The Tyger Heads of William Blake

The following table organizes details of the heads of the tyger featured at the bottom of Blake’s poem “The Tyger” in the different copies available at The William Blake Archive. There are thirteen images in all available at The William Blake Archive, which is a around half of all known copies of the Songs of Innocence and of Experience and none of the individual copies of the Songs of Experience. The William Blake Archive is an open-access, well-organized, and professionally presented repository of Blake’s visual works. The editors and their staff work very hard to provide as much material as possible and are adding to the archive regularly. You can learn more about The William Blake Archive by visiting its “About” page.

The images below are arranged chronologically by category. The taxonomy, alas, is my own. Since “Psychedelic” refers to color, all images under this column are found in other columns. Copy AA appears under both “Bashful” and “Happy,” because the expression is a bit enigmatic to me, while I was tempted to put Copy L, currently under “Sad,” in its own category, “Tired.”

The facial expression of Blake’s tyger has been a matter of some critical discussion over time. You might notice that the majority of the images below fall under the heading “Happy,” which seems inconsistent with the description of the tyger in the text of the poem “The Tyger.” My immediate impression is that Blake is deliberately using the drawing in these instances to provide an ironic visual counterpoint to the poem’s description of a fearsome tyger, but such a statement would diffuse the tension, power, and questioning of the poem almost completely — if the tyger (and by extension nature) isn’t that fearsome after all, then stanza five’s closing question, “Did he who made the lamb make thee?” is easily answered, and we are returned to the innocence of the child speaker in “The Lamb.” This reading is certainly possible, but it seems to thoroughly invalidate the force of “The Tyger” with a wry grin, a possibility I find difficult to fully accept at present. I’ve also wondered out loud about the possibility that Blake was following bad taxidermic models for some reason, but that’s only speculation.

To facilitate discussion, I thought it might be useful to provide side-by-side images of just the heads so organized. I may add summaries of this critical discussion to this post when I’m near my Blake books again. You can view all plates side by side at the Blake Archives’s comparison page for this poem.

Happy Imposing Psychedelic Sad Bashful

Copy B, 1794
Copy B, 1794

SIE-Copy-Z
Copy Z, 1826

Copy T, 1794

Copy T, 1794

Copy AA, 1826
Copy AA, 1826

Copy C, 1794
Copy C, 1794

SIE-Copy-F
Copy F, 1794

SIE-Copy-N
Copy N, 1795

Copy E, 1794

Copy A, 1795

Copy L, 1795
Copy L, 1795

Copy F, 1794

Copy A, 1795

Copy R, 1808

Copy V, 1821

Copy Y, 1825
Copy Y, 1825

Copy AA, 1826
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3 thoughts on “The Tyger Heads of William Blake

  1. wow. I think he’s using his chow as a model. I always wondered why they looked so “pathetic” . Self Portraits? Even a child has a more frightening view of a tiger. Those psychedelic meatheads really creep me out.

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    1. Ha — I love the idea of self-portraits. Maybe they’re like mood rings or, if we want to be less 70s, status updates? “Today William is feeling… happy.”

      I think the fact of multiple productions of the same work meant he got to experiment — with different color schemes, printing techniques, etc. Not every experiment will be equally successful.

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