The Lamb and the Tyger: Binary Archetypes
5 September 1999

(The instructor's comments are in red throughout this essay.)

William Blake’s semantic development of the Songs of Innocence and the Songs of Experience can be measured through an analysis of the apparent dichotomies inherent in his archetypes. Innocence and Experience each assume polarized roles of Mankind’s place in God’s universe and of the ability of Mankind to achieve its own salvation through the anagogic principles set forth by the Creator. They accomplish this goal in concert with one another, rather than in opposition. To explain this paradox, it is necessary to understand Blake’s concept of the Divine, which is explicit in his poem from Songs of Innocence entitled "The Divine Image," wherein he states that, regardless of our faith, or the rituals we use to express our faith, we all, ultimately, pray to the highest virtues within ourselves. Divinity, to Blake, lies within us, where God is Man, and Man, his own God. Yet, at the very core of his humanism, Blake devoutly professes his faith in the Christian concept of God, establishing himself under the dubious appellation of Christian-humanist, a term which is itself paradoxical, but which serves the same complementary roles as do those of Innocence and Experience. It is within this construct that the archetypes of the Lamb in the Songs of Innocence and the Tyger in the Songs of Experience are created, linked indelibly to one another through the language and rhythm of their particular poems and bridging the hiatus that separates the opposing realms they occupy.

The function of Blake’s dichotomies lay in interposing opposites in a complementary fashion in order to realize some prophetic vision. Indeed, it is only through a reconciliation of contrasts that prophets have ever achieved recognition as divinely inspired. Blake, however, if he did uphold his artistic integrity as the highest virtue within himself—if that is what he prayed to en route to God—did not write for public recognition at all, but for private absolution. It is as if through this public exhibition of his private faith, he was trying to be that voice crying in the wilderness for all lapsed lambs, the most predominant among them himself, to return to the fold. That was the only way he could reconcile himself with the Christian-humanism he followed. He accomplished this entirely through dichotomizing archetypes. As Martin K. Nurmi asserts in his article concerning Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, "Blake’s contraries are not like ‘Yin’ and ‘Yang’…for [those] function alternatively…whereas Blake’s contraries interact simultaneously" (560). [A provocative opening, especially as Blake's view of 'the fold' is continually redefining itself through private vision.] These contraries, he continues, "act positively in opposed but complementary directions" (560). Through his contraries, therefore, Blake was trying to achieve the union of God with Man. He used each song, according to Robert Gleckner, as a progressive movement through innocence and experience, none of which could be comprehensively understood on an individual basis without an intimate awareness of the whole. Blake’s songs are, in microcosm, Dante’s journey through the cosmos—not the search for self within the identity of God, but the search for God within the identity of self—the only sense of which is made holistically.

"The Lamb," which begins with an invocation of the meekest and most guileless of God’s creatures, sets itself up entirely on the premise of proselytism. Here, the poet is not only the prophet preaching to the creation, he is also the shepherd leading the innocent and impressionable flock. [Is this poet/shepherd the actual 'voice' of the poem?] In this realm of innocence, he is the knowledgeable one. His gnosis makes it possible for him not only to describe the nature of the Creator, but the innermost complexities of that creation to itself. He states that the Creator "Gave [the lamb] life and bid [him] feed/ By the stream & o’er the mead," which illustrates a knowledge of the nature of the lamb’s hunger and the sustenance it requires to satiate it. [If one reads this in light of the 'creator' of this Tyger, does it shift the lamb's identity in any way?] The Creator also clothed the lamb in the softest clothing of delight, where despair should never be worn when in the proximity of the Creator, who is the original Shepherd. Finally, in addition to the necessities of food, clothing, and shelter the Creator has provided, the prophet invokes one other, the voice—the means by which the lamb can express its gratitude through song. [In this poem?] In doing so, the lamb is imbued with the power to summon its Shepherd—the very paradox in which the creation has power over its Creator. [This is a possibility--but based on the 'weakness' of that voice.] By imparting this knowledge of its own nature unto the lamb, the prophet is empowering the creation, is providing it the means by which to reconcile itself to the generative forces of the universe, and, in so doing, to establish itself on par with those forces. The Creator, Blake asserts, "calls himself a Lamb" (14), in the sense that He is one of us, and, by extension, each of us harbors within him part of his Creator, the understanding of which helps us to achieve our own divinity. By becoming like one of us, He proved that we were like Him, that we were so much a part of His own Being that it was no effort for Him to display the same meekness and mildness that is within all of us. The poet, a Piper of Songs, joyously concludes that all of us, even the shepherd/prophet are included in this gift. [Is this piper the 'voice' of the poem?  The identity, then, becomes quite paradoxical--needs recognition of the role of the divine identification.]  He states, "I a child & thou a lamb, / We are called by his name" (17-8), and then he calls upon God to bless the lamb, which implies a blessing upon God, Himself, invoked by God’s own instrument on earth. The power relationship here seems to be flipped unless it is understood that Blake’s purpose is to show that our relationship with our Creator is symbiotic, and that Man has as much power over his relationship with God as does God over his disposal of Man. The essence of "The Lamb," therefore, lies in the theosophical assertion that Man is already a saved creature born into a world where sin does not have to exist.

