Robert Graves’ and William Blake’s The Tiger

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r j dent's essay exploring the differences between william blake's the tyger and robert grave's 1970 rewrite of blake's famous poem.

Submitted: April 15, 2016

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Submitted: April 15, 2016

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A Collaboration of Unlike Minds:

Robert Graves’ and William Blake’s The Tyger

by R J Dent

 

 

The Tyger

 

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 of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand, dare seize the fire?

 

And what shoulder, & what art,
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
And when thy heart began to beat,
What dread hand? & 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 water’d 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?

 

William Blake

 

The Tiger

 

Tiger tiger 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 of thine eyes

On what wings dared he aspire
What the hand dared seize the fire

And what shoulder and what art
Could twist the sinews of thy heart
Did he smile his work to see
Did he who made the lamb make thee

Tiger tiger burning bright
In the forests of the night
What immortal hand or eye
Dared frame thy fearful symmetry


Robert Graves


Even the most cursory glance will reveal some fundamental differences between the above two poems. Graves’ rewrite came about due to a number of flaws he felt existed in Blake’s poem. He writes of these in ‘Tyger, Tyger’, an essay collected in The Crane Bag and Other Disputed Subjects. In the essay, Graves is particularly scathing of Blake’s tendency to mix his tenses, remain ‘imprecise and ambiguous’, ‘grammatically incoherent’ and to not care about the rhetorical focus of the poem.

More importantly, however, Graves neglects at any time to mention that he has ‘made his own arrangement of The Tyger’. After interviewing Graves, Christopher Burstall claims that Graves’ ‘arrangement’ includes ‘cutting out two verses and putting the whole poem in the past tense’, so that it is grammatically correct and more structurally cohesive.

It is true that Blake’s ‘The Tyger’ shifts tenses. That this is held to be a flaw is more to do with Graves’ interest in ‘The Use and Abuse of English’, rather than any grammatical errors made by William Blake.

Graves claims that ‘the confusion of tenses – with ‘dare’ in the present tense, but ‘could’, ‘was’, ‘did’ and ‘made’ in the past – increase the nightmare tension of the poem… Yet to saddle readers with an unresolved nightmare is not, I suggest, a responsible poet’s task.’

Here Graves is amusingly assuming that a poet not only has to be responsible, but also has to present work that is in no way ‘unresolved’, in other words, is free from deliberate ambiguity. This is a line of thought that ignores all of the many wonderful poems that are wonderful because of their deliberate ambiguity. Still, with an earnest desire to improve upon what he perceived to be a faulty text, Graves set to work, deleting, altering, changing and expurgating William Blake’s ‘The Tyger’.

As a result, the losses are immense. The entire fourth stanza beginning: ‘What the hammer? what the chain…’ is deleted. The two final lines from the third stanza are also gone. These lines include: ‘What dread hand? & what dread feet?, a line Graves objected to because he felt ‘Blake got into a muddle, crossed out his lines and then left the thing grammatically incoherent’.

Also missing are the first two lines of the fifth stanza, which contains the couplet:

‘When the stars threw down their spears

And water’d heaven with their tears…’

Graves’ stated reason for the puzzling deletion of these lines belonging to ‘the famous last stanza’ is that their meaning ‘is not altogether clear’ and that ‘Blake does not indicate whether the stars threw down their spears in bellicose mood, or simply let them fall from their grasp in grief.’

This is pedantry at its worst. Given the tight restrictions of metre and the rhyme scheme, let alone the immediacy of the subject matter, it would be interesting to see how Blake could have (or if he really should have) ‘indicated’ the supposed mood of the stars.

‘The difficulty,’ Graves states, ‘is it doesn’t quite make sense.’ Perhaps this is so, and yet, Blake’s ‘The Tyger’ is one of the most popular and most quoted of English poems, one that many readers find to be within their comprehension after a careful read through.

It is, of course, quite possible that the huge popularity of ‘The Tyger’ was what originally attracted Grave’s enmity, an enmity that appears to go back a long way. ‘It is easy to criticize the faulty craftsmanship of Tyger, Tyger, as I did in an Oxford lecture’, Graves confesses, as he mis-names Blake’s poem, no doubt thinking of the title of his own essay.

The rewrite or re-arrangement is therefore a way for Graves to attempt to belittle a powerful poem and try and infuse his own poetic sensibility into an already-written and canonical text. Unfortunately, for Graves, Blake is far too big a poet and personality to be competed with, which is why Graves’ version of the poem has not only subsequently been lost, but expunged from every Robert Graves reference.

According to one of the editors of Robert Graves’ Complete Works, no extant copy of the above poem exists. However, a transcript of it is available from an edition of Omnibus, a weekly BBC documentary programme. The programme shows the poem stanza by stanzas, with the name Robert Graves printed beneath the final stanza. The Omnibus documentary Graves took part in was entitled Tyger, Tyger and was an examination of the continued popularity of William Blake’s poem. Graves mentions this at the start of his essay, which was written to expand on the vaguely-expressed, vaguely theoretical ideas he had put forward so laconically in the documentary.

The above poem, ‘The Tiger’, by William Blake and Robert Graves is a collaboration of two very unlike minds. The resulting poem belongs with the many other ‘versions’ of famous works by others which Graves has attempted to ‘arrange’ throughout his career. That it is a failed experiment does not invalidate it as a poem – it still retains enough of Blake’s narrative drive to give it some life. As a poem, it lives – therefore, it should not be ignored.


Works Cited

Blake, William. ‘The Tyger’ in The Complete Poems. Ed. Alicia Ostriker. London: Penguin Books, 1981

Graves, Robert. ‘Tyger, Tyger’ in The Crane-Bag and Other Disputed Subjects. London: Cassell & Co. Ltd, 1969

Graves, Robert & Hodge, Alan. The Use and Abuse of the English Language. London: Paragon House Publishers, 1990

Tyger, Tyger – An Omnibus Documentary. BBC Television, 1967

 

A Collaboration of Unlike Minds: Robert Graves’ and William Blake’s The Tyger

Copyright © R J Dent (2007 & 2016)


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