I have been covering William Blake’s ‘The Tyger’ with my Y11 class this week. Like many English teachers, I teach the companion poem ‘The Lamb’ at the same time, using the similarities and differences between the two to develop and deepen understanding. Having just finished teaching Of Mice and Men to my Y10 class, I was struck by some powerful similarities that are worth exporing1.
An obvious place to begin are the texts in which the two poems were printed: ‘The Lamb’ in Songs of Innocence (1789) and ‘The Tyger’ in Songs of Experience (1794). These titles encapsulate the fundamental difference between two. The lamb is an idealised embodiment of innocence while the tiger encapsulates the predatory world that we experience throughout life.
In his earlier poem, Blake describes the lamb in idyllic terms as being ‘little’ with ‘clothing of delight’ and ‘such a tender voice’ that ‘all the vales rejoice’. Even the setting is somewhat Edenic and, though quite different to the opening of Of Mice and Men, serves the same function as the opening scene in Steinbeck’s novel by creating a perfect setting in which to place innocent, yet naive, dreams and characters. The second stanza – in which the child narrator answers the central question of ‘Who made thee?’ – draws an intrinsic connection between the lamb in the poem and Jesus, the Lamb of God. The triumvirate of the child Christ, the child narrator and the lamb are presented as embodiments of purity and innocence, being ‘meek’ and ‘mild’. Yet Blake makes it clear that ‘I a child & thou a lamb / We are called by his name’. Here the poet implies that the child and lamb are somewhat imperfect reflections of Jesus, yet who are named by Jesus and also ‘called’ by him. This is not only that they reflect the purity of Jesus but also that he calls them forward to follow his ways.
In my most recent reading of this, I found my mind making emphatic links here to Lennie in Of Mice and Men. His naivety and innocence – much like that of the child and the lamb – is called towards his own version of heaven, crystallised by Steinbeck in the dream of the farm. Like the lamb and the child, frozen in eternal innocence in Blake’s poem, Lennie is also incapable of changing. His mental disabilities ensure that he is also frozen in a state of naivety.
‘The Tyger’, then, is Blake’s counterpart, embodying innocence’s opposite – experience – through the ‘fearful symmetry’ of the tiger. The recurring images of fire (‘burning bright’, ‘the fire of thine eyes’ etc.) are fascinating when contrasted to ‘The Lamb’. As astute readers will identify, the extended metaphor throughout ‘The Tyger’ is that of God as blacksmith, hammering out the form and character of the tiger from the fire and unleashing its destructive – though equally natural – force upon the earth. The implication in the line ‘Did he who made the lamb make thee?’ is that the threat and power of the tiger is the necessary counterbalance to the lamb in the world. Blake’s tiger is seductive like Curley’s wife yet dangerous like Curley himself. Together, they create a truly destructive force.
Whether you read these texts in a religious or secular light, you cannot escape from seeing the validity of this. The Edenic purity of the lamb and/or innocence is juxtaposed with with hellish fire of the tiger/experience. In this way, Lennie’s naivety is contrasted to the reality of the world he inhabits (embodied by Curley and his wife) and which he ultimately cannot survive. Pure innocence or naivety has no place in a world such as ours (or that of any human society).
My mind initially then made the connection between the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross and George’s shooting of Lennie. Is this a comparable event? I thought. The intrinsic difference is that Lennie is like the chid: an approximation of perfection in his innocence but ultimately and inescapably human. Whereas Jesus’ sacrifice cleansed and purified humanity because of the divine nature of his embodiment of an ideal (whether viewing the bible religiously or symbolically), Lennie is sacrificed as a reminder that such naivety and innocence must be sacrificed in order to survive in the world.
As such, both Blake and Steinbeck tell us something important about the nature of innocence and experience. We are the naive and innocent lamb. Through the terror of the world we gain experience. In order to survive in the world, we must sacrifice our innocence and naivety else we cannot live successfully. Yet we cannot also become the tiger. To give ourselves completely to the fire is to become destructive and consuming. Much like the Phoenix, we must fully understand the potential of the fire/tiger within ourselves and the world around us. Not only that, but we must pass through this fire and experience it to be able to live fully. It is only by fully understanding what hell is that heaven can be reached. Likewise, it is only by fully understanding the potential cruelty of the world and the tigers that lie in wait that we can become fully human.
A Christ that does not confront the embodiment of evil in Satan would not be a fully redemptive figure but remain weak. To realise our full selves, we must experience all the world has to offer and rebuild ourselves with this knowledge.
1. Blake’s poems can be found on the Poetry Foundation website