Dare We Aspire: An analysis of “The Lamb” and “The Tyger” by William Blake

This is a non-research based paper written for my Age of Romanticism Class. The prompt was “analyze how two poems by William Blake present two contrary states of the human soul.” I choose to do an unconventional reading of a VERY conventional pairing.

The Romantic Era of English literature spans the period of time between the French Revolution to the beginning of the reign of Queen Victoria (which obviously heralds the arrival of the Victorian Era.) The best known Romantics are probably William Blake, John Keats, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, William Wordsworth, Sir Walter Scott, and Jane Austen. Austen was born an era too early, as it is the Victorian Era that gave rise to female novelists, all of whom were inspired by the work of Austen. The Romantic Era is known for poetry that uses natural elements as the subject, a direct response to the unnatural world London had become: This was the dawning of the Industrial Revolution.

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When reading Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience by William Blake, the question that arises is not so much which contrary states of the human soul are presented, but how they are manifested. The poems in Innocence and Experience all present a state of being linked with the title of their respective collection, and “The Lamb” and “The Tyger” represent an innocent and an experienced view of creation and existence. When paired together, these poems illustrate the evolution of perspective in regards to the origin of all things where the individual must first ponder their own origin before they can reflect on the origins of things beyond themselves. This contemplation of external forces, a search for answers to unanswerable questions is innate, a characteristic of the human soul present from the earliest stages of development that is honed, but never mastered throughout the course of life. The human mind is made to grow indefinitely, never to reach a point of complete understanding, always questioning that which it does not understand.

The majority of the poems in Innocence and Experience present their message under an explicitly religious motif. In choosing a lamb for the subject, Blake immediately establishes this poem of innocence as a religious allegory. Spoken by a child, “The Lamb” begins with a simple question, “Little Lamb who made thee/ Dost thou know who made thee?” (1-2) and ends with the answer that God made thee, for “he is called by thy name, / For he calls himself a Lamb” (13-14). The simplicity of the structure highlights the innocence of the subject being addressed as well as the innocence of the speaker, and presents an uplifting message of a divine creator who is also a protector, one the speaker of the poem can call on to bless the helpless lamb.

Blake establishes ‘The Lamb” as an incontrovertible work of religious meaning in choosing the most common of Christ allegories for his subject. Why then does he not entitle the poem in Songs of Experience “The Lion” rather than “The Tiger?” It would appear that “The Tyger” aims to purposefully separate itself from the strictly Christian interpretation of “The Lamb” by using a subject unaligned with any established allegory. By making this bold choice, Blake makes “The Tyger” a poem strictly about the contemplation of a creator, not the creator. The “immortal eye” capable of framing a fearful symmetry becomes unnamed and unknown, the poem an agnostic musing by a speaker as versed in Greek mythology as he is in weapons forging. These are the words of one who has seen much in order to conclude that he knows little. “The Tyger” has no answers for its many questions, reflecting the paradox that the more one learns, the less they seem to know.

Fire becomes the most prevalent image in describing the tiger, which is “burning bright / in the forests of the night” (1-2) and also asked, “In what distant deeps or skies, / Burt the fire of thine eyes?” (5-6). The tiger is described as machine or weapon-like, not created from dust but forged by flame:

What the hammer? what the chain,

In what furnace was they brain?

What the anvil? what dread grasp,

Dare its deadly terrors clasp! (13-16)

Where “The Lamb” presents calm images of the young and fragile and the meekness of early life, the hellish imagery of “The Tyger” observes a power far greater than that of speaker, a creature of the night that cannot be controlled by mortal forces and could only be conceived by an “immortal eye.”

The simplistic structure and peaceful message of “The Lamb” is, in “The Tyger,” juxtaposed against images of a fearsome creature whose existence baffles the speaker. Where “The Lamb” soothes the reader with images of delightfully soft wool, tender voices, meek and mildness, rejoicing, and blessings, “The Tyger” chooses twisting sinews, fiery furnaces forging hammers and anvils, and the disastrous exploits of prominent figures in Greek mythology to form the tapestry of its narrative. The use of this contrasting imagery represents the contrasting points of view of the states of being Blake is describing. An innocent mind, one in the earliest inceptions of development, focuses its cerebral musing on subjects of menial intellect to the experienced. The speaker of this poem appears to have just been taught the message of the Lamb of God, the allegorical aspects of the story of Christ. But allegory is a hazy concept to a child, so the speaker of the poem addresses and examines the qualities of a literal lamb and applies them to Christ, the irony being that in doing so, the figurative message becomes clear to his or her developing intellect. In realizing, “I a child  & thou a lamb, / We are called by his name” (13-14), the speaker has made a very simple connection between words and concepts, but one of immense importance to his own self-awareness.

The speaker in “The Tyger” makes no reference to his or her self and draws absolutely no conclusive observations. How the speaker views the tiger is entirely open to interpretation. Is it observed with awe and reverence, or fear and loathing? As a work of remarkable beauty, or a horrendous violation against nature? The reader is unsure, and so, perhaps, is the speaker. This imbroglio of emotion surrounding the subject of the poem reflects the views of many an experiences wanderer of the world, a mixture of compassion and cynicism, artist and realist, someone desperate to see hope behind horror and peace behind war. The tiger is simply an object impossible to define, a metaphor for all in the world that is controversial, all that is baffling to the most advanced of minds and all things defined by the point of view awarded by specific experiences. The poem’s denouement essentially concludes that there is no level of worldly experience that can answer the burning questions surrounding the existence of all that is beautiful and powerful. The responsibility lies with the creator, and if that creator be the same creator of the Lamb, then the speaker of “The Tyger” either respects of abhors his daring. The reader is unsure, and so, perhaps is the speaker:

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? (17-20)

The human soul’s ability to ask unanswerable questions is perhaps its greatest source of torment. In “The Lamb,” William Blake shows us that we emerge into this world prepared to analyze literal and symbolic connections in the world around us, and to ask unanswerable questions, fully equipped to find allegorical meaning in the existence of all things. But though “The Tyger,” he shows us that this fundamental aspect of our nature, a quality that sets us apart from the very creatures these speakers analyze, will eventually lead us to a state of perpetual uncertainty about the world around us. But this is not a negative aspect of ourselves, as a truly open and experienced mind is able to evolve to a point of surrender, the ability to accept and appreciate the questions that perpetually elude an answer. “The Tyger” seems to suggest that this surrender is possible only if the soul entertains the possibility of a mysterious force beyond themselves that forges the flames of creation, that which cannot be explained being the work of an artist of equal mystery. As learned from the woeful tale of Icarus, striving for answers beyond our grasp ends in disaster. A fulfilled soul, and an experienced soul,  is one that asks questions without the need answers, knowing that analytical reasoning and thoughtful contemplation are of far greater lasting value than conclusive knowledge, for when one has nothing left to learn, one has nothing left to live for.

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