An introduction to 'The Tyger'

George Norton's close reading of William Blake’s 'The Tyger' considers the poem's imagery through 18th-century industrial and political revolutions and moral literature.
Blake’s ‘The Tyger’ is a great example of T S Eliot’s claim that ‘Genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood’. A quick scan of its key words (‘burning’, ‘night’, ‘fearful’, ‘deeps’, ‘dread’, ‘deadly’, ‘terrors’), combined with the insistent, aggressive trochaic rhythm[1], tells us that the poem deals with a darkly intense and awe-inspiring experience. Pinning down exactly what that experience is, however, is very much more difficult.
The poem clearly works on a metaphorical level: tigers can’t burn; nights don’t have forests. According to I A Richards, metaphors have three elements: a tenor (the meaning behind the metaphor), a vehicle (the image used) and a ground (the basis of the comparison).[2] What’s interesting about Blake’s tiger metaphor is that it’s all vehicle and no tenor; what the tiger is intended to express is never made clear.

William Blake's Songs of Innocence and Experience

William Blake's Songs of Innocence and Experience [page: 42]

‘The Tyger’ from William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience.

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‘Did he who made the lamb make thee?’

Appearing in Songs of Experience, ‘The Tyger’ is usually understood as the companion piece of ‘The Lamb’ in Songs of Innocence; both poems ask the same question: where do we come from? In ‘The Lamb’, an answer is given: God made us – a simple affirmation of faith. ‘The Tyger’ only implies the answer by posing the rhetorical question: ‘Did he who made the lamb make thee?’ Indeed, one of the most noticeable features of ‘The Tyger’ is that it takes the form of a series of questions, none of which are answered. Whereas ‘The Lamb’ posits the process of creation as natural and harmonious, ‘The Tyger’ shows us something much more violent and mysterious; the tiger comes from ‘the forests of the night’ and its eyes burn in ‘distant deeps and skies’. Its creation is an act of confrontation and audacity. The poem shifts between ‘could’ (ability) and ‘dare’ (which implies transgression and disobedience), ending in ‘dare’ in the final stanza, a direct repeat of the first except for the change of verb at the start of the final line, which is marked with a spondee[3] (‘Dare frame’) rather than the iamb[4] of the first stanza (‘Could frame’), emphasizing its significance.

The Notebook of William Blake

The Notebook of William Blake [folio: 3v]

A drawing of a tiger’s head from Blake’s notebook.

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Images of rebellion and revolution

The poem is full of references to rebellion: to Satan’s revolt in Paradise Lost (‘the stars threw down their spears’), to Prometheus, a favourite rebel of the Romantics (‘What the hand dare seize the fire?’), and, perhaps to Icarus (‘On what wings dare he aspire?’ – though this line might just as easily evoke Milton’s Satan). Such images have led some critics to see the tiger as a metaphor for revolution. As Peter Ackroyd suggests,

‘Even as Blake worked upon the poem the revolutionaries in France were being branded in the image of a ravening beast – after the Paris massacres of September 1792, an English statesman declared, “One might as well think of establishing a republic of tigers in some forests in Africa”, and there were newspaper references to “the tribunal of tigers”. At a later date Marat’s eyes were said to resemble “those of the tyger cat’”.[5]

In The Prelude, Wordsworth describes post-revolutionary Paris as ‘a place of fear […] Defenceless as a wood where tigers roam’. The tiger, powerful, unpredictable, gorgeous but deadly, becomes a potent image for what W B Yeats would later call the ‘terrible beauty’ of revolution.

Images of industry

Another complex aspect of Blake’s metaphor is that, unlike the lamb, who is ‘made’ by God, the tiger owes its existence to a combination of human labour and industrial process. Stanza three focuses on human effort, the shoulder and the art which ‘twist the sinews of thy heart’. Stanza four conceives of the tiger’s creation in terms of industry, using a series of metonyms for the blacksmith’s forge: ‘hammer’, ‘chain’, ‘furnace’, ‘anvil’. While, like all the Romantics, Blake was repelled by the Industrial Revolution and its objectification of human beings, this stanza has undeniable energy and a fascination with what industry can produce: ‘what dread grasp | Dare its deadly terrors clasp?’ It’s interesting that both the worker and the tiger are represented by a strange combination of body parts (‘shoulder’, ‘heart’, ‘sinews’, ‘hand’, ‘feet’, ‘brain’). A parallel can perhaps be drawn with the creature constructed in a ‘workshop of filthy creation’ in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, another text which draws upon both Paradise Lost and the Prometheus myth, asking questions about who makes us, and deploring industrialisation.

Uncertainty and ambiguity

Where ‘The Lamb’ offers the reader simple certainties and the loving, benign God of the New Testament, ‘The Tyger’ presents creation as enigmatic and unknowable. Some critics see this as indicative of the painful, fallen world of experience where faith is impossible, ‘the distant deeps’ offering only insecurity and epistemological chaos. ‘The Tyger’ thus becomes part of the Experience poems’ pessimism and anguish. But perhaps there is another way of understanding the refusal to offer straightforward answers. As Heather Glen suggests, Blake’s ambiguity is part of a broader challenge to 18th-century readers, who would have been familiar with the fashionable instructive literature of the time – literature that provided clear, didactic, moral concepts. ‘The contemporary reader’, writes Glen, ‘might well have been disturbed by the view of life implied by the Songs; but more fundamentally – though perhaps less consciously – disturbing is the fact that there seems to be no obvious argument propounded in them at all’.[6] The radical nature of Blake’s poetry, Glen suggests, is due to its ambiguity and its lack of clear moral explanation. For Blake, the imagination is the ultimate creative force: ‘What is now proved was once only imagined,’ he wrote in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. His complex and enigmatic metaphor creates a space where imaginative energies can be released. Ever the enemy of narrow, earth-bound materialism, Blake reveals ‘the forests of the night’ as a place where we may dare to aspire and unleash the ‘fearful symmetry’ of the imagination.

Footnotes

[1] An accented syllable followed by an unaccented one.

[2] Discussed in Malcolm Peet and David Robinson, Leading Questions (Walton-on-Thames: Nelson, 1992), p.80.

[3] Two accented syllables.

[4] An unaccented syllable followed by an accented one.

[5] Peter Ackroyd, Blake (London: Minerva, 1996), p.149.

[6] Heather Glen, Vision and Disenchantment: Blake’s ‘Songs’ and Wordsworth’s ‘Lyrical Ballads’ (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983), p.19.

  • George Norton
  • George Norton is the Head of English at Paston VI Form College in North Norfolk and a freelance writer.

The text in this article is available under the Creative Commons License.

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