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Songs of Experience

THE TYGER

The poem opens with an awesome appraisal of the physical appearance of the tiger.
The poet asks what manner of creator he could be who could bring such a being into
life, and so bemused is he by this thought that he continues with it into the third
stanza. The mechanics of such an operation serve to intrigue him further and he
wonders what devices and instruments the creator could have employed to bring about
such a marvel. Was the creator pleased, finally, at what he had achieved?

The tiger is an image of danger and materialism. His environment is wild and
forbidden, a suggestion neatly combined here in the double image of ‘the forests of
the night’. Much of the poem is apparently an expression of wonder at the power and
energy of this creature. The creative act needed to produce the object of such wonder
seems, to the poet, beyond comprehension: Blake says that nothing merely mortal
could have formed such a being.

The rhetorical build-up and the breathless abbreviation of the individual lines are
highly effective in suggesting the sense of excited wonder that the poet would have us
shared. The rhythmic pounding that is typical of the poem seems to echo the physical
act of creation.

The mystery of the contraries in creation reappears in this poem in Blake’s


amazement that the God who created the aggressor, the tiger, could also create the
prey, the lamb. It is with this in mind that in the last stanza Blake introduces the word
‘dare’ in the final line to replace ‘could’ in the corresponding first stanza. God may
well have the power to produce something that, in its turn, might challenge that
power. In this respect, the poem may be viewed as an allegory, reflecting the
opposing powers of God and Satan, of good and evil.

God created Satan in the first place, and now Satan challenges him for supremacy in
the world. Satan lures and temptations are always more attractive, or ‘shining bright’,
and many choose to follow his lead. This, indeed, may well be the source of the image
in the penultimate (second last) stanza where ‘the stars threw down their spears’.
There the ‘stars’ are representative of the subsequently as Satan, refused to serve God.
This story is recounted in the Bible, in the Book of Revelation.

Blake would be familiar with this account. He would be unfamiliar wither either the
notion of Satan being likened to a wild beast ‘walking abroad like a roaring lion
seeking whom he may devour’ according to one writer in the New Testament.

Such religious interpretations gain credence from the reference in the last line of the
penultimate stanza to the ‘Lamb’, which as been seen before, is Blake’s way of
representing Christ.

SOURCE: York Notes

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Both the rhythm and imagery of ‘The Tyger’ are likely to have made an impact on the
reader. The rhythm seizes attention immediately with the exciting and emphatic stress
on the first of each pair of syllables for example, ‘Tyger! Tyger! BURNing BRIGHT’.
Similarly, the repetition of ‘What’ sounds through the earlier part of the poem like a
series of hammer blows, coming to a climax in the fourth verse.

Apart from the rhythm, the visual appeal is strong. The image of the tiger stands out
in bright contrast to the ‘forests of the night’. The sparkling of the ‘stars’ perhaps
links them with the ‘spears’ and then the ‘tears’, which can also sparkle in the light.
At the same time, there is perhaps a progression in these images from something cold
and aggressive to something more human and soft.

Rhythm and imagery give the poem a structure. While combining to convey the poet’s
awe and wonder at the fierce beauty of the tiger, at the same time it lends urgency to
his questions about the nature of its creator suggested not only in the line ‘Did he who
made the lamb make thee?’, but also in the subtle shift from ‘Could’ to ‘Dare’.

Questions about the overall meaning might well include:


- Are we to admire or fear the tiger?
- What does it represent?
- Did ‘he who made the lamb’ make the tiger?
- If so, what sort of creator is he?

Questions about the details of the poem might include:


- What are we to understand by ‘the forests of the night’?
- And by ‘distant deeps of skies’?
- How can stars throw spears and when did they?

 APPROACH THROUGH CONTEXT

What similarities and contrasts are there between ‘The Lamb’ and ‘The Tyger’?

It is clear that the lamb is not simply the animal, nor yet simply an example of a meek
and innocent creature, for it is linked with Jesus as Lamb of God and as creator, (the
child tells the lamb that its maker is ‘called by thy name’. It can now be seen that the
question in ‘The Tyger’, ‘Did he who made the lamb make thee?’ may not simply be
pointing to two extremes of creation, but may be setting the concept of a ruthless
creator god against that of a self-sacrificing, loving god.

