The Tyger

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 sieze 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?

William Blake, The Tyger, Songs of Experience, 1794.
The Tyger is potentially the Led Zeppelin of Blake poems – brash, bombastic and unnervingly successful. It is supposedly the most anthologised poem in the English language – stadium poetry, if you like. Your children will probably come across it at school. Along with Parry’s version of Jerusalem, this is the Blake that people know. And as with Parry’s hymn, its ubiquity threatens to soften and wear down its rough edges, but read the right way, it is as vivid and sharp as ever.

As we live in a time when the natural world is being surely destroyed, we’re inclined to see Blake’s tyger in retrospect as a noble, mighty creature, to be revered as much as feared. Blake had a more complex image in mind. To confuse things further, there is a world of difference between the fire in the tyger’s eyes as imagined in the poem, and the docile looking animal in Blake’s illustration.
Mary and Rodney Baine argue that the tyger depicted in both poem and image is the fallen, degenerate and depraved animal of vegetable nature, reflecting the fallen nature of man. I think they are right to see something ignoble in the tiger, and something that can be contrasted with the lamb that appears in Songs of Innocence, traditionally associated with the Christ figure. But there is more to the tyger than that.

There is a world of difference between the fire in the tiger’s eyes as imagined in the poem, and the docile looking animal in Blake’s illustration

It is a poetic convention that the tyger (or lion) and the lamb are contraries. Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience deal repeatedly with such contraries. I believe that Blake intends the contrast with the lamb, but we need to ask further what precisely this contrary relationship consists of. It is unlikely that Blake intends simply to contrast good and evil, the risen and the fallen, because Blake delights in contraries not only between poems but within single poems, and nothing in his work is so straightforward. He routinely uses contrasting texts and images, so that even his individual poems contain contraries and contradictions, and are therefore open to contradictory readings. That is part of his greatness as an author, but also tied to his politics, which provide you with a ‘golden thread’ that will lead you to truth, rather than a key to its door.

To get closer to the competing ideas condensed into Blake’s verse we should look at the strands that make up Blake’s sense of the tyger, and our own, and Blake’s sense of the relations of energy and ideas, action and law, good and evil.

The identification of the tyger with revolutionary violence was not a new or particularly original image. In 1792 the London Times said of the French masses that they were now “loose from all restraints, and, in many instances, more ferocious than wolves and tygers.”1 Throughout his work, Blake uses the tyger fairly consistently as a symbol of conflict, war and opposition. Elsewhere he speaks of ‘tygers wild’, and ropes in the tiger along with other beasts when he wants to speak of rapine and violence. But this is a double-edged usage, because this violence is also the violence of the oppressed. It is the violence of liberatory forces as well as repressive ones. In The Four Zoas, revolution itself seems bound up with “wild furies from the tygers’ brain”.

The Tyger’s brain… from Vala / The Four Zoas.

We are far from dealing with a simple opposition between war and peace, good and bad. In his ‘Proverbs of Hell’, in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, Blake points out that “The tygers of wrath are wiser than the horses of instruction.” There is much in this thought that resembles Hegel’s ‘master-slave dialectic’, and the process by which the subaltern comes to understand its condition and empowered to free itself. In any case we are not dealing with a pious injunction against violence. In The Marriage of Heaven and Hell the devil reminds us that the lion’s roar and the wolf’s howl too are “portions of eternity”.

When it comes to ushering in utopia, the lamb gets all the credit while the tyger does the heavy lifting

In the course of the poem, Blake imagines a ‘throwing down of spears’ that is another traditional image, this time representing the onset of peace and reconciliation. He seems to ask what the divine creator would think at that moment of the terrible force he had to create in order to get to that point. What is neverthess degraded in the being of the tyger is the fact of the necessity for it to use its power in acts of violence.

In Blake’s poem, then, we have the traditional contrast between the lamb of peace and the beast of corruption and violence, but the symmetry is refracted by Blake’s sympathy for the forces of energy and passion – and hence the revolutions in America and France – that he hymns in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. When he asks, “did he who made the lamb make thee?”, it is rhetorical, and his point is that revolutionary violence is as much a part of God’s plan as the pacific lamb that lies down with the lion in Revelations. When it comes to ushering in utopia, the lamb gets all the credit while the tyger does the heavy lifting.

While this image of the tyger works well in thinking about the storm and stress of revolution generally – making it an image of Black Lives Matter, for instance – it works too on a personal level. I picture the tyger’s burning eyes peering out of the forest of the night, and think of my own passions and instincts peering out from the forest of my personality and day-to-day social interactions. Often these things are pointing in different directions. Did he who made the lamb make thee? Indeed.

Blake, The Tyger, Songs of Innocence and Experience, Copy L, 1789, printed 1794.

The Tyger, illustrated by Andy Wilson, from The Brilliant New Hercules.


  1. Quoted in David Erdman, Blake: Prophet Against Empire, New York: Dover Publications, p 195.