Sunday, 21 March 2010

Understanding William Blake's "The Tyger"

Understanding William Blake's "The Tyger"
"The Tyger" is a poem by the English poet William Blake. It was published as part of his collection Songs of Experience in 1794. It is one of Blake's best known and most analyzed poems. The Cambridge Companion to William Blake (2003) calls it "the most anthologized poem in English.
Most modern anthologies maintain Blake's choice of the archaic spelling "tyger". It was already "slightly archaic" when he wrote the poem, he spelled it as "tiger" elsewhere,[1] and many of his poetic effects "depended on subtle differences of punctuation and of spelling." Thus, his choice of "tyger" has usually been interpreted as being for effect, perhaps to render an "exotic or alien quality of the beast", or because it's not really about a "tiger" at all, but a metaphor. The Tyger is the sister poem to The Lamb (from Songs of Innocence). The Lamb is a reflection on similar ideas from a different perspective.
To understand "The Tyger" fully, you need to know Blake's symbols. One of the central themes in his major works is that of the Creator as a blacksmith. This is both God the Creator (personified in Blake's myth as Los) and Blake himself (again with Los as his alter-ego.) Blake identified God's creative process with the work of an artist. And it is art that brings creation to its fulfillment -- by showing the world as it is, by sharpening perception, by giving form to ideas.
Blake's story of creation differs from the Genesis account. The familiar world was created only after a cosmic catastrophe. When the life of the spirit was reduced to a sea of atoms, the Creator set a limit below which it could not deteriorate farther, and began creating the world of nature. The longer books that Blake wrote describe Los's creation of animals and people within the world of nature. One particularly powerful passage in "Milton" describes Los's family weaving the bodies of each unborn child.
In believing that creation followed a cosmic catastrophe and a fall of spiritual beings into matter, Blake recalls Gnosticism, a multi-faceted religious movement that has run parallel to mainstream Christianity. Unlike most other Gnosticizers, Blake considered our own world to be a fine and wonderful place, but one that would ultimately give way to a restored universe. Blake believed that his own visions, which included end-of-the- world images and sometimes a sense of cosmic oneness, prefigured this, and that his art would help raise others "to the perception of the infinite." For Blake (and for many, if not most, mainstream Christians), the purpose of creation is as a place for our own growth, in preparation for the beginning of our real lives. Although the natural world contains much that is gentle and innocent ("Songs of Innocence"), those who are experienced with life ("Songs of Experience") know that there is also much that is terrible and frightening. (The "fearful symmetry" might be that of the lamb and the tyger, innocence and experience.)
A casual reader or student does not have to understand Blake's mystical-visionary beliefs to appreciate "The Tyger". For the casual reader, the poem is about the question that most of us asked when we first heard about God as the benevolent creator of nature. "Why is there bloodshed and pain and horror?" If you're like me, you've heard various answers that are obviously not true. "The Tyger", which actually finishes without an answer, is (on this level) about your own experience of not getting a completely satisfactory answer to this essential question of faith.
There is more. "The Tyger" is about having your reason overwhelmed at once by the beauty and the horror of the natural world. "When the stars threw down their spears / And watered heaven with their tears" is the most difficult section of "The Tyger". In the creation story in "Job", the stars sing for joy at creation, a scene that Blake illustrated. In Blake's later books, the stars throw down their cups (the notebook poem "When Klopstock England Defied...") and in "The Four Zoas" figure prominently in the account of Urizen's failed clockwork universe founded on pure reason. For Blake, the stars represent cold reason and objective science. (They are weaker than the Sun of inspiration or the moon of love. Their mechanical procession has reminded others, including the author of "Lucifer in Starlight", of "the army of unalterable law"; in this case the law of science.) Although Blake was hostile (as I am, and as most real scientists are) to attempts to reduce all phenomena to chemistry and physics, Blake greatly appreciated the explosion of scientific knowledge during his era. But there is something about seeing a Tyger that you can't learn from a zoology class. The sense of awe and fear defy reason. And Blake's contemporary "rationalists" who had hoped for a tame, gentle world guided by kindness and understanding must face the reality of the Tyger.
