Poems To Live By: ‘The Tyger’

As a teacher, if I wasn’t sure about what to teach, the following poem was the one I usually turned to. It worked with pupils of all ages, from year 7 right through to A Level students. As a result, it seems fitting to start what I hope will be an occasional series of my favourite poems and what they mean to me with Blake’s ‘The Tyger’. Here’s the poem, comments to follow.

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?

At first reading, this poem like many of Blake’s, seems so simple. The four-line stanzas and the rhyme scheme makes it read a little like a children’s poem. A child can understand it. It’s a tiger, right? And that ‘burning bright’ is a great verb/adverb combination. Of course, he’s like fire; he’s powerful, dangerous, untamed. And he’s also awesome, awe-inspiring, beautiful even. But what about all those questions? What’s Blake asking? It’s not really about a tiger, is it?

Well, it is. And it isn’t. What Blake is asking is how come this thing exists? This beast, both incredibly powerful and incredibly beautiful, how could something create it? What must that thing be like? Wouldn’t that creator be even more powerful, even more fearful, ‘what dread hand? & what dread feet?’, ‘what dread grasp/Dare its deadly terrors clasp.’ How can this God make the Lamb (the subject of another Blake poem) , innocent, pure,  a symbol of Christ, and how can he also make the tiger?

Blake is asking what is this creator like? How come this world is as at is?  If there is a God, he’s saying, he can’t simply be harmless. He must also be powerful, awesome, untameable. Yes, it’s about a tiger but it’s also about where we come from, about who we are, our ideas about the universe and how this all began. Blake takes us from the tiger to the ‘distant deeps or skies’, to stars throwing ‘down their spears’. It makes me feel small and insignificant yet it’s also awe-inspiring. It makes me touch something eternal, beyond what I can fully know or understand. And in a world where every fix must be instant, where everything must be controlled and ordered, this poem leaves me, like the questioning poet,  in a state of wonder.

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