“Without contraries is no progression. Attraction and Repulsion, Reason and Energy, Love and Hate are necessary to Human existence. From these contraries spring what the religious call Good and Evil. Good is the passive that obeys Reason. Evil is the active springing from Energy. Good is Heaven. Evil is Hell.”
Blake explains, in his book The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, that the contrary nature of god is reflected by all his creation, and that progression in life is impossible without these contraries. This distinction he makes between “angels” and “devils” as it is defined in this text (with his idea of evil conceived as a force with the potential to bring change) can be seen lucidly in his poems as well. Blake’s Songs of Innocence (1789) and Songs of Experience (1794) explore contradictions inherent in human nature, and connect ultimately to religion as well, in the way his quoted text does. The poems ‘The Lamb’ and ‘The Tyger’ specifically are inherently in opposition with each other, presenting different versions of god: the former is reminiscent of the kind, benevolent god and gentle “lamb of God” Christ of the New Testament, as opposed to the latter’s recollection of the vengeful, wrathful god of the Old Testament. Through his Songs therefore Blake pits these contrasts against each other to show man’s journey from a state of innocence to one of experience, in which he ultimately regains innocence but without ignorance; through this evolution, he shows the progress of man’s nature, with both these sides as important aspects to human development.
From the religious perspective, the changing image of god in the poems reflects how religion progresses over time, and so anticipates Blake’s rejection of institutionalised religion in favour of developing his own mythology, growing discontented after gaining Experience and losing the ignorance of the state of Innocence. Thus Blake went through his own journey through the contraries, which are to him the “parallel, co-extensive states of the soul,” as critic Kanav Gupta puts it. Beyond the religious opposition presented before the reader in the poems, they also signify different stages of being, whether consecutive stages of life or two facets of an individual. Similarly in The Marriage, he explores the opposing nature of reason and of energy, believing that two types of people exist: the ‘energetic creators’ and the ‘rational organisers,’ or devils and angels as he calls them. These two facets are rendered in the two collections of Songs, carving out how innocent ignorance develops into experienced maturity, as one grows from lamb to tiger.
While in ‘The Lamb’ Blake presents universal truths in simple language, he poses one rhetorical, unanswered question after another in ‘The Tyger;’ while the lamb embodies a meek, forgiving gentleness, the tiger is a figure of anger and wrath; while a symbol evocative of the New Testament’s kind son of god is seen in ‘The Lamb,’ the enraged god of the Old Testament is represented in ‘The Tyger,’ though some critics see the angel Lucifer instead (Pagliaro). We see these signs in the repetition of “I’ll tell thee” in the former, which indicates the straightforwardness in the worldview during the stage of innocence, whereas the endless questions in the latter going unanswered indicate a state of more despair that comes with experience and a realisation that there are several mysteries in the world that have no solution. “What immortal hand or eye/Could frame thy fearful symmetry?” adds to the undetermined and mysterious persona of the tiger, with the word “could” being replaced by “dare” in the final stanza suggesting that the creator is somehow unavailable. Blake also questions whether the same maker created both the gentle lamb and the strong tiger, suggesting that he previously thought the answer to be no but having now realised they are part of a single system.
The tiger, though a figure of fury, causes destruction that is ultimately corrective, and erases the present system of things to make way for a new (better) world order. The tiger represents a revolutionary force, as suggested by its burning ‘bright,’ and seeks to replace the old structures to bring about a new Jerusalem, a higher state of innocence. Innocence therefore is experience, and the poem resolves this paradox by indicating that the meekness of the lamb, continually exploited (seen in poems like ‘The Chimney Sweeper’ where vulnerable children are unaware of their plight) turns into the powerfulness of the tiger. The symbol of the tiger and the concept of evil are therefore not negative or predatory in Blake’s conception of them, unlike some critics’ interpretation of it as such, in a manner similar to Hindu mythology’s Lord Shiva, who is seen as the destroyer, but only so that he can improve the status quo and bring about change, just as Blake hopes experience will do. It is seen as a cataclysmic force that will bring renewal and annihilate convention (as he was against the hypocrisy of institutionalised religion), through revolution. Later poet Shelley references this in his ‘Ode to the West Wind,’ wherein he talks about the balancing powers of destruction and preservation, in context of Hindu gods Shiva and Vishnu. For both poets, even though experience is initially a ‘loss’ of innocence, it ultimately becomes restorative, and innocence is regained through the new interaction with the world.
