William Blake’s “The Tyger”

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 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?




William Blake’s “The Tyger” is part of a project in which I’m posting poetry that’s in the public domain along with illustrations that are also sometimes from the public domain and other times from one of the new AI art generators. Essentially, I paste in parts of the poem, see what the generator comes up with, and pick the images that seem best to me. These three particular images are from Blake himself, Bing and Stable Diffusion. I wrestled with whether or not to use Blake’s own illustration of the eponymous tiger but reluctantly decided against it. In my view, his image just doesn’t carry the same weight as the poem itself in our modern era.

Why is this poem so still so popular after over 200 years? I’m sure there are various good answers. For me, it’s the fact that, in the guise of a nursery-style rhyme, Blake gets at one of the great paradoxes of our existence. On one hand, a huge portion of humankind believes in merciful, compassionate God who sacrificed his own Son so that humanity could be spiritualy saved and literally made immortal. On the other hand, this same God, an infinitely omnipotent Being, has created a world in which brutality rather than compassion rules. In which Nature, red in tooth and claw (to quote a different poet), requires its denizens to regularly murder one another in order to survive.

Blake was, of course, writing over half a century before Darwin published his “On the Origin of Species,” which attempted to make better sense of bloody-minded Nature. And, once he did, there was a great and continuing debate about whether the idea of evolution negated the notion of a Creator, merciful or otherwise.

This tension between gorgeous but amoral and deadly Nature and humanity’s allegedly more moral universe reverberates through our lives each day. As a species, we continue to be a deeply confused and moral mess while Nature remains, in its own way, pure and beautiful as the ever rarer tigers still slip through through the forests of Asia, their eyes shining in the moonlight as they, burning with desire in the forests of the night, hunt prey that must die so they can live.