Yvonne Broadwell

Dr. Morillo

English 650

30 January 1997

William Blake's "The Tyger": An Encounter with Sublimity

Terror, in the eighteenth century, was commonly considered the highest manifestation of sublimity. "Indeed," writes Edmund Burke in his Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757), "terror is in all cases whatsoever, either more openly or latently, the ruling principle of the sublime."(1) In Section VII of his aesthetic treatise, Burke tries to explain why this is so: "Whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain, and danger, that is to say, whatever is in any sort terrible, or is conversant about terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror, is a source of the sublime; that is, it is productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling" (39). The chief effect of the sublime, according to Burke, is "astonishment"--"that state of the soul, in which all its motions are suspended, with some degree of horror," and in which "the mind is so entirely filled with its object, that it cannot entertain any other" (57). These effects are produced when we contemplate dangerous objects which we know cannot harm us. Burke finds examples of this that immediately bring William Blake's poem "The Tyger" to mind: "We have continually about us animals of a strength that is considerable, but not pernicious. Amongst these we never look for the sublime: it comes upon us in the gloomy forest, and in the howling wilderness, in the form of the lion, the tiger, the panther, or rhinoceros" (66).

"The Tyger" is, indeed, a poem that celebrates the effects of that sublimity which Burke calls "the concomitant of terror" (66). In this aspect, the poem is reminiscent of one of Blake's Proverbs of Hell: "The roaring of lions, the howling of wolves, the / raging of the stormy sea, and the destructive / sword, are portions of eternity too great for the / eye of man."(2) Such sublime power cannot be explained; it can only be evoked, as by the questions the Lord asks Job from the whirlwind--a biblical passage frequently referred to in eighteenth-century writings as "amazingly sublime" (Burke 63). This is also the function of the questions that Blake's speaker asks in "The Tyger." "Did he who made the Lamb make thee?"(3) no more demands an explicit answer than "Who hath divided a watercourse for the overflowing of the waters, or a way for the lightning of thunder?" Similarly, Blake's tiger fulfills the same purpose as the culminating image of God's speech to Job, Leviathan: as an embodiment of sublime power it completes the process of raising the speaker's problem out of the realm of ethical discourse inducing an attitude of awe, wonder, and astonishment. But, Blake's song is a far greater statement of the conventional Romantic belief that the terrors of creation have a sublime power that transcends the human perspective. Blake's accomplishment in "The Tyger" is to present this supernatural perspective without relinquishing the human perspective. And although the peculiar union of terror and admiration makes the general tone of his poem that of religious awe, this tone is clearly compounded of two attitudes that never altogether collapse into one another.

The vision presented to us in "The Tyger" depends upon the ordinary speaker's capacity to understand an incarnate, sublimated form of the divine and thereby comprehend a Creator whose union of such apparent opposites as danger and beauty seems at first beyond any comprehension. The speaker's intuitions about this complex Creator begin immediately with his keen perception of the astounding contrariety within one of the Creator's creatures. The tiger, "burning bright" (1), possesses powers to destroy and darken as well as to illuminate. This combination of powers is especially puzzling to Blake's speaker because although these powers appear to constitute opposites, they in fact do not. It is precisely the tiger's "burning" that makes the animal appear "bright," and it is its brilliance that makes it appear to burn. Similarly, though the speaker identifies the beast's world as "the night" (2)--dangerous and deadly--Blake's forest setting serves to transfigure that dread. Blake's usual term for a tiger's habitat is "desart," as in "The Little Girl Lost."(4) "Forests" (2), on the other hand, suggests tall, straight forms and a world that, for all its terror, has the orderliness of the poet's perfectly balanced verses. The phrase for such a peculiar animal and such a peculiar world is "fearful symmetry" (4), and the fact that Blake's speaker is able to articulate this mysterious union of seemingly conflicting forces suggests that he is already on the verge of some deeper understanding. This speaker makes no effort to repudiate the deadliness of the tiger, nor to explain it in the handy terms of proverbial or domestic truth, like the chimney sweeper or the black boy's mother of Blake's Songs of Innocence. Instead, this experienced speaker accepts the idea of the beast as terrible. But he also seems to believe that the tiger's dreadful being can somehow be explained in terms that identify their common Creator. Thus, inevitably the speaker's examination of his experience with the sublime tiger becomes an examination of himself.

