A Guide to William Blake's 'The Tyger'

“The Tyger” is one of William Blake’s best-loved and most-quoted poems. It appeared in "Songs of Experience," which was first published in 1794 as part of the dual collection, "Songs of Innocence and Experience." The collection "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—a creator and illustrator of ideas as well as a philosopher and printmaker. He published his poems as integrated works of poetic and visual art, etching words and drawings onto copper plates which he and his wife, Catherine, printed in their own shop. He colored the individual prints by hand.

This 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 various copies of the book, which means each photographed object is unique.

Form of 'The Tyger'

“The Tyger” is a short poem of very regular form and meter, reminiscent of a children's nursery rhyme. It is six quatrains (four-line stanzas) rhymed AABB, so that each quatrain is made up of two rhyming couplets. Most of the lines are made of four trochees, forming a meter that is called trochaic tetrameter; it sounds like this: DUM da DUM da DUM da DUM da. Often, the last syllable is silent.

However, 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—metrical feet with two stressed syllables—rather than two trochaic feet. It sounds like this: DUM DUM DUM DUM DUM da DUM.

Another variation is that a few of the quatrain-ending lines have an additional unstressed syllable at the beginning of the line. This converts the meter to iambic tetrameter—da DUM da DUM da DUM da DUM—and places a special emphasis on those lines. Notice the iambs in these three examples, taken from quatrains one, five and six:

Could frame thy fearful symmetry?
Did he who made the lamb make thee?
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?

Another notable feature of the "The Tyger's" form is that the opening quatrain is repeated at the end, like a chorus. This gives the impression of them poem wrapping around itself, but with one crucial word-change. Compare the two:

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?

Analysis of 'The Tyger'

The speaker of “The Tyger” addresses its subject directly. They call on the creature by name—“Tyger! Tyger!”—and ask 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 yet beautiful creature? Was he pleased with his handiwork? Was he the same being that 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,” and this is matched by Blake’s hand-colored engraving in which the tyger positively glows; it radiates sinewy, dangerous life at the bottom of the page, where a dark sky at the top is the background for these very words. The speaker is awed by the tyger’s “fearful symmetry” and marvels at “the fire of thine eyes” and the art that “Could twist the sinews of thy heart.” He does this while also being astonished by the creator who both could and would dare to make a creature so powerfully beautiful and dangerously violent.

In the last line of the second stanza, the speaker hints that they see 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 it 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, and 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 the poet's own special Gnostic mysticism. Clearly, interpretations abound.

What is certain is that, being part of Blake's "Songs of Experience," "The Tyger" represents one of two “contrary states of the human soul.” Here, “experience” is perhaps used in the sense of disillusionment being contrary to “innocence” or the naivete of a child.

In the penultimate stanza, the speaker brings the tyger round to face its counterpart in "Songs of Innocence," the lamb. They ask, “Did he smile his work to see? / Did he who made the Lamb make thee?” The tyger is fierce, frightening, and wild, and yet, it is part of the same creation as the lamb, which is docile and endearing. In the final stanza, the speaker repeats the original burning question, creating a more powerful awe by substituting the word “could” with “dare:”

What immortal hand or eye
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?

Reception of 'The Tyger'

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.”

In his introduction to "The Portable William Blake," famed literary critic Alfred Kazin called “The Tyger” “a hymn to pure being." He continues: "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.”