‘The Tyger’ is one of the best-known poems of the poet and engraver William Blake (1757-1827). The poem, part of Blake’s Songs of Experience, is notable for its series of questions about the large and fearsome creature, the tiger. But it is also a poem built upon a sequence of powerful images and symbols.
Indeed, the poem is a masterpiece of symbolism, but what the key symbols of the poem represent – or symbolise – is not always easy to determine. So let’s take a closer look at some of the most important and illustrative symbols in Blake’s poem.
The first line of Blake’s poem refers to the tiger as ‘burning bright’. With this alliterative phrase, Blake introduces the symbol of fire into the poem: a symbol which makes sense when we consider the orange flame-like patterns or markings on the tiger’s body.
The incandescence of ‘burning bright’ immediately establishes the tiger (or ‘Tyger’) as a dangerous, energetic creature full of life but also deadly potential (much as the flames of an unpredictable fire carry the potential to harm those who get too close).
The most famous fire-symbolism in Christian literature is, of course, the fires of hell, denoting everlasting torment and punishment for one’s sins. In Purgatory, fire supposedly purges the soul of sin, and this is an important element of Roman Catholic doctrine.
At the first Christian Pentecost, the Holy Spirit descended upon Christ’s Apostles in the form of ‘cloven tongues like as of fire’.
Fire, then, carries ambiguous symbolism in Christianity, being associated with both the Devil and hell, and God and the Holy Spirit with its purifying tongues of flame. There is something similarly undecidable about Blake’s fiery creature: is the Tyger a symbol of pure hellish evil or is it a purifying force? Ultimately, Blake leaves this issue unresolved in the poem.
Blake describes the Tyger as burning in ‘the forests of the night’. This line is both 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.
However, the main point this image is making – to return to the fire symbolism mentioned above – is to highlight the blazing brightness of the tiger’s fur as it moves through this night-time landscape. It stands out, drawing our attention and perhaps making us feel unnerved or afraid, much like seeing a blazing fire in a wood at night.
The Furnace, Hammer and Anvil.
In his study of Blake’s poetry, William Blake, D. G. Gillham raises the point that the speaker of ‘The Tyger’ can only conceive of the creator of the Tyger in human terms: he pictures the animal’s maker as a kind of blacksmith in his forge, hammering away on his anvil and forging the tiger out of the flames of his furnace.
What’s more, this creator-figure is only viewed in glimpses, as isolated body parts: wings, shoulder, hands, feet. We never get a sense of what he looks like as a whole being.
God is thus ‘reduced’ to the status of an artisan or skilled craftsman. He is viewed as a talented one, but he is still conceived in human terms rather than as something grander and separate from the realm of the earthly and human. Of course, a blacksmith’s forge is a place where we find fire reminiscent of the tiger’s hide, so the image of the creator hammering out the creature on his anvil, using the heat of his furnace to mould the tiger, is certainly apposite.
Stars and Spears.
‘The Tyger’ does not remain in the forge, however. Blake takes us out into the realm of the heavens with his reference to stars:
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 idea is that the beautiful, heavenly stars – themselves sources of colossal heat – were so struck with grief when they first saw the Tyger that they threw down their spears, perhaps in despair, or perhaps in an act of surrender (spears are, after all, weapons).
According to the Book of Genesis, the stars were among the first things God created when he made the universe. So the fact that these first creations now look upon the newly created tiger with horror, envy, or resignation conveys the idea that the creation of the tiger far outdoes the creation of the stars.
Of course, the most powerful symbol in ‘The Tyger’ is the tiger itself: the animal carries meaningful symbolism in its own right.
As we remarked in the section on fire symbolism, the association between the tiger and its ‘burning’, fiery appearance invites two very different readings. What, in the last analysis, does Blake’s Tyger represent, or symbolise?
Finally, perhaps, we can only speak in abstractions: whatever else it may symbolise, the Tyger represents a fearsome and dangerous force which has been forged under great pressure and violence (in the artisan’s smithy). It could easily symbolise purest evil (the fires of hell) or just pure strength and force, whose morality is undecidable. There is something fierce and beastly about it – it is a wild animal of the forests, after all – but there is also something pleasingly ordered and ‘correct’ about its proportions, and the patterning on its hide (that ‘fearful symmetry’).
Because we cannot provide definite answers to the questions the speaker poses, there is something mysterious about the Tyger – so that is another thing it represents: something unknown, and perhaps unknowable.