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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 665

“The Tyger,” from Songs of Innocence and of Experience (1794), is probably Blake’s most famous poem. Its artful simplicity and pounding repetitions make a strong impression when the poem is read aloud. The meaning of “The Tyger,” however, is not so easy to ascertain, and it has provoked a wide range of interpretations. The poem consists of six quatrains, each of which asks at least one question about the nature of the tiger’s creator. None of the questions are answered. The central question of the whole poem appears in the fifth quatrain, “Did he who made the Lamb make thee?” This question recalls the poem “The Lamb,” from the same collection, in which the question, “Little Lamb, who made thee?” is answered clearly. The lamb is made by Christ and is an obvious symbol of the mild and gentle aspects of Creation, which are easy to associate with a God of love. However, what about the more fearsome, destructive aspects of Creation, symbolized by the tiger? Do they proceed from the same God? Under what circumstances? Is the tiger only a product of the Fall of humankind? Or are there, perhaps, two Gods?

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Crucial to interpretation are the first two lines of the fifth quatrain: “When the stars threw down their spears,/ And water’d heaven with their tears.” This event appears to take place, from the evidence of the following line (“Did he smile his work to see?”), at the moment of the tiger’s creation. It may be a reference to the fall of the rebel angels in Milton’s Paradise Lost: “they astonished all resistance lost,/ All courage; down their idle weapons dropped.” In Christian tradition, the stars are said to be the tears of the fallen angels. In The Four Zoas, Blake uses a phrase almost identical to the one in “The Tyger” in the context of Urizen’s account of the Fall: “The stars threw down their spears and fled naked away/ We fell.” In Blake’s mythology, the immediate result of the Fall was the creation of the physical world. This cluster of associations suggests that the tiger is a product only of the Fall, a suggestion that is strengthened by the phrase “forests of the night” in the first quatrain, which symbolizes Blake’s fallen world of Experience.

Yet this does not seem to provide the whole answer to the riddle of the poem. The fire that burns brightly, if destructively, in the state of Experience is still the divine fire, the stupendous creative energy that can frame the “fearful symmetry” of the tiger. In the fallen world, however, it cannot be fully appreciated for what it is. In quatrain 3, for example, the awestruck speaker lapses into incoherence as he tries to fathom the mystery of the fierce aspect of Creation. As Blake puts it in one of the proverbs in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, “The roaring of lions, the howling of wolves, the raging of the stormy sea, and the destructive sword, are portions of eternity, too great for the eye of man.” The speaker in “The Tyger” cannot understand that, if there is a lamb, there must also be a tiger; opposites are necessary for the full manifestation of divine creativity.

Yet another possibility is that Blake was drawing on the teachings of the Gnostics, who flourished in the early years of the Christian era. For the Gnostics, the created world was a dark prison; it was not created by the true God but by an inferior power, the demiurge, who was often likened to the God of the Old Testament. If Blake indeed had this in mind—and elsewhere in his work he expresses a very similar view—the answer to the poem’s central question, “Did he who made the Lamb make thee?” would be “no.” The tiger would then be associated with the Old Testament God of fire and judgment, not the New Testament God of love, embodied in Christ.

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Themes