Posted by: Tom Triumph | June 3, 2010

95. The Tyger: William Blake

I am a Language Arts and Social Science teacher who partners with a Math and Science teacher. Yesterday, she was helping a student after school with math and kept repeating the word “symmetry” over and over again. Symmetry, symmetry, symmetry. In graduate school I had taken a great course in Blake–he is one of my favorite poets–and Frye’s book on William Blake, “Fearful Symmetry”, our required text, stuck. Or, I should say, the title did.

“The Tyger” is one of Blake’s seminal poems, if only because “Songs of Innocence” and “Songs of Experience” (or “Songs of Innocence and Experience” in some collections) is easily accessible (“The Tyger” is from “Songs of Experience”). Still, poems like “The Tyger” are much more complex when you get up to your elbows in them. Blake portrays God as a kind-of blacksmith creating the world; this is a common image throughout his work. Notice how the tyger in the poem is forged. You can find hundreds of sites dedicated to the analysis of this poem, but let me highlight a few points to discuss.

First, what kind of god is a blacksmith? How does Blake create this image and why? How does this image frame a world for the reader? Notice how Blake does an analysis of the tyger. It is charged to life by the stars; how is this different from Mary Shelly’s monster that is assembled from body parts and given life from lightning (I don’t think it is different)? Ah, those Romantics.

Second, the nature of evil is alluded to here. Specifically, near the end, Blake compares it to the lamb. Symbolism alert: Lamb of God? Jesus? Still, religion aside, compare the tyger and a lamb. Now, compare evil and good. Is the tyger “evil” or is evil a more complex idea. If it is, then is the creation of the tyger more complex? How so? Use the text!

Then, you can go back to “Songs of Innocence” and compare it to Blake’s “The Lamb”. In fact, many of the poems found in “Songs of Innocence” have a counterpart in “Songs of Experience”. Does the thesis of the complexity of good and evil hold up? Why does Blake refer to the two as “innocence” and “experience” and not just “good” and “evil”? What does experience bring us? Regret? How, then, would your students go back, knowing what they know (experience!) and change things?

Third, notice how Blake leaves the question open at the end. In fact, this entire poem is a question. Why doesn’t Blake answer it? What, then, is the students’–the reader!–answer to the question?

Blake is as famous for the art that accompanied his poems. In fact, he did not publish text but, instead, hand-crafted his own books that he illustrated himself. By profession he was a printer. This is “The Tyger”:

Questions about words vs. poems and images in creating meaning are also worth having, especially as you debate the use of the internet, the power of Powerpoint (and how to create an interesting slide) and if video is a legitimate way to learn (vs. the old textbook). The print pulls a lot of students in. You can have them pick apart the image. Other Blake images are equally effective in working on student analysis.

Oh, and what’s with his spelling?

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?

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