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.