Image: Max Van Den via Unsplash

Tyger in the Garden: The enduring relevance of William Blake?

How did Romanticism push back against the Enlightenment? Are there any similarities between William Blake and Isaac Newton?

The Romantic Tyger

Newton’s Third Law of Motion teaches that every action generates an equal and opposite reaction. Following the example of Sokal and Bricmont, I am leery of shoehorning the natural sciences into the liberal arts, but every student of history recognizes the vertigo of cyclicality. Every social and political movement spawns a countermovement in some form. 

The legendary English poet and artist William Blake was no fan of Newton, which in itself is somewhat ironic. Blake is regarded as one of the giants of Romanticism, the artistic and literary revolution that rebelled against the 18th Century Enlightenment, renouncing its rationalism to stress the importance of expressing authentic personal feelings. Romanticism valued the emotional over the rational, the awe of the sublime over the intellectual, subordinating humanity to the whirlwinds of the natural world and denying any capacity to rise above nature.

Blake particularly despised Newtonianism for reducing the universe to a soulless mechanism. His popular color print of Newton is sometimes misinterpreted as a celebration of the thinker. It is not. Rather, it is a mockery or even a condemnation, “an admonishment of lumbering rationality and misguided faith in scientific reason over what Blake believed were the more profound and liberating powers of the imagination.” The irony is that Blake’s vitriolic rejection of Newton can be regarded as the perfect analogy for Newton’s Third Law.

His obsession with the power of the imagination as a force of nature is palpable in Blake’s most famous poem, ‘The Tyger.’ Mixing Christian and pagan mythology (a mixture peculiar to Romanticism), Blake’s mythical creation is worshipful without being reverent. Blake was iconoclastic in what he idolized and his spirituality was never simple. He believed that to be humble, one must possess the capacity to sincerely denigrate oneself and so Blake despised organized religion because it made a spectacle of false humility.

The literary critic Oliver Tearle observes that the repeated question punctuating ‘The Tyger’: “Presumably…is rhetorical; the real question-behind-the-question is why?” Why indeed? The good Christian obeys God’s will without question, but we all fall short sometimes. Yet Blake does not even pretend not to resent God’s superiority. It has been observed of the Old Testament’s Job that, while the suffering hero finally acknowledges that Yahweh (God) does nothing without good reason, he never withdraws the question concerning his punishment: Why? Likewise, Blake externalizes his own battle with the divine in the form of a question, marvelling at the duality of a creator who sculpts tigers and lambs alike into being: Did he who made the lamb make thee?

Given his mystical rejection of Newton, we can only imagine what Blake would have made of Darwin if he had lived long enough to encounter him. Yet it would be misleading to equate Blake’s mythos with the fundamentalism of modern creationists. In rejecting orthodox Christian theology, Blake rejects the Godhead. ‘The Tyger’ is more enigmatic than most allegories. To the extent the divine appears at all in the poem, it is not theistic but panentheistic; not god as benevolent father but god as a generative, almost uncontrolled force in nature.

A modern theory concerning the evolution of tigers suggests they emerged in north central China in the basal stage of the Pleistocene. During this period, all sorts of species were evolving into more impressive megafauna. Modern theory posits that Pleistocene tigers may have grown into their fearful symmetry as “an adaptation to increases in the size of their preferred prey.” Blake would surely find that plausible. 

A Detour Through the Garden of Love

I first encountered ‘The Garden of Love’ through the Facebook page of the novelist Anne Rice. A committed religious dissident and general contrarian, Rice shared the poem in response to the news of a Vatican priest who resigned after coming out as gay (admitting to having a Spanish lover), calling on the Catholic Church to modernize its stance on homosexuality. 

Like any college-aged Catholic, I found ‘The Garden of Love’ electrifying from the first reading. What more articulate summation of the corrosive effects of religion on healthy sexuality could there be? Perhaps like most scholars, I have come to find it less electrifying over time and more sobering, inspiring more introspection than catharsis.

