William Blake's The Tyger Essay

2323 words - 9 pages

William Blake's The Tyger

Terror, in the eighteenth century, was commonly considered the highest manifestation of sublimity. "Indeed," writes Edmund Burke in his Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757), "terror is in all cases whatsoever, either more openly or latently, the ruling principle of the sublime."(1) In Section VII of his aesthetic treatise, Burke tries to explain why this is so: "Whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain, and danger, that is to say, whatever is in any sort terrible, or is conversant about terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror, is a source of the sublime; that is, it is productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling" (39). The chief effect of the sublime, according to Burke, is "astonishment"--"that state of the soul, in which all its motions are suspended, with some degree of horror," and in which "the mind is so entirely filled with its object, that it cannot entertain any other" (57). These effects are produced when we contemplate dangerous objects which we know cannot harm us. Burke finds examples of this that immediately bring William Blake's poem "The Tyger" to mind: "We have continually about us animals of a strength that is considerable, but not pernicious. Amongst these we never look for the sublime: it comes upon us in the gloomy forest, and in the howling wilderness, in the form of the lion, the tiger, the panther, or rhinoceros" (66).

"The Tyger" is, indeed, a poem that celebrates the effects of that sublimity which Burke calls "the concomitant of terror" (66). In this aspect, the poem is reminiscent of one of Blake's Proverbs of 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."(2) Such sublime power cannot be explained; it can only be evoked, as by the questions the Lord asks Job from the whirlwind--a biblical passage frequently referred to in eighteenth-century writings as "amazingly sublime" (Burke 63). This is also the function of the questions that Blake's speaker asks in "The Tyger." "Did he who made the Lamb make thee?"(3) no more demands an explicit answer than "Who hath divided a watercourse for the overflowing of the waters, or a way for the lightning of thunder?" Similarly, Blake's tiger fulfills the same purpose as the culminating image of God's speech to Job, Leviathan: as an embodiment of sublime power it completes the process of raising the speaker's problem out of the realm of ethical discourse inducing an attitude of awe, wonder, and astonishment. But, Blake's song is a far greater statement of the conventional Romantic belief that the terrors of creation have a sublime power that transcends the human perspective. Blake's accomplishment in "The Tyger" is to present this supernatural perspective without relinquishing the human perspective. And although...

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