A revolutionary Tyger

Blake's illustrated version of The Tyger. Click for full-size version.Kate Chisholm’s radio review in this week’s Spectator looks at various programmes marking the 250th anniversary of the birth of William Blake (see previous post).

I’m not sure that Spectator readers needed to be told at quite such length that, hey gosh wow, William Blake wasn’t in fact a cosy, conservative English nationalist, but was actually a radical dissenter and revolutionary, don’tcha know. However, I was interested to discover that “The Tyger” isn’t about tigers:

When he wrote ‘Tyger tyger’, often thought of now as a poem for children, [Blake] was not talking about the dangerous magnetism of the almost mythological beast (tigers were kept in the menagerie at the Tower of London) but the perverted power of the French revolutionaries. Blake was horrified by the September Massacres of 1792 in Paris during which the French allowed the Terror to be unleashed against their own people.

This also explains why Blake’s illustration for this poem shows “a somewhat mournful-looking creature; powerful, yes, but dominated on the page by a much more virile tree” (perhaps intended to evoke the guillotine?):

His ‘tyger’ has lost his God-given charisma. In Blake’s own time readers of the poem would have made the connection, ‘tygers’ being the name given to the Parisian mob by the Times newspaper when reporting from the riots.

A good reminder of how much meaning one misses by reading Blake without the illustrations.

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3 Responses to A revolutionary Tyger

  1. Nick says:

    A text that was written around the same time as The Tyger was ‘The Marriage of Heaven and Hell which includes the famous maxim ‘The tygers of wrath are wiser than the horses of instruction’. This suggests that Blake’s response to revolutionary violence was ambivalent at least.

  2. peter says:

    In my ignorance,I had always thought that the poem was about the nature of God, who in Blake’s view is not only loving and gentle but also terrible and cruel – a difficult fork for Christians! And all the time it was about the French Revolution. Always learning!

  3. John H says:

    In my ignorance,I had always thought that the poem was about the nature of God, who in Blake’s view is not only loving and gentle but also terrible and cruel – a difficult fork for Christians!

    I’d also assumed that was what the poem was about: a critique of the sentimental 18th century theology that taught (in the teeth of the evidence) that “God tempers the wind to the shorn lamb”.

    And I’m sure that theme is still there in the poem, but when one asks what it was that led Blake to move from Songs of Innocence to Songs of Experience, the link with the changing fortunes of the French Revolution is a compelling one.

    As for things that Christians find “a difficult fork”, bear in mind that the Bible itself includes the following words of God through the prophet Isaiah (Isaiah 45:7):

    I form light and create darkness,
    I make well-being and create calamity,
    I am the Lord, who does all these things.

    So a difficult fork, but not one that should take Christians by surprise.

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