The plate on which Blake carved "The Lamb" is as important to the understanding of the poem as are the lyrics and the philosophy of the lyricist, for to Blake the words were nothing without the imagery that accompanied them. Were it not so, he would have spent far less time engaged in the illustrations of his poetry than he did.

The structure of the poem is broken into two stanzas of ten lines each, the first of which puts forth the question and the latter of which answers it, giving the question (of the creation) the same weight of importance as the answer (of the Creator). At the base of the poem, which seems to be hovering in the heavens above the flock, stands a youth near a shelter surrounded by lambs and engaged in idyllic conversation with one who seems attentive. In the background is a shade tree, and embracing this scene are the flowering vines of spring which are merged and interlocked at the top of the page, interwoven into the poem’s title. This is a pastoral setting where the tranquility of the lyrics is complemented by the image that depicts it. The vines represent a garden in which the lambs are secure, but also one in which they are held. Their use as a framing device for the edges of the page suggests that the protection the Shepherd can provide exists only within their borders, that innocence can only be maintained within certain parameters. [Good point.  Still, there is more than a hint that the protection has a temporal and finite nature.] The use of a child as prophet echoes the words of Christ that no one can come to him except like a child, devoid of the barriers of suspicion and guile, making sense of the youth’s observation, "I a child & thou a lamb," where one provides protection, but both are equally protected. The lamb, the child, the shepherd and the prophet all evolve into the same archetype of godliness, where the creation is as important as the Creator.

"The Tyger," on the other hand, invokes the strength of God, the power to destroy rather than to protect. It is the apocalyptic archetype of God’s wrath, framed around the alternate questions of "What immortal hand or eye, / Could frame thy fearful symmetry" (3-4), and what would dare to, with the implication being that a Creator with both the power and the will to bring this beast into our world is a Creator that is not prepared to let his lambs idly forget the debt they owe Him. The rest of the poem is not so much an exploration of the nature of the creation, but of the nature of its Creator. The prophet of Experience that the Bard claims to be is not asking questions in ignorance, which makes his queries all the more disquieting, but is instead answering them in the asking. Like Dickens’ Ghost of Christmas Future, the prophet knows the answers to these questions before they are asked and he also knows he will not explicitly answer them for us. In the second stanza, for instance, the Bard admits to knowing that God’s forge must exist somewhere in the "distant deeps or skies" (5), but that the assembly of such a beast goes so against the image of the meek child-God of "The Lamb" that it must have been completed in separate and distinct parts. In fact, the poet’s vision of the Creator is constantly shifting in this poem to Itself consisting of disembodied parts, a "hand [that] dare[s] to seize the fire" of the Tyger’s pelt and of the forge (8), a shoulder that "could twist the sinews of [the Tyger’s] heart" (10), a "dread hand" that could form such "dread feet" (12), and a "dread grasp" (15) that could hold the beast once formed. The Creator becomes the God of the Old Testament who terrified Nebuchadnezzar with a hand writing on a wall, who turned Moses’ hair white with a mere view of his backside, whose awesome power is so complete that He physically does not have to be complete to wield the smallest fraction of it. Even then, this was not a creature that could be created by God’s hands alone, but one so destructive that it had to be built through the industrial process of the forge, with a hammer, a chain, a furnace, and an anvil. This was a beast that was so dangerous, that after it was loosed upon the world, "the stars threw down their spears/ And water’d heaven with their tears" (17-8), which prompts the Bard not to ask, but to demand, "Did [God] smile his work to see? Did he who made the Lamb make thee?" (19-20). [Yes, but what does this line signify?] "God wanted this?" the Bard seems to ask. It is the same question Robert Frost would later ask in "Design," when he wondered if "design govern in a thing so small" as the fate of a spider and a moth. What Frost did not explicitly consider was that the spider has to eat, too, and is equally a part of God’s brood of children, just like the Tyger that can destroy the sanctity of the Lamb’s Eden and has the power to disperse the flock and drive all of God’s gifts away from them. However, the answer to this power lies in the very presence of the child-shepherd—if the flock stay close enough to him, the Tyger will never have the opportunity to strike, for the child is paradoxically stronger than the Tyger—the cries of the Innocent will prevail against the strength of the Experienced. God did not create the Tyger to destroy his covenant with Man, but as a reminder of that covenant and the awesome power and privilege that lies within it, the same power that is open to all Mankind to seize, to grasp, and to use. Through our taming of the Tyger, which comes not from an understanding of his nature, but from the understanding of our Creator’s, we enable ourselves to exercise the divinity that is within us, the covenant that makes us part of what God is.  [Ok, but only from an exercise of creative activity and vision, if the lines point to the 'balance' implied in the 'fearful symmetry'.]

