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Tyger, Tyger, Burning Bright

The Tyger

Tyger! Tyger! burning bright

In the forest 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?

Tyger! Tyger! burning bright

In the forests of the night,

What immortal hand or eye

Dare frame thy fearful symmetry? 

~William Blake

One of William Blake’s best-known poems, ‘The Tyger’ was first published as part of his anthology Songs of Innocence and Experience in 1794 – a collection which as the very title suggests – presents two faces of creation, in particular, the good and evil found in nature. Harbinger of Romanticism in England, Blacke’s visionary voice still makes compelling hearing.

Although ‘The Tyger’ speaks directly to one of the most beautiful and dangerous felines prowling the Asian jungles, it is not merely about the wild predator. Indeed Blake uses the poem to express his amazement at how the ferocious tiger and gentle lamb could have been created by the same maker: “Did he who made the lamb make thee?” The poet also wonders whether the creator of the tiger smiled at the awfulness of his creation: “Did he smile his work to see?” while the very “stars threw down their spears, / And watered heaven with their tears,” Significantly, Songs of Innocence and Experience contains the sister poem called ‘The Lamb’, which focuses on gentleness and goodness.

The tone of awe runs throughout ‘The Tyger’ and reinforces the questions asked in the six stanzas. The string of questions forms a continuous juxtaposition of contrasting images. Reading over one question after another, we notice Blake wondering at how a divine entity (he never mentions God by name though the word “immortal” brings God to mind) could have created such a powerful and malicious beast which at the same time is breathtakingly beautiful This is why Blake describes the menacing, yet gorgeous stripes of the tiger’s furry coat with the words “thy fearful symmetry”.

The poet’s fear of the tiger can be gleaned from the ‘dread’ and ‘deadly’. It is further emphasized through the image of the animal glaring in the night, which is repeated in the first and final stanza so that the poem begins and ends in almost the same way creating a kind of refrain. This also shows that the poet has no ready answers available to his worrying questions. The four stanzas in between build up the awe especially through the images of the ironsmith “hammer”, “chain”, furnace” and “anvil” in the third stanza because the ironsmith’s job projects both the power to create and to destroy. In this way, the Divine Creator is depicted as a master blacksmith.

Blake’s questions reveal his personal dilemma as regards the opposing forces of good and evil found in nature and mankind because he is questioning the Protestant idea of a vengeful God. He is also projecting the very Romantic idea that good and evil are two sides of the same coin so that one cannot exist without the other. In Blake’s own words: “Without contraries, there is no progression.” Therefore, the tiger is actually a metaphor for primitive force, beauty, and evil, rather than a simple portrait of the wild and deadly cat. That the Tyger is constantly spelt with a capital ‘T’ points to its metaphorical significance.

The deeper meaning of the poem comes as a surprise because we first get the impression of a nursery rhyme. The perfectly regular rhythm growing from the lilting 7 syllables in each stanza adds to this effect. The vocabulary is also simple despite the use of the old fashioned pronouns. Yet in Blake’s deceptively simple style, the ongoing sing-song rhythms and rhyming couplets camouflage a theological and philosophical debate. The clash between a seemingly easy poem and its deeper implications is actually hinted at in the spelling of the title. Blake deliberately chooses the archaic version (which also blends in with the old-fashioned “thy” because he wants to make the most of the metaphorical significance of the tiger’s symbolism.

He captures his readers’ attention by raising their expectations of a poem about an exotic animal. A tiger was truly exotic in the 18th century because today’s media and means of communication did not exist. In fact, Blake was one of the few in his time who saw a tiger in real life when he gazed at a specimen displayed in one of the king’s palaces. London Zoo had not yet been thought of!

As in all Blake’s poems, we get much more than our first impressions because he has the knack of making us think beyond surface meanings.

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Noemi Zarb
Noemi Zarb
Writing, teaching, marketing. I have pursued three totally different career paths with the power of words serving both as link and lynchpin. Now I dedicate most of my time to writing - a never-ending romance. Typical of content writing I have been and am still responsible for scripting webs, advertorials as well as full-length articles. As a feature/opinion writer, I have over 600 articles published in Malta's leading newspapers and magazines (and still counting) - an experience which honed my interviewing skills when I interviewed countless painters and people involved in the performance arts. I also have over two decades of teaching English Literature and Critical Thinking via Textual Analysis under my belt having prepared students for the IB Diploma in English Language and Literature as well as MATSEC, IGCSE and SEC examinations in English language and English Literature. TEFL sometimes punctuated my summer holidays. Dealing with young people keeps you young and I have truckloads of cherished memories of my past students My current writing continues to be inspired by what life throws at me together with my critical thinking of what goes on (or doesn’t) around me firing my sense perception and vice versa. Being immersed in the corporate world gives me endless opportunities to observe facets of human behavior which invariably have me brood over. Learning and thinking over what I learn is still my way forward.

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