"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.
"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).
A pretty cool short film/music video from Brazil that uses as inspiration some of the themes from "The Tyger." Check out the "about" section to learn more about how the creators interpreted the poem and how that may compare to your own interpretation.
"The Tyger" Read Aloud
Is a relatively decent recitation if you’re not sure where to start. In general, we find poetry recitations to always fall short somehow, not quite capturing the energy that the poem has in your own mind. But please, check a few out and prove us wrong.
A Reading of "The Tyger"
For an extreme reading of the poem by a well-known poet, check out this site. Definitely brings out the spookiness factor…
A copy of one of Blake’s original manuscripts of "The Tyger." If you look closely, you can notice the changes he made – it’s actually pretty cool.
A portrait of Blake
The William Blake Archive
An incredible project by a bunch of dedicated Blake scholars and institutions. This site has every page of every major copy of every work of Blake’s still in existence online as well as a slew of other helpful links and resources. There's a Blake biography, a huge bibliography, a concordance, etc. It almost gives us butterflies. You can view the illustrations, zoom them, find descriptions of them – it’s just great. With all Blake, his illustrations are incredibly important to the interpretation of the text, so don’t pass up the chance to check this out!
The William Blake Archive page for "The Tyger." Check out the illustration, especially the expression on the Tyger's face. Blake was a very skilled painter and the rather content, tame look on the Tyger’s face is no accident – what do you think this means? Also, take a look at the Tyger from the other versions of the poem (select an edition in the box below the image and click "compare") – notice how it changes!