The Point of Poetry

By Joe Nutt

How poetry can teach us about the things in life that really matter

The Tyger – William Blake.

Most children lucky enough to have attended school in an English speaking country with a functioning state education system will have seen this poem. So I imagine it has a lot to do with why so many successful adults end up hating poetry. William Blake probably features on every metrophobe’s hit list, even those who will belt out Jerusalem at the top of their voice before an international rugby match, or on far less religious occasions, perhaps in adult life unaware that he was responsible for both these building blocks of English classrooms worldwide.

To a child just about coping with the difference between advice and advise or even, have and of, spelling Tyger with a ‘y’ is just confirmation that any poet’s main mission is to sow confusion and doubt. The barrage of rhetorical questions that makes up most of the poem piles on the agony and it’s easy to see why so many children might respond perfectly well to a brightly coloured illustration of the poem without even beginning to grasp a single idea it contains. Even if they know something about the book of Genesis and quickly get the idea in the first verse of God creating the tiger, and designing its fearful symmetry; to any child trying gamely to grasp the concept of symmetry in their maths class, illustrations that show a tiger sideways on are just plain cruel. Think of all those diagonals. That’s verging on abuse. The poem always makes me wonder if Blake had ever seen a tiger himself, face first as it were.

Blake was of course, an artist as well as a poet, although strictly speaking he was an engraver and when you look at his own illustration for The Tyger from his book, Songs of Experience, also sideways on, it doesn’t exactly fill you with confidence he knew anything about big cats. Blake’s tiger is a vastly oversized, overweight moggy, grinning stupidly on its way to meet Alice and the Dormouse for tea and some more of those yummy, toasted muffins. Critics and later fans love to describe Blake as a visionary, which has the advantage of being literally true, since he saw visions throughout his life, and they played a key part in his art. Just take a look at his illustration, The Day of Judgement for Robert Blair’s poem, The Grave, or anything at all he produced to illustrate Milton’s Paradise Lost. So it is perhaps naïve to even suggest he would be interested in depicting a tiger naturally. Wordsworth was convinced he was mad and the astonishing variety of revolutionary and radical thinkers and thoughts Blake toyed with throughout his life, certainly don’t point to a man of great intellectual stability. He wore the red floppy hat popular with French revolutionaries… and Noddy, until news of Madame Le Guillotine’s excessive appetite turned his stomach. He spent his life entirely in London with a spell in Sussex, so it’s fruitless to look for natural beauty or insight in a poem like The Tyger, as we might in anything by George Mackay Brown. Although the obvious word jungle was certainly available to him as an import from early British adventures in India, he opts for the temperate forests instead, as though he wanted his tiger to be stalking the English countryside alongside Robin Hood.

The more one thinks about it, the more one wonders why on earth any sane English teacher would let The Tyger loose on a classroom full of children. A.A. Milne’s Tigger is a far safer playmate. For all his interest in childhood and innocence, Blake’s imagination is ruthlessly adult. He devoted his life to new ideas and social change, surrounding himself with experimental materials and minds. There is so little for a real child, even a teenager, to access in any of his verse.

Historically, the way the poem found its way into anthologies and then classrooms was almost certainly through good intentioned Christianity, decent, church-going Anglicans looking to educate village idiots before Darwin came along and upset the vital part church or chapel played in village life. If you want children to take the book of Genesis literally, and Blake was an ardent, if unconventional Christian writing fifty years before The Origin of Species appeared, then framing that question, “Did the guy in the sky who made the tiger really also make the lamb?” rhetorically, is well nigh essential.

If you want to enjoy reading The Tyger today, however badly you were mauled by it as a child, and after all, that is what this book is all about, then you are more likely to enjoy Blake’s impressive and possibly intuitive view of the animal’s strength and beauty than anything else. Searching for the opposite of the Christian symbol of humility and self-sacrifice, the lamb, Blake spurns the wolf or lion, and even the most obvious candidate, a serpent, settling instead on a creature that in today’s world, quite credibly screams intelligent design. In that case, visionary starts to become less of a joke. Blake’s tiger burns brightly in the night. Even its eyes burn and everything about it is fierce and deadly. He successfully makes it the absolute antithesis of a lamb.

Yet when you read the poem closely, or hear those repeated sounds of fire and force as they beat relentlessly along with the poem’s simple rhythm and tight rhyme, the anvils and the furnaces, the hammers and the chains, all that beating of metal on metal; you can’t fail to connect it with the dramatically changing world Blake knew, the industrial revolution he often wrote about and decried, because it seemed to him to steal so much away from people. Blake’s tiger is in the end not a natural phenomenon, but an industrial creation like his illustration of it, designed and created out of raw material, only with superhuman skill.

The Tyger doesn’t imagine a simple scale of mammals, with the tiger at one end and the lamb at the other, it hammers home the theodicy question that frustrates monotheistic believers everywhere: what kind of a deity creates evil? That thorny old problem plunged even the people’s Sophist, Stephen Fry, into legal hot water very recently. At the time of writing Fry has just avoided playing the lead in an Irish court facing defamation charges, after comments he made on Irish television included, “How dare you create a world in which there is such misery that is not our fault? It's not right. It's utterly, utterly evil. Why should I respect a capricious, mean-minded, stupid God who creates a world which is so full of injustice and pain?” I guess he skipped the English Literature lecture on hubris at Cambridge.

The poem is only six short verses long but contains no less than eleven separate questions beginning with “What?” all of them attempting to understand the mind of God. I said earlier, in my introduction to these essays, I had learned at school that poetry mattered. The Tyger is my first attempt to really convince you of that.

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