William Blake’s “The Tyger” from his Songs of Innocence & Songs of Experience is a poem about “making”, or artistic creation if you will. Using Aristotle’s understanding of poiesis (as the making that ‘brings forth’ and is ‘responsible for’) and its relation to the four causes we will give a view upon this poem and attempt to see and to hear and to understand the world that it ‘reveals’ to us.
In the first stanza of the poem, the ‘tyger’ is spelt with a “y” and we must ask “why the ‘y’?” and not an ‘I’ (‘eye’?). To simply say “that’s the way Blake spelled tiger in his time” is to stop our minds from having to think about the poem. The error of the spelling alerts us to be alert, to be awake: we are not dealing with our pre-conceptions of what tigers are in this poem. “Tyger” is repeated, meaning that there are two; but in Blake’s print for the poem we have another tiger which would appear to indicate that there are actually three tigers present.
If we think about the poem “The Lamb” from Songs of Innocence (and we will not question that this poem is the ‘contrary’ or the negation of the state to the poem that is given to us in “The Tyger”), we can see that there are three lambs present: The Lamb=Christ, the lamb=child (the speaker of the poem), and the lamb to whom the child is speaking. Each is identified as being one. In “The Lamb”, the child has all the answers to the rhetorical questions asked; in “The Tyger”, there are no answers to the questions of the speaker of the poem and the ‘tyger’ itself remains concealed in the ‘forests of the night’, even though he is ‘burning bright’ is these forests. The burning brightness of the fire is this poem is a fire that gives heat (suffering in Blake), but no light.
In the poem “The Tyger” we have a Tyger=the fire, a tyger=the maker or the artist who attempts to seize the fire that dwells in the ‘deeps’ or ‘skies’ and is unknown for it dwells ‘in the forests of the night’, and the tiger that we know is the product of Nature.
The Tyger that is the Fire remains a mystery even in its bright burning for what has no ‘light’ cannot be seen to be understood; its Fire belongs to the “forests of the night” and is, in essence, ‘error’ or untruth in Blake’s mythology. It is this fire which the second Tyger seizes in order to make all the things that human beings make. The second tyger must dwell also in the forests of the night if he is to seize the Fire that is present there. But these forests of the night are not the real dwelling place of the second tyger. The third ‘tiger’ is revealed to us in Blake’s print. The second tyger is the mediator who attempts to hold the natural tiger and the Fire of the Tyger in ‘fearful symmetry’. Symmetry is a mathematical operation, or transformation, that results in the same figure as the original figure (or its mirror image). It is everywhere, in the sciences, in the arts, in architecture, in nature, and in our everyday life. The term symmetry is used both in the arts and in the sciences. In Blake, this holding of the ‘fearful symmetry’ is both a ‘daring’ and a knowing framing (“could”) that attempts to grasp the fearfulness of the Tyger. The double-fold grasping is both hubris (the allusion to Icarus or to Lucifer, who both fell due to excess pride) and a heroic deed (but also hubristic) in aid of humanity (the allusion to Prometheus who dared to seize the Olympian fire of Zeus). Both of these ‘heroic’ acts are “revolution” or the attempt to overthrow what are seen as oppressive powers. Technology is ‘revolutionary’ in this sense that it is conceived as the knowing and the making that relieves the oppressiveness of the human condition (the Promethean aspect of the act). For Blake all artists are the “immortals”; there is no reference to a god here except in the allusions that are used.
But what a strange tiger it is that is presented to us in the print; and what a strange tyger remains burning bright in the forests of the night! It would appear that, unlike in the poem “The Lamb” where the three ‘lambs’ are joined into one by ‘the name’, the three ‘tigers’ here are not united for their naming is different. They are held together in a ‘fearful symmetry’ rather than in a ‘joyful symmetry’ such as that shown to us in the poem “The Lamb”. It is this which distinguishes the Songs of Innocence from the Songs of Experience.
Aristotle distinguishes between two kinds of making or poiesis: 1) that making which human beings carry out through the use of tools (such as shoes, handicrafts, sculptures, etc.) and the making of laws, conventions, societies ; and 2) physis or the making of Nature, a making that is brought forth out of itself such as flowers and tigers. The first making, that making of human beings, is brought about ‘in another’. It is called by the Greeks techne and it is a ‘knowing one’s way about in something’, or ‘being skilled at’. So a shoemaker is someone who knows his way about the making of shoes. He is a techne. The poet, too, is also a techne in that he is skilled in making poems, or in a most general way, the poet is skilled in the naming of things. For Aristotle, poetry is the naming of things; and it was because of this naming of things that poetry was considered, for the Greeks, the highest of the arts. The making done by human beings requires both the hand and eye (but the eye that be-holds and grasps is prior to the hand that grasps, although Blake places the eye after the hand in the line of the poem; and this, too, reflects the ‘fearful symmetry’ of the poem. Something is not in sync, if you like. Something is out of joint).
In Blake’s poem, the making is a technological making deriving from the framing that sees with the ‘eye of the tyger’, if one may use such a phrase. The seeing is also a grasping. It is the attempt to grasp, seize the Tyger, to seize the fire and gain control and power over the Tyger. This occurs at the beginning of the third stanza.
The ‘shoulder’ and ‘the art’ of the second tyger ‘twists the sinews ‘of the ‘heart’ of the first Tyger. Hearts are muscles; sinews tie the muscles to the ‘frame’ that is the skeleton of the animal. Here, however, the heart itself is the sinew that does the tying to the frame. The heart that is the comportment of the artist towards what is, and that heart is a tying to a frame. For Blake, the artist is the “immortal hand or eye” that frames the ‘fearful symmetry’ of the tyger to the Tyger. It is only after the heart has been tied to a frame that it can begin to beat; the spirit (fire) gives life (air) to matter for Blake. We can see how the four elements: earth, air, fire, water are tied together in the poem (“deeps”, “skies”, “fire”, and nature/earth “forests of the night”). This tying to a frame is the unification of both the Tyger and the tyger and its unification is in a seeing, grasping and making (hand or eye).
But the making of this tiger in the poem is not the making of Nature. The tiger of the print given to us by Blake is not the tyger that is made in the poem. The tiger of the print is not made with anvils, hammers and chains and its ‘brain’ is not to be found or made in a furnace, the ‘fire’ that is present in the poem and is a man-made fire along with the fire that is in the eye of the Tyger in the ‘forest of the night’. The end products of technology are not the essence of technology. The tiger in the print is more of a “pussycat” than the beast that occupies the top of the food chain in Nature. Certainly, if Blake wanted to present to us a more ferocious beast closer to that presented in the poem, he could have done so. His other work demonstrates his ability to present horrifying objects and things to us.
This poem is not about, as is traditionally understood, the question of evil and its unanswerability. It is not about the question “If God is good how is it possible for Him to make the tiger?” The Tyger and the Lamb are made by human beings through the manner in which they be-hold the world. The “be-holding” is in the realm of possibilities. The “evil” is present in the beholding itself and is present prior to its manifestation in actions. God does not make the Tyger of this poem anymore than He makes “the Satanic mills” of the Industrial Revolution. As is shown in the writing on Imagination as a Way of Knowing, the be-holding is the desolation or nihilism that is in the grounding of the ‘single vision’ that is ‘Newton’s sleep’. To ‘be-hold’ is the grasping (hold) that brings to presence (be) the things that are. The beauty that is in the eye of the beholder is not the beauty that is in Blake. Although the bringing of truth into the beautiful is solely and exclusively the work of human beings through their ‘works’, human beings are not at the centre of art. Art is in and beyond the individual.