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.

Burning Bright (trailer)

A woman is trapped in her home with her autistic son; her stepfather pilfered her money for his tiger safari park; a hurricane is causing devastation; and somehow there’s a tiger on the loose in her house. Can’t believe I missed the cinema release of this one, but for all those eager fans of the works of Carlos Brooks, the DVD release on August 17 will allow us to see if there is any further connection to Blake other than the title.

Go to the next video from the William Blake Jukebox:

Blakespotting: “Tyger” Woods

In the first of what will be an irregular series, Blakespotting posts (the title comes from an excellent paper by Mike Goode published in 2006) will look at Blakean memes as they disseminate and settle in pockets of public consciousness, beginning with the brouhaha surrounding “Tiger” Woods and, you guessed it, Blake’s “The Tyger”.

(For anyone who has come to this page via a search engine looking for incisive comment on Tiger Wood’s love life or its impact on his professional career, apologies: I don’t really have much of an opinion either way, and to tell the truth am not much of a golfing fan, though I did have to smile at Howard Stern’s announcement last month that he would host the Tiger Woods Mistress Beauty Pageant.)

The basis for the link is, of course, little more than the fact that Blake wrote a poem about a tiger (or tyger), and that Eldrick Tont Woods has the nickname “Tiger”, providing puns galore (or, rather, usually the same pun repeated ad nauseum) of the type beloved by subs worldwide. Thus we have “Tiger Woods, burning bright” (Santa Cruz Sentinel, The Economist, Media Life and many, many more), “Tiger doubles not burning bright” (The Australian), “Tiger Woods brand still burning bright for top golfer’s sponsors” (The Scotsman), and – though it doesn’t scan at all – my particular favourite, “Tiger, Tiger, turning contrite” (The Guardian).

The connection is not especially new: The Independent ran a story on Woods in 1994 with the headline “Young, gifted and black: Tiger’s talent burning bright”, as did The Economist in 2001, headed “Tiger , Tiger , burning bright: The wonders of Mr Woods”, followed in 2002 by The Telegraph‘s “Tiger still burning bright”. Such allusions, however, have exploded in recent months, contributing to the chatter of the media in all its various aspects – and that is before even glancing at blogs such as this one where the pun is recycled relentlessly.

Now, this endless punning itself could be insignificant, little more than lazy and slipshod journalism, but the fact that Woods’ personal woes slip so seamlessly into a route laid down by Blake’s poem indicates two things: firstly, it is testament to just how popular and well-known the Blake poem is (after all, most commentators refer to Blake rather than, say, Kipling – though of course Kipling’s “Tiger! Tiger!” has its source in “The Tyger; likewise, I have yet to find a more esoteric reference to Alfred Bester’s sci-fi novel that shares its title with Kipling’s story); secondly, and more significantly, once the connection is made it transforms the story of Woods.

The Washington news site The Hill, for example, runs the headline “Tiger, Tiger, burning bright: The agony of defeat and the emptiness of victory” and depicts Woods as a modern morality tale with the observation “It’s a little scary how often real life serves up these tidy morality plays. It almost makes you wonder if life has meaning after all.” Robert David Jaffee on The Huffington Post also produced a witty article (“Tiger, Tiger, and the Fearful Asymmetry of Celebritydom”) that began:

Though Tiger Woods has burned bright over the years, William Blake did not have the golfer in mind when he wrote “The Tyger.” Nor would Blake have compared Woods to the Lamb later in the poem. In his title character, Blake, the great Romantic poet and painter, was invoking one of the most fearsome creatures on the planet as an exemplar of the sublime. But what could be less sublime than watching the robotic Woods, sans wedding ring, read from prepared remarks like a bad actor?

Woods’ nickname was obviously meant to evoke the ferocity and courage of the tiger without any help from Blake, but the connection with “The Tyger” brings with it expectations (fulfilled or thwarted) of sublimity, because Blake’s beast has, indeed, burned more brightly than any other in literature.

This event (which will probably come to be known by Blake scholars in future years as “the Tiger Woods revisionary incident”) has also prompted a considerable number of rewrites of the original poem, ranging from gentle digs to the obscene or those touching upon race (many of these on blogs let loose from the moral and professional constraints under which mainstream media have to operate). Some examples include:

Tiger, tiger, burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Made you hit a hydrant then a tree

as well as my particular favourite, again from The Huffington Post:

Tiger, Tiger, taking flight
In thy Cadillac at night,
What immoral hand or thigh
Could make thee drive it so awry?

In what lurid garb or guise
Burnt the fire of her eyes?
With what cheek dare she aspire?
What the hand dare sieze thy fire?

And what temptress, & what tart
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
And when she vexed its steady beat,
Whence came all its fevered heat?

Whence the frenzy? Whence the pain?
In what sandtrap plunged thy brain?
And what rough or water hole
Could ensnare thy noble soul?

When thy fans throw down their cheers,
And water fairways with their tears,
Wilst thou smile their looks to see,
As thou steps’t up to the tee?

Tiger, tiger, taking flight
In thy Cadillac at night,
What immoral hand or thigh
Dare make thee drive it so awry?

None are likely to replace Blake’s “Tyger” just yet, but they indicate just how much life still resides in those fires of the night.

Guilherme Marcondes “Tyger”

An award-winning short combining live action and digital animation by Brazilian animator Guilherme Marcondes. Read the article for more information.

Go to the next video from the William Blake Jukebox:

William Blake Jukebox is a collection of videos available on YouTube related to William Blake. View them all at http://www.youtube.com/user/WilliamBlakeJukebox.