There can be no brief summary of "The Tyger" or to what Blake scholars Robert A. Gleckner and Mark L. Greenberg call "`Tyger' studies". The rare cultural status the poem has achieved can be reduced at last to raw empirical terms: William Harmon ranks "The Tiger" [sic] first among The Top 500 Poems anthologized in English, a fact that reflects how closely, in popular imagination alone, Blake is tied to his creature.
"The Tyger" has also been one of the most frequently explained poems in English literature. In fact, the width and depth of attention the poem receives testifies to its ability to contain a multitude of plausible, if widely divergent, interpretations. And critics have gone even farther, subdividing the lyric into parts, so that many articles are devoted only to individual segments of the poem-- the state of the speaker, the tiger's spiritual alignment, and certain memorable cruxes in the text. Indeed, one surveys the sheer acreage of "Tyger" criticism and no longer sees a mere lyric, but finally a kind of massively succinct lexicon for William Blake's intellectual, political and spiritual life.
Nineteenth-century readers who had at least a glancing familiarity with William Blake would have had known "that one about a tiger," as Charles Lamb remembered it when the name of the poem escaped him. The poem's pulse-like meter and its simple, suggestive lyrics fastened themselves to the memories of even Blake's most virulent attackers. William Beckford, for example, the aristocratic man of letters and contemporary of Blake's, left this nearly forgotten commentary: "`Tiger, tiger burning bright In the forests of the night etc.' Surely the receiver and disseminator of such trash is as bad as the thief who seems to have stolen them from the walls of Bedlam." While posterity has not yet supported his verdict, he stands at the head of a tradition that remembers Blake first and sometimes exclusively as the author of "The Tyger".
This was partly due, of course, to the poem's better exposure. Eva Rosebery, who records Beckford's remark, notes that "the disseminator of such trash" in question was Benjamin Heath Malkin, an early admirer and acquaintance of the poet. Malkin, as G. E. Bentley, Jr. notes in William Blake: The Critical Heritage, included "The Tyger" among five other poems in his volume, Father's Memoir for His Child, published in 1806.
Bentley also reports Allan Cunningham's comment in the 1831 Lives of Eminent British Painters that the "little poem called `The Tiger' has been admired . . . by poets of high name." In reality, such contact was only brief and incidental, though the poem was in fact well received by a prestigious audience. William Wordsworth saw Malkin's volume and was "sufficiently impressed" to copy "The Tyger" and other of Blake's lyrics into a commonplace book in 1807. Charles Lamb, who had only heard the poem recited, found it "glorious" even as he misquoted it (Bentley reproduces Lamb's "Tiger" as: "Tiger, tiger, burning bright,/Through the deserts of the night"). In 1818, Samuel Taylor Coleridge reviewed the illuminated manuscript itself; he liked the poem, though it did not inspire any direct remark.
Aside from a illuminated, though largely ignored edition of the collected Songs of Innocence and of Experience in 1828, "The Tyger" spent much of its nineteenth century life in the conventional typescript of journals and anthologies. This period, Bentley shows, begins in 1811 with the publication of an article by Henry Crabb Robinson in the German periodical Vaterl<ä>ndisches Museum. Robinson's short biographical introduction of Blake re-printed "The Tyger" which he praised as a "truly inspired and original description" of the beast. Between 1847 and 1862, the lyric was the only one of Blake's works to be reproduced in all four anthologies that included him. Of the thirty-seven poems by Blake published during this time, Suzanne Hoover notes, "The Tyger" "was the most popular, having been printed as many as seven times." In fact, the presence of "The Tyger" was perhaps a leading reason that Blake's name escaped complete obscurity before Alexander Gilchrist's biography of Blake in 1863 brought Blake a wider, more respectful audience.
In 1954, David Erdman, in Prophet Against Empire, was the first to offer an account of the poem solely in terms of its contemporary background, and evidence for other, equally plausible sources of the poem, have steadily mounted. In the last twenty-five years alone, critics have clarified even more distinctly the poem's relationship to its own era.
Nick Shrimpton and Heather Glen have shown that the Songs of Innocence and of Experience owe in part their metrical models and topics from a whole current of childrens' literature that had become available to a larger, literate English public. For a poet who was at home with blank verse and artistic experimentation, "The Tyger"- - with four beats evenly striking almost all of its lines-- was very much an appropriation of this fairly new literature. Glen, in fact, places "The Tyger" among those "verses about birds and animals, of which there was a whole sub-genre in the children's books of the late eighteenth century." One cause of the growing literacy for children was a strict Methodist ethic which reared children as much for their future salvation as their adulthood. No one person typifies this ethic better than John Wesley, perhaps the foremost leader of English Methodism, who wrote hymns and rhymes that prepared children to accept death, among other pains, as a consequence of the reward of salvation (a doctrine which, Shrimpton asserts, that "The Tyger" (in part) "questions the adequacy of.").
