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.

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