In the middle stanzas of "The Tyger," Blake's speaker begins to cope with his initial incredulity by trying to account for the tiger's genesis, which is also his own. Whereas the first stanza has been collected into a single question, the speaker's questions in the following three stanzas become more breathlessly urgent. The sentences that form these questions are broken off in gasps of breathless wonder as the intensity of the process of the tiger's creation and the degree of force involved increase. In the two questions, "On what wings dare he aspire? / What the hand, dare seize the fire?" (7-8), the speaker's wonder is mixed with fear because the tiger's Creator does not only seem to soar with supernatural aspiration but he also boldly grasps earthly, and perhaps hellish, means to implement his creation. At this point in the poem, the Creator that the speaker imagines resembles Icarus and Prometheus, both of whom were bold, Icarus for his flight and Prometheus for his theft of fire from the ancient gods. The allusion to Prometheus consequently leads into the darkest and most frightening intuition Blake's speaker has regarding the tiger's Creator--the possibility that this Creator could be a powerful and violent demiurge. Struggling to comprehend this apparent blacksmith-god, the speaker formulates an embodied vision in which forceful shoulders and hands wield the hard and heavy implements of a forge in order to create a beast whose "deadly terrors" (16) seem equal to its Creator's, an equivalence implicit in the ambiguous reference of the possessive pronoun "its" (16), which can refer to the "deadly terrors" of the tiger's "brain" (14) or the "deadly terrors" of its Creator's "anvil" and "grasp" (15). As the rhythmic pulses of Blake's verse literally fall like hammer blows, his speaker now looks alternatively at the Maker and the thing made, in an ecstasy of admiration and empty horror:

What the hammer? What the chain?

In what furnace was thy brain?

What the anvil? What dread grasp

Dare its deadly terrors clasp? (13-16)

The staccato beats of fury in stanza four are succeeded by a stanza of immense calm which enormously widens the imaginative range of the poem. This broader perspective is introduced in the first two, highly compressed lines of stanza five. "When the stars threw down their spears / And water'd heaven with their tears" (17-18) is an allusion to the angelic fall as presented by Milton in Paradise Lost. In Milton, the defeat of the rebellious angles causes them to weep tears which, left behind on the firmament as the angels are being cast into Hell, are transformed into stars. This action is then followed by God's creation of the world. Milton thus shows the cruel moment of angelic defeat as a decisive moment in the divine plan: the immediate result of the defeat is the creation of the stars, and its indirect result is the creation of the entire world. In the context of Milton's Paradise Lost, there can be no doubt that the God whose work was the angelic fall is a terrible and inscrutable God, but however terrible that act was, it is finally sanctified by the vitality, order, and beauty of the created universe. In Blake's poem, the surrender and pathos implicit in the opening Miltonic couplet of stanza five similarly suggests his speaker's release or deliverance from his prior notions about the tiger's Creator. At this point of the poem, Blake's speaker begins to show an awareness of the Creator's positive formative power, which integrates the heavenly stars, "the forests of the night," and the "fearful symmetry" of the tiger into the same awesome design.