Some critics trace the poem's minor imagery, particularly the stars and spears of its fifth stanza, to events or institutions familiar to Blake in his own lifetime. In 1990, for example, Marilynn Olson and Donald Olson suggested that meteor showers-- especially one spectacular bolide on August 18, 1783-- may have been the "spears" the "stars threw down" in line 17. Colin Morton D. Paley notes that the weeping stars in lines 17-18 may refer to the anonymous lyric "Tom of Bedlam," reprinted popularly in 1792. And in the Songs of Experience, "The Angel" offers a close parallel to the lines:
I dried my tears & armed my fearsIn a different vein, William Doxey demonstrates that rhetorical precedence exists for interpreting line two's "forests of the night" as a figure of speech meaning simply the night sky and its constellations. (Along the same lines, he maintains that the line's significance, if not the whole poem's, lies in just such astronomical sources).
with ten thousand shields and spears.
Tigers, as many scholars have discovered, held a special terror for the eighteenth century imagination. John E. Grant, writing in the Iowa Review in 1989, reproduces two pages from Thomas Bewick's A General History of Quadrupeds (published 1790, 1811), describing the tiger as "the most rapacious and destructive of all carnivorous animals." Bewick's tiger is "fierce without provocation, and cruel without necessity, its thirst for blood is insatiable."
Not surprisingly, editorialists, particularly British conservatives, were not slow in realizing the tyger as an invective against Jacobin France. David Erdman notes that on January 7, 1792, The [London] Times declared that the French had become "`loose from all restraints, and, in many instances, more ferocious than wolves and tigers'."
The metaphor proved to be exceedingly durable. Judging from the word's frequency in this context, it is not hard to conclude that "tiger" had become a trope with conditioned reflexes, to be released any time discussion headed in the vicinity of revolutionary France. Wordsworth's familiar description of post- revolutionary Paris (which Erdman cites in Prophet Against Empire) as a place where Robespierre's enemies were as "Defenceless as a wood where tigers roam" (Prelude, X.82) merely draws on an already popular image of the tiger as a beast of insolent ferocity.
Or the English may have heard, as Morton D.Paley notes, Sir Samuel Romilly inflecting the low bestiality of the new French republic: "One might as well as think of establishing a republic of tigers in some forest of Africa." From comparisons of animals, conservative editorialists were not far from using the epithet the "tygerish multitude"-- a variant of Edmund Burke's "swinish multitude"-- against the lower and artisan classes of England and France, who, as Stuart Crehan remarks, were "daring to assert their own power."
But the word could be aimed at individuals as well. The London Times on 13 July 1793, Crehan notes, published a "eulogy" for the assassinated David Marat, remembering him as "a fine portrait of [a] chief murderer with eyes of a tyger cat, and . . . looks that corresponded to that animal." In 1793 as well, says Colin Pedley, the English public heard Robespierre (and his followers) described as "that Tiger, in human shape surrounded by the assassins whom he dispatched."
Robespierre, Pedley notes, later tacitly endorsed the epithet, demonstrating some of the ambivalent power the word that Blake could draw on for the poem. In the experienced world that followed the French Revolution, says Ronald Paulson in Articulate Images: The Sister Arts from Hogarth to Tennyson, words took on dual, but antipodal values: king, traitor and, as Robespierre demonstrated, tiger.
The tiger survived revolutionary France to become a figure of Napoleonic militarism as well. Grant uncovers a fairly obscure, if virulently Anti-Gallican, caricature by cartoonist James Gillray. In it, the allegorical skulls of European nations lie beneath a French coat of arms whose central symbol is a bloody guillotine flanked on one side by a tiger (and, on the other, an undoubtedly racist depiction of a monkey). Such was the context of tigers in post-revolutionary Europe and Grant insists that any honest reader will acknowledge that "Blake selected a beast that truly could not be confronted with equanimity."
But the tiger's prominence in the mental life of eighteenth century England also owes to "the great upsurge of natural history in the eighteenth century," says Coleman O. Parsons. He notes that illustrations of exotic and foreign animals were frequently included in texts like Linnaeus's compendium. The "tiger" literature of the day was large enough, says Parsons, to create "an ambience of fact, fable, and interpretation which nourished Blake's imagination."
More immediately, Paul Miner suggests, "Blake could have seen a real tiger in eighteenth century London." Travelling menageries came to the city, including one, Miner documents, with a Bengali tiger in 1791. Superstitions grew around these menageries' tigers as well. John Adlard does not mention "The Tyger" by name in his book The Sports of Cruelty, but relevantly he explains that among the superstitious it was believed that every seventh year lions bred, and this accordingly was called "The Lion Year". However, "apparently this seventh year was sometimes the Tiger Year, for . . . a strange, sudden fury of a tiger in a travelling menagerie was blamed by the manager on the presence of pregnant women."
Whether any of these were the source of Blake's poem, or their effect on him was composite, the animal clearly led a powerful imaginary life in Blake's audience.
