The Complexity of Blake's Composite Art in The Tyger and The Lamb

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An examination of prominent anthologies shows that Mitchell’s assertion is not universally held, as these collections display Blake’s “Songs of Innocence and Experience” exclusively as poetic texts, suggesting that the visual aspect is secondary. Indeed, some critics find Blake’s illustrations superfluous, since they frequently differ from the contents of the text. Yet although the poems often stand by themselves, they should be read with their illustrations because “interaction” is only possible if both “modes” are present. Blake identified his work as an inextricable fusion between illustration and text; from the very beginning both were etched in relief onto the same copper plate. The fact Blake calls these works “Songs”, rather than any other term, indicates that the interplay between expressive “modes” is at the foundation of his “composite art.” The combination of illustration and text allows Blake to present a holistic vision which is greater than the sum of its parts, a work which has more literary and artistic value when displayed together. An exploration of the illustrations, by enumerating every potentially significant detail, will demonstrate their fundamental relevance to the poems and the ways in which they “contribute to an understanding of the contrary states” (Bass 196) of Innocence and Experience.

In “The Lamb” the theme of Innocence is established in the portrayal of a real lamb, addressed by the child, and a metaphorical lamb, the child himself. It is a world of caring concern, one that offers the reader simple certainties and the affectionate, benign nature of God. The lamb hears the child answer his own question in the poem, meeting his eyes in expectation in the illustration. The description of “mead”, “stream” and “vales” (Blake 61) depicts a gentle agricultural landscape, echoed by the tranquil and secure foreground in the illustration where the child and flock are enclosed by a river, an oak tree and a cottage. Marsh claims that “what is absent from this poem is any shadow of sorrow” (81) or fear, entirely suiting the simplicity of the naked toddler in the illustration. The cottage also indicates that parents are nearby, adding a further protective note. The embracing vines and sinuous trees that arch over the text are suggestive of a habitat the lamb can flourish in; “their predominating qualities, like those of lamb and child, are health, youth and delicacy” (Leader 88).

Although the lamb and child are blessed in their purity and virtue, they are naïve and vulnerable to the machinations of the experienced world. This vulnerability, susceptible to exploitation, is mirrored in the deep purple cloud louring behind the cottage in the illustration. While the enclosure, like the text, is wholly reassuring, the surrounding sky accentuates the very innocence it endangers, suggesting the incomplete vision of the poem’s speaker. Leader notes how the air is “burdened” but the child and flock “are oblivious to the threat it poses” (87). He also writes that “by literally defining…the two white doves perched on the cottage roof…it reminds us that peace is vulnerable, a thing of the moment” (Leader 87). Therefore, the illustration is not simply an affirmation of the innocence of the child in the poem. It demonstrates the restrictions of Innocence when it excludes Experience, exposing what is tender and gentle as weak and open to danger. “The Lamb” is not a difficult poem to read, and one might expect it to be made easier with the accompanying illustration. Yet, far from simplifying the text, the illustration adds a “new dimension of subtlety and power” (Frye 121).

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In the “The Tyger” the potentially destructive animal described by the poem’s awestruck speaker is not remotely comparable to the one depicted in the illustration. The key words of the text, “dread”, “deadly” and “terrors” (Blake 122), combined with the relentless, aggressive rhythm, which is predominantly trochaic, detail a darkly intense and powerful experience.

“Burning” (Blake 121) could refer to the tyger’s eyes or it could suggest “that the whole beast glows with strength and wild energy” (Marsh 84). However, the adjectives critics use to describe the visual equivalent of the poem’s tyger consist of “comical”, “inquisitive”, “simpering”, and “tame” (Erdman 84). Although many argue that the illustration further complicates an already highly ambiguous poetic text, due to the obvious discrepancy between the two, “difference is just as important as similarity, antagonism as crucial as collaboration” (Mitchell 89). When an illustration undercuts a poem’s speaker, or adds an unexpected twist, the poem is enriched. Leader states that “much of what the…questioner says implies a world…that Blake would have found unnecessarily…limiting. He might well have sought to undermine the speaker by…defanging his tyger” (48). This suggests that the tyger deliberately does not exist on the same level as the animal envisioned in the poem. Perhaps it is a compensation or counterweight to the terrifying imagery of stanzas two to four. Thus, while we may feel betrayed or bewildered by the seemingly flawed illustration, “we still sense a complex and subtle intelligence at work” (Leader 50).

