As a poetic movement, Romanticism represented a much need digression from the earlier literary contributions of the Enlightenment. One of the more prominent poets of the Romantic Era, William Blake, wrote during a time when much of Europe was at war. Blake’s poetry espouses his exploration of the human imagination and the human condition. In his poetic portfolio, Black divided some of his poems into two volumes which he called the Songs of Experience and Songs of Innocence. Representative from these volumes are Blake’s “The Lamb” from the Songs of Innocence and “The Tyger” from the Songs of Experience.
These poems represent two halves of what Blake saw as a dichotomy in both the world and in individual human existence. In comparing these two poems, a reader must understand some basics about Blake’s poetry. For example, Blake makes use of symbols and ironic contrasts between them in illuminating his theme. According to Jackson, symbols recur throughout many of Blake’s poetry, and when they do, they generally mean the same thing. In addition, the symbolism is often archetypal, meaning that its meaning transcends place and time to be in the whole of human consciousness (396).
However, Jackson is quick to warn that the Songs of Innocence, as a title, can be misleading. The Songs of Innocence is about exploring the human condition of innocence, but not necessarily about innocence itself. In some cases, a poem can use the vantage point of experience to explain a former state of innocence (Jackson 398). For example, one might recall a former, happier time in childhood from the perspective of an adult. In “The Lamb” the title animal is used as a symbol of divinity, as a symbol of Christ, the lamb of God (McElderry 300; Mary & Baine 566).
As a matter of fact, nearly all of Blake’s poems that feature lambs do so with the same symbolism (Mary & Baine 566). The white color of the lamb is an archetypal color representing innocence and purity as well, making the small, gentle, meek lamb and excellent symbol for childlike innocence. The poem itself is addressed as a child and asked if he knows his maker: Little lamb, who made thee? Dost thou know who made thee? (“The Lamb” lines 1-2) The gentle questioning is soft and nurturing as one might gingerly treat a very small child.
Clearly the lamb, and the innocent child it represents, would understand and respond that God made him and provide all of his necessities for him in this blissful pastoral setting. In fact, the speaker responds that The Lamb, meaning God, made the lamb, the child. The theme is that God is a meek and gentle God that provides for all of his lambs, or children of God. This parallels the inner workings of man himself. Man has an innocent and pure side, one that matches his morality and spirituality. Much like a children’s Sunday School song, the poem ends, Little Lamb, God Bless Thee!
Little Lamb, God Bless Thee! (“The Lamb” lines 19-20). However, Blake’s Songs of Experience features a poem, “The Tyger,” that shows the opposite viewpoint. Another representative from the animal kingdom is featured in this poem, only the symbolism is drastically different. In this poem, the tiger represents “bloodthirsty cruelty” (Mary & Baine 563), and nobody is asked to bless the tiger. Instead the tiger is described not in words of meekness and mildness, but in terms suggestive of violence and war – fires, dread, terrors, chains, burning and spears – to name a few.
This diction suggests not a childlike acceptance of God, but a battle with God. Mary and Baine suggest that the tiger represents a Christ-like militant, one that rules the forest with a heavy hand (566). Others seek to explain the tiger as the “terrible power of creation rather than the sweetness of it” (McElderberry 301). Many people wonder in a land of perfection created by God, why wars and diseases and tragedies exist. The answer is simple. They exist because mankind creates them. Because not all men are innocent lambs, the tiger must exist to do battle.
In some cases the tiger battles for the men; in other cases the tiger battles against the men. The fourth stanza of the poem suggests that the tiger was created for this very thing: What the hammer? what the chain? In what furnace was thy brain? What the anvil? what dread grasp Dare its deadly terrors clasp? (“The Tyger” lines 13-16). His body, fearful as it is, was stamped out in fire from metal just like most weapons of war are. This, too, is indicative of mankind as individuals. In general, most people are not innocent and pure all the time.
At some point, the person “grows up” and realizes that the world is not a utopia and that pain and death and sorrow abound. This is the point of Blake’s Songs of Experience, to show that the state of innocence does not last forever; eventually everyone gains experience. Along with experience may come evil and cruelty in the lives of men. Interestingly, these two poems are related by Blake himself. In “The Tyger” the speaker asks “Did he who made the Lamb make thee? ” (line 20). Here he seems to be asking if the same God that made the beautiful and innocent lamb make the vicious tiger.
The irony of this question is its answer – yes. When extended, this line could also mean that both good and evil exist in the world – both created by God. It implies the choice that man has to choose good over evil, or vice versa. Mankind must learn to live with and accept both. This is the dichotomy that is spoken of earlier and alludes to the archetypal and eternal battle of good versus evil found in the archives of literature of nearly all peoples. Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience show the journey implied in their titles.
As symbols of this journey, Blake utilizes two famous poems “The Lamb” and “The Tyger” to show a physical manifestation of both purity and cruelty that coexist in the forest of the world and in the hearts of each and every man. Works Cited Jackson, Wallace. “Unorganized Innocence. ” Modern Language Quarterly 33. 4, December 1972: 396-405. Mary, R. and Rodney M. Baine. “Blakes Other Tigers, and ‘The Tyger’. ” Studies in English Literature 15. 4, Autumn 1975: 563-579. McEldenberry, B. R. “Coleridge on Blake’s Songs. ” Modern Language Quarterly 9. 3, September 1948: 298-293.