Monday’s Poem 4/27/09

William Blake – “The Tyger”

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?

Commentary
William Blake is said to have influenced, been inspired by, and reflect the ideas of many things and people, from Gnosticism to the French Revolution. This poem is certainly no exception, considered by some to be the most anthologized poem ever, and even providing the title to an episode of the X-Files.

Hopefully I can say something new about this poem, or say what has already been said a little differently.

The first notable thing, for me, is that questions make up the entirety of this poem. This lends an air of mystery to it. The tiger, already exoticized by its very nature and by the spelling already archaic in Blake’s time, serves as an “other” that the speaker cannot fully comprehend. He wonders whether the same Creator who made the lamb could have made this fierce creature, and what sort of being it could be who could “frame thy fearful symmetry.”

That this is an exploration of the nature of creativity, and the passion and even predatory nature of such, has been discussed before. But it might not be as common to point out that through this poem, Blake achieves a symbiosis of opposites. The physical tiger points to its immortal Creator; in the deadly predator, we find vivacious life; the form is perfect, yet mysterious.

Felines have a feral power that suggests an intelligence and being greater than perhaps human understanding can comprehend. Even in the housecat, tearing at mice and nuzzling in our lap, can we admire their fearful symmetry.

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2 Responses to Monday’s Poem 4/27/09

  1. Angele Ellis says:

    There is something of the terror of a folk tale in verse about “The Tyger.” Its unidentified speaker asks riddling questions, like the searching hero of such a tale, as the archaic “Tyger” is transformed from “fire” into a mythic monster emerging from a hellish or heavenly forge:

    “What the hammer? what the chain?
    In what furnace was thy brain?
    What the anvil? what dread grasp
    Dare its deadly terrors clasp?”

    Even the remote stars are awestruck by the “fearful” creation, and by the prospect of God’s “smile” at this work, the opposite of his gentle, sacrificial lamb:

    “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?”

    Why is this one of the most powerful poems in the English language? As with every great poem, there is something ineffable and mysterious within, although one must credit Blake’s aa-bb rhyme scheme, his indelible imagery from the poem’s opening line, and the contradiction and repetition of the phrase “thy fearful symmetry.” (Is Blake referring to the tiger’s deadly grace, to the symmetry of the predator’s co-existence with its prey, or to both?)

    You said: “The first notable thing, for me, is that questions make up the entirety of this poem.” Good point. To me, Blake’s speaker wrestles with the image and reality of the “Tyger” as Jacob wrestled with his angel–an all-night struggle that ended in a draw, with the angel conceding Jacob a blessing, but also wounding him “in the sinew of his thigh”–not his heart–and causing a permanent limp. (A fearful asymmetry?)

    There are so many artistic representations of Jacob wrestling with the angel that I knew Blake must have seen some, or even drawn one–but Blake was more fascinated by Jacob’s ladder, Jacob’s vision of a ladder reaching into heaven with angels descending and ascending it. In answer to Jacob’s questions, the angels revealed that the years of his people’s exile would end at last.

    In this poem, Blake has a “Tyger” by the tail–I think that the common idiom is appropriate to the speaker’s struggle with something too difficult to handle or to comprehend.

  2. staringatangels says:

    Good comments, and an interesting connection to Jacob’s ladder. As for the “fearful symmetry,” I think it can mean any number of things, but in essence I think he’s talking about the perfection of the tiger’s form. Because the body is so well-made to kill, it startles one to think of the being who could create such an efficient bringer of death.

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