Zoapod 4: Tiger Caged (transcript)

Transcript of Zoamorphosis podcast. To listen to the full podcast click here.

1. “The Tyger” is undoubtedly one of the most famous and most loved of Blake’s poems, fragments of which have reverberated through popular culture for at least a century. The phrases “fearful symmetry” and “burning bright” alone, for example, are the titles of more than a dozen books and stories, while “Tiger, Tiger” is the name of anything from coffee bars and restaurants to karaoke booths and retailers of Buddhist charms and pendants. The appropriation of the Blake brand is, of course, frequently little more than opportunistic marketing as inconsequential as the Charles Dickens pubs found around the world from London to Melbourne, or William Shakespeare gift shops, but such Tyger-related paraphernalia is only one of the most evident signs of the diffusion of this much-anthologised poem throughout popular culture.

2. Nor has the popularity of “The Tyger” been solely a twentieth-century phenomenon, as with so much of the reception of Blake’s works. It was one of the few poems to have made some impression on the poet’s contemporaries during his lifetime, being reprinted in Benjamin Heath Malkin’s A Father’s Memoirs (1806), translated by Henry Crabb Robinson for the Vaterländisches Museum (1811) and then appearing in Alan Cunningham’s biography of the artist shortly after Blake’s death; Charles Lamb thought it “glorious” (BR 394) and Dorothy and William Wordsworth copied the poem and several other of Blake’s songs into a commonplace book, although William Beckford made a note in his copy of Malkin that the lines of Blake’s verse were stolen “from the walls of bedlam” (BR 571), while Coleridge’s final judgement was “I am perplexed – and have no opinion.” (Stranger from Paradise, p.353)

3. Perplexity, as G. E. Bentley, Jr. notes, has been a common reaction to this apparently simple poem, one so straightforward in its metre and diction at least that it is more often included in collections of children’s verse such as the Oxford Book of Poetry for Children than adult anthologies. Of critical reception, not a little has focussed on the incongruities between the forceful, even sublime, text and the rather domestic example of Panthera tigris included in the illustration to this Song of Experience, looking for all the world like a stuffed toy.

4. However, in this podcast I wish to concentrate on one particular poem that not only overtly displays the influence of Blake’s poem, but also uses it to create something of power in its own right, John Cotton’s “Tiger Caged”:

5. 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. 

6. John Cotton was born in 1925 in London and published his first collection of poems, Old Movies and Other Poems, in 1971, followed by Kilroy Was Here in 1975, with other collections appearing in the 1980s when he retired from teaching. He also founded the magazine Priapus with Ted Walker in the 1960s, and was active in various organisations, such as the National Poetry Society, until his death in 2003. “Tiger Caged” was published in the at times inspirational, at times infuriating, anthology Children of Albion: Poetry of the “Underground” in Britain, edited by Michael Horovitz in 1969.

7. The echoes of Blake’s poem extend beyond the mere title. The repetition of first and last verse is, of course, similar to “The Tyger”, but Cotton’s skill is to evoke Blake’s tyger without simply replicating it, either verbally or thematically. Thus, for example, the line “And thwarted purpose rage” evokes the roaring of Rintrah in The Argument to The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, where “the just man rages in the wilds” (E33), The Argument also beginning and closing with duplicate lines: “Rintrah roars & shakes his fires in the burdend air; / Hungry clouds swag on the deep” (E33). “Bars” and “limits” are, of course, by no means exclusively Blakean words, but as common tropes throughout his poetry express the desire for liberty, as in the following lines from the epic, Milton:

8.  Seek not thy heavenly father then beyond the skies: 
There Chaos dwells & ancient Night & Og & Anak old: 
For every human heart has gates of brass & bars of adamant,  
Which few dare unbar because dread Og & Anak guard the gates
Terrific!  (20.32-6, E114) 

9. In Cotton’s poem, the bars are Urizenic – restrictions that impose bounds upon the tiger and thwart his purpose. In contrast to the apparent or at least potential energy of Blake’s tyger unbound, Cotton’s tiger is constrained not merely by the bars of his cage, but also those of his body, stripes of light and dark on his skin that, one imagines, ripple with rage as he treads his cage. The condensed physicality of the tiger is indicated powerfully in the single line, “400 lbs of muscle, bone”, a specificity of mass combined with an economical material anatomy that beautifully emphasises a conservation of power with the omission of the conjunction one would typically expect, preserving also the regular iambic metre that it adapts from Blake’s verse (interrupted only by the spondee “Shines through”). The rhythmic and rhyming structure of Cotton’s verse also appears to embody the “fearful symmetry” of the former: rhymes, or more accurately repetitions and pararhymes, become oppressive, replicating the cage in which the tiger finds himself.

