By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘The Tyger’ is one of the best-known poems of the poet and engraver William Blake (1757-1827), but in many ways it is a mysterious, even inscrutable poem which views the tiger with both awe and horror.
A number of lines in the poem carry the force of an incantation, as if Blake were attempting to summon the tiger forth from those ‘forests of the night’. And although the poem is more questioning and suggestive than it is declarative or definitive on the subject of the tiger, it explores some weighty themes.
Let’s take a closer look at some of the most important themes of Blake’s poem.
In many ways, ‘The Tyger’ is about two things: the creature itself, and the creator who was responsible for forging such a beast. How and why did this mysterious god-figure make such a fearsome and dangerous animal?
Blake’s speaker cannot answer this question: the best he can do is to picture the creator at work as he made the tiger. He sees this as resembling a blacksmith or metalworker at his forge, casting the tiger in his fiery hot furnace and hammering out his distinctive shape on the anvil.
Fundamentally, he is left only with questions. What was the creator thinking when he made such a beast? And did the same god who made the meek and gentle lamb (the subject of another William Blake poem, one of his Songs of Innocence) really make the wild and predatory tiger, too?
In Christianity, the lamb is associated with Jesus Christ, who is sometimes known as Agnus dei, ‘the lamb of God’. By contrast, the Tyger, with its fiery stripes in its skin and its dangerous and vigorous energy, is perhaps more akin to the fires of hell than the calm of heaven.
The speaker of the poem is clearly in awe of the tiger’s might: its strength, its power, its distinctive appearance. Among other things, he admires the perfect ‘symmetry’ of the animal (not least the neat and orderly patterning of its flame-like stripes).
But Blake’s tiger – like the animal itself – is also to be feared. Tigers are large, strong, predatory animals which, unlike their cousins the domestic cats, cannot be fully tamed. So there is something beautiful and awe-inspiring about the tiger, but also something fearsome and terrifying.
In Romantic literature, we often talk about the Sublime: that curious blend of awe and terror which certain sights in nature can evoke in the observer. So when Percy Shelley beholds Mont Blanc, the vast mountain in the Alps, he is struck by both its beauty but also its overwhelming size, which dwarfs the poet himself and makes him feel small and insignificant. We might view Blake’s Tyger as another example of the Sublime.
‘The Tyger’ is one of William Blake’s Songs of Experience, the companion-piece he wrote in 1794 for his earlier Songs of Innocence (1789). The Songs of Innocence and of Experience (they are usually regarded as one larger, interlinked work) were intended to convey, and explore, ‘the two contrary states of the human soul’. The Tyger is the ‘experience’ poem which corresponds to, and complements, ‘The Lamb’ in the earlier Songs of Innocence.
Is Blake suggesting, through this interesting duality, that our souls are made up of both meek, innocent, and gentle elements (the lamb) and terrifying, unpredictable, and wild elements (the tiger)?
Blake uses questions throughout ‘The Tyger’ to convey the ultimate unknowability of the tiger’s origins. These can be described as rhetorical questions because he doesn’t really expect anybody to answer them: the only one who could, the creator responsible for making the animal, is unlikely to lower himself to responding to the speaker’s enquiries.
This quality to the poem perhaps makes it more of a religious poem than a nature poem or even an animal poem: it’s a poem about creation, focusing on the tiger as a particularly puzzling (and troubling) example of all of creation.
And much as those who subscribe the Christian idea that God make ‘all things bring and beautiful’ must grapple with the fact that God also made a parasitic wasp, so Blake’s speaker is attempting to reconcile his belief in the gentle and meek version of God, embodied and symbolised by the lamb, with the fact of the dangerous and feral tiger’s existence as well.
Ultimately, despite the concrete imagery the speaker uses, we must fall back on abstractions and speculation when thinking about the origins of the tiger: the Tyger represents a terrible might and force which has been forged under great violence in the artisan’s smithy. It could represent purest evil (the fires of hell) or just pure strength and force, whose morality is undecidable. There is something wild and unpredictable about the creature but there is also something pleasingly ordered and ‘correct’ about its proportions, and the patterning on its hide (that ‘fearful symmetry’).