Could to Dare: The Underlying Transition in Blake’s The Tyger
In his iconic poem The Tyger, William Blake directly addresses the paradoxically beautiful yet horrific figure with a question: What immortal hand or eye Could frame thy fearful symmetry? This simple question, wondering how and what divine being could possibly create such a creature, serves as a platform for William Blake to examine ideas of divine creation, the relationship between nature and art, how creation reflects upon the creator, and the existence of creatures in nature that are somehow simultaneously beautiful yet utterly destructive. Through these many questions, a deeper transition arises within the poem, by the last line, we find ourselves wonder not just how God could create a creature like the tiger, but how dare he? This transition is not highlighted right away right away—The Tyger is a poem that takes at least two readings, if not more, to be able to grasp what Blake is trying to get at. The aim of this essay, then, is not just to interpret “The Tyger,” but also to demonstrate how the poem unfolds as a process, and how to assess how understanding that process transforms its ultimate meaning.
The Tyger begins by emphasizing the speaker’s direct address to the tiger, through the resounding repetition of “Tyger! Tyger!” and then proceeds to create almost a sensual vision of the tiger, describing it as “burning bright/In the forests of the night,” making the tiger a majestic and mysterious figure, the fiery orange of its fur standing out against the dark night. Then, comes the first, central question of the poem: “What immortal hand or eye/Could frame thy fearful symmetry?” On the surface, obviously, the question is of who could create the tiger, but the idea of “fearful symmetry” introduces a creature that is simultaneously beautiful and frightening. Symmetry is something commonly associated with beauty, but the idea that the beauty is “fearful” implies a dark, frightening side, and this balance of beauty and terror is what makes up the tiger. Additionally, this phrase first presents the relationship between art and its creator; presenting an “immortal hand” that is the tiger’s creator and is responsible for the “frame” of the “fearful symmetry” of the creature.
The following five quatrains of the poem all ask questions that build upon the last. The next extrapolates upon the idea of a divine figure creating the tiger, inquiring: In what distant deeps or skies Burnt the fire of thine eyes? The polarization between “deeps” and “skies” marks another reference to the divine, however suggesting that the tiger may have either come from heaven or hell (in other words, a place of beauty or horror), but either way, it’s still created by a divine, immortal figure.
Blake then moves to address both the physicality of the divine figure as well as the vital physical features of the tiger. Consistent with the form of the poem and therefore still phrased as a series of questions, the speaker in the next stanza asks: And what shoulder, & what art, Could twist the sinews of thy heart? This connects the shoulder of the God (representing physical force and calculated strength), with art (representing deliberate and thoughtful creation), implying the measured physical process behind the creation of the tiger. Additionally, the image that arises from ‘twisted sinews’ serves to emphasize the intricacies of God’s creation, and if, to make the tiger’s heart, one had to “twist the sinews,” then the creator’s sense of purpose, concentration, and awareness of his project are stressed even further. This third quatrain concludes with further questions elaborating on God’s creative process, wondering: and when thy heart began to beat, What dread hand? & what dread feet? Which yet again alludes to the physical properties of the creator and specifically connects the God’s hands and feet to the beating heart of the tiger. Additionally, the fact that God’s feet are described as “dread” implies that God’s feet, or any of his physical properties for that matter, are to be greatly feared, because they have the capability to bring to life a creature as terrifying as the tiger.
Building off of the introduction of physicality that the third stanza presented, Blake then proceeds to introduce yet another important image in The Tyger: the Godly figure as a blacksmith. Already, the consistent, pounding rhythm of the poem echoes the steady pounding of a hammer, and in this fourth stanza, the reader is presented with a specific image of a hammer, among other tools a blacksmith would use, asking: What the hammer? what the chain? In what furnace was thy brain? What the anvil? what dread grasp Dare its deadly terrors clasp? The inclusion of tools such as a hammer, a chain, and a furnace, all evoke the Hephaestus-like image of a Godly blacksmith skillfully forging the tiger’s brain in a furnace. The order of the words here are important as well, as they accumulate to produce a shifting image of both the tiger and of God. “Hammer” invokes one thing—a certain deliberateness, force, and precision—whereas adding “chain” edges more towards ideas of entrapment or someone being shackled. Add then the “furnace” and the “brain” and we’re transformed again out of a literal shackling to the fashioning of the tiger’s body out of iron. The addition of “anvil” completes this image, while the opposition of the creator’s “dread grasp” of the tiger’s “deadly terrors” sets up a kind of equation between them—not just because of the association of “dread” and “deadly,” but also because we can’t help but think of the tiger’s claws even as we’re told about the creator’s clasping grasp. Not only does this image further the connection between the physical creation of the tiger and the deliberate physicality of the God, it also stresses how fearful we should be of this God and what he creates. This set of lines also tells us that at one point, God had the tiger’s “deadly terrors” grasped in his hands, suggesting that he was completely in control of them, and indicates that there must have been a conscious decision not to release those terrors, but instead instill them in the tiger. Finally, in accordance with the highlighted deliberateness of the blacksmith’s creation, the fact that the two physical features of the tiger that Blake focused on were the heart and the brain suggest the doubt in and fear of the divine figure that was first implied in his “dread” physical features. One can’t help but question why, if God put so much calculated work into the making of the two most important body parts in the tiger, didn’t he make it a more compassionate, friendly, or less violent animal?
