The Tyger is maybe the best known poem of William Blake’s Songs of Experience, and cannot be analysed without considering The Lamb, in Songs of Innocence.
Although The Songs of Experience were published in 1794, the author began to write this poem during 1792 or 1793. The poem, as we are used to reading it, was achieved only after three drafts: Blake could not find at first the way to express the complexity of the tiger. In the first draft, as Martin K. Nurmi pointed out, the tiger was more fearful and characterised by a more impressive cruelty, while in the second attempt Blake gave more importance to its divine origin. (Margaret Bottrall, William Blake: Songs of Innocence and Experience: a Casebook, London, Macmillan, 1970)Only in the third draft the poet found a perfect balance, so that this poem is now considered one of the most mysterious and profound of Blake’s work. Its ambiguity is so deep that the meaning is hard to grasp and critical writing about it is wide.
Like most of Blake’s songs, The Tyger is not a long poem. It is formed by six stanzas of four lines each. The rhyme scheme is simple (AA BB), but in the first and last stanzas, which are identical, we are forced to pronounce “symmetry” so that it rhymes with “eye”. For this reason the last line is even more impressive and the question more penetrating. In the first stanza the poet addresses the tiger directly. The word “Tyger” is repeated twice at the beginning of the poem with capital letter, in order to give the idea of a great force but also of a prayer. The poet asks the animal who its creator is. The whole poem is formed by questions: every sentence finishes with a question mark. The poet is enquiring about its nature and he is indirectly suggesting that it is impossible that a single creator could have given origin to such a fearful animal and also to the innocent lamb. The climax arrives at the end of the fifth stanza, when the poet explicitly asks: “Did he who made the Lamb make thee?” The mystery is not solved by the poet; neither the tiger answers his question: the last stanza put forward the first question again. As far as the characterisation of the tiger is concerned, the fire is often its symbol. In the first stanza we see it brightening on a dark background. The light spreading from the tiger contrasts with the darkness of its habitat, “the forests of the night”, which is a symbol of ignorance and superstition (see Dante and the first lines of his Divina Commedia). Maybe the poet here wants to suggest that the tiger is considered by human beings only in a negative way because it represents evil and danger. However, Blake claims that its origin is divine, so that its existence is necessary to the world.
In the second stanza the theme of the fire comes again: “In what distant deeps or skies/ burnt the fire of thine eyes?”. Here the tiger is seen like a constant presence which can be found everywhere, not only in the “forests of the night”. The deeps remind us of the sea, while the sky is usually the dimension of angelical creatures. On the contrary, here it is contaminated by evil. At line 3 of this stanza, for the first time the poet refers to God, but he calls him with the personal pronoun “he”, without capital letter. This is a substantial difference between The Lamb and The Tyger. In the first poem the innocence of the child/Lamb suggests that their creator is certainly God, while in this poem the poet faces an insoluble paradox: a unique entity created both good an evil, lamb and tiger, innocence and experience.
Here God is described as a man, even if immortal (l.3). In Blake’s opinion, the creator seems to have born something too much great even for him, since he asks: “On what wings dare he aspire? / What the hand dare seize the fire?”. God is compared to two heroes, Icarus and Prometeus, who were punished for their bravery. Man cannot conceive someone able to create such a fearful being. The creator is so strong that the poet cannot describe him in his wholeness, but only mention some parts of his body, a human body. In the fist stanza Blake mentions God’s “hand and eye”, in the second his hand again, in the third his shoulder, art, feet and hand. The fragmentation of body is, curiously, a characteristic of the Gothic literature. Nevertheless, in the fourth stanza God appears in his completeness but the poet refers to him as an infernal smith, similar to Vulcan. The personification is achieved through the use of words like “hammer”, “chain”, “anvil” and “furnace”. The last one is linked also to the fire, symbol of the tiger. In the same time, the tiger too is described as a human being: it has a heart (“the sinews of thy heart”, “thy heart began to beat”) and a brain. The presence of a heart in a tiger conveys the idea that it can feel emotions, while the brain is the seat of understanding and rationality. This is the reason why the tiger is so complex and not necessarily a symbol of evil.
The fourth stanza is rather ambiguous and in the first two lines there are echoes of Blake’s political works, such as The French Revolution and America. It is worth considering that Blake was a fervent supporter of the French Revolution. In this stanza it seems that the stars weep and throw their spears because they want to show God their opposition to the creation of evil. On the contrary, they smiles because now his work is complete: the Lamb and the tiger are complementary. However, the poet cannot understand this paradox. It is impossible that the same creative force has made the Lamb, symbol of innocence and purity, and also the tiger, which represents sin and cruelty.
The last stanza, instead of putting forward a solution to the paradox, contains the same question of the beginning, so that the structure is circular. Now, the last line has acquired a new meaning. “Fearful symmetry” is a sort of oxymoron, since “symmetry” conveys the idea of perfection, which traditionally comes from God. Nevertheless, this perfection is “fearful”. The poet seems to say that the perfection is not unambiguous; it does not belong only to good, to the Lamb. There are different kinds of perfection and, since only God is perfect, nobody but the Lord could have created the tiger. Therefore, this poem is more complex than its language could suggest. Despite its plain sentences and common words, the meaning is difficult to grasp. Indeed, the problem does not dwell in the syntax or in the vocabulary employed, but in the subject itself: Blake is trying to answer one of the main questions of religion and philosophy: unde malum?
In spite of the title of the collection, The Songs of Experience, this poem is not a song and it was not written for children. Even if the presence of repetitions (for example the first and the last stanzas are identical) and the melody (rhyme scheme and length of lines regular) could remind us of a song for children, the subject is ambiguous and the atmosphere dark.
Finally, it is worth saying that this poem was presented by Blake with his own engraving, which represents a tiger, but we are struck by the contrast between the fearful image of the beast of the poem and the quiet aspect of the animal engraved by the poet. In fact, this contrast is meaningful and it is linked to the apparent discordance between the poetic form (songs for children) and the content. Indeed, every poem of the collection (The Songs of Innocence and of Experience, conceived by Blake as a whole) presents two levels: at the first level it is like a fairy tale, but the second level is far more complex and ambiguous. For this reason the reader is forced to reflect about the existence of evil in the world, giving his or her personal answer.