Despite the volume of published work on the poem this century, "The Tyger", as a critical phenomenon, really only began after the Second World War. Before then, only a few critics like Joseph H. Wicksteed offered thoroughgoing accounts of the kind that would become more common later.
One great difference between pre-War "Tyger" criticism and the later more densely-argued criticism of the 1940s and after, lies in the number of footnotes each uses. Wicksteed's 1928 study of the complete Songs, not burdened with competing theories or abstruse extra-textual sources, approaches "The Tyger" with uncluttered conviction: "The whole thesis of `The Tyger' is that he [the tiger] is a spiritual expression of the Creator himself" and the poem "is a tremendous treatise enunciating the nature of the God that does exist-- the God that is mighty and terribly visible in his manifestations." (In 1957, however, D. W. Harding complains that "the parish-magazine quality of sentiment [Wicksteed] expresses . . . is totally foreign" to Blake.)
S. Foster Damon, in 1924, was among th first to interpret the poem as essentially a doctrinal problem: "how to reconcile the Forgiveness of Sins (the Lamb) . . . the Punishment of Sins (the Tyger)." (277) The final question, "Did he who made the Lamb make thee?" (l. 20), is therefore "not an exclamation of wonder but a very real question, whose answer Blake was not sure of."
The Portable Blake, published in 1946, edited by Alfred Kazin, which included a short commentary on the poem, can be taken as the official beginning of modern "Tyger" studies. Two years later, Roy P. Basler, within an embryonically Freudian reading, saw in the ambiguous morality of the tyger "a challenge to orthodox theology" as well as to "the rational design" of the universe prevailing among the so-called Natural Theologians of the eighteenth century. (This critique had a distant echo almost three decades later in June Singer's Jungian psychobiography of Blake, The Unholy Bible (1970): "He who made the Lamb is worshipped in all the churches, [but] he who fashioned the Tyger . . . is also God.")
The year following Basler's work, C. M. Bowra published The Romantic Imagination, and found in the tyger a symbol "for the fierce forces in the soul that which are needed to break the bonds of experience." Also in 1947, novelist and critic Wolf Mankowitz offered that the poem was "a comment on the limited capacity of man to conceive of God at all."
These studies, however, seem brief surveys compared to the more systematic treatment of Jesse Bier. For Bier, writing in 1949, Blake's poem is a record of the struggle between energy and matter; the tyger is "the face of creation"-- "not sheer unadulterated evil and perversity in the outer world, but like Moby Dick . . . the marvelous and the fatal together within each of us." The structure of this reading is revived and put to somewhat different ends by Anne Kostelanetz Mellor in 1975, who viewed the poem as "portray[ing] the process through which Energy is given artistic form is thus enabled to survive in the world of Experience."
Two other critics of the 1940s, re-introduced and made important clarifications to the Christian eschatology latent in the poem. Northrop Frye, in Fearful Symmetry (1947) sees in the poem a Satanic accuser of the Fall, "who frightens us out of Paradise behind the menacing blaze of a tiger's eyes." Conversely, Jacob Bronowski, writing in 1944, interprets the poem as one guide-post on a road to a complex religious redemption. "Christ is become the Tyger, symbol of energy burning in a darkening world," he writes prophetically, "It is no longer enough for the innocent boy to go from false experience to true, by chance. Experience itself must learn, fasting in the desert, to follow a greater innocence, by choice."
Mark Schorer was another critic in the 1940s to produce a major book-length study of Blake, The Politics of Vision (1946). Unlike S. Foster Damon, for example, he seeks to answer the final question of the poem by describing tiger and lamb as aspects of the same historical process. After centuries of oppression, "the innocent impulses of the lamb have been curbed by restraints, and the lamb has been turned into the tiger," and the new animal "bursts forth in revolutionary wrath."
David Erdman extends Schorer's argument into Blake's own historical context. Erdman is careful "not to imply the "The Tyger" is a political allegory," but finds ample political resonance in the contemporary events of France and America. But the poem culminates in the fifth stanza when the counter-revolutionary "stars threw down their spears" like the surrendering armies at Yorktown and Valmy, long at their wars (in the American and French revolutions, respectively), and "seemed ready to coexist with the Lamb." The cycle is complete, when "the wrath of the Tiger"-- both revolutionary and counter- revolutionary-- "done its task."
Stuart Crehan, writing in 1984, follows Erdman in correlating the poem with the revolutionary mood of the 1790s. The honestly partisan Crehan compares the poem to Yeats's "Easter 1916" as it depicts the "terrible, new-born beauty of violent revolution." But the tyger acts out of-- indeed, is created out of -- misery and desperation. For if "the forests . . . are, on one level, oppressive and crowded cities such as Paris and London, then it follows" that it is such "degradation, not some unfathomable Creator in the sky, that have bred tigers."
