"The Tyger" just might be William Blake’s most famous poem. Kids read it in elementary school because it rhymes and is about a tiger (yay!). High schoolers read it because their teachers want to give them something tougher to chew on (like a tiger!...OK, we’ll stop). Scholars debate about it because it connects to much of Blake's other work and its themes touch upon a lot of the central issues of Blake’s craft (marvelous!).
Published in a collection of poems called Songs of Experience in 1794, Blake wrote "The Tyger" during his more radical period. He wrote most of his major works during this time, often railing against oppressive institutions like the church or the monarchy, or any and all cultural traditions – sexist, racist, or classist – which stifled imagination or passion. Blake published an earlier collection of poetry called the Songs of Innocence in 1789. Once Songs of Experience came out five years later, the two were always published together.
In general, Songs of Innocence contains idyllic poems, many of which deal with childhood and innocence. Idyllic poems have pretty specific qualities: they’re usually positive, sometimes extremely happy or optimistic and innocent. They also often take place in pastoral settings (think countryside; springtime; harmless, cute wildlife; sunsets; babbling brooks; wandering bards; fair maidens) and many times praise one or more of these things as subjects.
The poems in Songs of Experience, on the other hand, wrestle with issues of what happens when that innocence is lost. "The Tyger" is often paired with the poem called "The Lamb" from Songs of Innocence. The former references the latter and reexamines the themes of "The Lamb" through the lens of experience. "The Lamb" is one of those idyllic poems which asks the Lamb who made "thee" (just like "The Tyger"), praises how soft and cute it is, then tells it that God made it and how wonderful that is. Blake's tone almost seems ironic (i.e., he actually means something very different than what he seems to be saying). Many scholars have argued just that, especially when paired next to his poems about the dangers of religious dogma.
Why Should I Care?
"The Tyger" is Blake’s most-read poem, hands down. It is easier to read than a lot of his work, but by no means a walk in the park. Even though the themes and meaning are about as elusive or difficult as you can muster, but not so obscured you don’t understand a thing.
The excitement that Blake inspires in a lot of really smart people, as well as normal people like us, is pretty compelling. He questions everything: religion, politics, poetry itself, history, science, and philosophy. He attacks traditional order, systems of rules and regulations, and people who think they have it all figured out. No one is spared from his critical eye, not angels, gods, God, kings, priests, or even you, the reader.
In any case, Blake is awesome, and "The Tyger" is a great introduction to the rest of his work. His poetry is a bit like Michael Moore meets Emily Dickinson. He’s topical, sometimes very critical, and can be clever. He also has a brilliant poetic mind, and the eye of a visionary who sees the world in ways of which we can only dream. Not to mention, "The Tyger" is short, and doesn’t require knowledge of Blake's personal mythology (ever heard of Urizen, Los, Oothoon, Enitharmon, Thel, or Beula; Orc, Rintrah, Bromian, or Leutha? Don’t worry; neither had anyone else until Blake made them up).