C. K. Tower


William Blake: Forging a Place for Lambs and Tigers

The extraordinary talent of William Blake (1757-1827) expressed itself in a variety of forms, but especially in his poetry. His reputation as an English poet has been a changeable one, for Blake has been difficult to place neatly in a traditional class of literary history and criticism. The collection The Songs of Experience appeared in 1794, of those pieces, "The Tyger," perhaps the finest singular illustration of William Blake's eminent achievement in the world of English poetry, reveals cognizant art, a process using small revelations leading to greater discoveries through profound use of symbol.

The contrast between Blake's lucid, simple language and the tremendous complexity of meaning in "The Tyger" make this poem richer than his other poems, such as "The Lamb," not because of a more complex word usage, but due to the tone and the intricacy of symbolism, a greater complexity than seen in many, perhaps all, of his other works. In "The Tyger," Blake reveals a construction which lends to much of the poem's richness, by comprising the poem entirely of questions unanswered. These ultimate questions, while functioning as answers implicit in the poem, cannot be trite answers because regardless of how the reader deciphers their implications, the poem remains a series of questions. All of the complexities of the poem built on each question, form to expose an answer, but even the answers function as questions, and neither resolve the other.

All the complexities of this piece build on this duplicity in rhetoric, and every aspect of the poem partakes of this duplicity. Certainly, Blake's first intention in creating such a poem was to satirize the single-mindedness of "The Lamb," a poem which excluded all genuine terror from life and found value in traits which suggested gentleness, selflessness, piety, and love. The Songs of Innocence as a whole do not occlude cruelty and terror. In "Night," "wolves and tygers howl for prey," (Record), and in other poems the reader finds an adequacy of pain and tears. But cruelty and terror present themselves as aspects of life, finally conquered and therefore have no enduring reality or value. In "Night," the lion ultimately transformed itself into a devoted guardian: in eternity he lies down with the lamb. Thus, while Innocence acknowledges the mien of a tiger, it entertains two reassuring ideas: these characteristics become transitory and transcendent, and directly opposite to true holiness, which consist entirely of the lamblike virtues of Benevolence, Compassion, Peace, and Love. These two ideas shown in "The Tyger" satirize those illusions. To the idea that terrors of life will be transcended, the poem confronts a tiger that will never lie down with a lamb. He remains just as crucial and interminable as the lamb. To the idea, only a lamblike temperament possess holy attributes, the poem opposes a God whose constitution reveals violence and fiery as the tiger himself, a God who acts fiercely disinterested in mankind. So, to the single-mindedness of "The Lamb," "The Tyger" opposes a double viewpoint acknowledging both the human values of Benevolence, Compassion, and Love, and, at the same time, the trans-human values of cruelty, vitality, and destructiveness.

For these reasons "The Tyger," functions not essentially as a satirical poem. It submerges satire beneath larger concerns. It counters "The Lamb" by accepting both the lamb and the tiger, and it achieves this by embracing two attitudes at once, thus the brilliant service fulfilled by the device of the question. The first stanza for example, makes two statements at once. The speaker's disbelief when confronted by a tiger every bit as crucial as a lamb. Could God have designed this savagery? Does there, after all, exist an innate evil in the world? Can it be that the God who made the tiger exists as a tiger-God? The speaker's bewilderment reveals a man challenged for the first time, with the possibility of a divine state not at all solacing in terms of human values, and may indeed be altogether evil from an exclusive human perspective. All sympathetic readers of "The Tyger" have likely experienced this calling forth of an evil, and in human terms it remains evil. Blake certainly meant for us to experience this, as we know from such phrases in the first draft as "cruel fire, " "horrid ribs," and sanguine woe" (Nurmi 670).

