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William Blake's notebook

Children's rhyme - or allegory about the French Revolution? The most famous of the English visionary's poems has had academics debating since its appearance in 1794

William Blake's notebook: The Tyger, 1794

William Blake's 'The Tyger'
British Library Add.49460, f.56. tyger / London
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Who was William Blake?

Born in London, William Blake (1757-1827) was an extraordinarily gifted man. He is sometimes grouped with the early Romantic poets William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, because of their shared political concerns and fresh approach to poetry. He can equally be seen as a highly individual, visionary, poetical revolutionary, both as a writer and an artist. His genius was not fully appreciated until after his death.

What is the poem about?

'The Tyger' is found in draft in a notebook that takes the name the 'Rossetti Manuscript' from a later owner, the poet and Pre-Raphaelite painter, Dante Gabriel Rossetti. In it Blake entered, over the space of a quarter-century, emblems subsequently used in The Gates of Paradise (1793), decorations for The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1791), and drafts of prose essays, lyrics and epigrams, together with most of the posthumously published Everlasting Gospel. It is the classic example of a working notebook, in which every corner is filled with jottings and drafts.

In the draft of 'The Tyger' shown here, Blake has completely dispensed with punctuation. His strong horizontal crossings out indicate his dissatisfaction with his first draft of verse four. In the original we see disturbing images of 'horrid ribs' and 'sanguine woe', which are eventually replaced with the equally tormenting image where 'deadly terrors' threaten to 'clasp'. Blake's poetry is unique in its wide appeal; its seeming simplicity makes it attractive to children, while its complex religious, political and mythological imagery provokes enduring debate amongst scholars.

What was the political situation at the time, and why might it be about revolution?

Following the French Revolution in 1791, public demand for political reform in England grew, inspired by such controversial books as Thomas Paine's Rights of Man. The relationship between Britain and France worsened after the execution of Louis XVI in January 1793. A war with France was increasingly likely to protect European interests, but it was the French who declared war on Britain in February 1793. This allowed Pitt, the iron-fisted Prime Minister, to introduce sweeping security measures. These included bans on meetings, restrictions on publishing, and detention without charge.

We know Blake was interested in the contemporary debates about freedoms and rights. In his notebooks there may even be a sketch of Paine.

What is the text of the poem?

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 [sic] 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?

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