The Tiger
A Poem by William Blake (1757-1827)
A Study Guide
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Works of William Blake
..Study Guide Prepared by By Michael J. Cummings...© 2003

Type of Work and Year of Publication

"The Tiger," originally called "The Tyger," is a lyric poem focusing on the nature of God and his creations. It was published in 1794 in a collection entitled Songs of Experience. Modern anthologies often print "The Tiger" alongside an earlier Blake poem, "The Lamb," published in 1789 in a collection entitled Songs of Innocence.


The poem is in trochaic tetrameter with catalexis at the end of each line. Here is an explanation of these technical terms: 

    Tetrameter Line: a poetry line usually with eight syllables. 
    Trochaic Foot: A pair of syllables--a stressed syllable followed by an unstressed syllable. 
    Catalexis: The absence of a syllable in the final foot in a line. In Blake’s poem, an unstressed syllable is absent in the last foot of each line. Thus, every line has seven syllables, not the conventional eight. 
The following illustration using the first two lines of the poem demonstrates tetrameter with four trochaic feet, the last one catalectic:
    TIger,..|..TIger,..|..BURN ing..|..BRIGHT
    IN the..|..FOR ests..|..OF the..|..NIGHT
Notice that the fourth foot in each line eliminates the conventional unstressed syllable (catalexis). However, this irregularity in the trochaic pattern does not harm the rhythm of the poem. In fact, it may actually enhance it, allowing each line to end with an accented syllable that seems to mimic the beat of the maker’s hammer on the anvil. For a detailed discussion of meter and the various types of feet, click here.
Structure and Rhyme Scheme

The poem consists of six quatrains. (A quatrain is a four-line stanza.) Each quatrain contains two couplets. (A couplet is a pair of rhyming lines). Thus we have a twenty-four-line poem with twelve couplets and six stanzas–a neat, balanced package. The question in the final stanza repeats (except for one word, dare) the wording of the first stanza, perhaps suggesting that the question Blake raises will continue to perplex thinkers ad infinitum. 

Examples Figures of Speech and Allusions

Alliteration: Tiger, tiger, burning bright (line 1);  frame thy fearful symmetry? (line 4) 
Metaphor: Comparison of the tiger and his eyes to fire.
Anaphora: Repetition of what at the beginning of sentences or clauses. Example: What dread hand and what dread feet? / What the hammer? what the chain?
Allusion: Immortal hand or eye: God or Satan
Allusion: Distant deeps or skies: hell or heaven



The Tiger: Evil (or Satan)
The Lamb: Goodness (or God)
Distant Deeps: Hell
Skies: Heaven


The Existence of Evil

“The Tiger” presents a question that embodies the central theme: Who created the tiger? Was it the kind and loving God who made the lamb? Or was it Satan?  Blake presents his question in lines 3 and 4:

    What immortal hand or eye 
    Could frame thy fearful symmetry?
Blake realizes, of course, that God made all the creatures on earth. However, to express his bewilderment that the God who created the gentle lamb also created the terrifying tiger, he includes Satan as a possible creator while raising his rhetorical questions, notably the one he asks in lines 5 and 6: 
    In what distant deeps or skies
    Burnt the fire of thy eyes?
Deeps appears to refer to hell and skies to heaven. In either case, there would be fire--the fire of hell or the fire of the stars.

Of course, there can be no gainsaying that the tiger symbolizes evil, or the incarnation of evil, and that the lamb (Line 20) represents goodness, or Christ. Blake's inquiry is a variation on an old philosophical and theological question: Why does evil exist in a universe created and ruled by a benevolent God?  Blake provides no answer. His mission is to reflect reality in arresting images. A poet’s first purpose, after all, is to present the world and its denizens in language that stimulates the aesthetic sense; he is not to exhort or moralize. Nevertheless, the poem does stir the reader to deep thought. Here is the tiger, fierce and brutal in its quest for sustenance; there is the lamb, meek and gentle in its quest for survival. Is it possible that the same God who made the lamb also made the tiger? Or was the tiger the devil's work?

The Awe and Mystery of Creation and the Creator

The poem is more about the creator of the tiger than it is about the tiger intself. In contemplating the terrible ferocity and awesome symmetry of the tiger, the speaker is at a loss to explain how the same God who made the lamb could make the tiger. Hence, this theme: humans are incapable of fully understanding the mind of God and the mystery of his handiwork. 

The Tiger
By William Blake

Tiger, tiger, burning bright
In the forests of the night, 
What immortal hand or eye 
Could frame thy fearful symmetry? 

Stanza 1 Summary

What immortal being created this terrifying creature which, with its perfect proportions (symmetry), is an awesome killing machine? 

In what distant deeps or skies 
Burnt the fire of thine eyes? 
On what wings dare he aspire? 
What the hand dare seize the fire?

Stanza 2 Summary

Was it created in hell (distant deeps) or in heaven (skies)? If the creator had wings, how could he get so close to the fire in which the tiger was created? How could he work with so blazing a fire?

And 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? 

Stanza 3 Summary

What strength (shoulder) and craftsmanship (art) could make the tiger's heart? What being could then stand before it (feet) and shape it further (hand)?

What the hammer? what the chain? 
In what furnace was thy brain? 
What the anvil? What dread grasp 
Dare its deadly terrors clasp? 

Stanza 4 Summary

What kind of tool (hammer) did he use to fashion the tiger in the forge fire? What about the chain connected to the pedal which the maker used to pump the bellows? What of the heat in the furnace and the anvil on which the maker hammered out his creation? How did the maker muster the courage to grasp the tiger? 

When the stars threw down their spears, 
And water'd heaven with their tears, 
Did He smile His work to see? 
Did He who made the lamb make thee? 

Stanza 5 Summary

When the stars cast their light on the new being and the clouds cried, was the maker pleased with his creation?

Tiger, tiger, burning bright 
In the forests of the night, 
What immortal hand or eye 
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?

Stanza 6 Summary

The poet repeats the the central question of the poem, stated in Stanza 1. However, he changes could (line 4) to dare (line 24). This is a significant change, for the poet is no longer asking who had the capability of creating the tiger but who dared to create so frightful a creature.