The project of reconciling the lamb and the tiger also continued during the 1950s. Stanley Gardner, in his 1954 book Infinity on the Anvil, harmonizes the two, if only for stanza five, maintaining that the "stars [who] threw down their spears" were giving up "material power." With "instruments of strife cast aside, and pity assumed," the tyger's Maker "smiles upon the triumph of the Lamb." Gardner is especially vivid in his discussion of the tyger, which he decides is a product of fiery Los-like creation: "With its five finite senses, forged round the infinite mind, separates that mind from infinity," the body is created out of fiery separation. Hazard Adams, writing in 1955, locates this struggle internally, seeing in the tyger "a mirror image of man in his fallen state." In an article which anticipates his 1960 essay ("Reading Blake's Lyrics"), Adams interprets the tyger's "identification and confrontation by Blake and Los [as a] symbolical leap from the forest [of the night] into the light of day."
Warren Stevenson (1969) joins Gardner in identifying Los as the creator: "In forging the Tyger, Los is accomplishing that same victory over . . . darkness which he accomplished in The Book of Urizen." Also in the Los column is Harry Williams (1972) who sees the tyger as a realization of that "spirit of forgiveness" which itself is composed of equal parts wrath and pity (in the spirit of the hellish proverb, "The cut worm forgives the plow"). Fred Kaplan (also in 1972) regards the poem as a moment of the recognition of one's own claim to divinity. "Blake the artist," says Kaplan, "does not fear to record his immortality; in fact, he stands in awe before his own fearlessness."
Harvey Birenbaum, in his 1992 study Between Blake and Nietschze, never mentions Blake's god of labor by name, but the Maker he describes and Los have nearly the same personality and face many of the same problems. However, the two finally diverge, as Birenbaum sees in the poem a lack of ethical intent: "the only moral question remotely implied is whether the reaching mind ought to do all it dare."
Urizen, Blake's repressive lawgiver god, was also named the tyger's father during the 1950s. Kathleen Raine argued in Encounter in 1954, drawing on ancient Gnostic texts, which were, she argued, "beyond question. . . . the inspiration and source of the `The Tyger'." From Gnosticism's belief "that the creator of this world was a being different from the supreme God," Raine easily finds numerous distinct parallels from Blake's own Gnostic demiurge, Urizen. The tiger, then, is the representative of "a very Cruel Being" who was responsible for proportion and "symmetry"-- clearly the work of Urizen. Furthermore, following the legacy of Urizen, she asserts (in what would become a frequently attacked phrase), "the tiger is a symbol of competitive, predacious selfhood."
(It should be noted that Margaret Rudd, a year before Raine, saw in the poem as a fragment of Blake's own religious struggle in which Urizen made laws, but not the tyger itself. For Rudd, "it is only an abstract law of Urizen which calls the Tiger, like sex, evil.")
While Raine's conclusion of Urizen as Maker was endorsed without alteration by S. Foster Damon, in his Blake Dictionary (1965), others offered variants of her interpretation. Robert F. Gleckner, in 1959, said the tyger belongs to "the finite world, ruled over by Urizen who caused its finiteness the world of experience and tygers." The creator's possible smile in fifth stanza ("Did he smile his work to see?) is the smile of spite, cynicism, cultivated by repressive experience. He elaborates this demiurgic universe further than even Raine had, describing "the forests of the night" as "the forests of experience in which roam fears and sorrows of the created universe."
Rodney Baine and Mary Baine seem to share Raine's thesis that the tyger belongs to Urizen, though they do not name the god as such. But, they say that Blake used "the tiger as symbol of fallen or brutalized man. Only when he is regenerated or redeemed does the tiger, like the other beasts, reassumes his unfallen creative vitality." (In 1986, Rodney Baine, intensifies his view and indeed begins to adopt Raine's familiar phrase: "Like the Tyger, Blake's subsequent tigers also exemplify man in the grip of selfhood-- malevolent and stupid.") For Robert E. Simmons, writing in 1970, the tyger is an "illusion" which "amounts to a symmetrical precis of Urizen." Thomas R. Frosch (1974), in similar language, blames Urizen for the forests rather than for the tyger itself: "The forests of the night are Entuthon-Benython, the forests of illusion, the depths of the caverned mind in which energy appears demonic . . . Urizen frightens us to his altars by showing us monsters."
As the above citations demonstrate, the criticism of the 1950s framed this question of identification so that it would be sustained well until the next three decades. But more importantly, this urge to name the tyger's maker points to a decisive change in "Tyger" literature. The joint significance the works of Erdman, Raine and Gardner share is in beginning a critical attitude, anticipated perhaps by Schorer, that seeks to form some lasting conclusions about the symbols and concepts of the whole of Blake's poetry. But the successes of these authors were less in their positive assertions than in their methodology. They initiated and fostered in "Tyger" commentary an abiding study of Blake's source material and of his intellectual life. In addition, Blake's work began to be thought of not as a disparate set of lyrics and mystical revelations, but as a broad and systematic oeuvre which represented a complex and distinct world-view. Later influential works by authors such as Hazard Adams, Morton D. Paley and numerous others have clear models in these earlier efforts.