As one can see, Blake is beginning to give us a revolutionary, or at least heavily revised, vision of God. This poem is not just encouraging us to question the idea of our creator, but is also challenging us to revise our notions of who that creator is. So far, Blake has made a concerted effort to show us that whoever created the tiger is not really a believer in the golden rule—they are much darker, mysterious, unapproachable, and entirely less human. As the image of the tiger is constructed, a similar image of God emerges as a parallel as well. The creator becomes unknowable, powerful, unpredictable figure, one that is actually a lot more like the tiger than like us.
This exposition of God’s intentions for putting evil, horrific things in the world is further built upon in the second to last stanza, as the narrator wonders what God’s reaction was after he created the tiger, if he “did smile his work to see?” speculating if he was proud and happy to see his creation, but the way the question is phrased almost sets up the reader to judge and question the creator, inquiring further of the tiger if “he who made the Lamb make thee?” This follow-up question brings the poem back around to an idea that was introduced towards the beginning: the balance of beautiful and terrifying things in the world, but this time also questions the reasoning behind having that balance. This is another question directed at God, meant to question his intentions for putting such terrible things alongside beautiful things in nature, wondering how animals as different as tigers and lambs could come from the same creator. The lamb serves as a symbol of innocence, purity, beauty, and safety, while the tiger represents terror, strength, and fear.
Closing the poem, the final stanza of The Tyger is exactly the same as the opening stanza with the exception of one word: dare. The first stanza reads: Tyger! Tyger! burning bright In the forests of the night, What immortal hand or eye Could frame thy fearful symmetry? While the last stanza declares, Tyger! Tyger! burning bright In the forests of the night, What immortal hand or eye Dare frame thy fearful symmetry? This calculated substitution of the word “could” to “dare” marks an underlying transformation that has been developing throughout the six quatrains, one that, at the very least, invites readers to fly back to the poem’s beginning to double-check the differences. Discovering it turn invites readers to re-read the poem a second time to construct the narrative between the opening and closing lines. This singular word provokes an automatic flip back to the start of the poem, and reflecting back upon the stanzas yet again incites a much more profound comprehension of the difference in questions that are being asked at the beginning of the poem compared to the end. Though the series of questions that make up The Tyger do seem to seamlessly and intentionally build off of each other, the final question nevertheless catches us by surprise. The narrator begins by wondering how some immortal being could create a creature so beautifully frightening as the tiger, focusing on the physical, artistic creation of the creature. However, by the end, the narrator is inquiring how God would dare to frame the tiger, or any other evils at that, and consciously and deliberately place this terrifying creature in nature, alongside other animals such as the lamb that are completely opposite of the danger that the tiger represents. Blake presents a completely revolutionary vision of God, asking yet another probing question, but this time of the reader: When contemplating the tiger, how dare you hold on to the notion that God is a peaceful, humane, and loving being?
This question of why horrible, evil things exist on our earth, if there’s a God looking down upon us, supposedly with our best interest at heart, is one that is far too existential and overreaching to tackle directly. However, William Blake himself clearly has had some opinions surrounding the existence of God and his intentions, and The Tyger helps Blake raise these ideas in a deeper, more subtle, and creative way. It is an example of a poem that represents far more than what the words on the page denote, and attacks a set of hugely important questions and conclusions about religion that have plagued individuals throughout history.
Blake, William. “The Tyger.” 2015. Ed. Philip Smith. Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience. Ed. Stanley Appelbaum. New York: Dover, 1992. 37-38. Print.
Blake, William. “Songs of Innocence and of Experience.” The William Blake Archive, The Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities, Apr. 2007.
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