The Paradox of Nature in William Blake’s “The Tyger”

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In William Blake’s “The Tyger”, the poet explores through the example of a particular instance of creation, the natural evolution of the tiger, the entire causality and logic behind existence itself. In other words, on the one hand, Blake in this poem asks primordial questions regarding the reasoning behind existence, the classical philosophical question of “why is there something rather than nothing?”On the other hand, the concern of Blake’s poem is a particular entry point into this question, in this case, the figure of the tiger, who, in his singular form, captures both the beauty of nature as well as its ferocity and violence. From this position, Blake is not only asking about why the creation exists, the source of all being, but he is also encountering the paradoxical nature of the creation: it is not only the case, why does something exist, but how do things that exist contain in themselves seemingly contradictory elements, such as beauty and violence? Arguably, however, Blake does not attempt to provide an answer to this question, but instead presents the question as its own answer, namely, through his poem he tries to capture prescisely this paradoxical and contradictory element of creation through the figure of the tiger and asks the reader to reflect on this mystery.

If Blake intends in this poem to pose a question, this is obvious by the way the poem itself takes the form of a series of questions. The content of the question is lucid in Blake’s poetry. The poem begins with the following lines: “Tyger, Tyger, burning bright,/In the forests of the night;/What immortal hand or eye;/Could frame thy fearful symmetry?”The opening stanza is constituted by a series of paradoxes, which gives the structure to the question which motivates the entire poem. Blake first conjures the image of the tiger, equating it with light, the light from a fire, and then juxtaposes this to the blackness of the forest. This contrast between the tiger and his environment is then placed within the figure of the tiger himself: the tiger is both “symmetrical” and “fearful” at once. Symmetry is what can be considered beautiful: the lines of the tiger, the tiger’s body, all suggest grace and beauty. At the same time, the tiger is also violence incarnate: this beautiful animal is a ferocious predator. It is precisely this paradox that intrigues Blake: what is the “immortal hand or eye” that would create this paradoxical creature? Furthermore, what does it mean for created beings to be, essentially, forms of contradiction, combining beauty and violence into one form?

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Accordingly, the tiger serves as a point of introduction, establishing the centrality of the paradox to the poem, and then moves on to asking the greater metaphysical question about the logic behind the contradiction. Blake writes in the next stanza: “In what distant deeps or skies. Burnt the fire of thine eyes? On what wings, did he aspire? What the hand, dare seize the fire?” There is clear imagery in this stanza alluding to the notion of a divine source of the creation, a sacred figure of the Creator. The imagery of the skies and the heavens is religiously charged. But Blake, in one sense, questions in this stanza the motivation for the creation, that is to say, why the Creator has chosen to create forms such as the tiger. Blake does not give easy answers to these primordial questions. Instead, as this stanza also concludes with the question, what motivates Blake is to draw attention to the paradoxical essence of creation and existence itself, of its combination, in forms such as the tiger, of symmetry and force. Blake invites the reader to think about the metaphysical question of the creation through the contradictory essence of created beings.

This is explicit in the second to last stanza, which reads: “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?” In this passage, Blake now moves onto a different type of internal contradiction in nature. It is not only, for example, a case of the tiger in himself occupying contradictory qualities. It is also the fact that creation itself has opposing tendencies. Alongside the aggressiveness of the tiger, there is also the passivity of the Lamb. Blake poses the question as to how the entire creation could be constituted according to this contradictory logic, where entirely different types of beings exist together. What does this say about the intent of what God has created? Or perhaps even, Blake is taking an atheistic stance here: if we have a life full of contradictions, does this perhaps mean that there is no God? In other words, the contrasts between the lamb and the tiger are so extreme that perhaps there is no logical cause for everything that exists, but it is rather simply a life without meaning or purpose. Nicholas Marsh (2012) takes a somewhat opposite viewpoint instead stating that “the tyger and the lamb, apparent opposites, belong together. They are both part of nature, a vast, wild and powerful, but innocent creation.” (p. 85) However, whereas it can be said that Blake does emphasize opposites, he does not provide any answers to the question itself, but rather wants to highlight this paradox as a beginning point for metaphysical speculation. This is supported by the repetition of the first stanza at the end. The poem ends as it began, with the exact same question. Blake does not provide answers, but challenges to think about the paradox of nature.

In this sense, Blake’s poem is a type of metaphysical meditation about, firstly, why things exist, and, secondly, why everything that exists has a paradoxical character. This paradox is both individual to particular beings, such as the tiger, but also extends to the entirety of nature, when we compare the diversity of existing entities. Blake does not give an easy answer, but prefers instead to leave us with the question in its power, so as to encourage the reader to think about the world in which we live.

  • Marsh, N. (2012). William Blake: The Poems. London, UK: Palgrave Macmilan, 2012.

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