The plate on which "The Tyger" is drawn provides as much insight about the nature of the poem as does that of "The Lamb." The structure of this poem is broken into six stanzas of four lines each, all of which pose the terrifying questions that can only be contemplated through the Philosopher’s Stone the Bard seems to wield against them. Here, we have no tranquil pastoral setting, but the dark wood of Dante, in which the tree is not flowering as in spring, but dead as in winter, its branches resembling lapping flames dying out in an already wasted land. Unlike the template for "The Lamb," the Tyger is not bound by borders, and looks as though he could run off the page. He is both lean and hungry, with eyes wide in search of prey. Ironically, he is also the most harmless-looking Tyger in literature, with the exception of Christopher Robins’ Tigger, alternately poised for discourse and ready to pounce. His physique greatly contrasts the terror invoked by the poem, but that may only mean that all his potential for harm is cloaked by his benign appearance, and that at any moment the Tyger could realize its full, terrifying purpose and turn into the destroyer it is described as being—an explication of the dual nature of God, of the dual nature of Man. To prevent that, we need only tame it with our virtue—the thing to which we, according to Blake, pray—the thing within us that is the highest possible good—the spark of God’s divinity.

This examination of Blake’s Songs leads me to the conclusion that Innocence and Experience are merely metaphysical points, like binary stars, revolving around one another along the journey to salvation, which is nothing greater than a return to the divinity from which we originally came. It is to pass out of Eden and into the world of men, and once there to simultaneously confront the Tyger and protect the Lamb and to confront the lamb and create the Tyger, and in so doing prove ourselves of the same mettle as the Creator who forged us, in order to return to the higher state of Innocence promised within God’s flock. The archetypes of man’s dual nature—manifested through this symbiosis of wrath and tenderness—as represented in the Tyger and the Lamb are interchangeable, as the Tyger, created by the Lamb, can be meek, and the Lamb, who created the Tyger, terrifying. The salvation of Mankind rests in the recognition of this mutability of God’s nature, which provides a key to understanding the processes inherent in reconciling that nature with our own, for God’s nature is a part of our own that can be expressed through our own divinity—an idea that is grotesque only in its unconventional humanistic outlook on the promise of Christianity.

A good reading, though not so much seems to depend on the visual art to project a grotesque unconventionality in identity.


Blake, William. "The Divine Image." Songs of Innocence. Blake’s Poetry and Designs. Ed. by Mary Lynn Johnson and John E. Grant. New York: W. W. Norton, 1979: 30.

Blake, William. "The Lamb." Songs of Innocence. Blake’s Poetry and Designs. Ed. by Mary Lynn Johnson and John E. Grant. New York: W. W. Norton, 1979: 21-2.

Blake, William. "The Tyger." Songs of Experience. Blake’s Poetry and Designs. Ed. by Mary Lynn Johnson and John E. Grant. New York: W. W. Norton, 1979: 49-50.

Blake, William. Templates of "The Lamb" and "The Tyger." The William Blake Archive. Ed. by Morris Eaves, Robert Essick and Joseph Viscomi. 1999.

Frost, Robert. "Design." Literature and Ourselves. 2nd ed. Ed. Gloria Henderson, Bill Day, and Sandra Waller. New York: Longman, 1997: 686.

Gleckner, Robert F. "Point of View and Context in Blake’s Songs." Blake’s Poetry and Designs. Ed. by Mary Lynn Johnson and John E. Grant. New York: W. W. Norton, 1979: 533-9.

Nurmi, Martin K. "On The Marriage of Heaven and Hell." Blake’s Poetry and Designs. Ed. by Mary Lynn Johnson and John E. Grant. New York: W. W. Norton, 1979: 553-65.

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