The nation’s favourite poem? Blake’s “The Tyger”

Yesterday (October 7) was the UK National Poetry Day. Among a few of the more pleasant surprises was the choice of Nick Clegg, the Deputy Prime Minister, the short song “Eternity”:

He who binds to himself a joy
Does the winged life destroy
But he who kisses the joy as it flies
Lives in eternity’s sun rise

One that also came high on various lists was Blake’s “The Tyger”. In particular, the radio channel BBC 7 repeated a programme first broadcast in 1996 to find the nation’s favourite poem. The selection of fifty poems was published as a book and CD at the time, and you can hear part of that selection at http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b007jrcf (only available to UK listeners, I’m afraid, and only for the next six days – so hurry if you want to listen again).

Of particular interest to me is that while it is an intense pleasure to listen to readers such as John Nettles and Emma Fielding read aloud such treasures as Andrew Marvel’s “To his Coy Mistress” and The Lady of Shalott, it is Blake’s “The Tyger” that is used to advertise the programme (it starts about 5:27 minutes into the broadcast for those short of time). While it was not necessarily the nation’s favourite, Blake’s powerful lyric from Songs of Experience has, I feel, a special place in readers’ appreciation that goes far beyond many other poems.

Some work that I have been doing recently indicates just how prevalent “The Tyger” goes into our consciousness. Roger Whitson has written on this site about the influence of Blake’s poem on the artist Korshi Dosoo, while the phrases “fearful symmetry” and “burning bright” alone are the titles of more than a dozen books, films, television episodes and comic books, while “Tyger, Tyger”, or “Tiger, Tiger”, is the name of anything from coffee bars and restaurants to karaoke booths and retailers of Buddhist charms and pendants.

The following is a by-no-means-comprehensive list of some of the works influenced by this poem, to indicate the range of its impact over the past few decades: in terms of the written word it provides the title to Tracy Chevalier’s Burning Bright (2007), as well as a section in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 (1953 – see also Bradbury’s 1951 short story, “Here be Tygers”, which also echoes the chapter “Tiger! Tiger!” Kipling’s The Jungle Book), and Adrian Mitchell’s plays Tyger (1971) and Tyger Two (1994). The poem is referenced in Ed Bemand’s Beheld (2006), is alluded to in the tiger scene in Thomas Harris’s Red Dragon (1986), lies behind the tigers that appear in Angela Carter’s The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman (1972), is cited by Mina in David Almond’s Skellig (1998), is one of the creatures in Nancy Willard’s A Visit to William Blake’s Inn (1982) and is also the inspiration for Roger Zelazny’s short story “The Burning” in the Blakean anthology, Sparks of Fire (1982).

Graphic novels have drawn upon it, notably Chapter V of Alan Moore’s Watchmen (1986-1987), which ends with a quotation of the first chapter, and in a 2006 edition of Garth Ennis and John Severin’s The Punisher the young Frank Castle hears the poem as describing the type of creature he will become. Of these (and many more) versions, perhaps my personal favourite remains John Cotton’s 1969 poem, “Tiger Caged”:

The tiger treads his cage.
400 lbs of muscle, bone
And thwarted purpose rage.

The sun shines through cage bars
On his barred coat the sun,
His tiger sun,
Shines through.

He does not look
At those who look at him.
They are without
The cage he treads within.

From what the bars divide
The side you are depends.
Each has his bars,
His limits and his ends.

The tiger treads his cage.
400 lbs of muscle, bone
And thwarted purpose rage.

There are many musical settings and adaptations of “The Tyger”, both classical and popular, and it is probably only second to “Jerusalem” in terms of the number of versions that have been released in the last century. The first arrangement was (I believe) composed by Sir Graville Ransome Bantock in 1908, followed in 1909 by a piece for voice and piano by Alan Gray. In 1913, Clarence S. Hill set Blake’s words to music as part of his cycle Three Songs by
Blake
, and other arrangements where “The Tyger” forms part of a more extensive treatment of Blake’s verse include Solomon Pimsleur’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience (1922), Benjamin Britten’s Songs and Proverbs of William Blake (1965), Theodor Hoffman’s The Lamb and the Tyger (1965), John Mitchell’s Visions from the Flame (1977), Hayg Boyadjian’s Song Cycle on Poems of William Blake (1978), William Bolcom’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience (1984), and Dmitry Smirnov’s Fearful Symmetry (1981, revised 2003), as well as many more occasional pieces by various composers including Sir John Tavener, Trevor Jones, and Giles Swayne.

In popular music, “The Tyger” has been at least, if not more, prevalent, with variants covering genres as diverse as country/folk (Greg Brown, Songs of Innocence and of Experience [1992], Nick Harper, Smithereens [1998]), progressive/experimental rock (Tangerine Dream, Tyger [1987], Birdsongs of the Mesozoic, Sonic Geology [1988]), Goth (Mephisto Waltz, Immersion [1998]), techno/electronica (Dead Nine, I Believe in Magic [2008]), and black/death metal (Thelema, Fearful Symmetry [2008]). Several bands have also taken their name from Blake’s poem, such as the Adelaide-based indie group Tyger, Tyger, and The Lamb and The Tyger from Gettysburg.

As such, while Blake’s lyric may not – in the end – be the nation’s favourite poem (at least not yet), I would argue that it is perhaps the most influential, certainly in the diversity of responses that it has inspired over the past century.