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.