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Tyger Tyger

April 26, 2018 | By

What matters is the soul and spirit of the “Tyger” and not its brawn, to Blake. An indepth study of the iconic poem by Dr AV Koshy.



Tyger Tyger – By William Blake

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

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?

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?

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

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?

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

I don’t know what I can say about this poem that has not been already said but let me try. The first things is about the spelling of Tyger which is archaic. It is archaic due to Blake being partly a pre-Romantic born 1757 and having died in 1827.

As a critic I am faced with two problems here, one of seeing the poem as only a poem and not as part of his collections and also seeing it as separate from the art he made to accompany it. However, as there is no space here to go into things too much at length I have to dismiss these two things by saying first that this poem comes in his Songs of Experience but is clearly a counterpoint to his poem Lamb in Songs of Innocence and that it can be also a stand on its own as poem and enjoyed apart from his art work so I shall not bother about that part of it too much, either.

What is interesting is the artist in Blake. Art defamiliarises. Anyone would go for the Lion who was in Blake’s context as the opposite of the Lamb, Biblically, or even in terms of what the English saw as the hierarchy in the animal kingdom of that time but he plumbs for the Tyger. This is the first important thing to be noticed. This brings him unconsciously closer to India than to the Middle East, interestingly.

As a poet Blake is traditional at first glance in the sense that he writes in metre, using quatrains and rhyming. But then as one reads him he is surprising right from the first line. He uses a metaphor for the Tyger saying he is a fire. This refers back to the fire Moses saw of the burning bush and justifies the capitals in Tyger, as it was in the bush that burned but was not consumed that Moses met God who is I AM THAT I AM.

William Blake (Pic: Wikimedia)

Fire is also a symbol/metaphor for God in both the oldest Middle Eastern religion that we know of, that of Zarathustra, and in the Rig Veda (Agni). The second line with its inversion of “forests of the night” again tells us this is no ordinary Tyger but one meant to make us aware of the Divine. Night has forests and in them shines the fire the tiger is. What is this night but the primeval one and if so what is this Tyger but the first Life – hence uncreatable/Energy and God himself? In a superb metonym or synecdoche Blake asks “what immortal hand or eye could frame thy fearful symmetry?” This awe inspiring Tyger was not made, but begotten of the Father before all worlds.

Asking a series of questions, comparing creating the Tyger to an act by a blacksmith in his forge, bringing in Vulcan, Blake drives us to the conclusion that the Tyger was perhaps not created though he gives no conclusive answer to his questions. His reference to the angels/stars who threw down their spears in admiration in the Book of Job at God’s unmatched power shown in his manifold creation, only goes to increase our wonder at his having perhaps unleashed in the Tiger a force that is equal to or can become greater than Himself or the Lamb, which brings us to the crux of the poem which is about the complex relationship between the creator and the created as well as the golden bond or thread that unites them, and about the power of the balance in Nature between what can bring about good as well as if misused bring about evil, namely the latent force in the Tyger seen in his fiery eyes, heart’s sinews and brain – showing us what matters is the soul and spirit of the Tyger and not its brawn, to Blake. Or its stripes which underlie the poem again as implicit metaphor for energy and matter, if not good and evil.

Alliteration and anaphora serve Blake perfectly here as does the list of a kind of catechism that expects no reply but in all his hints as to what he means he is far ahead of his time. This is Blake, spiritual, mystical, gnostic, Christian and Biblical but also most importantly a prophet and seer of art, not bothered about being theologically or rationally correct or consistent.

Ultimately, the Tyger is man – human kind and humanity, in all his potential, Blakean, and Nietzschean before his time. An ubermensch. Promethean and Protean too.

So it is not surprising that in the last stanza that seems to be a way of making it a circular and cyclic poem he replaces “could” with “dare” – to show that he has given the Tyger in his artistic vision the same place as God has Christ, as his equal and peer, and on this resounding note he ends one of the finest poems ever to be found in the English canon.. One of my unquestionable favourites. Not surprisingly it influenced TS Eliot in ‘Gerontion’ – “in the juvescence of the year came Christ the Tiger” – and Blake influenced Bob Dylan in ‘Every Grain of Sand’ indirectly, and both are Nobel Prize winners.

*Blake is the beauty and he is in love with the ‘beast’s’ soul. This is why he calls the Tyger ‘a fearful ‘symmetry’ as it can evoke this complementary, matching feeling in him.

More to read in Literature DIY

Lectures on Literary Criticism – V (Italy and Dante)

Classical Criticism – A Peek into Roman Criticism

Notes On Literary Criticism by Dr A V Koshy

Dr. Koshy A.V. is presently working as an Assistant Professor in the English Department of Jazan University, Saudi Arabia. He has many books, degrees, diplomas, certificates, prizes, and awards to his credit and also, besides teaching, is an editor, anthology maker, poet, critic and writer of fiction. He runs an autism NPO with his wife, Anna Gabriel.
All Posts of Dr Ampat Varghese Koshy

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