Please offer a critical appreciation of William Blake's poem "The Tyger."

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vangoghfan | College Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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I appreciate (pun intended) your interest in a “critical appreciation” of William Blake’s poem “The Tyger.”  Too often these days, there is such a strong stress on extracting “meaning” from a poem that there is too little emphasis on appreciating a poem’s skill, craftsmanship, and beauty.  If Blake’s primary purpose had been to express a particular “meaning,” he could easily have written an essay.  Instead, he chose to write a poem – a use of language in which writers call strong attention to language itself.

Therefore, in trying to answer your question, I will try to call attention to some of the specific literary devices used in this poem and will be concerned only secondarily with the poem’s “meaning.” Of course, literary techniques cannot be divorced from literary meaning; form and content and finally inseparable. Nevertheless, let’s try to concentrate here on your word “appreciation.”  There is much indeed to appreciate in this poem, including the following:

  • The heavy alliteration of line 1: “Tyger! Tyger! burning bright!
  • The ominous imagery of line 2: “In the forests of the night . . . .”
  • The fact that the next two lines do not merely make a statement but rather pose a question that forces the reader to think:

What immortal hand or eye

Could frame thy fearful symmetry? (3-4)

  • The fact that the next two lines (5-6) echo the structure of lines 3 and 4 (both sets of lines are two-line questions), thus contributing to the poem’s unity and symmetry.
  • The fact that the questions become shorter and more rapid in lines 6-7, thus contributing to the increasingly urgent pace of the poem.
  • The fact that line 9 is nicely balanced in structure: “And what shoulder & what art . . . .”
  • The fact that Blake in line 10 uses assonance, just as he elsewhere uses alliteration: “Could twist the sinews of thy heart . . . .”
  • The fact that lines 9-10 and 11-12 are balanced pairs of questions that look back to the similar balance of lines 3 and 4 and also lines 5 and 6, not to mention the different kind of balance achieved in the single-line questions of lines 7 and 8.
  • The fact that line 12 echoes the structure of line 9 and thus gives an even greater sense of balance, order, and symmetry to the poem than it had already achieved.
  • The way the flood of short, urgent questions (such as those in line 13) contribute to the rapid rhythm of the poem.
  • The way lines 15-16 combine two earlier kinds of question-asking (brief and longer).
  • The way lines 17-18 provide a bit of a break from all the questions, so that the poem does not seem monotonous and predictable.
  • The symmetry of lines 19-20.
  • The way the final stanza echoes the opening stanza (thus adding to the poem’s symmetry) while also making a suggestive and significant change (from “Could” to “Dare” [4, 24]).

This kind of close reading of the poem helps call attention to many of the features of the work that make it a piece of literature, not merely a propagandistic expression of a pre-packaged idea.

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