10. Despite the many similarities of Blake’s tyger and Cotton’s tiger caged, then, Cotton’s beast is no mere re-iteration of Blake’s: both are associated with violent imagery, but in Blake’s poem the potential energy of the creature he describes has been condensed at its birth and now breaks free of all bonds that the narrator doubts even mortal hand or eye could frame, while Cotton’s tiger is freeborn but now imprisoned within the cage that mocks not only him but the limited ends and ambitions of the spectators without. For Blake, as recognised for example in Taverner’s setting of “The Tyger”, there is at least the possibility of a divine marriage, but in Cotton’s poem the viewer is divorced from the subject of the gaze, able to recognise the sun that illuminates the bars of his skin but barred out from the energy of the tiger sun that shines from within.

Zoapod 2: Tavener, Thelema and the Tyger (Transcript)

Transcript of Zoamorphosis podcast. To listen to the full podcast click here.

1. Unsurprisingly, considering its origin as a song, there are many musical settings and adaptations of William Blake’s “The Tyger”, both classical and popular. The poem is probably only second to “Jerusalem” in terms of the number of versions that have been released in the last century.

2. The first arrangement of which I am aware was 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 from 1922, Benjamin Britten’s 1965 Songs and Proverbs of William Blake, Theodor Hoffman’s The Lamb and the Tyger from the same year, followed over the next two decades by 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, in 1986, Dmitry Smirnov’s Fearful Symmetry, as well as many more occasional pieces by various composers including Sir John Tavener, Trevor Jones, and Giles Swayne.

3. Of these versions (and many more), three are worth more discussion because they are part of a substantial relationship between the composer and Blake’s works. John Tavener demonstrates quite profoundly the ways a composer may engage with the philosophical and theological questions raised by the poem in his beautiful 1989 piece for an unaccompanied thirteen-part choir, which offers a response to Blake’s question “Did he who made the lamb make thee?”. The thrilling harmony of the singers (comprising five sopranos, two altos, three tenors, and three basses), resolves the tyger’s fearful symmetry into a grandiloquent testimony to the concord of God’s creation.

[music]

4. For Tavener’s Greek Orthodoxy, the answer to the terrible question which is underscored by what is usually interpreted as violent imagery within the poem is, rather, a resounding affirmation that interprets visions of furnaces and forging as “portions of eternity, too great for the eye of man” – yet not, perhaps, for man’s ears if he would but listen. Tavener’s remarkable achievement with his arrangement of “The Tyger” is to transform an often discordant, even furious, poem into a hymn to God’s glory that is serenely passionate: the composer’s response is a dialogue with Blake’s poem that transforms it into a work that seems almost compassionate. Like the best creative works that take Blake as a source of inspiration, its effect is to alter rather than simply reinforce the listener’s experience, expanding the horizon of expectations so that our interpretation of the poem is transformed.

5. Mike Westbrook’s Glad Day: Settings of the Poetry of William Blake [1999], combines pieces for a chamber orchestra choir with jazz, and a 2008 performance with vocalists Kate Westbrook and Phil Minton received considerable critical acclaim. Although I personally find his arrangement of “The Tyger and The Lamb” less affecting than that by Tavener, the album is particularly important as a testimony to Westbrook’s long involvement with Blake, the genesis of these renditions lying in his work as a composer with Adrian Mitchell on the 1971 play Tyger. This was followed by the music-drama Glad Day for Thames TV in 1975 to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Blake’s birth, as well as a collection of musical settings of Blake’s verse, Bright as Fire, first performed in 1980 then again in 1997.

