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Saturday, June 30, 2012

William Blake: The Tyger

Enough with Frost. Time for something famous and heavily over-analysed: William Blake’s The Tyger.


I think that one of the first things one notices about Tyger is its regular rhyme and meter. Not only is it very noticeable on first reading, but is also very un-Blake. At its simplest it is six quatrains of rhyming couplets, aabb, throughout. The meter is primarily trochaic tetrameter throughout (with some substitutions). It sounds like a nursery rhyme.


Interpretations of Blake’s work abound and my function here is not to engage in interpretative analysis to say what the poem means. The purpose of the blog is to explore how the poem works. But, as I’ve said before, the elements of a poem “work” by contributing towards that which the poem aims to achieve and, generally, what a poem aims to achieve is related to what a poem means.

We know it is about a tiger – the title tells us that. Once we’ve read it we know it is also about the tiger’s ferociousness and beauty and contained violence and the fire of his orange coat. It’s about the process of creating a tiger. It is about the person or being who created the tiger and how they feel about their creation. It presents us with the apparent paradox of a creator who makes both a tiger and a lamb (tigers eat lambs!) and there are hints (or maybe scepticism) about whether this part of creation can truly be labelled good.

So, actually, it isn’t about a tiger. Or at least it is, but only in so far as Frost’s Two Roads is about two literal roads. The tiger is a symbol, even if we don’t know what it is a symbol of. By describing the tiger, and we’ll return to how he describes the tiger in a moment, Blake actually tells us quite a bit about the being who he thinks created the tiger. The tiger is framed by someone “immortal”. It came from the distant deeps or the skies where our immortal must presumably reside. The creator is daring and is so self-assured in his powers that he is likened to having wings. The act of creation is artistic or skilful. The poem is just as much a commentary on the character of the creator as it is a description of a tiger. And what is clear from the description of the creator is that Blake is referring to a religious creation – creation by a god and not by blind evolution.

Blake poses questions with this poem. Like Frost in Design, Blake wants the reader to think about the creation of the world and God. Like Frost he questions how it is that the God who created the lamb could also be the creator of bloodshed and terror and, like Frost, he doesn’t give an answer to the question. He suggests that it’s all part of the same creation, but he also hints that there may be two creators – one of evil and one of good. Some suggest that the stars and spears line is a reference to the fall of Lucifer and that the tiger (with his fire and burning eyes and fiercesomeness) is the devil and that God, the creator of the lamb, was also the creator of the devil (evil).

I think Blake is also saying something else. Tigers don’t really burn. Stars don’t throw down spears and water heaven with tears. Blake may be suggesting that rationality alone will never account for the world. At some point wonder, lustrous and overwhelming, gains the upper hand. We can learn all we want about the pigmentation of the tiger’s coat but still we’ll see one and say “But it looks like he’s on fire!”

All of these are plausible interpretations and the poem is capable of supporting several meanings but note that, again, it doesn’t mean anything. The range of possible meanings is limited and they are all interpretations which are similar to each other.

Apostrophe and rhetorical questions

Blake wants the reader to think. He is asking questions, hard questions, and not offering answers. He wants you to ask who or what is the tiger and who created it. He poses a series of rhetorical questions which refine each other around that single central enquiry. By definition, one does not expect to get an answer to a rhetorical question and it is for this reason also that Blake has cast the poem as an apostrophe: an address to an absent third person – you, me, the tiger or the God who created the tiger. It is for this reason that he employs the repeated questioning syntax, the anaphora, the demanding ‘what’ at the start of the lines that insists on being answered.

Blake helps the poem become a catalyst for thought by keeping it deliberately abstract. It isn’t set anywhere: the only clues to location are the forests of the night and the distant deeps or skies (clearly incompatible places). Neither is the tiger really described and Blake relies on the reader already having a picture of a tiger. It’s only because you know what a tiger looks like that he can get away with his images. He doesn’t need or want a concrete description of the tiger or of the forest which the tiger is in because the tiger doesn’t matter. It is the creator of the tiger (who is described slightly more fully than the tiger, but still in abstract terms) who matters and even then it isn’t the physical attributes of the creator which is relevant, but rather the creator’s character. (The physical attributes of the creator are reduced through synecdoche to hands, feet, shoulder etc.)

Use of form

This brings us, I think, to an idea of why Blake employed the nursery rhyme style. I think it serves two functions. The rhythmic language, the repeated syntax and phrases and words, the rhymes, the phrases which get shorter and shorter as the poem progresses all give this a chant-like, almost incantation sound to the piece when read aloud and like the wonder of the tiger, the shortening of the phrases impels the reader to a faster pace or to a crescendo.

Secondly, the questions which Blake asks go to the root and heart of faith. Like Frost in Design, the implications of what Blake is asking are serious and slightly horrifying and yet the gravity and horror of the implications of his poem are hidden by the nursery rhyme style. Like the tiger he is describing, something fearful is contained within the symmetry of the poem.

Then there are the end-stopped lines which force the reader to pause. He wants the question to penetrate, to linger, to be thought about before pushing on.

Meter and imagery

The catalectic line endings (dropping the final half foot of the line to end on a stressed syllable) are also interesting. Every end syllable is stressed which, coupled with the couplet rhymes, creates a repetitive plodding beat like the pacing of a caged tiger, like the chant or hymn of a choir.

But variations break up the meter. At times the lines are iambic tetrameter instead of trochaic until you reach S4. Here Blake has fully entered the blacksmith image first hinted at in S1 and S2. The creator is pictured as a blacksmith hammering the tiger out on an anvil before a roaring furnace. Here in S4 the meter becomes strictly trochaic so that the words bang out like a hammer rhythmically striking the anvil.

The blacksmith image rewards careful study. It is a central image which permeates the poem and holds all the other imagery together. A red-hot molten tiger wrought from fire with burning eyes and fur and metal claws and pads and teeth; a blacksmith, muscular, sweating, labouring at his craft, swinging down a mallet with brutish force and violence on the beautiful thing which he will wrought from unshaped metal. It’s connotations for the questions Blake raises are numerous. And look at how it is subtly introduced until its full development in S4. At the literal level the only connection between the blacksmith’s shop and the tiger is the orange colour of fire but the image works because Blake is, after all, not writing about tigers but about the creation of the tiger and what it means for the world.

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