Tag Archive: “The Tyger


Why so many “Moravian” animals?

This post is a response to the previous post’s fourth question,  “Does the line ‘The Tigers couch upon the prey & suck the ruddy tide’ (Europe 18/15:7; page 106) allude to a Moravian view of Christianity or, literally, to images of fearful tigers in other Blake poems (such as ‘The Tyger’ for instance)?”

Firstly, why do we have to choose between two possible interpretations? Surely the line can allude to both Blake’s other images of fearful tigers and a Moravian view of Christianity. To suggest that interpretation is a matter of either/or is especially “Urizenic” (it has just struck me that metalworkers call compasses “dividers”). Indeed, I think that its allusion to a Moravian view of Christianity makes Europe’s image of a tiger more fearful and therefore more likely to evoke the fearful description (but not depiction) of the tiger in “The Tyger.”

I have argued before that Blake used seemingly Moravian imagery in connection with animals; Europe‘s image of a tiger seems to be an extension of that (my argument is in the third comment down). We don’t have to be aware of the image’s Moravian undertones to find it fearful, but it is easy to read as Moravian. “Couch” gives the image a sexual interpretation that it would not otherwise have had. Although “couch” functions in this sentence as a verb with a similar meaning to “crouch,” it also evokes the idea of beds and lovemaking. The tiger’s sucking of blood then can allude that specific Moravian practice in The Shifting Times. The main cause of the fearfulness of the tiger in “The Tyger” is its predatory nature, the fear it inspires in humans and other animals alike. The image of the tiger in Europe takes this further by suggesting the tiger is also a sexual predator like the primates in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.

So, why does Blake make images of animals fearful by having them engage in predatory/destructive sex or sexual acts? The sexual images of the tiger and the primates contrast with the visual images of couples having apparently very enjoyable sex throughout Europe and The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. One possible interpretation is that Blake is commenting on ideas of prelapsarian and postlapsarian sex, given the figures in the clouds are angelic and therefore presumably not fallen. However, the excessive and hedonistic depiction of floating couples having intercourse would probably not have matched traditional understandings of prelapsarian or ideal sex1. The naked couples’ obviousness to what is going on around them suggests they aren’t entirely earthly or fallen beings. In contrast, the animals’ sexual behavior is predatory, fatal and therefore very morally compromised. However, in the case of the primates, it is very highly exaggerated and the same is somewhat true with the tiger. It is also incongruous, even ridiculous,  to have happy couples mating amid textual and visual images of destruction. Maybe Blake is lampooning the idea of an unsurpassable distinction between ideal prelapsarian sex and less ideal postlapsarian sex. I wouldn’t be surprised if he saw the distinction as “Urizenic.”

1 I’m drawing on the distinction between prelapsarian and postlapsarian sex from Milton’s Paradise Lost, in which sex before the Fall is depicted as purely loving, whereas afterwards it is more lustful. Perhaps someone could enlighten me further on ideas of prelapsarian sexuality? Given Blake’s obsession with Milton, it does seem highly credible he could be playing with his distinction, but I wonder if it was a manifestation of a wider theological distinction.

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This frontispiece by Wale exemplifies many of the discernible themes in Blake’s Songs of Experience. Blake begins his Songs with the voice of the Bard–a voice that serves as a seeming contrary to that of the piper, the speaker in Songs of Innocence. A bard, though more generally defined as a reciting poet, also has more traditional roots in the Scottish Gaelic tradition that was romanticized by Sir Walter Scott. This association immediately called to mind Wale’s frontispiece and, when considered more closely, even more similarities arose.

This engraving marked a dual alteration in the literary and authorial culture during the mid-eighteenth century. Firstly, it symbolized the necessary transition from aural to written work. Without this transition, the record of poetry from that time would have been lost. By segueing from mere song to engraving, the work of poets was enabled to endure, emphatically emphasized and legitimatized by the Latin phrase “durat opus vatum.” Secondly, it suggests the re-imagination of poetry as the ballad form and themes of chivalric romance were recovered and remade in original forms.

As Blake’s work “The Tyger” suggests, Blake valorized natural, organic elements by referencing “distant deeps, skies….forests of the night.” In a self-referential fashion, Blake reveals the paradox of utilizing the Poetic Genius to conjure images and poetic stanzas while constricting them to a fixed frame through the mechanized process of engraving. Such a paradox is visually and metaphorically manifested in his engraving of a tiger that takes on the appearance of a docile, domestic feline. Wale’s frontispiece vignette similarly manifests contraries and paradoxes with its traditional Gaelic images coalesced with Gothic iconography, classical components, and allusions to the Enlightenment period. The harp, both a classical and Gaelic image, seems to be surrendering to a new, budding tradition, as symbolized by the growing tree. Coupled together, these images serve as a metaphor for the transition from the aural tradition of song. The Gothic arches are a testament to Romantic culture as is the glorification of nature espoused by the upright, central tree. The Latin phrase represents intellect and the act of logically translating it to an understood language recalls the Enlightment’s emphasis on reasoning. (This component of the frontispiece would have been derided by Blake as a product of Urizen and institutionalization.) Thus, the work of Blake and Wale can be deemed “sister works” questioning the ability of an artist to truly express his Poetic Genius.