Finally, in 1956, Martin K. Nurmi's article "Blake's Revisions of the `The Tyger'" focuses Erdman's historical placement of "The Tyger" but more importantly represents the first consideration of the poem's textual development as a part of its meaning. Looking at different drafts of the poem alongside contemporaneous news of France, Nurmi argues that the poem matured with Blake's evolving sense of the moral ambiguities of the French Revolution. The "unified symmetry" Blake attains in his final draft, then, subsumes both the optimism of the National Convention of 1793 and the bloody massacres the previous September. In doing so, Blake "gives his symbol the comprehensive scope of an `eternal principle'." (Tangentially, Nurmi cites H. M. Margoliouth's brief biography of Blake in establishing "The Tyger" as an occasional poem, though Margoliouth provides slender evidence for such a claim.)
Nurmi, approaching the poem in 1975, is more tentative: the poem, he says, "could be regarded as a providential creation for-- not of or by-- the fallen world of Experience," but only if the stars in the fifth stanza are defeated stars of oppression. Nurmi answers the penultimate question ("Did he who made the Lamb make thee?") with "a Yes of such deep ambivalence . . . as to leave the questions without definitive answers."
The speaker was imported from the New Criticism, which scrupulously divided poet from persona, and critics found in this difference a new, wealthy dimension of study. With this third party came a variety of new questions: what is the relationship between the speaker and the tyger? Between the speaker and the tyger's creator? This line of criticism has produced a speaker with a variety of spiritual, political and philosophical temperaments whose condition, more often not, needs careful diagnosis.
For Adams, the persona is less important as a speaker than as a viewer, or more specifically, as a visionary. Since it is the eye as much as the hand that "dares frame . . . fearful symmetry", it is not only "the tiger [who] is framed on the anvil of inspiration which is the eye of man and God, but [the tiger] is also a symbol of the very same eye which created it." It is therefore, in "the manner in which one beholds the tiger [that] is all important to its and one's own spiritual nature."
Grant identifies the speaker as the "awestruck voice of Experience, that of an average but also imaginative man, who is almost overwhelmed" by the mysteries of the Tyger. In the end, however, the speaker knows "that the Tyger was not created to improve his lot in the world, and he feels a holy dread" and finally, "indignity" at such a fate (his position does not change substantially after 29 years when writes again on the poem for the Iowa Review, "This is not Blake's `The Tyger'").
Grant's article also brought to the poem a new scrutiny to some oversights in the criticism. For example, his assertion that the "dare" in the earlier lines of the poem (as in "what dread hand dare seize the fire?") are in the present subjunctive tenses permits him "to bring these presumably past events into the imagination's present focus as the questioner meditates on them." Grant's suggestion, however, occasioned Fred Robinson's response, in 1964, which argued frequent precedence of the use of "dare" as a preterite. (Two years later, Grant and Robinson collaborated on the same issue in "Tense and the Sense of Blake's The Tyger.")
(Gardner, relies on a similar schism between the narrative time of the poem and the remote cosmic origin the speaker invokes. In 1986, in Retracing the Songs of Innocence and of Experience, he regards the poem as a short cosmic history "which takes the mind back through the poem and beyond . . . in a search of `his' identity, `he' who has been there all along, having created the tiger the poem invokes.")
Grant was also among the very first to closely study each grammatical molecule of the poem as it relates to the poem's overall meaning. His fastidious attention to syntax leads him to argue in favor of eliding identity of the tyger and its creator (as in, "what dread hand? & what dread feet?") and so, forbid any clean break between the identities of the two. The poem's "indeterminate syntax intimately relates [the two]. Any sharp division would constitute a `cloven fiction,' like the assertion that a good God can create evil." Leaving aside whether or not an indeterminate God creates an even more vexing theological question, it is sufficient to say that Grant's makes a subtle reading.The speaker as a concept has produced a number of rival interpretations, most of which maintain that the speaker is somehow in error or is slowly awakening from it. Like Grant, E. D. Hirsch charts a transformation in the speaker, who begins the poem with a parody of the childish questions of "The Lamb". But the hardened cynicism of the opening stanzas modulates to "incoherent confusion" and then finally to incredulity by the final stanza, so that the speaker in the end is effectively "still close to the standpoint of Innocence." Similarly, for Martin Price (1964), the poem is a progression in the speaker from doubt to faith. The speaker, a "shocked doubter" frozen in his own spiritual "terror", gradually converts to "an assertion of faith (faith in the oneness of God, in the goodness of wrath, in the holiness of prophetic rage.)"
