William Blake, "The Tyger" (1794)

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 An engraving, made by Blake himself, from an early edition of  The Songs of Innocence and of Experience  (1794).

An engraving, made by Blake himself, from an early edition of The Songs of Innocence and of Experience (1794).

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?

Blake’s “The Tyger” is a classic of British Romantic poetry, one we couldn’t resist branching out to explore for this week’s Tuesday Verse. The famous poem considers the tiger, an animal native to South and South-East Asia but which Blake may have seen at the travelling circuses that showcased the earth’s wonders to London’s paying customers. Blake’s poem marvels at the tiger, a sublime creature for its ability to excite both awe and terror. However, Blake is equally attracted to the shadowy figure who, hunched over his anvil, forges into being this majestic apex predator, as if from steel and fire.

What kind of prime creator, Blake wonders, could have brought to life such a creature, perfect in its killing ability? Could such a figure have also created the lamb, the counterpart to the tiger in Blake’s myth whose life suggests both purity and the dangers awaiting it in a world of terrors? Blake’s poem doesn’t answer these questions on its own; rather, like many poems in The Songs of Innocence and of Experience, its interest is in framing competing ways of understanding the world and exploring the oppositions (tiger and lamb, experience and innocence) at the heart of human experience.

This is our Tuesday Verse series. Commentary Comes from Jonathan Kerr, who has recently completed his PhD in English at the University of Toronto with specialization in the Romantics.