“The Tyger” attempts to account for the negative forces in creation, which is where Innocence falls short; it is an answer to the corrupt world, a symbol of cruel rapacity. The highly saturated bright and dark colours in the illustration are emblematic of the conflict between good and evil. This is extended by the suggestion that the tyger metaphorically represents the French Revolution. On this reading, the poem’s questioner becomes “an appalled Englishman, unable to fathom the depths of this social upheaval and unable to decide whether there could be any good in this manifest evil” (Ferber 43). In defeating the questioner, the poem is announcing that it will defeat us, too, and the possible smile of the tyger’s creator – “Did he smile his work to see?” (Blake 122) – is a hint that the poem’s creator is also smiling at the vain efforts of readers to grasp it. Some critics have seen, in certain copies, a sinister smile on the illustrated tyger and have argued that this is Blake’s attempt “to portray the smile of the deity on its lips” (Wicksteed 193).

Therefore, we cannot fully appreciate the larger meaning of the poem without a knowledge of the illustration. In the illustration of “The Lamb” the idyllic pastoral scene reveals, together with the lines of the poem, that this world 'includes all that one need know of man’s relation to God” (Mellor 4). As if to indicate the guileless innocence of the child and reflect a lamb on its hind legs, the boy is pictured as naked. Furthermore, the open green space and abundance of fertile vegetation mirrors the soft, natural imagery in the poem. Though the text is “backed by a pale wash” (Leader 87), the purple stormy sky suggests the onset of experience and the fragility of the vine-entwined saplings emphasise that Innocence is a delicate and transitory state, prior to the corruption provided by Experience. The faint suggestions of loss and threat echo the ambiguities of “The Tyger.” This illustration, like the poem it illuminates, “remains one of Blake’s contrived enigmas” (Erdman 84) because it successfully reflects the not-quite-reachable mystery at the heart of the poem. The tyger remains sublimely aloof from the speaker’s troubled questions, which redound upon his head as the poem seals itself off by repeating its opening stanza. Despite the “gentle” and “oddly inoffensive” (Leader 47) tyger, the illustration is still clearly located in the desert of Experience. A barren tree on the right and a colourless clump of vegetation on the left suggest the contamination of Innocence. Indeed, Grant writes that the “Tree of Death epitomises the fallen…world; it represents the forests of the night…where spiritual energy is imprisoned” (58).

Drawing on Wicksteed’s theory about the significance of right and left in Blake’s illustrations, Grant notes how “the Tyger is going toward the left with its front foot forward…exactly the opposite position to the Lamb” (57), a device that displays the differences between Innocence and Experience. Unlike the child and flock that are free to explore the world they inhabit, the tyger is closed in from above, “tied down to this fallen world, framed” (Grant 59), a possible reflection of the “forests of the night” (Blake 121) which symbolise emotional and bodily confinement. This is emphasised by the fact the stanzas, as well as the branches, “especially the one that bisects the poem, successively box in the animal from above” (Grant 58). By underscoring certain words like “fearful symmetry” (Blake 121), the lines of the branches function symbolically to “communicate tyranny and repression” (Grant 58). The combined effect is to illustrate the tyger as an isolated, solitary figure. It is therefore apparent that Blake’s works can share poetic and pictorial identity because “every graphic image has its seed or root in the poetry” (Erdman 16), contributing essentially to the experience of the reader.

Blake’s “composite art” is an exploration of the value and limitations of Innocence and Experience. Since lamb-like meekness will not always suffice, because it can be mistaken as a weakness and exploited, Innocence must be joined with Experience to create a harmonious whole. Although Blake’s illustrations “frequently…set out in directions unanticipated by the words on the page” (Williams 3), the simplistic view that the poems alone are sufficient in deciphering Blake’s larger meaning underestimates what he achieves through the interdependence of both “modes of expression.” The illustrations are so profoundly interesting that they acquire a semantic weight equal to the poems, with the result that the reader should feel invited to read them both, simultaneously, adjusting the meaning of each in light of the other. We therefore discover that the illustrations should not be treated as an attractive but irrelevant decoration because they reveal “delicate discordances, subtle and unexpected touches…which hint at a deeper and more complex vision” (Leader 51). The combination of two distinct forms augments themes and tensions to produce a work which is greater than its individual parts.

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