William Blake's "The Tyger"

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This is an explication of one of the English-speaking world's best loved poems, William Blake's "The Tyger." The explication uses a Biblical analysis, which works; in addition, however, Blake draws from his own mythos to write his poetry, one that is very different from the Biblical mythos. This is not dealt with in this article.

Blake's "The Tyger"

William Blake"s "The Tyger" is a poetic metaphor or allegory using the symbol of the tiger, mythological allusions, and images of Creation, Heaven, and Hell to make a point about the nature of good and evil. One reason for the poem's immortality is its exciting, unusual, and evocative imagery and another reason is its universal and timeless theme.

The poem is structured in six stanzas of quatrains made up of trochaic tetrameter. The rhyme scheme is AABB with a near rhyme at the end of the first and last stanzas; "eye" does not exactly rhyme with "symmetry," and it seems that this is an intentional "error" made to add emphasis to the word "symmetry" by unbalancing it against the rest of the stanza.

Literally, the poem is asking a number of questions of a tiger, or "Tyger." In the first stanza, the question is what immortal could have "framed," or fashioned the Tyger's "symmetry," its perfection and balance. The second stanza questions whether this creation might have taken place in some "distant deeps or skies" outside of normal human experience, and then again asks about the creator. The third and fourth stanzas ask the Tyger about the process of his making, and the fifth inquires about the final reaction of the Tyger's creator to his creation. The final stanza is a repetition of the opening stanza with one minor modification.

The first image in the poem is of the Tyger "burning bright" in the forest. Due to early English colonialism in 1794 at the writing of this poem, English readers would have had an excellent idea of what a tiger was and what sort of jungle it inhabited, but their image would not have been the warm and fuzzy one we have today. With their lack of scientific knowledge and environmentalism, the tiger would be seen as a dangerous assassin capable of killing good English soldiers in the dead of night from the cover of its mysterious jungle.

The "immortal hand or eye" that can frame the Tyger is, of course, the immortal Christian Creator, God. The use of the hand and the eye, though, sets up a dual meaning for the image "frame." Framing the Tyger with the hand is to fashion, shape, or build, but to frame the Tyger with the eye is to simply be able to see and comprehend it. So, this question asks who can conceive of such a beast, plan it, then build it.

The "deeps or skies" imagery refers to places mankind cannot normally see, such as Heaven or Hell. The distant skies can also be the Sun, to where Icarus "dare aspire" on his wings of feathers and wax. The deeps are the depths of the sea where he fell. The Greek mythological allusions are continued in the next line by the question of the hand that "dare seize the fire", an allusion to Prometheus. Both mythological images share a common theme; Both Daedalus, who made Icarus' wings, and Prometheus, who stole fire from the gods, attempted to help advance mankind by their work, but their gifts of invention and fire had negative, tragic aspects as well as good and progressive ones.

The organic imagery of the creation of the heart of the beast in stanza three is contrasted by the mechanical imagery of stanza four. In these mechanical images, the picture of a forge is painted by the references to the hammer, furnace, anvil, and grasp (blacksmith's tongs). However, in industrializing England, the "chain" mentioned in this stanza wouldn't have been used in the common work of a village blacksmith, but instead would have been used to lift large iron objects in a full foundry, with many men and great heat and black coal smoke and the noise of dozens of trip-hammers hammering at the same time, a hellish inferno-like image.

The image of the "stars [throwing] down their spears" in the fifth stanza may be interpreted as the stars either surrendering or hurling their spears of starlight, but in either case creates the Heavenly image of creation in Genesis 1:3: "And God said, 'Let there be light!' And there was light." This beatific imagery contrasts with the earlier infernal imagery and brings a closing to the creation of the Tyger by illuminating the finished product.

The stars watering Heaven with their tears is paralleled by the very next image in the Bible, in Genesis 1:6. "And God said 'Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters' . . . and [He] separated the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament." The "waters" are the sea, and the "firmament" is Heaven, together reinforcing the "distant deeps or skies" imagery of the second stanza and helping place creation of the Tyger at a time before the creation of the Earth.

The poem next gives the image of God, the maker of the Lamb Jesus, possibly smiling over the creation of the deadly Tyger. It is in this comparison of the Tyger to the Lamb that the allegory makes more sense; if the Lamb and the Tyger are both the creations of God, and the Tyger is the opposite of all the peace and compassion that the Lamb stands for, then the Tyger is the Anti-Christ, or Satan.

With Satan as the Tyger, the poem's images begin to become clear. The first question of the poem, "What immortal hand or eye" could create the Tyger, is rhetorical; God did it. He created the Tyger in the distant "deeps or skies", Hell or Heaven, and created the Tyger for a reason: like Icarus on his waxen wings or mankind with Prometheus' destructive gift of fire, the Tyger is an agent of free will. Just as Icarus has the choice to aspire to fly too high and man has the choice to use fire for war rather than warmth, Satan's tricking Adam and Eve into eating of the Tree of Knowledge brings us the gift of free will, the choice between good or evil.

Other images also fall into place. The twisted sinews of the Tyger's heart refer to the idea that Satan is really Lucifer, brightest of God's angels, but with a heart twisted by ambition and pride. The infernal foundry image appears as literally being hell, sulphurous flames (from the burning of coal) and all. The scene of the stars throwing down their warlike "spears" appears to be the war of angels in Heaven, in which one-third of the heavenly host follows Lucifer into to rebellion against God.

The first question asked "What immortal hand or eye / Could frame thy fearful symmetry", and that question is answered along with allegorical justification for God's actions. The final question still remains, however, no matter whether or not evil as well as good is required for free will. The last stanza is subtly changed to who "'Dare' frame thy fearful symmetry"; asking what God could be bold enough to create such a powerful enemy as compared to his gentle Lamb?

My intellectual response to this poem was one of interest, curiosity, and then entertainment as I tried to understand it, but my emotional response was different. The "question of evil" is the problem of why evil exists in a universe created by an omnipotent, omnibenevolent being, and even not being a Christian I feel that the problem of evil applies to me, if not more so than to a Christian; at least the true Christian can believe in a God whose ways are strange and mysterious and unknowable to mankind, thus any seeming contradictions in His definition are blamed on lack of human understanding. To the agnostic the question of evil is less explainable and this is one of the most succinct and aesthetic treatments of that question that I have found.

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