Nevertheless, Blake deleted those phrases because they intruded with an equally powerful affirmative theme in the poem. This can be easily seen by transforming the moral wonder of a question into a statement:

Tyger, Tyger burning bright
In the forests of the night
None but immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

This would simplify the poem quite as much as "horrid ribs" and "sanguine woe," but it would also show the language of the poem making an assertion just as powerful as its terrified confrontation of essential evil. This duality becomes evident because the tiger does not simply burning: he burns bright. His viciousness and deadly image are not forsaken by his brightness, but transformed by it. His world comprised of the night-perilous, and noxious--but "forests" like "bright" (Abrams 41) transfigures the dread. Forests suggest tall straight forms, a world for all its horror has the orderliness of a tiger's stripes or Blake's perfectly balanced lines. The phrase for such an animal and such a world is "fearful symmetry," (Abrams 41) and it would be a serious error to give dominance either to the horror or the splendor.

Nor should we regard the image summoned up by the first line as anything less than a symbol of all fearful things in the world, for the terror of the vision coincides with the terror of the creation itself--felis tigris. No other animal combines so much magnificence with so much terror. The symbol of the natural fact embedded in natural fact. The speaker's terror thus establishes an insight as intense as the poet's veneration of the tiger's beauty, and to neglect that terror trivialize the poem. "The Tyger" considers more than two ways of looking at a tiger offering a clue to the constitution of the creation. "He who sees the Infinite in all things sees God" (Abrams 30).

There can be no question that "The Tyger" among other things, functions as a poem honoring the holy attributes of the tiger. Blake's achievement in "The Tyger" is to preserve the divine perspective without relinquishing the human. The union of terror with awe makes the tone of the poem a voice of religious reverence, but the tone is comprised of two attitudes that never fall into one another.

In the second stanza, Blake continues to evoke the duplicity of the tiger in forms which imply symmetrically God and Devil:

In what distant deeps or skies
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?

Is the tiger's fire from the depths of Hell or the heights of Heaven? Whether good or evil, the fire has a scheme beyond the province where human good or evil have any significance.

On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand dare seize the fire?

Did the immortal dare to fly like Satan through chaos? Did he dare like Prometheus to bring fire down from the heavens?

As the God begins to form the tiger, the vastness of his power takes priority over the daring of his deeds:

And what shoulder and what art
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?

The twisting shoulder of the god forms the twisting sinews of the tiger's heart.

This ingenious categorizing of the tiger and the god carries the same kind of double-edged connotation as the preceding images. The divine artist plays with savagery out of savagery. Yet if the god exists as a tiger then the tiger becomes god. The flame of those eyes offers a spark of divinity. As the amazement and the doubtful mind of the speaker shifts alternatively from god to tiger he declines into an disordered bewilderment that makes no literal sense.

And when thy heart began to beat,
What dread hand? & what dread feet?

Finally, the creation of the tiger endures not as an act of merciless physical audacity and power but as an act of fervent craftsmanship in a splendid forge. This may be Blake's favorite image for artistic creation, whether it be the tiger's creation, a world, a religion, or a poem. The burning forge as a place where intense energy and artistic authority meet, just as they meet in the fearful symmetry of the tiger. As the rhythmic pulses of the verse fall like a hammer blows, the speaker looks alternatively at the maker and the creature made, in an rhapsody of awe and terrible delight:

What the hammer? What the chain?

The hammer is wielded by a god, the chain is beaten by the hammer.

In what furnace was thy brain?
What anvil? What dread grasp
Dare its deadly terrors clasp?

These staccato beats of restrained fury are succeeded by a stanza of tremendous placidity that greatly widens the creative range of the poem. It is highly condensed and complex stanza, but it is perhaps the most superlative moment in Blake's poetry:

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?

The effect of the last two lines throws into clear relief the unresolved antagonism between the divine perspective suggested throughout and the speaker's terrified and morally disdainful perspective. The god smiles, the man cowers. But while the man cowers, he has a growing sense of understanding for God's smile. It could be a wicked and sadistic smile, but it could also be the smile of an artist who has forged the richest most indispensable of conceivable worlds, a world that contains both the tiger and the lamb.


Previous Page

To TOCE-Mail the AuthorSerendipity Link