Likewise, other critics hold that the questioner, suffering from limited vision, does not, or cannot, understand the tyger. Leopold Damrosch, Jr. (1980), concluding that the tyger is a symbolic aspect of energy, says that "the speaker is right to fear the fires of energy," which, even if "creative", are obviously "purgative" and "tormenting" as well. Robert E. Simmons, writing in Visionary Forms Dramatic (1970), reads "The Tyger" "as an account of the growth of an illusion of terror" by a speaker who is conditioned by the symmetrical laws of Urizenic "fixity." John Beer brings in `the fourfold vision', Blake's system of perfected consciousness, as an instrument of measuring the speaker. The loss of fourfold vision, common in the Fallen world, prevents the questioner from seeing that the "he who made the Lamb" also made the Tyger. But, Beer explains, terror and fascination are one in the speaker because "even while the twofold imagination in us is recoiling from the threat of the tiger, the lost fourfold in us is responding to the attraction of its energy and brightness." (Further, "because the horror is controlled by the harmonized energy of the poem," Beer observes memorably, "it appeals strongly to children, who enjoy the experience of controlled terror.")
In a lecture given in 1970, F. R. Leavis suggested that the poem's penultimate question ("Did he who made the Lamb make thee?") might stand in paradoxically as an epigram both books of Songs, for "the question is formidably complex, it is presented by the inclusive whole, which insists implicitly that there can be no pointing with epigrammatic neatness to any solution." The question, Leavis states "conveys no protest" against the divinity that created the tyger, but rather, with "profound awe," "it constates"-- registers, simply acknowledges-- the fact of the divine. But, he continues less clearly, this fact "is a value, and the problem constituted by the fact that there are other values gets its recognition in the poem itself."
Robert Graves's 1969 remarks ("Tyger, Tyger") are singular at least because of their categorical decisiveness. Graves makes a wide and largely original survey of issues within "The Tyger", discussing the poem's meter, its editing, and even (heretically) its "faulty craftsmanship." His conclusion, strangely, is not about the poem, but about how the poem demonstrates that "Blake was certainly in . . . a state of schizophrenia at the time" of its composition. It is a claim he further supports by citing its presence of tigers in the work of other tormented artists.
Paul Miner, writing in 1962, is the first to write within a small set of readings in which "The Tyger" is posed as a philosophical hoax on the speaker, or as a moment of false sublimity. Miner sees in the poem as a deliberate and cosmic evasion: "What begins as a poem of pure ontology ends in metaphysical casuistry." Coleman O. Parsons (1968), feels that the "speaker has glimpses of reality," but receives "no vision" for his efforts. The final effect, says Parsons, is that "there is a feeling of enlargement, but no message, [and] no affirmation."
A less explicitly spiritual version of the poem's false sublimity exists in Harold Pagliaro's recent study (1987) of the poem charting a similar movement in the speaker. For Pagliaro, the awe for the tiger dissipates in the asking of his questions, so that by the sixth stanza, he is beyond "the chief intensity of his vision of the fearful creature." The result is not much more than aerobic; the speaker arrives not at the spirituality of "poised enlightenment" but rather at a physically "heartened fatigue."
Another articulate case made for the poem's false (or failed) sublimity is in Harold Bloom's Blake's Apocalypse (1964). Bloom identifies the speaker as the Songs' own Bard of Experience, and characterizes him as a man who is typically liable to become "prostrate before a mystery entirely of his own creation." This cowardice of the divine reaches its height when, terrified of receiving a response to the question "Did he who made the Lamb make thee?", he "abandons the issue and plunges back into the affrighted awe of the sixth stanza."
In his 1964 article "A Rhetorical Question Answered," for example, Philip Hobsbaum misanthropically states, "It is quite evident that the critics"-- all critics, he attempts to show -- "are not trying to understand the poem at all." The problem with them, he says, is that the poem's commentators demand answers to questions in a poem which are entirely rhetorical. Any answers to the question such as the one posed by Kathleen Raine, "Who Made the Tyger?," Hobsbaum says, "is going outside relevant enquiry." And in demanding such answers, what critics "seem to be looking for could be another poem, a mystical treatise, a philosophical dissertation" but "it cannot be a critique."
In a much lower key, Kay Parkhurst Long claims that "The Tyger" is a broad parody of "a major compulsion of mankind-- the tendency to generalize, to label, to categorize." Long finds parallels between the eighteenth-century rationalists Blake attacked and the Blake scholars who limit his animal-poem by interpretation-- both mind-forged manacles of "restrictive logic." And so, she concludes: "a tiger, or any creature, exists as evidence of the unending potentials of the universe and of man's imaginative perceptions of the universe."
Somewhat like Hobsbaum, Larry Swingle "looks to [the poem] as a positive phenomenon," an event from which the reader transforms and simultaneously, is transformed. Interpretation is not possible, says Swingle, for "our relationship with `The Tyger' [and its questions] consists of `We do not know' on nearly every matter." Since "one cannot reason things through and discover answers to "The Tyger"," he says, the reader must accept the text is a kind of spindle of meaning: "Like Los, the reader must say: "I will not Reason and Compare: my Business is to Create."