The effect of the last two lines of stanza five is to throw into relief the poem's unresolved conflict between the divine perspective and the speaker's terrified human and morally affronted perspective. The two questions, "Did he smile his work to see?" (19) and "Did he who made the Lamb make thee?" (20), though neither of them answered explicitly, give way to a new attitude one might have were the answers to both questions yes. It is, however, not the questions as questions that are important but the speaker's new state of mind that makes possible their being asked in the first place. Clearly, for Blake's speaker a fixed state of things has passed. In perceiving the sublime tiger as he has, he has been compelled to define tiger, Creator, lamb, and himself anew; he has passed from his original impression of a natural world full of "deadly terrors" to a new knowledge of an integrated scheme of things. This awareness implies, equally, the speaker's passage to a new knowledge of himself, and the replacement of "dare" (24) for "could" (4) in the final stanza of Blake's poem is the first gloss on this new condition. Whereas the earlier "What immortal hand or eye, / Could frame thy fearful symmetry?" (3-4) asked how anyone could, physically and morally, frame such "fearful symmetry" as the tiger represents and implied the speaker's willingness to search for the capacity to create the tiger, the newly formulated question, "What immortal hand or eye, / Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?" (23-24), implies not only the knowledge that such a Creator is available but, in fact, an admiration of this Creator's power. The remaining question has then only to do with a willingness to create and what such willingness represents. The movement of "The Tyger" from "could" to "dare" thus represents no shift in objective fact, but only the speaker's changed perception. Having wondered "could," he has come to imagine "dare," with all it implies for the power and morality of the tiger's Creator. Blake's speaker has acknowledged the fact that the tiger's "fearful symmetry" has been framed, and in some sense he, too, has framed it within the limits of his statement, whose final stanza returns to the issue raised in the first stanza, with "dare" representing something like the fait accompli in which he has participated.

In the companion poem "The Lamb," speaker, child, lamb, and Savior are identical: "I a child & thou a lamb, / We are called by his name."(5) In "The Tyger," speaker, tiger, Creator, and lamb at first seem to be very different. But the perceptual progress of the speaker in the poem, as indicated by his questions about the tiger's and the lamb's Creator, implies the inaccuracy of this initial view. The experienced speaker of "The Tyger," who begins by seeing the sublime tiger as a unique terror, but accepts responsibility for this terrible creation, in the sense of accepting the obligation to face up to its implications, recognizes in the course of his examination that He who made the lamb made the tiger. In this sense, "The Tyger" is really a Song of Innocence, rather than a Song of Experience; for though the speaker initially does not seem to know God through the lamblike virtues of "Mercy Pity Peace and Love"(6), his knowledge does come through his breathless wonder at the fearful tiger. Blake's experienced speaker is, indeed, startled into innocence by the brightly burning tiger, and it is through his encounter with this sublime creature that he finds new meaning in the myth of his Creator. Thus, although the speaker in "The Tyger" seems to enter an abyss of metaphysical doubts, anxieties, and fears, he finally leaves the abyss behind. Just as in Dante's Divine Comedy, the journey downward turns out to be a journey upward, and by observing the eagle that soars at the top of Blake's illuminated poem as we begin to read it, we may have already prepared ourselves to detect both Blake's and his speaker's rising vision of the tiger, its Creator, and himself presented in "The Tyger."

(1) Edmund Burke, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (New York: Columbia UP, 1958) 58. All further quotations from this edition are given parenthetically in the text by page number. back

(2) William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, British Literature: 1780-1830, ed. Anne K. Mellor and Richard E. Matlak (Forth Worth: Harcourt Brace, 1996) 289. back

(3) William Blake, "The Tyger," British Literature: 1780-1830, ed. Anne K. Mellor and Richard E. Matlak (Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace, 1996) 301. All further quotations from this poem are given parenthetically in the text by line number. back

(4) William Blake, "The Little Girl Lost," British Literature: 1780-1830, ed. Anne K. Mellor and Richard E. Matlak (Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace, 1996) 282. back

(5) William Blake, "The Lamb," British Literature: 1780-1830, ed. Anne K. Mellor and Richard E. Matlak (Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace, 1996) 278. back

(6) William Blake, "The Divine Image," British Literature: 1780-1830, ed. Anne K. Mellor and Richard E. Matlak (Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace, 1996) 280. back

posted 2/20/97 Return to English 650 syllabus