Susan E. Bertolino
An Informal Reading of Blake’s “The Lamb and “The Tyger”
These two poems are often compared as a way of understanding Blake’s complicated
thinking on current events along with his visionary theories of God. At first glance, the
poems seem so obviously symbolic that it becomes easy to slip into a simplistic
interpretation: Lamb == Good, Tiger==Bad, Lamb==Nature, Tiger==Industrial
Revolution, Lamb==God(Jesus), Tiger==Devil. All of those ideas and images
definitely figure into the poems, but these readings tend to be incredibly reductive.
Blake was working with his own interpretations of Judeo/Christian thought; as a
visual artist, he saw the image as the translation of religious experience. Blake began
having “visions” at an early age. When he was nine, he told his parents that he saw a tree
full of angels. He communed with spirits: he conversed with the likes of Moses, the
Prophets, Homer, Dante, Milton—he spoke to Milton quite a bit, and he had daily
conversations with his dead brother. I do not write to question his sanity as much as to
describe the psychology of this poet who influenced our ideas of teaching Romanticism
to our students. In short, Blake saw things that most people are not meant to see, and
his poetry becomes the explaination of these visions. He thought in terms of the
completed image, and surrounded this representation with his own dictionary of terms.
(There is actually a glossary site titled An Emergency Online Glossary of Terms, Names
and Concepts in Blake.—see
It is absolutely fascinating.)
Those of us who teach IH52 are often concerned about connecting the IH51
curriculum with our course. These two poems form a perfect link to the studies of the Old
and the New Testament. The title, “The Lamb” certainly coincides with John’s the
Baptist’s cry: “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” (John
1:29) Just as John introduces Jesus to the people of Bethabara, the poet is presenting the
lamb to the reader. The concern with self-identity also rings true in both figures: John is
basically telling Jesus that it is his turn to pass the torch, to present himself as the Savior.
The first stanza of the poem does the same—the poet asks the lamb “who made thee”,
making the lamb consider the source of his own existence. Just as God clothes the lilies
of the fields, the lamb wears the “softest clothing wooly bright.” The lamb is organic, a
creature of God in which he seems to have poured out all of his goodness by giving him
“such a tender voice, making all the vales rejoice.” The lamb is childlike, and Jesus
protects children, telling the people that “whosoever shall receive this child in my name
receiveth me” (Luke 10:48) Blake has established a metaphor: the lamb is a Christ like
figure, but it is through the comparison that Blake can show his reverence to God’s
beauty. Blake loved the whole concept of Jesus, writing that “Jesus was all virtue, and
acted from impulse, not from rules.” (from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell)
The second stanza completes this relationship by telling the lamb all about Jesus,
almost like a bedtime story. The speaker identifies himself, first as the storyteller and
then as a comrade. Through the verses “I a child and & thou a lamb, we are called by his
name”, Blake establishes what he calls a contrary state, what the glossary calls “ways of
seeing and dwelling in the world.” The speaker may be human, but his humanity does not
separate him from the love of God, just as the innocent, young lamb is also embraced by
the Divine. Blake is creating an atmosphere of innocence (lamb) to experience (child);
the child, who speaks from experience, is a knowing presence in the lamb’s life. He is
encouraging the lamb to remain in that state of innocence, which Blake sees as his keen
awareness of God’s love. Even though most students may suggest that there is no
darkness or evil in this poem, there is still a suggestion of doubt, of insecurity. Why does
the lamb need to know who he is? Why must he understand the characteristics of his
Creator? What kind of world does he see as he emerges from his mother’s womb? These
questions may be the ones that the speaker feels bound to answer.
Certainly the poem “The Tiger” has a profound sense of darkness, despite the
burning images. The glossary refers to tigers as bloodthirsty animals, but it does not seem
that this tyger is out for blood. It is his very existence that Blake questions; every stanza
ends with a question mark. The speaker tries to depict the animal in physical terms
“symmetry, eyes, hand, sinews, heart, feet, brain,” but he cannot escape from the larger
implications of his being: “fearful, fire, terror”. What makes the tyger so frightening?
Students often claim that the tyger is evil; he is the Devil; the speaker has a vision of hell.
Others read stanza four and say that the poems shows Blake’s hatred and fear of the
growing industrial revolution. It is possible that those images ring true, particularly the
latter, but there are still more connections to our IH51 readings.
Since this is a poem about creation, invariably the book of Genesis emerges as a
source for Blake’s ideas. The God who created light, created the firey eyes of the tyger.
Yet the light images in Genesis are gentle; God saw that it was good, so at this point, the
Creator is functioning more like the God of the innocent lamb. Light is essential to
Blake’s notions of creation; in his mythology, Los, one of the four Zoas who represent
the four partitions of humanity(Los-imagination, Urizen-intellect, Luvah/Orc-passion,
and Tharmas-instinct) is a blacksmith. So the anvil imagery is twofold: yes, it suggests
the Industrial Revolution which Blake both fears and loathes, but it also refers to the act
of creation itself. However, the repetition of questions makes the poem differ widely
from “The Lamb”; the speaker knows who is the lamb’s (and therefore his own) creator,
but this speaker still needs an answer. If the tyger is evil, then we have to learn to
contemplate evil on its own terms, by approaching it with the necessary fear and caution
that it requires.
However, it is unlikely that the tyger simply represented evil, for the speaker shows
awe at its power, its magnificence. The imagery of what we call the devil is ambivalent;
hell is a fiery inferno, and Blake made some splendid plates of Dante’s travels through
Hell, so he is no stranger to the concept of fire and brimstone. But the devil cannot create;
he can only destroy, so his influence within the poem is limited. The poem also suggests
the might of Jehovah, possibly at his most ruthless in Genesis during the Flood or his
fiery splendor at the top of Mount Sinai. Jehovah may not be evil, but his power is often
unkind; he inspires fear and awe, not gentleness and meekness, like Jesus in “The Lamb”.
This is a God who fought a battle with his most beloved angel, and cursed him with a
third of his minions to the earth, as Blake suggests in these verses:
When the stars threw down their spears
And water’d heaven with their tears
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who make the world make thee?
Was God lonely without his beloved Lucifer, the Morning Star? Is it possible that he
became bored with the constant obedience of the remaining angels? Why did God feel the
need to create in the first place? Why does God want such different creatures like the
lamb and tyger? These questions remain in Blake’s consciousness as he continued in his
artistic frenzy until his death.