By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘The Tyger’ is not only one of the best-known poems of the poet and engraver William Blake (1757-1827): it is only of the best-known and best-loved poems in the English language. Part of the power of Blake’s paean to the terrible beauty of the tiger is the insistent trochaic rhythm of the lines, with their forceful opening syllables, but the poem is also full of memorable quotations.
A number of lines in the poem carry the force of an incantation, as if Blake were attempting to summon the tiger from those ‘forests of the night’. Let’s take a closer look at some of the most important and illustrative quotations from Blake’s poem.
‘Tyger! Tyger! burning bright’.
These opening lines of the poem technically known as ‘The Tyger’ are among the most famous opening lines, not just in Blake’s work, but in all of English poetry. The insistent trochaic metre of the line, the repetition, and the strong plosive alliteration of ‘burning bright’ all help to make the line one of the most arresting and eye-catching (ear-catching?) in English literature.
The poem is thus established as one to be chanted rather than read: it calls to be uttered aloud. The poem is as close to being a verbal manifestation of the creature itself as it’s possible for poetry to be.
‘In the forests of the night’.
This quotation, the second line from the poem, is so well-known that it’s easy to skip over its meaning. But the line is suggestive and ambiguous: it could refer to the forests at night – that is, the forests and woodland areas that are familiar to us, which the tiger stalks during the hours of darkness – or it could be a metaphor, referring to night-time as itself a kind of (figurative) forest: thick, dense, and full of lurking terrors.
‘What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?’
After the opening lines, these are the best-known quotations from ‘The Tyger’, marking out the poem as both a nature poem (or an animal poem) and a religious poem, in which Blake expresses his awe at the Creator who made the fearsome and mighty predator, the tiger.
Yes, ‘fearful’ in the phrase ‘fearful symmetry’ (which the critic Northrop Frye borrowed for the title of his study of Blake) means ‘fearsome’ here: that is, the symmetrical patterning of the tiger inspires fear in the observer, rather than the animal being full of fear itself.
Once again, we have the alliteration of ‘frame thy fearful’, with ‘fearful’ itself containing a kind of internal alliteration on the ‘f’ sound. Meanwhile, the ‘m’, ‘t’, and ‘r’ sounds of the trisyllabic ‘immortal’ return in the trisyllabic ‘symmetry’ in the following line, further strengthening the link Blake perceives between the ‘immortal’ being who created the tiger, and the beautiful ‘symmetry’ found within that creation.
‘Symmetry’ denotes order, design, and a certain ‘correctness’, a sense that the appearance of the ‘tyger’ is just ‘right’.
‘What the hammer? what the chain,
In what furnace was thy brain?’
Blake sees God the Creator as a kind of blacksmith who forged the tiger within his workshop, using the tools of the smith – hammer, chain, and blazing hot furnace – to forge the fiery patterns on the tiger’s fur and skin.
Note how the focus of Blake’s poem shifts at this point. He is still contemplating the tiger, but now he is also thinking about the mystery of the Creator who forged the animal.
‘When the stars threw down their spears
And water’d heaven with their tears’.
This is one of the most puzzling quotations to analyse from ‘The Tyger’, but we can link the image of stars throwing down their spears to the rebellion in heaven – and Lucifer’s subsequent fall from grace – which Blake covers elsewhere in his poetry. In his poem the Four Zoas, Blake tells us: ‘The stars threw down their spears & fled naked away.’
This is the point in the poem where the Satan figure refuses to pledge his allegiance to God – essentially, the same story which Milton, whose work Blake knew well, used as the basis for his epic poem Paradise Lost.
‘Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?’
There is a contrast between Blake’s questioning approach to the ‘tyger’ in this poem and the answers provided in his accompanying poem ‘The Lamb’, from the complementary Songs of Innocence. Was God proud of what he had created when he had finished making the tiger? Could one be proud of such a fearsome and terrifying beast?
And Blake cannot believe that the same creator who forged the tiger in his fiery furnace of creation was also responsible for the meek and gentle lamb.
‘What immortal hand or eye,
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?’
Finally, it’s worth concluding this pick of quotations from ‘The Tyger’ with the poem’s closing couplet. It is a word-for-word repetition of the closing couplet from the poem’s opening stanza – with one subtle but important change.
Where Blake had before written ‘Could frame thy fearful symmetry’, he now changes that verb denoting ability (‘Could’) to one denoting boldness (‘Dare’). In other words, given the fearsome nature of the beast, what kind of god could have dared to forge the mighty creature that is the tiger? And what does such a creation tell us about that god himself?