The Tyger – William Blake

Reading The Tyger by William Blake never fails to send a shiver up my spine. Probably more so since I heard it recited as a voice over in a tiger documentary that I stumbled upon while channel surfing on TV. The documentary featured the tiger at its magnificent best with some really candid close-up footage of the beast in its element and at the height of its powers. And this poem, rendered over it, added an extra dimension of myth and mystery to this elusive creature of the forest.

The poem is made up of six quatrains, each of which follows an aabb rhyme pattern except for the second b lines in the first and last which incidentally are identical to each other but for one word. They rhyme only when you use an older pronounciation of the word symmetry.

Most of the poem follows a trochaic tetrameter catalectic – four trochees per line, trochee being a metric foot made up of a long stressed syllable followed by a short unstressed one. It is catalectic because the last trochee in each line drops the short unstressed syllable. But some of the lines slip up and use iambs instead of trochees, like the line, “Could frame thy fearful symmetry?“, and its near identical twin in the last stanza. All these irregularities only add to the fierce beauty of the poem.

Every time I read The Tyger, I am also struck by the notion that the poet must have had a very close brush with the subject of his poem in real life.

Now I do not even know what the poet looks like. But I can conjure up the whole supposed encounter in my imagination. I see him standing there, in a thick tropical jungle, a hunting rifle dangling, forgotten, from his hand, waiting with bated breath, having spotted and having been spotted in return, by a member of that magnificent species. He is rooted in his spot, in fear and awe of the majestic animal, too enthralled to make even the slightest move. I can almost feel the beast’s tawny stare myself, from across the clearing, as if contemplating, in a particularly feline manner, if it should attack the petrified human hiding among the bushes or let him live to tell the tale. In the end, after what feels like an eternity of tense moments, it turns away, with a mighty roar, and dissolves into the forest in the blink of an eye.

Well, I do not know if William Blake ever went hunting in his life or ever had such a close encounter with a tiger in the wild but whatever the case was, I am convinced it must have one hell of an meeting.

For how else could one explain the fearful reverence the poet shows for the tiger throughout the poem? How else could one account for the powerful imagery and startling detail the poet uses to describe the tiger? How indeed does he bring in the sense of awe he feels for the tiger and infects us with the same?

The very first lines set the tone and theme for the rest of the poem. I feel the archaic spelling Tyger only enhances the near mythical status of the beast in question.

Tyger! Tyger! burning bright,
In the forests of the night;

The poet cannot seem to help but marvel at the supreme being that was responsible for bringing to life such a thing of perfection.

What immortal hand or eye,
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

He likens the Creator to a blacksmith forging the tiger out of fire and brimstone and wonders at the lengths that even He had to go, to make the tiger the magnificent beast it is. Where did He get the fire to make the tiger’s smouldering eyes from? How far did He have to fly to find that fire? The sun itself? And finding it, how did He capture it with His hands? What mighty shoulders and art were required to weave the strands of a tiger’s heart? What dread to make its hands and feet and terrible grasp? And what tools did He use? And we ask, what word wizardry has the poet been up to, to deliver the force of his awe in the form of such sublime lines?

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?

What the hammer? what the chain,
In what furnace was thy brain?

At the end of it, spent from all the effort, did the Creator sit back, quietly proud of creating his best work ever? Also, was it indeed the same hand that created the sweet docile Lamb too? How is that even possible?

Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?

In the end, the poet returns to reiterate his first stanza, where he mused about the God that could have created the tiger. But now in the last stanza he wonders how did He even dare to create the tiger at all even if He could.

Tyger! Tyger! burning bright,
In the forests of the night:
What immortal hand or eye,
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?

To think these splendid beings are being counted in mere numbers now! If, God forbid, these beautiful beasts ever get wiped out in the world, the future generations can take a little comfort in reading this poem about the ferocious creatures that once ruled the “forests of the night”.

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?