For Blake as for Wordsworth, thus, the Fall becomes a fortunate ‘felix culpa,’ since the revolution and better world order is only brought through experience, for which the loss of innocence is necessary. Wordsworth in his poems (‘Tintern Abbey,’ ‘Nutting,’ and ‘Ode to the Intimation of Immortality’ in particular) similarly finds a distancing and loss of imagination as he grows older but finds that this is ultimately fortunate as it helps him forge a deeper, more philosophical bond with nature. Blake’s mythology similarly expressed an apocalyptic vision sought to create an ideal world for which the four Zoas must be balanced; that is, man must be in unity with himself, since the Fall is caused by self-doubt for Blake, when man fails to see his own divinity. To conquer this separateness within the self (seen in breakdown of relationships and the alienation of the individual in his ‘London’), man needs to exercise imagination and break free from the constraints of negatives and prohibitions. Blake’s myth is thus an interior journey, where the human soul attempts to recover innocence which has been corrupted by the world of experience. The journey ends in the reconciliation of these two contraries, which enables man to reach his ideal state, where he is at unity within himself and in harmony with nature, with the Songs as a poetic expression of this quest for unity.
The tiger is in keeping with this notion a dualistic symbol, becoming representative of the unity of opposites, synthesising in the image of god. It represents awe and terror at once, epitomising what Edmund Burke would call the sublime, as he says, “Terror is, in all cases whatsoever, either more openly or latently the ruling principle of the sublime.” Yeats called this terrific, dominating image “a portion of eternity too great for the eye of man.” The speaker however realises that not only are the lamb and tiger the same, he is himself (along with the rest of creation) both of them in some sense, since the creator who made the lamb and the tiger also made man. Further, the creator is also one with them, with its two contrary yet co-existing sides of forgiveness and punishment, as is realised in ‘The Tyger’ but made clear in ‘The Lamb’ with “I a child & thou a lamb, / We are called by his name,” referencing Jesus the Saviour, who is referred to as the “lamb of God.” The change from a mild lamb to strong (physically as well as in spirit) tiger is interpreted by some critics (Bloom) as being representative of major changes in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, like the French, American and Industrial Revolutions, that changed the way people lived the way that experience in Blake’s poems does.
Blake can therefore be seen to “believe that the transformation from the gentle lamb into the powerful tiger is an integral part of maturation,” as Harold Bloom puts it. It would be simplistic to interpret the lamb and tiger as ‘good’ and ‘evil,’ since even Blake’s concept of evil is not in terms of the traditional binary. Through his constant rejection of convention to create his own, yet remaining firmly within the Christian framework, William Blake redefines the structures and entrapments of the world to show that progress can only be achieved through contraries, with the tiger and lamb as two sides to that cannot be separated from one another, like the Chinese division of the world into Yin and Yang. His poetic and prosaic works encapsulate not only the progress of an individual towards experience leading to a higher state of simultaneous maturity and rejuvenation, but also that of the entire world.
Blake, W. The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. 1790-1793.
Blake, W. Songs of Innocence. 1789.
Blake, W. Songs of Experience. 1794.
Blake, W. The Four Zoas: The Death and Judgment of Albion The Ancient Man. 1790.
Bloom, H. Critical Analysis of ‘The Tyger.’ 2001.
Burke, E. A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful. 1757.
Daley, M. ‘Tyger of Wrath.’ 1966.
Gupta, K. Romantic Poets. 2015.
Pagliaro, H. The Changing View of ‘The Tyger.’ 1987.
Shelley, P.B. Prometheus Unbound. 1820.
Wordsworth, W. Lyrical Ballads. 1798.