Gardens in poetry, Tearle writes, tempt us to recall the Garden of Eden, the paradise that existed before the succumbing to temptation. The art historian Paul Johnson describes how “Blake and his wife often danced about their London garden naked, to work themselves into an Adam-and-Eve mood.” (Johnson, 2003, p. 500) Like that original morality tale, the deceptively simple poem becomes nuanced as it grows in the imagination.

It is easy – too easy – to read ‘The Garden of Love” as an oversimplified polemic, a withering indictment of the sexual morality of the times. Why then the passivity of the narrator’s tone, the glaring lack of anger or self-righteousness? There is no implication in the closing lines that Blake has any intention of knocking the briars from the priests’ hands as they bind his joys and desires. He has come to the garden where he used to play on the green (gambolling naked with his wife, perhaps?) and found the space profoundly altered, reduced to a graveyard, crowned by a chapel decrying the very spirit of the garden that existed there before. Blake is rightly associated with the free love movement, but this is a broad concept, and his views evolved over the course of his life.

Tearle, paraphrasing D. G. Gillham, explains “if the Garden is of the mind, and the Chapel that despoils it is also of the mind, the corruption stems from the speaker’s own mental attitude rather than an external reality.” Repression comes from without but can only be perpetuated by its impregnation within. The forces that shape our psyches in our formative years become part of ourselves, against which we can fight but never entirely eradicate. Even victory is not eradication, for a mirror opposite is nevertheless a reflection.

What can we infer from this? Perhaps that the capacity to temper our creative energies, for better and for worse, is to be found in the Garden of Love. Alicia Ostriker has observed that Blake is not merely tearing down what he despises. “He is also asserting that gratified desire does what religion pretends to do: gives access to vision, the discovery of the infinite.” Transcendence, in other words, comes as much from within as repression. Unbounded passion is as destructive as the tiger. Unbounded intellect is the monstrous creator of the tiger. From both these driving forces emerges the nostalgia for the Garden. There, whether in joyful desire or binding briars, we have the time and the peace to reflect upon ourselves.

The Living Blake

Like a mirror, Blake shines so brightly today because his work channels the anxieties handed down by the post-Enlightenment era. The battles between science and faith, emotion and intellect, and ideology and humanity rage unabated. If anything, the contests have only grown more vicious. In such an environment, thoughtful people seek parallels, and in William Blake, precursor of Freud, we find them. ‘The Tyger’ resonates perhaps more with the modern reader than when Blake wrote it because humanity has never been more self-aware, most of all of its own capacity for the creation of destructive powers. 

The staccato cacophony framing the tiger’s fiery body, magma made flesh and burning eyes, prophecies by a century-and-a-half the rise of the atomic bomb, the omnipresent threat of nuclear annihilation. Less directly, but even more ominously, it presages the environmental catastrophe of global warming, born out of the industrialization made possible by the Enlightenment so despised by Blake. The power to play God with nature is balanced, as always, by a Newtonian corollary: the potential to be annihilated by that same power. As happens so often with ideological opposites, Newton and Blake arrive via different routes at the same conclusion.

Dare we hope for a solution? Blake would say, perhaps rightly, that nuclear weapons and climate change are proof of Romanticism’s founding principle; that humanity is subordinate to nature and tangles with it at our peril. Nature, like the divine, perhaps equivalent to the divine, cannot be outwitted or superseded.

Yet Blake, as we have seen, does not follow his own advice. Recognizing that it is in his human nature to question what he perceives, he places himself inside the mind of the tiger’s creator and asks what purpose his creation serves. Perceiving in his god the duality that creates tigers and lambs, he perceives that potential in himself, in all of us. Out of his own conflicted internal life, he becomes a creator himself. Like the Newtonian he protests too much not to be, he intuits the underlying determinism of the universe, the illusory nature of free will, and is wise enough to caution against impulsive experimentation with what is beyond human understanding.

Daniel Lyons (the author) has released a video explaining this article in more detail.

Daniel Lyons

Daniel is studying political science at Washington State University Global Campus while working full time in the Seattle area. He is interested in history, literature, international cinema, and abstract painting.