Analysis of William Blake’s The Tyger

The Tyger is the terrifying pendant to The Lamb in William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience as its climactic rhetorical question makes clear: “Did he who made the lamb make thee?” Like “The Lamb,” it takes the form of an address to the animal that is the poem’s subject, and as in the other poem, it asks the question, “Who made thee? Dost thou know who made thee?” The speaker of “The Tyger” is not a child, though, but a man overwhelmed by the fierceness that the tiger embodies. Where the lamb is an embodiment of gentleness, innocence, and trust, the tiger represents everything dreadful about life—about the forests of the night where we spend the half of our lives in which we are the prey of experience.

“The Lamb” alerts us to one important element of “The Tyger,” which is the way the creature represents his creator. The creator of the lamb calls himself a lamb and is childlike. The creator of the tiger is dreadful. The poem gives us as much a bodily sense of the creator as of the creation: It is God’s shoulder that provides the force to twist the sinews of the tiger’s heart, so that we can see in those sinews the straining sinews that formed them. God’s dread hand formed the tiger’s dread feet, the dreadfulness of one making palpable the dreadfulness of the other.

The tiger’s fierceness is so overwhelming that the stars themselves throw down their spears and water heaven with their tears. Within the context of the poem, this means that the celestial phenomena of starlight and rain reach us as a kind of cosmic response to the creation of the tiger. The animal then becomes pure representation: He represents God’s power rather than being an actual element in the speaker’s world.

This is evident in the famous change from the first to the last stanza, where the final question is altered from: “What immortal hand or eye, / Could frame thy fearful symmetry?” to “What immortal hand or eye, / Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?” The first question is addressed to the tiger, just as the child has addressed the lamb. But even though the rest of the poem continues to apostrophize the tiger, he feels less and less present as a separate being, becoming more and more an object of the speaker’s own fierce contemplation. His final question is the culmination of his questions about God. It addresses the tiger only in form, but it is purely rhetorical.

The interesting thing about that rhetorical question is that its answer is not obvious. That is to say, the question may be rephrased as this: “Who but Jehovah himself could dare such a thing?” Or it may instead be rephrased this way: “How could any immortal, even Jehovah himself, dare frame such a creature?” The first question implies an answer in which the tiger represents the awe-inspring power of the creator. The second implies a different answer: the creator’s willingness to create a world of inhuman ferocity.

Notice that unlike the lamb, the tiger is not blessed at the end of the poem, nor is he cursed. This is because he does not belong to the world he represents. He has become instead the sign, or avatar, of the world’s ferocity, and perhaps a sign that that ferocity is intended by God and not just the random workings of nature.

In any case, it is worth considering the status of the lamb after reading “The Tyger.” The rhetorical questions that end the penultimate stanza ask:

Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?

That last question is climactic and is put in a suggestive parallel with the question before it. The work at issue is the tiger, and so the smile lines up with the lamb, perhaps the most terrifying idea in the poem. But it need not be, since whatever doubt it casts on the gentleness or genuiness of God’s smile, the lamb is immune to that doubt. “Did he smile his work to see?” might mean that God’s smile is not one to trust. But the lamb does not represent the untrustworthiness of “The Tyger”’s God. It represents the still undeterred alternative to the tiger. That the creator of the lamb could also create the tiger is terrifying, but that means the lamb is still one of the irreducible terms in the representation of this terror, and that means that he resists and overcomes it, so that the lamb’s power of salvation—or of innocence, truth, or hope—are just as much represented by the purely representational tiger as are their opposites. And remember that the lamb is real, in its poem, whereas the tiger is an imaginary vision.

Bloom, Harold. Blake’s Apocalypse: A Study in Poetic Argument. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1970.
———. Poetry and Repression: Revisionism from Blake to Stevens. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1976.
Damrosch, Leopold. Symbol and Truth in Blake’s Myth. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1980.
Erdmann, David V. Blake, Prophet against Empire: A Poet’s Interpretation of the History of His Own Times. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1977.
Fry, Northrop. Fearful Symmetry: A Study of William Blake. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1974.
Gilchrist, Alexander. Life of William Blake, with Selections from His Poems and Other Writings. Totowa, N.J.: Rowman and Littlefield, 1973.
Hollander, John. “Blake and the Metrical Contract,” In From Sensibility to Romanticism, edited by Frederick Hilles and Harold Bloom, 293–310. New York: Oxford, 1965. Reprinted in John Hollander, Vision and Resonance: Two Senses of Poetic Form, 187–211. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1985.
Ostriker, Alicia. “Desire Gratified and Ungratified: William Blake and Sexuality.” Blake: An Illustrated Quarterly 16 (1982–83): 156–165.
Raine, Kathleen. Blake and Antiquity. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1977.
Thompson, E. P., Witness against the Beast: William Blake and the Moral Law. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

Categories: Literary Criticism, Literature, Poetry, Romanticism

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