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‘Rule one: when playing with a tiger, do not struggle.’
– Polly Clark, from Tiger
I found surprisingly few poems about tigers not written by or for children. Perhaps adult poets are intimidated by William Blake’s masterful The Tyger, one of the best-known and most-often-quoted English-language poems in the world.
by William Blake
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?
“The Tyger,” often printed now as “The Tiger,” is from Songs of Innocence and of Experience.
William Blake (1757-1827) English poet, painter, printmaker and visionary. Largely unrecognised during his lifetime, Blake is now considered a seminal figure in the history of the poetry and visual arts of the Romantic Age. Songs of Innocence and of Experience is his best-known work today.
Recently, this poem by a youngster known as ‘Nael’ became a sensation on the Internet. “The Tiger” is certainly evidence of a promising young talent.
by Nael, age 6
He destroyed his cage
The tiger is out
John W. Clark pays homage not only to William Blake, but also to Rudyard Kipling, mixed together with his own rather dark thoughts.
by John W. Clark
Born in the windy country where I’ve never been,
The rock, the desert and the towering sky
That burns beyond the mountains where
The sacred rivers run and the little huts
Lie in the jungle’s shade, there
The burnished tiger moves alone and I
Can see him wander down the forest path
His fatal eye burns through the gloom,
Indifferent to the children’s souls that flit
Like monkeys through the trees ahead,
Remembering him and how he always comes
To touch them in their dreams and picture once
The stripèd beauty of his moving side
Close over as the golden eye is lost
Forever in the schoolroom’s dust,
Remembering brown skinned Mowgli and old Ka
Who led us swiftly down the forest paths
To safety in the wild country of the child
Now we sit in crumbling palaces of bone
Drowned in the slow poisons that consume our kind,
Burying our eyes in coffee cups and flesh
Nor hoping ever to know him as a look
Or armed wonder suddenly before the eyes
I look back and try to find
The sudden tiger moving through the land
Where the jungle leaps beyond my bed
To hear the monkeys moaning as he comes
And know the eyes that watch him from the side,
Until, like a hairy angel, he burns above the plain
And half in, half out of death, springs down upon the world.
First published in Poetry magazine, in the February 1962 issue.
The only information I was able to find on John W. Clark was that he published a poetry collection called All the Time in the Dark in the 1960s.
One poet who shows no fear of either tigers or William Blake is Hilaire Belloc, known for his tongue-in-cheek humor.
by Hilaire Belloc
The tiger, on the other hand,
Is kittenish and mild,
And makes a pretty playfellow
For any little child.
And mothers of large families
(Who claim to common sense)
Will find a tiger well repays
The trouble and expense.
Hilaire Belloc (1870-1953) was born near Paris just a few days before the Franco-Prussian War began. His family fled to England when news came of the French army’s collapse, returning after the war’s end to discover that their home had been looted and vandalized by Prussian soldiers. This was followed by his father’s death, leaving his English mother in difficult financial circumstances, and she returned with her children to England. In 1892, Belloc joined the French Artillery Service in France for a year. Back in England, he became a student at Baillol College, Oxford, then wrote for London newspapers and magazines. In 1896, his first book, Verses and Sonnets, appeared, followed by The Bad Child’s Book of Beasts, the original offering of his satiric verses which remain popular to this day.
Diane Glancy also remembers her childhood beliefs about tigers, which she has carried with her into her dreams as an adult.
by Diane Glancy
Is it only when you’re little
you know tigers live in your closet—
one with your shoes on his two ears,
another with your umbrella tied to his tail;
the rest wearing your red coat
and blue trousers with the red buttons?
Is it only when you’re little
the dustballs have mountainous shadows
in the crack of light under the door?
Or is it also NOW you fear that tigers will eat you—
when you wake in the middle of the night
and don’t know where you are,
nor remember how far you’ve come.
Your nose hurts like a plowed field,
your fingers stiff—
Then somehow, you remember what you’ve accomplished.
The sewing is finished—
The red buttons threaded to the blue pants
and the little coat with its sleeves.
And you know you have given them to the tigers
(so they won’t eat you).
But they chased themselves around a tree
and melted into butter.
NOW you can pick up your coat and trousers,
your shoes and umbrella.
Soon, even, you can start your car and go—
The promise of dawn already
on the face
of the clock-radio.
“Tiger Butter” from One Age in a Dream, © 1986 by Diane Glancy – Milkweed Editions
Diane Glancy (1941 – ) is an American poet, author, professor and playwright of Cherokee and English-German descent. She teaches Native American literature and creative writing at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota. She has published over two dozen poetry collections. Among numerous other awards, Glancy has won a Pushcart Prize, and an American Book Award.