The poem “The Tyger”, written by William Blake (Kirszner and Mandell, 2013), explores the idea of the sublime, which involves the juxtaposition of both pleasure and fear to create a sensation of awe. In the poem, Blake discusses the magnificence of the tiger as one of God’s creations. Throughout the poem, Blake uses the poetic elements of metaphor and personification to show how the natural world inspires him to feel the sublime as a reflection of God’s power.
Blake’s use of metaphor to describe the awe-inspiring tiger focuses on the magnificence of the animal. In the first stanza of the poem, for example, he begins by offering a direct address in the form of a metaphor: “Tyger Tyger, burning bright” (Kirszner and Mandell, 2013, p. 1146). Here the metaphor compares the tiger to a flame or a fire, suggesting at once both beauty and danger. Just as a fire can be mesmerizing, it can also be enormously destructive, eluding the control of human beings and surpassing them in both beauty and power; by drawing this comparison Blake draws the reader’s attention not only to the splendour of the animal but also its inhuman and untameable power.
The comparison is extended in an even more direct manner in the second stanza, when Blake describes “the fire of thine eyes” (Kirszner and Mandell, 2013, p. 1146). This metaphor once again draws attention to the tiger’s inhuman power and beauty by comparing him to a fire. By focusing on the tiger’s eyes – the portion of the anatomy which traditionally reveals the personality – the comparison to fire again highlights the alien nature of the tiger, which is fundamentally different to a human being and therefore both fascinating and fearful. Just like the previous image of the tiger as a fire, however, this metaphor portrays the tiger as both mesmerizingly exquisite and horrifically terrifying. The metaphor invites the readers to meet the tiger’s gaze, thereby heightening the impression of awe that Blake is creating.
As the poem progresses, Blake takes the metaphor of fire further, in suggesting that the tiger is a forged artefact: the process of forging metal brings fire under human control, and this comparison therefore implies the immense power that must have been needed to create such a magnificent animal. The speaker of the poem asks: “What the hammer? what the chain, / In what furnace was thy brain? / What the anvil?” (Kirszner and Mandell, 2013, p. 1146). This series of questions metaphorically suggests that the tiger is not only powerful and inhuman, but is also a construction, just as human beings were said to have been constructed by God from the clay of the earth. Blake’s metaphor makes use of the terminology of blacksmithing to remind readers of this biblical story of the creation of man, once again suggesting the tiger’s superior strength as metal is compared to clay.
This metaphor in turn brings Blake around to the description of the tiger’s maker, and in the following stanza he compares the tiger’s maker to a blacksmith: “What the hand, dare seize the fire?” (Kirszner and Mandell, 2013, p. 1146). In this metaphor, God is compared to a blacksmith capable of taming and controlling this fire which for a human would be utterly uncontrollable. This comparison, in following on from the previous extended metaphor of the fire and the forge, emphasises the colossal strength and power of God, the maker, who has been capable of wielding such potent tools. The line “what shoulder, and what art” implies both strength and skill: it provides a physicality to the description of God which makes it easier for the reader, as a human being, to compare his own physical abilities to those needed to “forge” the tiger, and to see how much greater that strength must have been. By comparing God to a blacksmith and the tiger to a forged tool or artefact, Blake is emphasising the awe-inspiring power of God.
Finally, Blake uses personification towards the end of the poem to suggest that this sublime realisation of God’s power and humanity’s inferiority is felt not only by himself, but universally. He writes, “the stars threw down their spears / And water’d heaven with their tears” (Kirszner and Mandell, 2013, p. 1146). In these lines the stars are personified as heavenly beings, making them seem as remote, alien, and superior to humans as the tiger is; however, the imagery of water is in direct contrast to the previous metaphors of fire, and suggest sympathy for the human beings who will have to live alongside these fearsome creatures. The sorrow and implied disapproval of these personified heavenly beings for God’s work call to mind the angels who rebelled against God and were thrown from heaven, suggesting that God can be both harsh and punitive, as well as kind and merciful; this dual description echoes the central metaphor of the poem of God as a blacksmith, suggesting that God created a world not only full of beauty and nurturing to his creations, but also full of danger and violence, where his creations were free to conflict with each other.
As can be seen, then, Blake uses metaphor and personification throughout the poem to describe his feelings of awe at contemplating the overwhelming power that must have been needed to create an animal as magnificent and terrifying as the tiger. The metaphor draws the reader into an identification with God in such a manner as to emphasise his inferior strength, ability, and understanding.
- Blake, W. (2013). “The Tyger.” In L. G. Kirszner and S. R. Mandell (eds.), Compact Literature: Reading, Reacting, Writing, 8th Edition (p. 1146). Boston, MA: Cengage Learning.