Tyger! Tyger! burning bright, In the forests of the night, What immortal hand or eye Could frame thy fearful symmetry?
In what distant deeps or skies Burnt the fire in thine eyes? On what wings dare he aspire? What the hand dare seize the fire?
And what shoulder, and what art? Could twist the sinews of thy heart? And when thy heart began to beat, What dread hand, and what dread feet?
What the hammer? What the chain? In what furnace was thy brain? What the anvil, what dread grasp Dare its deadly terrors clasp?
When the stars threw down their spears, and watered heaven with their tears, Did he smile his work to see? Did he who made the lamb make thee?
Tyger!, Tyger! burning bright, In the forests of the night, What immortal hand or eye Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?
The occasion is that I’m reading The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival, by John Vaillant. There are hardly words to describe how riveting this book is. It’s a little of everything: geography, psychology, ecology, evolution, genetics, mythology, Russian history and detective story. Essentially, it’s the story of tracking one Amur tiger (incorrectly called the Siberian tiger), who killed and ate a man named Markov in the winter of 1997.
It takes place in an area I never even heard of: the Primorye Territory of far eastern Russia. Ecologically, it’s extremely bizarre, and plants and animals normally found either in the Artic or the tropics coexist there. It’s thought that it’s an area that somehow escaped the last Ice Age. However, pressure from the north drove Arctic plants and animals south, while pressure from the south drove tropical plants and animals north, where both groups adapted and survived.
The author uses two lines from William Blake’s poem above to introduce one of the chapters. The lines he chose are “What the hammer? What the chain? In what furnace was thy brain?” This so perfectly illustrates what the tiger’s behavior indicates: it was angry. Vividly, blindingly, chillingly so. Singlemindedly intent upon revenge against Markov for an unforgivable offense (two offenses, actually). In other words, its brain was in a furnace.
Blake’s poem is really not about tygers…I mean tigers…it’s really about God. The most important line in the poem is “Did he who made the lamb make thee?” The tiger is a stand-in for all predators, all fearsome things, and ultimately, of evil. It’s really the age-old question that Christians have been asking themselves since, well, the beginning of Christianity. When you postulate a God who created everything, is omniscient and omnipotent, then you have to ask the question, Why does God allow evil? More importantly, why did he create it (since he created everything)? I know the standard answers, but I also know that even Christians find those answers strangely unsatisfying. That unresolvable conflict, that mystery of human existence, is why poems like Blake’s (aside from the beauty and simplicity of its language) survive for more than two hundred years (it was published in 1794).
The book has its poetic moments as well. A writer and researcher mentioned says that on the African savanna, when it thunders, lions will roar back. “What other creature”, the author asks, “besides the lion, the tiger, and the whale, can answer Creation in its own language?” Indeed. What dread hand, and what dread feet?