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Analysis of Poem "The Tyger" by William Blake

Andrew has a keen interest in all aspects of poetry and writes extensively on the subject. His poems are published online and in print.

William Blake

William Blake

William Blake and a Summary of "The Tyger"

"The Tyger" is one of William Blake's most popular poems, from the book Songs of Innocence and Experience. This was a single book of two parts, the first completed in 1789, the second from 1794 when the whole was published.

Blake illustrated the book with his inventive and curiously imaginative etchings, and "The Tyger" has its own visual representation: a tiger walking past a stylistic, leafless tree.

The model for Blake's tiger could well have been a live one: a well-stocked menagerie based in a large house on London's Strand (Exeter Exchange) was a winter stopover for animals belonging to a traveling circus. It was well active during Blake's lifetime.

But the theme of Blake's book was an exploration of "the two contrary states of the human soul," with one eye on the plight of children within society, and the other on the lack of spiritual vision in the state and religion as a whole.

What makes the poems so unique is their nursery rhyme appearance—full rhyme and appealing rhythms—holding such a wealth of meaning. Blake gave us superb lyric, but combined symbolism and metaphor within which adds a cutting edge.

Blake was no mean singer of songs when visiting friends (it was a popular thing to do at the time), and the title of his book perhaps was to encourage readers (including children) to sing the poems as you would a lyric. As two lines in the first poem "Introduction" state:

And I wrote my happy songs

Every child may joy to hear.

Many of the poems are conventional in form—rhyming, rhythmical short lines—reflecting the common poetry and ballads of late 18th century England. Yet, Blake incorporates symbolism, societal trends and psychic states into some of his poems, which was a different way of approaching subjects.

There are allusions to Milton (Paradise Lost), mythology and the Bible too, which when thrown into the mix with nature, anatomy, industry and many questions that don't receive a ready answer, can result in ambiguous vision.

But there's no getting away from the desire for radical change, the presence of the divine and compassionate observation and sensitivity.

  • There is no doubt that the tiger in the poem is a metaphor for certain aspects of human nature, namely the more revolutionary, fiery, destructive, irresistible and dangerous traits often displayed, individually and collectively, by homo sapiens.
  • "The Tyger" is the counterpart to Blake's poem "The Lamb," found in the first part of his book, Songs of Innocence. In this poem, two part, question and answer, the lamb represents Christ as the lamb of God—gentle, peace-loving and made by "meek and mild" Christ.
  • In "The Tyger" poem the question is asked: Did he who made the Lamb make thee? But there is no definitive answer.
  • The stanzas, quatrains, are made up of rhyming couplets. The metre (meter in American English) is mostly trochaic. A detailed analysis of syllable and stress can be found later on in this article.

Throughout his creative adult life, Blake sought to contrast the human spirit and secular life. God and the divine spirit were for him the sublime, and his visions resulted from this desire for an ideal world to eventually emerge out of the grotesque, human history. Never an orthodox Christian, he followed the Swedish theologian Emanuel Swedenborg, who created the New Church and wrote on the afterlife.

Mystic, visionary, poet and engraver Blake believed in divine revelation right to the end; near death he ‘burst out in Singing of the things he Saw in Heaven'.

Alexander Gilchrist, Life of William Blake, ed. by Ruthven Todd (London: J M Dent, 1945), p. 353.

"The Tyger" and "The French Revolution"

Some modern writers parallel Blake's "The Tyger" with events that happened in France during the French revolution, 1789-99.

"Even as Blake worked upon the poem the revolutionaries in France were being branded in the image of a ravening beast – after the Paris massacres of September 1792, an English statesman declared, 'One might as well think of establishing a republic of tigers in some forests in Africa,' and there were newspaper references to 'the tribunal of tigers.' At a later date Marat’s eyes were said to resemble 'those of the tyger cat'"

Peter Ackroyd, Blake, Minerva Publishers, 1996.

This may be partially true. In fact Blake had written a more politically direct poem titled "The French Revolution," and published the first part in 1790. Strangely, it was supposed to be a seven part poem of some length but the rest never materialized.

Blake and his publishers either got cold feet—Blake's political views were basically anti-royal and pro-democracy, quite a dangerous stance to take back in their day - or put the project on hold for obvious reasons.

Perhaps the turning point came when the French royal family were caught escaping in the summer of 1791 and sent back to Paris for trial. The beginning of the end. England looked on with a mix of horror and trepidation. Luckily for Blake (and the royal family) such radical events and political upheaval never crossed the channel.

"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 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?

Analysis of "The Tyger" Stanza by Stanza

First Stanza

The famous opening line, known throughout the world by both children and adults, brings that most dynamic of big cats close up, live, to the reader. For Blake, this animal burns, it has the fire inside, it is flame and therefore can only be metaphorical.

This creature lives in the forests and cannot be held in (framed) by any mortal or immortal. The symmetry relates to the idea of identity; it cannot be taken apart, or halved—it is the same which ever you look at it.

In this sense the tiger is wild energy, the embodiment of destructive power, of irresistible awesome raw life.

