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'The 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 fires of thine eyes?

On what wings dare he aspire?

What the hand dare seize the fire?


And what shoulder and what art

Could twist the sinews of thy heart?

And when thy heart began to beat,

What dread hand and 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?


Probably written in 1792/93 - at the same time as the full ramifications of the French Revolution were beginning to reveal themselves - 'The Tyger' must, surely, be one of the most famous poems ever written. William Blake, son of a hosier and from a dissenting background, would have been in his mid-thirties when he composed it, residing with his wife, Catherine, at number 13, Hercules Buildings in Lambeth (the two of them were known to sunbathe naked in its garden) and practicing his trade as an engraver. He would almost certainly have seen a live tiger as there were two of them on view at the Tower of London and - in an earlier dwelling place at Green street - a tiger had been exhibited in a private menagerie just around the corner in Leicester House. Blake's accompanying depiction, however, displays little of that beast of prey's lissom and feral power, possessing as it does more the feline vigour of a rather sad domestic tabby.

    'The Tyger' is one of the Songs of Experience upon which Blake was working as a companion piece to his 'Songs of Innocence' (some of which appear to have been begun as early as 1784). It is often cited in direct contrast to 'The Lamb' of the earlier sequence.

    Blake's manuscript containing drafts of 'The Tyger' has an interesting history. It originally belonged to his much-loved younger brother, Robert, who died from tuberculosis, aged only 19, in 1787. Blake himself had nursed him at the end, and would keep his brother's notebook with him until the close of his own life - using the spare pages for thoughts, drawings and verses of his own (including many of the workings of 'Songs of Experience'). Blake felt that he was 'guided' by his brother's spirit for a number of years and, indeed, claimed to have seen Robert's soul ascend to heaven (through the ceiling). William had already been seeing 'visions' since the age of eight, and there can be little doubt that in a later age the artist would, routinely, have been diagnosed as a schizophrenic, 'sectioned' under the Mental Health Act and (involuntarily) medicated. As it was he was left free to pursue his own inclinations which were, at this time, highly influenced by Swedenborgian philosophy.

    'The Tyger' is written from a Gnostic perspective: for Blake 'Jehovah' meant merely the artificer of an imperfect creation, beyond which lies the ultimate divinity. In Blakean mythology the 'Tyger', symbol of wrath, is a product of 'Urizen' (a fallen titan driven by materialism and calculating rationality). 'Los' - who embodies artistic imagination - is engaged in an historical struggle with 'Urizen' and only their ultimate reconciliation can make 'Jerusalem' possible. The 'Lamb' is equated with Jesus and a gentler spirituality. The 'forests of the night' are often held to be the (French) church and state.

   The drafts of this poem show Blake refining and supplementing his own original vision of the first three stanzas (which are only slightly revised). The fourth stanza as projected might have run 'Could fetch it from the furnace deep./ And in thy horrid ribs dare steep/ In what clay & in what mould/ Were the eyes of fury rolld'. The poet had likely witnessed the Perseid meteor showers of 1783 (which some observers felt resembled a spear being hurled across the heavens). This may be the inspiration behind 'When the stars threw down their spears/ And water'd heaven with their tears'. The poem is probably unique in containing two climatics (the first being the unanswered question 'Did he who made the lamb make thee?', the second being the single word 'Dare' of the final line).

   Blake would continue to go his own way. A political - as well as religious - radical, he was fortunate to be acquitted from the twin charges of sedition and assault at a court in Chichester in 1805. After some years of increasing neglect and debility he would die, still singing, a few months short of his seventieth birthday, and be buried (in a common grave) in the Dissenter's burial ground at Bunhill Fields. Already a forgotten man, his engraved and hand-printed Songs of Innocence and of Experience had sold less than twenty copies in over thirty years.

   In 1847 (twenty years after his death) the foolscap quarto sketchbook of 58 pages - once the property of Robert Blake - was bought, for just over ten shillings, by Dante Gabriel Rossetti. It was not until 1863 that Alexander and Anne Gilchrist's monumental Life would begin the process of rehabilitation, rescuing the visionary from literary obscurity.


Further reading:

Ackroyd, P., Blake, Sinclair-Stevenson (1995)

Foster Damon, S., A Blake Dictionary, Brown University Press (1988)

Gilchrist, A. (Intro. Holmes, R.), Gilchrist on Blake, Harpur (2005)

Keyes, G. (Ed.) The Complete Writings of William Blake, Oxford (1966)

Keyes, G. (Ed.) The Letters of William Blake, Oxford (1980)



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