On Blake’s "The Tyger"

The Tyger
William Blake

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?

Comment:

The question raised is that of immortality and what it means. For the ancients (think Achilles) immortality is the grasping of honor that will last beyond the age. The pagan gods are immortal, but they rely on honor too: Poseidon in the Iliad worries about a wall Agamemnon and his allies make – instead of making sacrifices, the Greeks build a wall that Poseidon feels outdoes the works of the gods (Iliad Bk. 7, towards the end).

Now I have tied immortality to character and divinity, and I think one can glance at The Lamb and see the immediate contrast. “He calls himself a Lamb” is an obvious Christian contrast with these other gods, which do show up in “The Tyger.” The question is the making of the lamb, and except for “gave thee life,” it could be a person being described, a person taken care of as in the 23rd Psalm. What God gives does not seem to embolden, but rather makes us childlike and maybe even childish. The way the Lamb is written, it sounds like a joke: Jesus spoke in parables, not nursery rhymes. For more on Blake’s religious views, see here.

In the first stanza, note the literal control over fire one who is immortal has: the implication of the tyger being fire (“burning bright in the forest”) is that only something that was beyond human could shape it. Take note of “of the night,” too – I wonder if the implication is if the creator of the tyger can work in the dark, outside of light.

The second stanza is key because it suggests that the fire the immortal wields is a part of that immortal himself. What has happened is that divinity has alienated itself to create; in Creation, we can see an aspect of the Creator. “On what wings dare he aspire” – this is Daedalus, I think: he can create, but the daring will hurt another. Creation in-and-of itself is a breaking of bounds. “What the hand, dare seize the fire” – this is Prometheus, who gave fire to men so that all men could create.

What started as beyond human is now becoming very human, as the “immortal” of the first stanza who might have resided in “distant deeps or skies” now seems to have a direct relation to our ability to create. Contrast where God and man meet in “The Lamb” – this is the reverse of that order.

Now the third stanza, about the pure force (“shoulder,” “art”) needed to “twist” a heart into existence and then deal with it beating, reminds me of this passage from Yeats:

I saw a staring virgin stand
Where holy Dionysus died,
And tear the heart out of his side.
And lay the heart upon her hand
And bear that beating heart away;
Of Magnus Annus at the spring,
As though God’s death were but a play.

– from Two Songs From a Play

Dionysus, the most human of the gods, was routinely torn limb from limb by his followers, and then would resurrect. The sacrifice of Christ is only alluded to in “The Lamb,” not described in visceral detail. Here, the mere creation of fury is itself a violence, but notice that it is not fury being born, but rather a “heart.” Why must love come from such a violence, one we might even stand apart from when completed?

Following this, the “brain” seems to have been shaped by Hephaestus, who also forged the ability to acquire (“grasp…its deadly terrors”). We have noted before implicitly that Blake understands the role of fear in acquisition, but I do not remember him linking that to the very fact of the human mind. It is not possible, though, to tell whether the creator made the mind or heart first, as the priority of will and reason is conflated in motion: the ordering of these stanzas that concern “heart, “mind,” and “stars” involves a primal motion (that the heart beats), turned into something deliberate (grasps with deadly terror), and then finally the question is, for what end?

Hephaestus was the man who built armor for Achilles and Aeneas, who as men of war should remind us of the descendants of Cain. They warred for honor and glory and were all wiped away by the Flood. If the Creator was responsible for the creation of what is in the tiger, has he presided over a work so imperfect that he must destroy his own Creation?

That last thought, I think, explains the final “dare” best. The issue with Creation isn’t merely that it could hurt others. To dare to create is the enterprise where God and man are on the same level, for it is what creation does that determines whether one made a mistake or not.

1 Comment

  1. Interesting! Granting that “immortality is the grasping of honor that will last beyond the age”, is this an act of daring, or of creativity? Perhaps creativity and daring conflate to a degree. In other words, in their own ways both Achilles and Hephaestus are daring forgers of immortal honor, bright armor against oblivion.

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