The Tiger

M. The TygerTiger, tiger, 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 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 watered heaven with their tears,
Did He smile His work to see?
Did He who made the lamb make thee?

Tiger, tiger, burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?

Summary

The tiger’s majestic ferocity prompts the speaker to ask a series of questions about the tiger. In the first stanza he asks what kind of divine being could have created it. Identify the questions the speaker asks in the subsequent stanzas.

  • In what kind of world could such a creature exist?
  • What kind of creator could produce such a creature?
  • What kind of power and skill would have been required to ‘twist the sinews’ of the tiger’s heart?
  • What kind of creator would have had the courage and the daring to continue the work of creating such ferocity?
  • Comparing the creator to a blacksmith, he wonders what kind of hammer, anvil and furnace would be necessary and what kind of blacksmith could have used such tools?
  • Did creating this ferocious beast give pleasure to its creator?
  • Could this possibly be the same divine being who made the lamb?

The poem is usually seen as a companion poem to The Lamb in Songs of Innocence. What contrasts and similarities can you find between them? How does The Tiger add to the picture of reality created by that poem?

This poem has been read in two main ways, the second of which is based on a knowledge of Blake’s beliefs.

  1. The first reads the poem as being chiefly concerned with the question of what kind of God could create both the sensuous ferocity of the tiger and the meek tenderness of the Lamb? This relates to the perennial question about the existence of good and evil (innocence and experience; heaven and hell): how, in a nutshell, can a good God allow or produce what is evil?
  2. The second reading takes into account the fact that Blake did not believe in an external God, a ruler / creator apart from humanity. According to Blake, the creator is a creation of the mind of experience which creates the division between the lamb and the tiger in the first place and views them as incompatible. It labels gentleness and vulnerability ‘good’, and power and will ‘bad’. The tiger is only a moral problem for those who are limited by such a perspective.

Speaker

Not at all clear but probably the bardic poet

Language and tone

tiger_pic The tone is emphatic and awe-struck.

There is frequent use of sibilance throughout The Tyger, particularly in the second stanza and the phrase ‘twist the sinews’; sibilance is often associated with dark forces. The poem’s trochaic metre creates an insistent rhythm, perhaps reflecting the restless pacing of the animal, the beating of its heart or the hammer blows on the anvil of its creation. This is enhanced in the language by the frequent use of hard D and plosive B alliteration and the driving repetition of ‘What … And … What’, as well as whole phrases and the accumulation of rhetorical questions.

Symmetry – Blake is usually opposed to symmetry since it is a characteristic of what he calls single vision. Here, though, the term seems to refer to a quality that belongs uniquely to the Tiger.

Oppositions

The poem sets up a contrast between the world of compelling but frightening power and the world of the gentle lamb.

The poem explores the contraries of beauty and terror.

The creator twists the tiger’s vitality into a prison – this is why the stars are weeping in submission and defeat- but the poem is also a celebration of power and energy.

Structure and Texture

The poem is comprised of six quatrains in rhymed couplets. The metre is basically trochaic tetrameter, often used in children’s rhymes. Together with the use of monosyllables, it gives a misleading impression of simplicity as well as an emphatic tone.

The last syllable in each line is dropped so that lines end with a stressed syllable to give a strong rhyme or masculine rhyme. The hammering beat it produces is suggestive of the smithy that is the poem’s central image. Some lines are marked by a change in metre to iambic, such as, ‘Did he who made the lamb make thee?’ The sudden change in metre highlights the question.

Imagery and symbolism

Blake uses Christian, Greek and Roman imagery in the poem.

flightConsider the imagery in the following lines: ‘Tiger, tiger, burning bright/In the forests of the night’. This is a metaphor but the ‘forests of the night’ and ‘the tiger’ also work as symbols. Discuss. The ‘bright’ / ‘night’ imagery echoes the contrast between fearful power and the gentle world of the lamb contrast and also alludes to the tiger’s orange and black markings.

What does the phrase ‘distant deeps or skies’ suggest about the nature and source of the tiger’s power?

Explore the associations between the tiger’s creator and the fall of the angels. How does this relate to the emphasis on the animal’s terrible aspects in the third and fourth stanzas?

icarusOn what wings dare he aspire – This seems to allude primarily to angels, in particular to the fallen angels who aspired to overthrow God and were cast down into Hell. This would suggest that the force who made the tiger is not God as conventionally understood but a power that is seen in opposition to this God.

This phrase is often seen, also, as a possible allusion to the classical tale of Icarus. Icarus desired to fly and his father made him wings of wax. These wings melted when he flew too near to the sun. As a symbol of humankind aspiring beyond its limits, it suggests that this creator is being extremely audacious in creating this beast, almost going beyond his own limits.

prometheusWhat the hand dare seize the fire? – Many critics see here a possible allusion to Prometheus who stole fire from the gods to help humankind. This would make it another symbol of daring aspiration. Prometheus’ action was benevolent but the context in which this occurs suggests something dreadful about the hand seizing the fire. It is as though the speaker is possessed by the ferocity and power of the tiger; that he is blind to the possibility of something beneficent lying within it.

Hammer .. furnace .. anvil – This is an allusion to Hephaestus, the Greek blacksmith god of fire. His symbols are a hammer and anvil. Some legends say that Prometheus stole fire from Hephaestus’ forge and was punished by him. It would suggest again that this creator is demonic rather than benevolent. Remember that for Blake the demonic was not to be rejected.

hephaestusIn his poem Paradise Lost, Milton, an influence on Blake, linked this story of Hephaestus with the fall of the angels after their rebellion against God. Milton presented Hephaestus as the creator of Pandemonium, the dwelling-place of all the demons. This would link this image with those of wings and of the furnace.

‘When the stars threw down their spears’ – another allusion to the fall of the angels. It suggests that Blake’s primary thought is to link the images of wings, seizing fire and throwing down spears with Milton’s account of the fall of the angels and the figure of Hephaestus as a demonic figure rather than a benevolent god.

The Lamb – Blake here alludes to The Lamb (I) and to biblical tradition in the line, ‘Did he who made the Lamb make thee?’ The Lamb represents all that is gentle, tender, innocent, playful and mild in creation. It represents ideas of divinity associated with Jesus.

Themes

How the human mind understands the nature of the world and its creator

According to Blake, ‘contraries’ are facts about the world and about the nature of the creative force behind it. For example, ferocious power and energy exist alongside what is fragile and tender. Humans falsify their understanding of the creator and of the human beings made ‘in his image’ when one of these dimensions is excluded from the picture. This produces unhealthy splits between what are understood as forces of good and forces of evil.

The powerful energies within the world and the energies and instincts within human beings are all necessary and beautiful. They become destructive when they are either denied or seen as the sole factor in life and experience. Blake’s sub-theme is that vision based wholly on experience is as incomplete as the inadequacy of ignorant innocence.

God in man’s image

Blake felt that merely human understanding created a limiting vision of the creator, simply as a projection of its own human qualities:

  • Those who see only gentleness and tenderness in nature and in themselves produce an image of a creator who is mild and gentle but lacks energy and power
  • Those who have fallen into divided selfhood see the creator only in terms of their own capacity for jealousy, cruelty and possessiveness. They create an image of God as a tyrant who is a tyrannical ruler and must be appeased.