6. The Russian composer, Dmitry Nikolaevich Smirnov, who was born in Minsk and studied at the Moscow Conservatory, but has been resident in Britain since the early 1990s, has composed two operas based on the works of Blake, Tiriel and Thel, both of which were first performed in 1989, as well as the song cycles The Seasons [1979], based on the four poems from Poetical Sketches, Fearful Symmetry [1981], Songs of Love and Madness [1988], The Seven Angels of William Blake [1988], The Innocence of Experience [2001], and a ballet, Blake’s Pictures, composed between 1988 and 1992.

7. Turning to popular music, “The Tyger” has been at least, if not more, prevalent, with variants covering genres as diverse as country and folk (such as Greg Brown, Songs of Innocence and of Experience [1986] and Nick Harper on Smithereens [1998]), progressive/experimental rock (Tangerine Dream’s Tyger [1987] and Birdsongs of the Mesozoic’s Sonic Geology [1988]), Goth (Mephisto Waltz’s Immersion [1998]), techno/electronica (Dead Nine’s I Believe in Magic [2008]), and black/death metal (Thelema’s Fearful Symmetry [2008]). Several bands have taken their name from Blake’s poem, such as the Adelaide-based indie group Tyger, Tyger, and The Lamb and The Tyger from Gettysburg, whose MySpace page describes them as “liberal arts rock”. Occasionally Blake’s poem serves as an exit point for a song that interprets his text much more freely, as with Ian Astbury’s “Tyger” on Spirit\Light\Speed [1999] or the instrumental version of “The Tyger” on Sonic Geology

8. Generic conventions, of course, provide a clear context for many of the interpretations of these songs when they follow Blake’s lyrics closely. The Belarus band Thelema, for example, deliver what could be described as a conventionally classic exposition of a metal anthem that is the polar opposite of Tavener’s arrangement.

[music]

9. Comprising Alex Korshun on vocals and guitar, Stanislav Khodkov on lead guitar, Victor Sirtsov on bass, and Yuri Terebikov on drums, Thelema is one among countless examples of new acts using forums such as MySpace to reach an audience far beyond what once would have been available to them. Their interpretation of the creature as Satanic is certainly one that has been shared by various other commentators on Blake – in substance if not style.

10. Indeed, there is a long tradition of metal acts drawing on Blake, most notably Bruce Dickinson from Iron Maiden, whose 1998 album The Chemical Wedding included a number of tracks drawn from Blake’s poetry, including “Jerusalem”, “Book of Thel”, and “Gates of Urizen”, as well as the Norwegian group Ulver who focussed on Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell in the same year that Dickinson released Chemical Wedding. What is most fascinating about Thelema’s work is why this Belorussian group should be so influenced by a poet and painter long dead, so much so that their entire album is devoted to his work with tracks bearing titles from both famous and more esoteric Blakean texts, such as “The Crystal Cabinet” and “In a Myrtle Shade”, an allusion to Night Seven of The Four Zoas which, if nothing else, indicates that these young men have read deeply into Blake’s works, no doubt inspired by that diabolical poet who argued in The Marriage that “Without Contraries is no progression”.

Marcondes’ Tyger

One particularly marvellous adaptation of Blake’s “The Tyger” is “Tyger” by Guilherme Marcondes, a Brazilian illustrator and animator who does commercial work for clients such as MTV, BBC and Nickleodeon, but also finds time to produce marvels such as this video short from 2006.

As Marcondes explains on his web site (http://www.guilherme.tv/tyger/about.htm), the project was commissioned by Cultura Inglesa (a branch of the British Council in Brazil) and won some twenty awards after it was released. The combination of puppetry, with two black-clad figures controlling the rampant tiger in a fashion reminiscent of Bunraku theatre, and animation with music by the group Zeroum creates a vivid piece where the people of Sao Paulo transform into fauna as the tiger passes by. In Marcondes’s own words:

Our intention isn’t to illustrate or pay homage to the original text. This is one of our favorite poems and Blake’s dystopian vision of the modern world is still strong. Although different from the other pieces in “Songs of Experience”, where “The Tyger” was originally published, this one gives us a hint of wonder along with a fear of progress. The tiger is as much dangerous as it is marvelous and this ambiguity makes us avoid the pure romantic negative vision of society.

A copy of “Tyger” can be downloaded from http://www.guilherme.tv/tyger/.