The Tyger and the Sublime

A part of the wonderous collections of poetry in William Blake’s The Songs of Innocence and of Experience, the poem within Songs of Experience titled “The Tyger” critiques the malicious and devious nature of man as surely not being created by the like of an abstractly concrete “he” (l. 19-20). This “he” can be assumed to be a religious figure rather than a man walking the Earth, based solely on line 20 of the poem: “[d]id he who made the lamb make thee?”. The “lamb” refers directly back to a poem found in The Songs of Innocence portion of the collection called “The Lamb,” in which Blake writes about the heavenly-made lamb that is a product of God [using “He” as the reference]. These two related and contrary poems comment on the inculcation of sublime ideals within human nature and that human nature is constantly life-changing. Therefore, with a psychological lens applied to these poems, “The Tyger” tears away from that sublime association with fresh experiences and presents humans, as they gain experience and age, as complex creatures that are no longer sublimely connected to the world but enact on their own volition and knowledge.

In essence, the idea of the sublime is, roughly, about experiencing something that is overwhelming beautiful that it changes the person involved on a spiritual basis and is thought to be a good spiritual awakening—in other words, “the echo of the great soul” as the Longman Anthology writes, incidentally, “The Tyger” doesn’t present the human experience as completely sublime but rather haunting. The third stanza of the poem tells about the tyger’s heart and the coldness that is freezing within it: “[a]nd what shoulder, and what art,/Could twist the sinews of thy heart?/and when thy heart began to beat,/What dread hand? And what dread feet?”. (l. 9-12). The heart is empty and cold, as seen by the imagery of the shoulder, which is typically used to rely on in any hard situation, a steady presence in a person’s life. However, given that the speaker questions what shoulder “could twist” the tyger’s heart sinews imply that the sublime relation to human nature has dissolved and had changed the tyger’s thought on human relations. Also, the consistent use of “dread” throughout the poem feels antithetical to the concept of the sublime, and the speaker makes it known that the tyger is a dreadful creature with much life experience outside of the sublime that makes them a terror and wonder to view.

So forth, there’s implicit fear within the speaker that the tyger is what real people are like during the Industrial age, and they, the speaker cannot fathom this change. Blake uses industrial and mechanical imagery when describing the tyger, leading me to this conclusion. In the fourth stanza, the tyger is being asked what and how were they created: “what the hammer? What the chain?/In what furnace was thy brain made?/What the anvil?…” (l. 13-15). These images strictly contrast those of the sublime, which focuses on the picturesque and the beauty found within the world. So instead of being associated with “suitable for painting,” the tyger is the opposite, or the real version, of the sublime context that isn’t intrinsically positively life-altering (Longman anthology, 34; l. 20). This entirely tears apart from the rapid association typically found in describing people or objects as inherently sublime, even sparking the speaker to reflect upon their fear by repeating the opening stanza as the final stanza. They question whether something immortal could have made something terrifying, just as it could create something so beautiful, like the lamb.

2 thoughts on “The Tyger and the Sublime”

  1. It’s interesting how the poem’s narrator questions the coldness of the tiger’s heart, while also famously describing the tiger as “burning bright.” Comparing the tiger to flames adds to the sense of danger and fear that is built throughout the poem, but it also creates a contradictory character. Perhaps the tiger’s embodiment of this fearful dichotomy mirrors its simultaneously wonderful and terrible image, which, as you argue, complicates its relationship with the sublime.

  2. I think it is interesting how your interpretation looks at the subject of the poem, the tyger, as being a metaphor or symbol for humanity and our complicated relationship with the sublime. I had never thought about this poem that way before, assuming that the tyger was an actual tiger, or more related to nature than to humanity.

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