"The Tyger" is a poem by the English poet William Blake published in 1794 as part of the Songs of Experience collection. Literary critic Alfred Kazin calls it "the most famous of his poems," and The Cambridge Companion to William Blake calls it "the most anthologized poem in English." Beyond anthologization, the poem is one of the most reinterpreted and arranged works in Blake repertoire.
The Songs of Experience was published in 1794 as a follow up to Blake's 1789 Songs of Innocence. The two books were published together under the merged title Songs of Innocence and Experience, showing the Two Contrary States of the Human Soul: the author and printer, W. Blake featuring 54 plates. The illustrations are arranged differently in some copies, while a number of poems were moved from Songs of Innocence to Songs of Experience. Blake continued to print the work throughout his life. Of the copies of the original collection, only 28 published during his life are known to exist, with an additional 16 published posthumously. Only 5 of the poems from Songs of Experience appeared individually before 1839 with
The first and last stanzas are identical except the word "could" becomes "dare" in the second iteration. Kazin says to begin to wonder about the tiger, and its nature, can only lead to a daring to wonder about it. Blake achieves great power through the use of alliteration ("frame" and "fearful") combined with imagery, (burning, fire, eyes), and he structures the poem to ring with incessant repetitive questioning, demanding of the creature, "Who made thee?". In the second stanza the focus moves from the tiger, the creation, to the creator – of whom Blakes wonders "What dread hand? & what dread feet?". "The Tyger" is six stanzas in length, each stanza four lines long. Much of the poem follows the metrical pattern of its first line and can be scanned as trochaic tetrameter catalectic. A number of lines, however—such as line four in the first stanza—fall into iambic tetrameter.
"The Tyger" lacks narrative movement. The first stanza opens the central question: "What immortal hand or eye, / Could frame thy fearful symmetry?" The second stanza questions "the Tyger" about where he was created, the third about how the creator formed him, the fourth about what tools were used. In the fifth stanza Blake wonders how the creator reacted to "the Tyger" and who created the creature. Finally, the sixth restates the central question while raising the stakes; rather than merely question what/who could create the Tyger, the speaker wonders: who dares.
However, a deeper, more detailed analysis of the poem can reveal problems in its interpretation. For example, one reading can be that God the Creator, acting as a divine smith or blacksmith, "framed" the tiger and formed its eyes (and perhaps all of it) out of the fire of stars. He then performed the immersion that tempered or cooled the fiery eyes by inserting them into the tiger's head. Now quenched, the stars that formed the eyes ceased to be incandescent—to throw off or radiate rays of light like "spears." Yet they still glowed with inner fire—were still eyes of fury "burning bright." Also upon immersion the hot stars that formed the eyes sent a steamy shower of hot liquid droplets into the air—i.e., "water'd heaven with their tears."
But then, in line 19, in asking about the Creator's appraisal of His creation, the poet is wondering not about the Creator's metaphysical nature (His power) about which he was wondering in the first 4 stanzas, but about His ethical nature: Did He—or even how could He— smile upon or approve of such a "fearful" beast? Line 20 is also ethical but teleological as well: How could He but why did He make the lamb and yet also the tiger, which is its contrary? Lamb and tiger can be read respectively as symbols of good and evil or of Christ and Satan.
And apropos of Satan, the stars in lines 17-18 can be read as Satan's defeated angels rather than as stars inserted as eyes into the tiger's head. This alternative reading inroduces into the poem unmentioned references to beings from Blake's prophetic books, particularly to the defeated angels not of Satan but of Urizen, Blake's equivalent to Satan. And these angels would be throwing down their spears and fleeing in terror not because of their defeat by God but because Urizen, not God, frames the tiger out of his wrath at God, and the angels fear that wrath and its embodiment. Moreover, in two sources contemporary with "The Tyger," the streams of light that trail from defeated angel-stars (i.e., stars falling from heaven) are imagined as streams of tears wept by the stars.
In all stanzas but the fifth, the poet has wondered what the dread power of a Being must be who makes a creature of such dread power as the tiger. And so, in imagining the tiger's dread power, the poet has implied that the Creator's dread power is unimaginable. That is so whether the Creator of the tiger is imagined as God (as in the first reading) or Urizen (as in the alternative reading). However, the answer to the question in line 20 would be "yes" in the first reading but "no" in the alternative one.
"The Tyger" is the sister poem to "The Lamb" (from "Songs of Innocence"), a reflection of similar ideas from a different perspective (Blake's concept of "contraries"), with "The Lamb" bringing attention to innocence. "The Tyger" presents a duality between aesthetic beauty and primal ferocity, and Blake believes that to see one, the hand that created "The Lamb", one must also see the other, the hand that created "The Tyger”. The Songs of Experience were written as a contrary to the "Songs of Innocence" – a central tenet in Blake's philosophy, and central theme in his work. The struggle of humanity is based on the concept of the contrary nature of things, Blake believed, and thus, to achieve truth one must see the contraries in innocence and experience. Experience is not the face of evil but rather another facet of that which created us. Kazin says of Blake that, "Never is he more heretical than ... where he glories in the hammer and fire out of which are struck ... the Tyger". Rather than believing in war between good and evil or heaven and hell Blake thought each man must first see and then resolve the contraries of existence and life; in the "The Tyger" he presents a poem of "triumphant human awareness", and "a hymn to pure being", according to Kazin.
- Kazin, 41-43
- Eaves, pg. 207
- Whitson and Whittaker 63-71
- Gilchrist 1907 p. 118
- Gilchrist 1907 p. 118
- Davis 1977 p. 55
- Damon 1988 p. 378
- Bentley 2003 p. 148
- Newell 2011, ch. 1.
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- Bentley, G. E. Jr. The Stranger From Paradise. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003. ISBN 0-300-10030-2
- Damon, S. Foster. A Blake Dictionary. Hanover: University Press of New England, 1988.
- Davis, Michael. William Blake: A New Kind of Man. University of California Press, 1977.
- Eaves, Morris. The Cambridge Companion to William Blake, 2003. ISBN 978-0-521-78677-5
- Gilchrist, Alexander. The Life of William Blake. London: John Lane Company, 1907.
- Kazin, Alfred. "Introduction". The Portable Blake. The Viking Portable Library.
- Newell, Kenneth B. "New Conservative Explications: Reasoning with some Classic English Poems". Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2011. ISBN (10): 1-4438-2715-0
- Whitson, Roger and Jason Whittaker. William Blake and Digital Humanities:Collaboration, Participation, and Social Media. New York: Routledge, 2013. ISBN 978-0415-65618-4.
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- A Comparison of Different Versions of Blake's Printing of the The Tyger at the William Blake Archive
- The Taoing of a Sound – Phonetic Drama in William Blake’s The Tyger Detailed stylistic analysis of the poem by linguist Haj Ross