveyed than can(under the present Pittite censorship or man’s fallen state) be conveyed by either one or the other. Blake is also demonstrating, however, that they certainly do not make a unity; they are simply “illustrative” of each other or constitutive of some absent existent object such as “revolution.”
Not only the cynical play with words in both France and England, but all the concern with language systems following the upheavals of the Thirty Years’ War on the continent and the Civil War in England fed into Blake’s central realization of the discrepancy between word and image. Whenever revolution is a phenomenon to be described,
“Blake’s ’ The Tyger’ is...an angelic formulation, spoken by a Burke who sees the French Revolution, politically and aesthetically, as a sublime spectacle/threat ...”
mimesis fails, as do the other normative assumptions laid down by academies of literature and art, and in particular the principle of ut pictura poesis, the notion that painting and poetry were “Sister Arts.” Blake knew it is neither the portrait painter’s function of making present what was present but is now absent, nor the history painter’s of making present what is yet only dimly present in the words of the poet, but the “revolutionary’s” function of making present what was not present before—what has been distorted by the words of Commandments or the rules of the academies. The words alone are ironic utterances; the images are direct and descriptive. The words censor, the images naively expose.
In linguistic terms we might explain the “Orc Cycle” as Blake’s initial reversal of hierarchical oppositions, giving priority to the “oppressed” member of the hierarchy, and then as his process of denying the “revolutionary” member its newly privileged “sovereignty” by revealing that it was in fact implicit within its antagonist-master. This formulation applies to the visual lamb, under the verbal tiger...
The lyric of Blake’s “Tyger” superficially poses the question of how evil energy can coexist with meek goodness in God’s universe. Blake is saying that they do coexist in his poetic universe of contraries, which is also that of the French Revolution. We must submit to the purpose of “The Tyger,” as of the French Revolution, which is to raise the paradoxes of the world of experience, and not to allow one side to cancel the other...
For Blake, paradox seems to be the characteristic feature of revolution itself, as well as the interpretation of it. The French Revolution offered the concrete case in which words have antithetical meanings(“tiger” or “devil,” but also “General Will” or “traitor”) and in which the actors prove to be both good and evil at the same time (a Lafayette, a Robespierre, or a Napoleon). These contradictions could be read either as a double-bind... or as a paradox, where we accept the paradox itself, repudiating Aristotle’s...law of contraries (this alternative excludes its opposite) as we repudiate the separation of the Sister Arts. The Revolution, like his art, inhabits for Blake that “mythic” area of ambiguity and doubleness where contraries can coexist.
Source: Ronald Paulson, “Blake’s Revolutionary Tiger,” in Representations of Revolution, Yale University Press, 1983.
Adams, Hazard. William Blake: A Reading of the Shorter Poems. University of Washington Press, 1963, 337 p.
Gilchrist, Alexander. Life of William Blake, Vol. I. Macmillan and Co., 1880, 431 p.
Hirsch, E. D. Innocence and Experience: An Introduction to Blake. Yale University Press, 1964, 335 p.
McGann, Jerome J. “The Aim of Blake’s Prophecies and the Uses of Blake Criticism.” In Blake’s Sublime Allegory: Essays on the Four Zoas, Milton, Jerusalem, edited by Stuart Curran and Joseph Anthony Wittreich, Jr., pp. 3-21. The University of Wisconsin Press, 1973.
Schorer, Mark. William Blake: The Politics of Vision. Henry Holt and Company, 1946, 524 p.
Swinburne, Algernon Charles. William Blake: A Critical Essay, revised edition. Chatto & Windus, 1906, 340 p.
Damon, S. Foster. A Blake Dictionary: The Ideas and Symbols of William Blake. Brown University Bicentennial Publications: Studies in the Fields of General Scholarship. Providence, RI: Brown University Press, 1965.
This highly regarded reference work explains symbolism in Blake’s writings.
Erdman, David V. Blake: Prophet Against Empire: A Poet’s Interpretation of the History of His Own Times. Third edition. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1977.
Erdman provides insightful historical analysis of Blake’s poetry and art.
Frye, Northrop. Fearful Symmetry: A Study of William Blake. Boston: Beacon Press, 1947.
Frye demonstrates the coherence of Blake’s mythology, placing it in a tradition of archetypal symbolism that includes the great works of world literature.