The Duality of Innocence and Experience in William Blake’s “The Tyger”
As a poem, William Blake’s “The Tyger” functions much the same way that the rest of Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience does; teetering on the precipice of duality in not only humanity, but all life forces. The titular Tyger is not purely ‘experienced’ and the speaker which addresses the tyger is not purely ‘innocent,’ though those are associations that a reader might have upon first contact with the text. As such, it’s clear that at least part of William Blake’s intention was to allow readers the space to question what exactly it means to be innocent or experienced, and the opportunity to grow when one realizes that the concepts are not nearly so dichotomous as they seem.
Blake begins by having the speaker address the tyger, which establishes a relationship between them, as well as a means of contrasting them. The image of the tyger “burning bright, through the night” (Blake, Lines 1-2) indicates that the speaker has been observing the tyger and desires to know more about it. When the speaker questions “what immortal hand or eye could frame thy fearful symmetry?” (Blake, Lines 3-4) it shows that the speaker seeks knowledge they do not have but believes the beast might possess. In asking that, the speaker gives us a reason to believe that the tyger is experienced, because there’s something unknowable about the tyger, something powerful and sublime, and the speaker not only doesn’t know who could have created the tyger, but also does not know who could truly comprehend it. Meanwhile, “because he has too many questions,” (Grant, pg. 41) it seems upon first reading as though the speaker’s lack of knowledge might be defined as a sort of innocence. Yet, is there not a wisdom to thinking of asking those questions at all that we might not call experience? Thus we begin to see how these two states of being interact with each other. Additionally, the tyger maintains a kind of innocence as well, for all it’s truly doing is existing as it’s seemingly meant to. Yes, it is a predator which hunts prey, and yes, there is something fearful and unknowable about it, but at the end of the day, what else can a tyger be but a tyger? There is innocence in simplicity.
In asking questions about the tyger, the speaker is, inadvertently, asking questions about their own relationship with both innocence and experience. After all, who hasn’t asked “in what distant deeps or skies burnt the fire of thine eyes”? (Blake, Lines 5-6) People want to know where they come from, and the tyger and the speaker share an innocence in not knowing, in not being able to know. However, in invoking sublime terror as a thematic idea, Blake reinforces that the speaker “feels a holy dread as he meditates on the divine power which went into its creation.” (Grant, pg. 44) There is a sense of both the awe and the awfulness that comes with being unable to comprehend something and to have it be not only beyond your control but beyond your understanding, especially when the thing you don’t comprehend is your own origin. So the middle three stanzas somehow allow us to simultaneously feel as though there is commonality between the tyger and the speaker, and a deep separation as well. This works to reinforce the dual nature of innocence and experience.
The last two stanzas work to show how contradiction plays a role in the way that Blake sees in the relationship between innocence and experience, as well as reinforcing that the answers the speaker wants are unknowable, and in fact may not be the point. In asking whether “he who made the lamb made [the tyger],” (Blake) the speaker is essentially asking “how could the same creator make both the lamb and the tyger?” (Grant, pg. 51) And they ask this with discomfort, because if innocence and experience are dichotomous, they should not be able to come from the same place. In asking this question, speaker comes to a realization that shifts their perspective on the role of innocence and experience—if the lamb, an animal often symbolized as a manifestation of innocence, and the tyger, previously established as experienced by way of power and sublime energy, both come from the same creator, then are they really that different? Can you even have one without the other? And what does all this say about the speaker themselves? In asking this question, the speaker is forced to contend with their worldview. As such, it becomes apparent the repetition of the first lines in the last stanza is not merely a way of tying the poem together nicely, but rather a way of showing that the speaker now understands better their relationship to the tyger. If the lamb and the tyger, and, indeed, the speaker and the tyger, come from the same place, then it becomes clear that it is not only the tyger who is unable to be ‘framed’ or easily comprehended. This is made all the more poignant by the fact that the question is never answered, because the point of asking the question was never really to get the answer. It was for the speaker to understand that there are some things which cannot be answered but must be asked, which only makes the whole business of innocence and experience that much more convoluted for everyone involved.
The poems in Blake’s collection all play with what it means to be innocent and what it means to be experienced, but in reading “The Tyger” closely, I find I better understand his intent. Words have and always will have connotations behind them, and words like ‘innocence’ and ‘experience’ in particular often have value judgements placed upon them. We tend to think of those who are ‘innocent’ as being inherently pure, but naive; we often think of children as the ultimate representation of that idea. We also tend to think of those are ‘experienced’ as being more learned, but cynical as well. We think of them as having lost something. But in reading “The Tyger” I’ve come to discover that innocence and experience are intrinsically entwined. A tyger stalking its prey could be considered innocent in that it is allowing itself to be the purest form of what it is. A speaker asking these kinds of pervasive questions, despite the lack of knowledge they possess, is experienced enough to consider the questions at all. As an audience of Blake’s work and, indeed, as a society, we tend to see innocence and experience as two opposites of each other—but in Blake’s perspective, they are not. They feed into each other; they are two sides of the same coin. But in the same way that one cannot speak of death without relating it to life, one cannot speak of experience without relating it to innocence, and vice versa. Is the tyger experienced or powerful or sublime with no one there to witness it? Does the speaker remain innocent if there’s nothing that they cannot comprehend about the tyger? The tyger and the speaker need to be together for this poem to work; perhaps not visually, but textually, they need to be together. And just by being in each other’s company, they are forcing us to ask questions about what it means to be innocent or to be experienced, which I imagine is exactly what Blake would have wanted. Experience is not what you get when innocence is taken away; rather, they give and take from each other in a never ending cycle.
Blake, William. “Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience” William Blake. Longman, 1994.
Blake, William. “The Tyger.” 1794. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City. The Tyger by William Blake. p. 42.
Grant, John E. “The Art and Argument of the ‘The Tyger.’’” Texas Studies in Literature and Language, vol. 2, no. 1, 1960, pp. 38–60.