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?
Commentary by Jeff Gillett
This poem confronts one of the problems inherent in the idea of an all-powerful creator. If God created the lamb, which epitomises innocent playfulness, did he also create the tiger? However, the poem consists of a stream of questions, none of which is ever answered.
The tiger is immediately presented as a fearsome creature ‘burning bright’, whether because of its colour or its power and intensity. The image contrasts with the ‘forests of the night’ which provide its setting, which is a dark and gloomy backdrop. The darkness tends to increase the sense of threat. The strong trochaic metre (placing emphasis on the first syllable of each pair) underlines the sense of power. ‘Symmetry’ is a strange word, since it is unlikely to be literally accurate as a description either of the tiger itself or of its markings: however, it has connotations of order and design, which reinforce the question: what sort of power could be great enough to create such an awesome beast? The ‘immortal hand or eye’ are those of some kind of God, emphasising the act of creation and the vision to create, but it is hard to equate such a God with the benign, caring figure who recurs in the Songs of Innocence.
In the second stanza, the ‘fire’ that burns in the tiger is located in its eyes, suggesting a link to the mind or soul of the tiger. Its origin in ‘distant deeps or skies’ sees the life-force of the tiger as having originated elsewhere than on the dry land where the creature now walks. The God who created it seems not to have fashioned it from nothing, but to have had to ‘sieze the fire’, which must have already existed. The use of ‘aspire’ and ‘dare’ seems to reverse the order of power, as if the force within the tiger were somehow greater than the God that gave it a shape.
Blake’s vision of God is always an anthropomorphic figure, rather than a disembodied force, and the third stanza envisions a very physical creator, using the force of his ‘shoulder’ and the ‘art’ of his brain. In the final line of the stanza, there is no verb to complete the sense, but the adjective ‘dread’ has become attached to the hand and feet which belong, presumably, to this creator God (since it makes little obvious sense to refer to the ‘hand’ of a tiger). If the tiger is awesome, so is the figure that was powerful enough to create it. However, the incompleteness of the sentences renders them ambiguous.
Images of some kind of celestial smithy in stanza four (‘hammer’, ‘chain’, ‘furnace’ and ‘anvil’) make the tiger into something forged of iron rather than of flesh and blood. The ‘dread grasp’ is clearly that of the creator; ‘its’ in ‘its deadly terrors’ seems to refer back to ‘thy brain’, implying that the brain of the tiger as well as its body is awesome and terrifying.
The fifth stanza is particularly unclear in its use of imagery. The ‘stars’ that ‘threw down their spears’ seem to have been surrendering, or perhaps expressing horror at the creation of the tiger, but it is unclear what the stars actually represent. Sometimes, for Blake, they represent the rational world-view of Newton, which has therefore been overthrown by the energy and power of the tiger. This would make the tiger a symbol of the creative imagination, and therefore a positive force. Alternatively, the stars could signify the wider universe. In this case, the tiger is an awesome force, which intimidates the universe. The notion of the creator smiling at what he has achieved makes for a God that perhaps delights in his own power, or in the power of his creation, or in the way that he has confounded either rationalism or the universe. Certainly, he appears as a very different figure from the benign creator of The Lamb. The question, ‘Did he who made the Lamb make thee?’ seems to be asked in a kind of awed attempt to reconcile two views that completely contradict each other.
The final stanza is not quite a repetition of the first, because ‘could’ has been replaced by ‘dare’, reiterating the ideas of the second stanza.
Any attempt at defining the precise meaning of the poem probably limits it, so the following ideas are probably best kept in tension as alternatives. The tiger could be seen, for example, as being representative of the violence implicit in the onset of an Industrial Revolution which brought poverty and hardship for the many as it brought benefits and great wealth to the few. It might equally be seen as representing the more explicit violence of the French Revolution. In either case, the ‘Tyger’ becomes not an alien menace, but something that inhabits human souls and minds. The tiger could also be seen as being representative of energy and imagination. However, even if the tiger is taken literally as a big cat, the poem conveys a sense of awe at both creature and creator that goes beyond mere terror.