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Darwin’s Tyger

June 2011
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William Blake published “The Tyger” in 1794, before the birth of Darwin, when nature was a different nature, when nature’s root was not natural, when nature’s root was supernatural. But this poem is a portent, of sorts; it’s a looming. The poem represents a fundamental shift in the imagination of the Western Mind; it represents a willingness to ask certain deadly, murderous questions. This poem is implicit in the conspiracy to leave God a patient etherized upon a table, on life-support, flat-lining, with desperate theologians yet probing his brain in hope of therein finding a subject, upon whom to base their authority, though He were a vegetable.

Western Culture had already felt Earth thrust out from the center of an imagined creation; felt the tremblings of cathedrals as Jesus’ lifeless head bobbed back and forth, his corpse nailed to a cross; felt the foundations of king’s castles cracking as Copernicus’ dangerous idea undermined the very foundation of Western Philosophy, of Western Religion, and of the Western Social Order.

Though the Copernican Revolution moved both the Earth and the Church from the center; though the Copernican Revolution created the space wherein a radically new and political philosophy could be built; though the Copernican Revolution helped Philosophy to re-invent man and center him on Descartes’ subject, the Cogito, the I think; God the Creator still lived, and on His authority, men of Theological Knowledge could make demands of what a man would think, claim, and do.

This fundamental shift in the Western Universe, Nature, and Politics led poets like Blake to re-imagine the Universe and Literature. Indeed he re-imagined religion. He rejected the traditional authorities and wrote his own mythology, which he wove from the stuff of both the Bible and Greek Mythology.

As he sought to understand the World and Nature through his art, he got the rare chance to see a tiger on display in London. Seeing this magnificent beast brought the poet to reflect deeply on the what the tiger meant about Nature and her Creator.

Thus he opens his poem with the deadly question, “What immortal hand or eye / Could frame thy fearful symmetry?”

With this question, we can see a man standing at the end of one age, yet at the beginning of a new age. He is of the older age insofar as he assumes an immortal creator; yet he is of an age yet to come insofar as he is far-seeing and bold enough to ask the questions which conspire to murder God.

There exist those among us those who are yet wont to preserve the theological elements of the former age, who are wont to cherish images of a kind, caring, and loving creator. “God is love,” the cliche goes. Except for the more zealous among them, they are happy to discard images of Hell and horror. More people believe in God than believe in Satan. Most embrace the Lamb, yet reject the Wolf.

But Blake is an artist; he is a poet, a painter, and a printmaker; he knows the importance of shadow. Thus, when he studies this tiger in London, he sees through its stripes shadows and Hell’s flames. Thus, when he writes, “Tyger Tyger, buring bright, / In the forests of the night,” he expresses a natural theology, in which unifies three key elements: God, Satan, and Nature.

Looking at the Tiger, he sees evidence of an awesome creator: God. But this creator is unlike the loving Creator celebrated in the New Testament; he is more like the wrathful God to be feared whom we find in the Old Testament, wherein little is said of Satan. The Creator we find Blake imagining is awesome in the original sense of the word: someone for whom we find profound reverence; but he is also terrible, shadowy, even evil.

Who could create such a fearsome and terrible creature, and not be yet more fearsome? more terrible? But aren’t we taught that the Creator is kind and loving? the one who created the Lamb? who so loves us that he gave his only begotten Son? Looking on the Tiger, Blake asks, “Did he who made the Lamb make thee?”

We see in the Tiger the expression of God and Satan, of the Good and the Terrible; we see in the tiger the expression of God; we see in the tiger evidence of God’s character. But the Tiger also expresses Nature, God’s creation, upon which God smiled and said, “It is good.”

Blood, horror, screams from the jungle: yet He said, “It is good.” This is not Plato’s universe, wherein what God would love, He would love because it is good. In the Tiger, we can see that what is good is good because God loves it. This is the very heart of darkness and horror. Who is it that watches over us?

Through this kind of art and thought, nature becomes that upon which we can meditate to come to know God’s Nature. This is called the Argument from Design. Thus God’s coffin is prepared. The artists are thus implicated in the conspiracy to assassinate the Ruler. Reason played its part; but the Imagination showed the way–and the why.

Born just fifteen years after Blake published “The Tyger,” Charles Darwin was in his youth a devout boy who had aspired to the priesthood. But he was an honest man and valued Truth. He followed his questions on Nature, the Evidence of God, to their conclusion, and gave up his belief in God.

The evidence has only piled on since, and since very few serious intellectuals counter Nietzsche’s tragic pronouncement that God is Dead.

But the Earth still shakes, Christ’s lifeless head still bobs and sways, and many take The Argument from Design seriously. And we should take it seriously. We should follow the evidence from Nature as strictly as did Darwin; but for this we need stout hearts and a taste for irony, of which I will write soon, when I address Frost’s poem “Design.”


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