Burning Questions: A Guide to William Blake’s “The Tyger”

Notes on Context

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Snyder, Bob Holman & Margery. "Burning Questions: A Guide to William Blake’s “The Tyger”." ThoughtCo, Mar. 2, 2016, thoughtco.com/william-blakes-the-tyger-2725513. Snyder, Bob Holman & Margery. (2016, March 2). Burning Questions: A Guide to William Blake’s “The Tyger”. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/william-blakes-the-tyger-2725513 Snyder, Bob Holman & Margery. "Burning Questions: A Guide to William Blake’s “The Tyger”." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/william-blakes-the-tyger-2725513 (accessed October 18, 2017).
  • The Poem
  • Notes on Context
  • Notes on Form
  • Notes on Content
  • Commentary and Quotations


“The Tyger” is one of Blake’s most loved and most quoted poems. It appeared in Songs of Experience, first published in 1794 as part of the dual collection Songs of Innocence and Experience. Songs of Innocence was published first, alone, in 1789; when the combined Songs of Innocence and Experience appeared, its subtitle, “shewing the two contrary states of the human soul,” explicitly indicated the author’s intention to pair the two groups of poems.

William Blake was both artist and poet, creator and illustrator of ideas, philosopher and printmaker.

He published his poems as integrated works of poetic and visual art, etching words and drawings on copper plates which he and his wife Catherine printed in their own shop, and coloring the individual prints by hand. That is why the many images of “The Tyger” gathered online in The Blake Archive vary in coloring and appearance -- they are photographs of the original plates in the various copies of the book now held by the British Museum, the Museum of Modern Art, the Huntington Library and other collectors.

  • The Poem
  • Notes on Context
  • Notes on Form
  • Notes on Content
  • Commentary and Quotations


“The Tyger” is a short poem of very regular form and meter, like a children’s rhyme in shape (if certainly not in content and implication). It is six quatrains, four-line stanzas rhymed AABB, so that they are each made up of two rhyming couplets. Most of the lines are written in four trochees, trochaic tetrameter -- DUM da DUM da DUM da DUM (da) -- in which the final unaccented syllable at the end of the line is often silent.
Because of the four consecutive stressed beats in the words “Tyger! Tyger!,” the first line could more properly be described as beginning with two spondees rather than two trochaic feet -- DUM DUM DUM DUM DUM da DUM. And a few of the quatrain-ending lines have an additional unstressed syllable at the beginning of the line, which converts the meter to iambic tetrameter -- da DUM da DUM da DUM da DUM -- and places a special emphasis on those lines:
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?...

Did he who made the lamb make thee?...

Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?

The opening quatrain of “The Tyger” is repeated at the end, like a chorus, so that the poem wraps around itself, with one crucial word-change:

Tyger! Tyger! burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?
Tyger! Tyger! burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?
  • The Poem
  • Notes on Context
  • Notes on Form
  • Notes on Content
  • Commentary and Quotations


“The Tyger” addresses its subject directly, the poet calling on the creature by name -- “Tyger! Tyger!” -- and asking a series of rhetorical questions that are all variations on the first question -- What being could have made you? What kind of God created this fearsome and yet beautiful creature? Was he pleased with his handiwork? Was he the same being who created the sweet little lamb?

The first stanza of the poem creates an intensely visual image of the tyger “burning bright / In the forests of the night,” matched by Blake’s hand-colored engraving in which the tyger positively glows, radiating sinewy, dangerous life at the bottom of the page whose dark sky at the top is background for these very words. The poet is awed by the tyger’s “fearful symmetry” and marvels at “the fire of thine eyes,” the art that “Could twist the sinews of thy heart,” the creator who both could and would dare to make such a powerfully beautiful and dangerously violent creature.

In the last line of the second stanza, Blake hints that he sees this creator as a blacksmith, asking “What the hand dare seize the fire?” By the fourth stanza, this metaphor comes vividly to life, reinforced by the pounding trochees: “What the hammer? what the chain?

/ In what furnace was thy brain? / What the anvil?” The tyger is born in fire and violence, and may be said to represent the tumult and maddening power of the industrial world. Some readers see the tyger as an emblem of evil and darkness, some critics have interpreted the poem as an allegory of the French Revolution, others believe Blake is describing the artist’s creative process, and others trace the symbols in the poem to Blake’s own special Gnostic mysticism -- interpretations abound.

What is certain is that “The Tyger,” being one of his Songs of Experience, represents one of two “contrary states of the human soul” -- “experience” perhaps in the sense of disillusionment being contrary to “innocence” or the naivete of a child. In the penultimate stanza, Blake brings the tyger round to face his counterpart in Songs of Innocence, “The Lamb,” asking “Did he smile his work to see? / Did he who made the Lamb make thee?” The tyger is fierce, frightening and wild, yet part of the same creation as the lamb, docile and endearing. In the final stanza, Blake repeats the original burning question, creating a more powerful awe by substituting the word “dare” for “could”:

What immortal hand or eye
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?
  • The Poem
  • Notes on Context
  • Notes on Form
  • Notes on Content
  • Commentary and Quotations


The British Museum has a handwritten manuscript draft of “The Tyger,” which provides a fascinating glimpse into the unfinished poem. Their introduction makes succinct note of the unique combination in Blake’s poems of a simple-seeming nursery rhyme framework carrying a heavy load of symbolism and allegory: “Blake’s poetry is unique in its wide appeal; its seeming simplicity makes it attractive to children, while its complex religious, political and mythological imagery provokes enduring debate amongst scholars.”

Famed literary critic Alfred Kazin, in his Introduction to William Blake, called “The Tyger” “a hymn to pure being.

And what gives it its power is Blake’s ability to fuse two aspects of the same human drama: the movement with which a great thing is created, and the joy and wonderment with which we join ourselves to it.”

Format
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Your Citation
Snyder, Bob Holman & Margery. "Burning Questions: A Guide to William Blake’s “The Tyger”." ThoughtCo, Mar. 2, 2016, thoughtco.com/william-blakes-the-tyger-2725513. Snyder, Bob Holman & Margery. (2016, March 2). Burning Questions: A Guide to William Blake’s “The Tyger”. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/william-blakes-the-tyger-2725513 Snyder, Bob Holman & Margery. "Burning Questions: A Guide to William Blake’s “The Tyger”." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/william-blakes-the-tyger-2725513 (accessed October 18, 2017).