For Stanley Fish, the poem's critical legacy provides the opportunity to illustrate the possibly limitless horizons of "acceptable readings." In his 1980 book, Is There a Text in This Class?, he puts the contradictory interpretations of Kathleen Raine, and E. D. Hirsch, side by side. Both interpretations, he maintains, are not just right-- in fact they are "obvious"-- but only if one accepts the premises with which either begins. The equal "obviousness" of differing interpretations of "The Tyger" help Fish enunciate what has become a familiar interpretive problem: "it is assumptions, not the facts they make possible, that are at stake in any critical dispute."
(Taking this a step farther, he builds an "absurd" reading in which of the speaker of the poem regrets having eaten the tyger, a religiously forbidden meat. The poem, then, is a description of the food's course as it travels through his digestive system. Fish adds, in a parody of the breathless conclusions of so many "Tyger" articles: "The poem ends as it began, with the speaker paying the price of his sin and wondering at the inscrutable purposes of a deity who would lead his creatures into digestive temptation.")
Whole-heartedly optimistic views of "The Tyger" are rare, which makes Dennis Welch's well-considered remarks on "`The Tyger' and Comic Vision" even more valuable. He finds the switch from the word "could" in the first stanza to the word "dare" in the sixth to imply "an admiration of such a power" that dazzles and fascinates the speaker. For Welch, the speaker sees in the tiger not a form of twisted energy (after Gardner's, for example), but rather "the limits of energy the Creator imposes on the tyger". This, in turn, calls to mind "the self-limitation of God-- to become fallen in order to redeem the fallen." There should be assent to the question "Did he who made the Lamb make thee?", "because his plan is a divine and human comedy," about which "the speaker is on the verge of detecting."
It is the efficiency with which Raymond Lister dispatches the entire problem of the tiger's creator that deserves mention: "Blake himself could have supplied one answer to these questions if he had quoted his own words from America and elsewhere. . . . `everything that lives is holy'-- everything including the tyger." Therefore? "The answer is decidedly in the affirmative." And so, we are practically assured, the creator did in fact smile his work to see.
Critics favoring deconstructionist approaches to the lyric have been more frequent, though their work has been for the most part compact and incidental. Maybe because of this, their conclusions have not been entirely uniform, even if all of them bear the same theoretical turns of phrase.
For Graham Pechey, for example, "The Tyger" futilely attempts to carry out "a misdirected search for a transcendental signified," an "undivided divine subject" (i.e., God). Not finding one, the poem resolves not into a history of a Deity with an "indefinite past," but instead (rather anti- climactically) "a work of words that come together in that very moment." For Pechey, who offered this brief reading in 1981 for the collection 1789: Reading Writing Revolution, what finally emerges, like the French revolution itself, is the "profane historicity" of the signifier triumphing over the repressive signified.
Steven Vine (1993) replies that Pechey's reading "effectively eliminates the questions of the text." Vine clings, however, to Pechey's sense of a lost God, but he asserts that the transcendental signified "survives as a ghostly function," expressed as the silence meeting each of the speaker's questions. It is Nobodaddy, Vine says, Blake's sometimes risible figure of authority, who returns and "haunts" the poem (and others), "inscribing silence in the speech of performance." Michael Ferber's questioner, like Vine's, cannot receive answers from his tyger/auditor, and is left to wander "the forests of aporia."
Steven Shaviro's 1982 article in Boundary2, "Striving with Systems" is by far the most fully realized deconstructionist reading (though Shaviro places some distance between himself and Jacques Derrida). Shaviro assumes that a poem (and a poet) "so explicitly concerned with questions of origins" and contraries cannot hope to resolve its inevitable aporias. The result is a "Tyger" that exists in a state of impossible contraries that cancel one another as they strive to exist without each other; the poem becomes a "scene [that] is not a scene and not an origin, and can only be constituted as such, or be apprehended at all, by recourse to an act of interpretation or representation which it is advance disqualifies." Shaviro also explains some of the poem's convenience to psychoanalytic description; the poem becomes "the production or reproduction even as it is at the same time to the contrary, the repression, representation, and interpretation-- of that pre-originary anxiety which precedes repression."
David Punter appears to agree with Shaviro on this point. "The tiger belongs," he says, "to a world before sublimation; he exists now as a haunting, flickering image of a dangerous world of instinct." The animal, "the unacceptable face of desire," is therefore a threat to those with "smooth notions of a divine plan." But "the tiger will not be kept in place," Punter says, "any more than we can refuse the manmade gifts which the hammer and the anvil will inevitably offer." The experienced world, therefore, must find a "path of manifesting energy lies not away from or round but through the jungle of developing human powers."
Susan Hawk Brisman and Leslie Brisman find in Lacanian psychoanalysis a productive means of re-naming the assumed roles in the poem. "The Tyger" and "The Lamb", they say, are ways of establishing a relationship to a Symbolic Other of order and authority (God) through an Imaginary Other (the animals addressed). While the speaker of "The Lamb" finds it very easy to incarnate God in the docile Lamb, "the incessant questions" of "The Tyger" fail "to call forth the Symbolic Other" that the questioner searches for. But if there is only silence from the tyger, there are "awesome thoughts that . . . take the place" of a direct reply. Instead of an emergence of a Symbolic Other, there is an elision of the two concepts: "The fearful symmetry of the tiger evokes from the speaker a response to this Imaginary counterpart that [he] desires to have from a Symbolic Other."
