Symbolism in William Blake’s poem “The Lamb” and “The Tyger”

William Blake’s poetry appears on the surface quite plain and easily convincing, but in actuality this carries a deeper note and has a depth of mystery and suggestiveness. His poems, included in the volumes of Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience, express an innocent child’s simplicity and sense of wonder in course of his acquaintance with the world in the state of innocence as well as experience. But underneath the simple song of the child, there lies concealed a deeper meaning. Blake’s child speaks on commonplace items and matters through his simple songs, but some profound understanding, some mystical suggestion is well perceived in the same. A kind of symbolic undertone, or what is popularly called symbolism, is discerned here.

Symbolism is often found to be a distinct feature in literature. In a good many literary works, the recourse to symbolism is remarkably dominant. In symbolism, there is the use of certain elements or materials to represent or mark certain aspects of life or matters. A particular thing or thought may serve to indicate some sense, a specific point of view, or a particular shade of life. Of course, symbolism involves a highly sophisticated literary process to carry an inner truth or idea beneath the plain and common surface.

Blake’s simple songs, as suggested already, have a symbolic significance to mark their depth and meaning. His symbolism comes out even in his conception of the very titles of his two volumes of poems-Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience. Both the volumes contain some songs of childhood and are meant for childhood. Songs of Innocence refers to the innocent view of childhood about the little world around a little child. The child sees the world in its purity, beauty, and simplicity, and so finds in it something very close, akin to him. The other volume contains the songs of experience. These songs carry the poetic expression of the feelings that a child has, as he passes from total innocence to the growing experience of his surroundings. The songs here are of the wounds and sorrows that experience brings in its train. The child sees around him matters, grave, unkind, and even dreadful, and his innocent mind, confronted with the newly acquired experience of reality, feels amazed and somewhat doubtful of the very creative machinery, handled with strength and skill, by the mysterious and majestic Creator.

Blake’s two poems-The Lamb and The Tyger– taken from his Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience respectively-are the songs of childhood. The Lamb is a song about the little, timid lamb, and the other sings of the strong, wild tiger. The child addresses the lamb, interrogates it of its knowledge of its Creator, instructs it about Him, and invoker His blessings for it. In The Tyger, the child does not address the tiger. His address rather contains his feeling of wonder and awe at the sight of the tiger as also his fascinating vision of the creation of the tiger by the mighty and mysterious Creator and his apprehension of the effect of such a dreadful creation, the propriety of which may well be questioned.

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The titles of the two poems, like those of the two volumes, have symbolic undertones. The lamb stands for innocence and simplicity, meekness and mildness. The tiger signifies strength and wildness, force and violence. In fact, the two creatures symbolize the two different aspects of life and creation.

Again, Blake’s use of different materials in the songs are meaningfully symbolic. ‘The stream’ and ‘the mead’, meant for the lamb, signify singularly ‘clearness’ and ‘smoothness’ respectively. The reference to God, as calling Himself ‘a lamb’ and synthesizing Himself with it and the child, symbolizes His gentility, generosity and tenderness. The lamb and the child are, no doubt, the symbols of God in their purity and simplicity.

Similarly, in The Tyger ‘the forests of darkness’ stands for the gloom of evil which needs the strength of a fierce force to be totally dispelled. The ‘fearful symmetry’ of the tiger, too, suggests the balanced shape and the terrible look of the tiger. ‘The fire’, seized by the Creator’s hand to put into the tiger’s eyes, has a mythological symbol of the Promethean fire, stolen by the great Titan from Heaven for the benefit of mankind.

The poem The Lamb emphasizes the plain, innocent faith in the creation that is so grand and full of blessings. The other poem, however, evokes a different sensation. This is one of wonder and excitement, fear and bewilderment. The child’s intuitive belief is found replaced by his ingenuous curiosity. He does no more speak complacently of the Creator. He is rather haunted by the doubt about the propriety of the creation. This change in approach signifies the childhood growth from absolute innocence to the vexatious experience. A symbolic sense is not absent here.

Then there is the child’s question, apparently simple and spontaneous:

Did he who made the Lamb make thee?

The child gives no answer for that would be unbecoming of childhood. But this simple question bears out a significant truth about creation. The lamb and the tiger, two entirely contrary creatures, signify the variety of creation. And variety is always a mark of immensity in creation. The Creator’s marvelous potency is subtly symbolised here. This definitely strikes a symbolic mysticism about creation, although expressed very plainly in a little child’s wonder and interrogation.

It is to be noted here that Blake’s symbolism, though strongly meaningful, is nothing abstruse or incoherent, like Coleridge’s in Christabel or Kubla Khan, nor is this subtly mystical like Wordsworth’s as in Tintern Abbey or Immortality Ode. This is all clear, compact, deeply impressive and thoroughly coherent. Blake is plainly childlike, yet mystically suggestive and distinctly convincing and meaningful.

Also read; Summary and Critical analysis of the poem The Little Vagabond by William Blake

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