This month’s Animal poem: William Blake’s “The Tyger”

The first four lines of Blake’s “The Tyger,” or at least the first two, are so firmly rooted in the canon they’ve nudged its way into the common lexicon. “Tyger tyger burning bright / In the forests of the night.” But how quickly after 10th grade English (unless you’re teaching same) do we forget the rest. Or I did at least. But after looking at it awhile again I find “The Tyger” feels very fresh to me, a couple hundred years of being a classic poem notwithstanding. The wondering tone of the questions, the awe, and most especially, that at the end of stanza after stanza of questions, the speaker is still stuck on the first question asked — who could have made something like a tiger? (with one small but important  change).

A teacher told me once that part of the exquisite energy of those first lines is that the last syllable is missing — it should be “brightly.” Instead we bite off the end of “burning bright” and there’s a thudding pause before the next line, that’s matched by “of the night” — we hear the same missing syllable after “night” even though you would never say “of the nightly.” But that missing rhyme holds such force in the ear. “Tyger tyger burning bright, [thud] / In the forests of the night [thud].” And the next word is “What,” which coming at the beginning of the line gets its own force that rolls into the multi-syllabic “immortal.”

The second stanza builds its questions somewhat slowly, “In what distant deeps or skies” to “What the hand, dare seize the fire?” but it speeds up in the next stanza, as if the speaker is starting to get more and more excited following the logical thread of these questions, moving right from “what the hand” on up to “And what shoulder, & what art.” The fourth stanza builds to the only exclamation point, working through the creator-as-blacksmith imagery. After mostly rollicking along with a nice rhythm, the beats come down heavy upon “What dread grasp / Dare its deadly terrors clasp?” (Just try saying that one fast.)

And then, kind of like a dog who turns its head one way then the other in an attempt to understand, the speaker asks “Did he smile his work to see?” and then the almost plaintive long line of “Did he who made the Lamb make thee?” And then the speaker is back where he started, only with more awe after all this thinking about the tyger — in the first stanza, it’s “What immortal hand or eye / Could frame thy fearful symmetry” (italics mine) — but in the last stanza it switches from who could to who could dare — “What immortal hand or eye / Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?” (italics mine). Because of course this poem is as much about the awesome force of God/Creator as of the Tyger. Ooh, it’s good stuff.