Other people will tell you the Tyger represents evil. When I hear the word, I think of (among other things) a blathering alcoholic adult bully ridiculing and beating a small child. This should not happen, and makes no sense, but it happens all the time, and when it does, "the stars throw down their spears / and water heaven with their tears." Given that different people use the word "evil" in different ways, you'll need to decide for yourself whether the Tyger encompasses more. It seems to me that it is not "evil" for a real tiger to eat a lamb, but is part-and-parcel of our world. Yet it still inspires a certain horror and a sense of awe, that we are in the presence of a transcendent mystery at the very heart of creation -- and a certain terrible beauty. If Blake's lyric has brought this to our attention, it has been successful.
Blake's Tyger, larger than above.The poem is often quoted. One extended example is in the graphic novel "Origin: The True Story of Wolverine", in which it reminds the heroine of the clawed hero's ferocious character and mysterious origins.
If you found that you really enjoyed "The Tyger", then I hope you'll have a chance to explore more of Blake's writings -- even the difficult "Prophetic Books" -- as well as his own influences (especially the Bible and "Paradise Lost"). You may also enjoy learning about his times, and the social injustices of which he was so deeply aware.
You may also enjoy reading about T.S. Eliot and "Christ the Tiger". Yesterday's romantic poets and today's liberation theologians write about Christ as rebel, liberator, advocate for the politically oppressed, type of Prometheus, and so forth. The Bible and the human family's mystics and visionaries have written much aout the fear and awe that come from encounering thd Lord. Do you think "The Tyger" is actually about Christ's coming... to individuals, in historical movements, at the end of time?
The companion piece is "The Lamb." Everybody knows Christ is "the lamb of God".
Blake's Jesus liberates people, though by providing visions rather than focusing on political activism.
Los, Blake's spirit of poetry, vision, and liberation, is a blacksmith.
In "The Lamb", Christ becomes a child, not a lamb.
Both poems are about created beings.
There is nothing to suggest the Tyger is a liberator. Contrast Blake's fiery Los.
The rest of the "Songs of Experience" are about the terrifying and horrible side of life.
I have always loved the classical poets like Blake because of the intensity and compactness of their expression, especially within the discipline of rhyme and meter that make it easy to remember the words. Today there is very little interest outside of academia and trendoid circles in the amorphous stuff that passes for "contemporary poetry". But Shakespeare, Chaucer, Milton, Keats, and Tennyson were extraordinarily popular with ordinary people. Blake was less well-known to his contemporaries, but now is hugely popular with casual readers.
The real heirs of the classical poets are the lyricists of popular music. Sometimes lyrics make no sense, and it's hard for me to appreciate this. (A friend who's knowledgeable about such things told me: "'Stairway to Heaven' is supposed to mean whatever you want it to mean.") At their best, they present a bit of human experience that makes you say, "Wow! I knew that, but never heard it expressed so clearly!"
If you like "The Tyger", you may want to go on to learn more about Blake. For his era, he was extremely radical, both politically and philosophically. He and his wife practiced nudism in a friend's garden ("It's okay, we're just Adam and Eve"). Blake was tried for treason for saying something like "you soldiers of the god-damned king, I hope Napoleon kills all of you" while throwing a drunken soldier out of his garden. Blake used to see visions and hear voices, and we have sketches he made of famous people who visited him. In my undergraduate thesis paper, Understanding William Blake's "Milton", I have described how Blake's visions appear identical to those typical of schizophrenia.
One of the most important principles of medicine is that "just because something is diagnosable, it isn't necessarily a disease." It would be very foolish to claim that Blake was "sick" or "disabled". Blake's genius transformed what for many would be a crippling illness into a vast treasure of art and poetry of great meaning and beauty.
By the way, the claim has proved extraordinarily unpopular among Blake's non-physician admirers. But since I'm the only physician who's addressed the question, and the extraordinarily high quality of Blake's character and output speak for themselves, I'm standing by it.

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