A Summary and Analysis of William Blake’s ‘The Tyger’

By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)

‘The Tyger’ is arguably the most famous poem written by William Blake (1757-1827); it’s difficult to say which is more well-known, ‘The Tyger’ or the poem commonly known as ‘Jerusalem’. The poem’s opening line, ‘Tyger Tyger, burning bright’ is among the most famous opening lines in English poetry (it’s sometimes modernised as ‘Tiger, Tiger, burning bright’).

Below is a summary of this iconic poem, along with a close analysis of the poem’s language, imagery, and meaning.

The Tyger: summary

‘The Tyger’ was first published in William Blake’s 1794 volume Songs of Experience, which contains many of his most celebrated poems. The Songs of Experience was designed to complement Blake’s earlier collection, Songs of Innocence (1789), and ‘The Tyger’ should be seen as the later volume’s answer to ‘The Lamb’, the ‘innocent’ poem that had appeared in the earlier volume.

Framed as a series of questions, ‘Tyger Tyger, burning bright’ (as the poem is also often known), in summary, sees Blake’s speaker wondering about the creator responsible for such a fearsome creature as the tiger.

The fiery imagery used throughout the poem conjures the tiger’s aura of danger: fire equates to fear. Don’t get too close to the tiger, Blake’s poem seems to say, otherwise you’ll get burnt.

Tyger Tyger, burning bright,
In the forests of the night;
What immortal hand or eye,
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

The first stanza and sixth stanza, alike in every respect except for the shift from ‘Could frame’ to ‘Dare frame’, frame the poem, asking about the immortal creator responsible for the beast.

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 second stanza continues the fire imagery established by the image of the tiger ‘burning bright’, with talk of ‘the fire’ of the creature’s eyes, and the notion of the creator fashioning the tiger out of pure fire, as if he (or He) had reached his hand into the fire and moulded the creature from it. (The image succeeds, of course, because of the flame-like appearance of a tiger’s stripes.)

It must have been a god who played with fire who made the tiger.

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?

In the third and fourth stanzas, Blake introduces another central metaphor, explicitly drawing a comparison between God and a blacksmith.

What the hammer? what the chain,
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? what dread grasp,
Dare its deadly terrors clasp!

It is as if the Creator made the blacksmith in his forge, hammering the base materials into the living and breathing ferocious creature which now walks the earth.

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?

The fifth stanza is more puzzling, but ‘stars’ have long been associated with human destiny (as the root of ‘astrology’ highlights). For Kathleen Raine, this stanza can be linked with another of William Blake’s works, The Four Zoas, where the phrase which we also find in ‘The Tyger’, ‘the stars threw down their spears’, also appears.

There it is the godlike creator of the universe (Urizen in Blake’s mythology) who utters it; Urizen’s fall, and the fall of the stars and planets, are what brought about the creation of life on Earth in Blake’s Creation story. When the Creator fashioned the Tyger, Blake asks, did he look with pride upon the animal he had created?

Tyger Tyger burning bright,
In the forests of the night:
What immortal hand or eye,
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?


The poem ends where it began, with a repetition of the first stanza, though the word Could has been altered to Dare in the final line.

The Tyger: analysis

How might we analyse ‘The Tyger’? What does it mean? The broader point is one that many Christian believers have had to grapple with: if God is all-loving, why did he make such a fearsome and dangerous animal? We can’t easily fit the tiger into the ‘All Things Bright and Beautiful’ view of Christian creation.

As Blake himself asks, ‘Did he who made the Lamb make thee?’ In other words, did God make the gentle and meek animals, but also the destructive and ferocious ones?

What immortal hand or eye,
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?

Presumably the question is rhetorical; the real question-behind-the-question is why. (This might help to explain Blake’s reference to ‘fearful symmetry’: he is describing not only the remarkable patterns on the tiger’s skin and fur which humans have learned to go in fear of, but the ‘symmetry’ between the innocent lamb on the one hand and the fearsome tiger on the other. (‘Fearful’ means ‘fearsome’ here, confusingly.)

Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?

Indeed, we might take such an analysis further and see the duality between the lamb and the tiger as being specifically about the two versions of God in Christianity: the vengeful and punitive Old Testament God, Yahweh, and the meek and forgiving God presented in the New Testament.

What bolsters such an interpretation is the long-established associations between the lamb and Jesus Christ. The tiger, whilst not a biblical animal, embodies the violent retribution and awesome might of Yahweh in the Old Testament.

Or, as the Blake scholar D. G. Gillham, in his informative and fascinating study of Blake’s poetry, Blake’s Contrary States: The ‘Songs of Innocence and Experience’ as Dramatic Poems, puts it: ‘A universe that contains beasts of prey must be a ruthless one, and his questions are so framed that any possible answer must first explain that.’

Certainly, when we contrast ‘The Lamb’ with ‘The Tyger’, we realise that although the speakers of both poems ask questions, the crucial difference is that the questions are left unanswered in the latter poem. Not so in ‘The Lamb’:

Little Lamb who made thee
Dost thou know who made thee
Gave thee life & bid thee feed.
By the stream & 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?

D. G. Gillham observes that whereas the child-speaker of ‘The Lamb’ is confident in, and proud of, his knowledge of the lamb (‘Little Lamb, I’ll tell thee …’), the speaker of ‘The Tyger’ is marked by uncertainty:

Little Lamb I’ll tell thee,
Little Lamb I’ll tell thee!
He is called by thy name,
For he calls himself a Lamb:
He is meek & he is mild,
He became a little child:
I a child & thou a lamb,
We are called by his name.
Little Lamb God bless thee.
Little Lamb God bless thee.

Question after question comes at us, and an answer to any of them seems impossible: ‘the speaker can do no more than wonder’, as Gillham notes. This is because the Creator who made the tiger is not meant to be understood by us: he works in mysterious ways.

But is the Christian belief-system the only way of approaching Blake’s Tyger? Returning to the significance of fire in the poem, it’s worth noting that this fiery imagery also summons the idea of Greek myth – specifically, the myth of Prometheus, the deity who stole fire from the gods and gave it to mankind.

From that daring act of transgression, man’s development followed. Once man had fire, he was free, and had the divine spark (literally, in being able to create fire). Blake’s question ‘What the hand, dare seize the fire?’ alludes to the figure of Prometheus, seizing fire from the gods and giving it to man. The Tyger seems to embody, in part, this transgressive yet divine spirit.

But none of these readings quite settles down into incontrovertible fact. ‘The Tyger’ remains, like the creature itself, an enigma, a fearsome and elusive beast.

Continue to explore the world of Blake’s poetry with our analysis of Blake’s poem about the poison tree, our overview of his poem known as ‘Jerusalem’ and his scathing indictment of poverty and misery in London. If you’re looking for a good edition of Blake’s work, we recommend Selected Poetry (Oxford World’s Classics). If you’re studying poetry, we recommend these five helpful guides for the poetry student. We’ve offered more tips for the close reading of poetry here.

The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.


  1. Since studying it at high school, ‘The Tyger’ has been my favourite poem. Great post.

  2. Pingback: The Saturday Night Special: “A Short Analysis of William Blake’s ‘The Tyger’” from Interesting Literature | Phil Slattery's Blog

  3. Reblogged this on Manolis.

  4. Thanks for a great post. I had forgotten how exciting it was to analyse a poem. You are actually making me believe I am educated.

  5. Blake was a rapper before there was rap. Seriously–this poem goes well with a phat beat.

  6. This is an excellent post. Thank you for unpacking the meaning of this wonderful poem so well.