The forests of the night serve to strengthen the contrast—dark environment (political struggles and societal growth) from which springs the flame of revolution.

Blake was also keen on the Swedish philosopher Emanuel Swedenborg's writings and musings and could well have been influenced by the "transformational fires" that bring about spiritual renewal.

Second Stanza

The questions continue, this time focusing on the mystery of the fire and its origins. Blake perhaps was suggesting that the fire (of the tiger and therefore of revolutionary humanity) and with it the light, came from the depths, of emotion (distant deeps) coupled with hope (the skies).

The mention of wings and aspiration brings to mind the story of Icarus, who, though brave and inventive, flew too high to the sun with his waxen wings and fell to his death.

And the hand seizing fire echoes the story of Prometheus, who stole fire from the gods and gave it to humanity so it could become civilized. He represents to some the idea of the human struggle, the challenge of progress, come what may.

Other scholars and critics lean toward the influence of John Milton's Paradise Lost, an epic poem written in 1667 (later published and edited in 1674), in which the rebellious Satan battles against the forces of Good for control of Heaven.

Satan loses but manages to retain power in Hell as an ambiguous hero who has caused the Fall of Man and who helped "explain the hypocrisy of God."

A massive fight for the cause, a revolution, a journey through Chaos—the parallels with earthly revolution and struggle are obvious.

What is a fact is that William Blake produced some classical illustrations for Paradise Lost, and was by all accounts an avid reader of Milton's epic.

Third Stanza

This stanza concentrates on the physicality of the struggle to manipulate and bring to life in some new form a powerful force for change.

Shoulders, sinews, heart, hand and feet—here we have the visceral nature of the beast, a fearful prospect (dread in this context means to be feared). The limbs are those bodily parts that grip (hands) and ground (feet).

Again, two questions metaphorically posed, as in the previous stanza.

Fourth Stanza

We move from the purely human energy of stanza three into the industrial society that Blake and his artistic contemporaries were so aware of during their lifetimes. New technology and factory production, together with the birth of capitalism and worker exploitation were very much in evidence.

Is Blake here foreseeing the horrors of mass production and the end of the old ways, life on the land, centuries in the making?

The new revolutionary force is made up of the mob and the worker, specifically elements related to the creation of steel . . . hammer, chain, furnace, anvil . . . metonyms for industry.

Fifth Stanza

Vivid imagery which has its inspiration from Paradise Lost again? The Angelic War which tore apart heaven and hell was in some minds all God's doing, the omnipotent One.

Joy turns to tears . . . how could innocence and raw destruction, Lamb and Tiger, come from the same Source? That divine smile is perhaps not a benevolent one?

Sixth Stanza

A repeat of the first with the exception of the last line, a subtle yet telling change of a single word....Could to Dare. To dare implies a certain danger potentially, holds a warning...that if the symmetry is framed (held, kept inside boundaries) there could be a helluva price to pay.

Here ends a short poem, full of questions, symbolism and imagery, ostensibly about an exotic animal but holding so much more.

What Is the Metre (Meter in American English) of "The Tyger"?

"The Tyger" has an unusual metrical rhythm which is basically a trochaic tetrameter. There are variations however. A trochee is an inverse iamb with the stress on the first syllable, as in Tyger for example. Or burning.

Each line, whether it has seven or eight syllables, has four feet, making the tetrameter. What is important to note is that the seven-syllable lines have catalectic trochees . . . they're missing the end beat.

Each opening line of every stanza begins with a stressed syllable, to give initial emphasis and punch. Some continue this pattern. Other lines contain iambic feet, with the familiar daDUM daDUM beat.

Let's take a closer look:

Tyger / Tyger, / burning / bright,
In the / forests / of the / night;
What im / mortal / hand or / eye,
Could frame / thy fear / ful sym / metry?

Lines 1, 2 and 3: Three trochaic feet + catalectic trochee (missing beat) OR two trochees plus an amphimacer (stressed/unstressed/stressed...DUMdaDUM)

Line 4: Three iambic feet (unstressed/stressed....daDUM) plus a pyrrhic (unstressed/unstressed)

In terms of number of syllables per line, stanzas 1 and 6 are the same, the rest differ:

1st stanza: 7778

2nd stanza: 7677

3rd stanza: 7887

4th stanza: 8777

5th stanza: 7878

6th stanza: 7778

Let's look at stanza 2:

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?

First, third and fourth lines are familiar trochee, catalectic. Second line, with six syllables with an iamb as last foot.

And stanza 5:

When the / stars threw / down their spears
And wat / er'd hea / ven with / their tears:
Did he / smile his / work to see?
Did he / who made / the Lamb / make thee?

First and third lines of trochees, catalectic. Second line is iambic (eight syllables) as is the fourth, bringing a different rhythm of unstressed/stressed syllable.

Original poem "The Tyger" in "Songs of Innocence and Experience"

Original poem "The Tyger" in "Songs of Innocence and Experience"

Sources

  • Norton Anthology, Norton, 2005
  • The Poetry Handbook, John Lennard, OUP, 2005
  • Jstor
  • Blake Archive
  • The British Library

© 2020 Andrew Spacey