In the 1980 article "Spears, Spheres and Spiritual Tears", Nelson Hilton attempts to illuminate the perennially mysterious lines 17-18 ("When the stars threw down their spears/And water'd heaven with their tears."). First, Hilton begins, readers must recognize the associative logic which binds the words, rhymes and rhetorical imagery to one distinctly Blakean cosmogony of artistic creation. Further, an ideal reader will sense the "sub-vocalized paronomasia" of the poem, as in the word "tyger" itself, which is "in part the creature of wrath and anger and so associated with flames of fire; or the word "symmetry," which doubles, among other puns, as the exclamation "see me try." Words like "spears" and "spheres" of the fifth stanza set in motion other, more complex Blakean associations which spiral and enlarge the poem's meaning without any assurance of a comfortable closure. For Hilton, "the force of and desire for underlying, unending interconnections of language present in polysemous sub-vocalization are everywhere at work" in the poem. "The Tyger" then, is "a scene of writing" whose "real question" is "how the deadly terrors of language-overload are to be (mentally) grasped and (physically) clasped in words."
Stuart Peterfreund, writing in 1991, decides that the lyric is a direct, almost editorial, critique of the rationalist natural science that Blake so vehemently despised. Peterfreund's speaker is thoroughly Newtonian, searching with his questions for the identity of some Great Clockmaker of the Universe. Observing that the tyger is metonymically framed by the speaker's questions (which invoke each of its individual parts), Peterfreund finds that the tyger's relation to its Maker is rhetorically created by the speaker himself. "Tiger-as-effect," he says, "testifies to the existence of an artifice-as-cause that is the ultimate object of the speaker's knowledge." But the questioner is really only successful, he says, in creating "the illusion that the speaker is empowered to speak in place of the tiger's creator by insisting on the tiger as reified, naturalized effect of that first cause."
"The Tyger" has been Blake's most popular poem since almost its publication, a commonplace that everyone, from little children to retiring faculty, knows without hesitation. What, then, accounts for its sudden critical importance after the Second World War? And what has sustained that output for almost five decades? There is a respected interpretation of "The Tyger" that the poem records the French Revolution as an historical energy. Whether or not that moment should be one of wonder, beguilement or horror is a matter of principled judgement. Most critics are decided that the revolution, like the animal symbolizing it, belongs to a power beyond the control of human agents. In the same way, "The Tyger" came to speak for the dread energy belonging to the atomic bomb. Held together at a distance, critical responses to the poem after 1945 seem like a prismatic account of the self in the Cold War. An omnipresent and masterless energy lurks in the most familiar critiques of the poem. Jesse Bier's tyger contains both "the marvelous and the fatal." Even Nelson Hilton's "unending interconnections" of relatively innocent word play take on the nervous aspect of uncontrolled fission. Indeed, it is in this anxious context that Morton D. Paley (1954) and Harold Bloom (1976) looked for the source of sublime wrath in Job and Jakob Boehme. And it is the very evidence of this animal ("burning bright") that led Kathleen Raine and Stanley Gardner to find a creative (and potenially destructive) demiurge as its parent.
It is possible to date the true beginning of "Tyger" studies not simply from the emergence of the New Criticism, but from August 6, 1945. After that date, several millions in Europe, the United States, the Soviet Union and elsewhere faced collective annihilation as a casual possibility. And like the speaker of so many interpretations, this self, living in its petty world of experience, shrinks to an infinitesimal point when contemplating such a broadly statistical death. The "apocalyptic limelight" that critics like Northrop Frye saw the tyger bounding in was lit from the rising tower of a mushroom cloud.
Further, "The Tyger" seemed to be encoded with the same binary value systems that held the Cold War world in place: American capitalism in the West and Soviet communism in the East; the first world of the northern hemisphere and the third of the southern. The mutual exclusiveness of such an ethical world is mirrored in essays that seek to name the tyger as either Los's or Urizen's, God's or the Devil's; good or evil. Though it may risk trivializing forty-five years of scholarship, so much of this criticism has seemed to be a piece of Cold War magic; by naming the atomic beast, there existed a possibility of assimilating it, or least, turning it into a household demon, a more familiar nightmare.
With the passing of the Cold War (although not, as we often comfortably assume, nuclear weaponry) the "golden age" of "Tyger" criticism will also pass. Or at least one golden age, anyway. The questions of "The Tyger" will persist as long as possibility of the collective annihilation exists and, with it, the annihilation of the concept of the individual as well.
--Bruce Borowsky (January 1996)
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Frye, Northrop. Fearful Symmetry: A Study of William Blake. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1947. p. 237.
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