 POLITICS

One of the most likely sources of imagery for ‘The Tyger’ can be found in
contemporary political writing. Once again, as in the case of Blake’s response to
religious writings, it is possible to see how he reacted to the ideas of others. One
political pamphlet of the period, attacking the French Revolution, describes the
revolutionaries as a tigerish multitude and observes that the wanton cruelty of the
tiger is to be claimed exclusively by the democracy.
William Wordsworth, who supported the earlier stages of the Revolution, said of Paris
in 1792 that it was:

…at the best a place of fear


Unfit for the repose which night requires,
Defenceless as a wood where tigers roam.
(1805 Prelude 10, 80-82)

Wordsworth was writing after the events, but it seems clear that he was using imagery
that was current at the period when Blake was writing ‘The Tyger’, because in 1792
Samuel Romilly wrote as follows about the founding of a French republic: One might
as well think of establishing a republic of tigers in some forest of Africa.

QUESTION: This association of the revolutionaries with tigers offers an obvious


interpretation of the poem, but what difference is there in the way in which Blake uses
image?
ANSWER: The other writers clearly use the tiger image to suggest the savagery of the
revolution, but Blake, while using the image to suggest fierce power, also seems very
conscious of its ‘burning’ beauty and ‘symmetry’, as one would expect of a supporter
of the revolution.

However, does this answer all of our questions? Is it enough now to say that the
forests of the night are simply the violent streets of revolutionary Paris? Such a neat
solution would appear to ignore the open-ended nature of Blake’s evocative imagery.

 ACTIVITY

Q: Look at the illustration for ‘The Tyger’. How effectively


does it match or add to the mood and meaning of the poem?

At first sight, it has to be admitted that the picture of the


tiger is rather disappointing. One critic suggests two
reasons for this:
1) A totally realistic tiger would encourage the reader to
think in literal terms instead of considering the energy it
represents
2) Secondly, Blake has tried to incorporate human features
into the tiger’s face to show that the same qualities can
be found in man.

Some would argue, however, that this particular illustration


quite simply fails to match the accompanying text in the intensity of its artistic vision.

SOURCE: Songs of Innocence and of Experience, William Blake, Oxford Student


Texts

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The Tiger

Blake’s mythology provides further illumination. The figure of Orc is frequently


associated with fire, on of the key images of the poem. He is always presented s being
energetic and creative. We might infer from this that the tiger, far from being a bearer
of destruction, is a symbol of creative power and beauty – a figure of vitality, liberty
and desire.

Classical mythology also offers a useful insight. According to myth, Prometheus


stole the fire of the gods for the sake of man, thus literally ‘seiz [ing] the fire’. He is
also associated with mythical stores of creation, which provides another connection
with the poem.

Revolution is another key concept. This poem can be an example of spiritual


revolutionary.

The poem’s iambic rhythm is forceful and pulsing, and is used to reinforce various
aspects of the poem – it reflects the tiger’s relentless pacing, the beating of its heart,
and the rhythmic blows of the hammer against the metal.

Alliteration and repetition are used to create tension. The tiger’s orange and black
colouring is created by the contrasting ‘burning bright’ and ‘night’, the dangerous
connotations of which suggest a more fearsome hunter than the placid beast of
Blake’s illustration. The reference to the ‘night’ is fitting, as darkness offers ideal
conditions for tigers to stalk their prey.

Blake thus establishes the tiger’s dangerous nature straight away, but his uncertainty
of hot it came into being is signalled by his use of rhetorical questions throughout the
poem. In contrast to ‘The Lamb’, there are no simple answers. We are told that the
tiger is the creation of an ‘immortal hand or eye’, and the power of its creator is
stressed throughout. However, if it was made by the divine hand that created the
lamb, Blake might be revealing God’s harsh and unpalatable side. God would
therefore embody contraries of tenderness and power.

This mixture of beauty and terror is another of Blake’s contraries, and in the final
stanza, the word ‘dare’ tellingly replaces ‘could’ in the final line. This reflects the way
in which our view of the creator has changed through the poem.

Blake employs the extended metaphor of a blacksmith to describe the tiger’s creation.
The harshness of the blacksmith imagery – a process dependent on fire – suits the
harshness both creature and creator, whether it be God or Satan. This account of the
creative process could not be more different from the piper’s description in
‘Introduction’.

Words such as ‘twist’, ‘beat’, ‘dread’ and ‘deadly terrors’ all suggest danger – it is
almost as if the animal is fighting with its maker in the very act of creation. The
materials from which it is made are unbendingly resistant, as suggested by the use of
the ‘hammer’, the ‘chain and the ‘anvil’.

SOURCE: AS/A-Level Student Text Guide, Phillip Allan

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