September 19, 2007

Asking Questions with William Blake

Doubt by William Blake

When I was looking in my Norton Anthology for another poem, I came across William Blake's poem "The Tyger."

Almost everyone who has sat through a few years of English literature classes in high school or college has come across this poem.

Being that I do not have a good memory for poems, it surprised me that I could remember portions of this poem. I'm thinking that I was once assigned it for memorization.

When I reread it, I also remembered what I had liked about the poem when I first read it. It was filled with questions and, more importantly, the poet didn't seem to be able to answer them any more than I could answer them.

You could write a poem that asked questions but didn't come up with the answers? This was something new to me.

Some teacher must have taken me through the poem and discussed how the questions are in themselves a kind of answer to the main question of "What immortal hand or eye could frame thy fearful symmetry."

I doubt that God came up in my public school discussions, but then again it was a very different time - a time when having a Christmas tree in the classroom was considered the norm. In fact, would my teachers have suggested that some other method had produced the fearful symmetry?

For our September writing prompt at Poets Online, we are taking a shot at a poem that is almost all questions, but in the asking presents a kind of answer.

William Blake (November 28, 1757 – August 12, 1827) was an English poet, visionary, painter, and printmaker. Largely unrecognized during his lifetime, Blake's work is today considered seminal and significant in the history of both poetry and the visual arts.

While his visual art and written poetry are usually considered separately, Blake often employed them in concert to create a product that at once defied and superseded convention. Though he believed himself able to converse aloud with Old Testament prophets, and despite his work in illustrating the Book of Job, Blake's affection for the Bible was accompanied by hostility for the established Church, his beliefs modified by a fascination with Mysticism and the unfolding of the Romantic Movement around him. excerpted from the Wikipedia entry on Blake

If you're interested in more about Blake's poems or artwork, try the Blake Archive.


Anonymous said...

There seemed to be such a short turn around time for this prompt. Next time, could we have a little longer? Just a thought.

Poets Online said...


You're absolutely correct. I got poetically behind last month and
didn't get the new prompt and email out until mid-Sept, so I set the end of the month (as usual) as the submission deadline. Too little time.

To complicate things, I had no reminder set to upload the new poems at the end of September, so nothing new has been posted. The short deadline must have scared people because only a dozen submissions came through... so...

Any "unanswered questions" from the Blake prompt received by OCTOBER
27 will be considered for the September new poems page. A new prompt will be up on 10/28 which will run for 3 weeks and hopefully by the end of the year we'll even things out.

Poets Online old-timers (next year we'll be 10 year old) will remember that we started with 2 weeks per prompt and gradually worked up to about a month per prompt - which seems a bit long, but...

It's terrible how these jobs we do to earn a living keep getting in the way of writing poetry!

Anonymous said...

I love Blake's "The Tyger" and I'm so glad you chose it as a prompt.

There's an issue that this Blake piece raises - perhaps readers might offer me some insight.

In so many reproductions of "The Tyger," "he" and "his" in the penultimate stanza are capitalized, as they are in your presentation of the poem.

Yet, for me, it seems to contradict the minuscule lettering in the artwork that Blake did. Do you know why so many editors chose to use the majuscule there when Blake clearly uses the lower-case "h" for both words?

To further complicate matters for me, I've always interpretted the "he" of the third line in the second stanza as the blacksmith/Creator of the tyger (as in, "On what wings dare He fly up to the distant stars to seize the fire for the tyger's eyes?"), yet that "he" in never capitalized, even when the "he" and "his" of the penultimate stanza are.
Why the discrepancy when alluding to the same Creator figure? Or do you have another interpretation of the "he" issue? Does the "he" of the second stanza differ from that of the next-to-last stanza?