AUTHOR’S NOTE: I recently performed a tarot reading for a fellow student of the esoteric arts (a rare treat, I might add), the conduct of which encouraged me to relaunch my neglected experiments in linking tarot cards to classical poetry by verse and stanza. Here I’m taking on The Tyger by William Blake with its exuberant pace and vivid imagery, using the Thoth and Tabula Mundi Colores Arcus decks that have earned my esteem as twin narrative heavyweights. (If I had the William Blake Tarot I might have tried that, but the Thoth Minor Arcana titles make perfect “keys” for much of the poem’s symbolism.) This entire exercise was inspired by the Tabula Mundi 10 of Wands that was such a crucial factor in the reading.
I try to select poems that are dynamic and allegorically compelling; this one is a fine example, right up there with some of Poe’s work that I dissected in the past. To illustrate it I carefully chose the following cards rather than pulling them randomly. As with my previous visual narratives, some of these correlations seem inspired and Qabalistically exact (e.g the Ace of Wands and the Devil as the equivalent of “the fire in thine eyes”), while others are more impressionistic and merely serviceable. (The Thoth deck is copyright of U.S. Games Systems, Stamford, CT, and the Tabula Mundi is that of M.M. Meleen.)
Tyger! Tyger! burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?
The Fool; the Moon; the Magus; the Priestess; the Emperor
Commentary: The Fool bears the image of a rampant tiger and conveys the idea of spotless innocence defiled but also catalyzed by the incursion of Nature, “red in tooth and claw;” the dim nocturnal vistas of the Moon suggest the “forests of the night” roamed by the fabled beast (looks like the “Tyger” sneaked around the back to get at the Fool); the Magus (Mercury as the” “Hand of the Master”) and the Priestess (the Moon as the “All-Seeing Eye”) can be envisioned as the “immortal framers;” the “fearful symmetry” of the Emperor is embodied in the number Four as a perfect cube, and in the Masonic framing square and compass; however, there is a whiff of decrepitude in it as shown by the name “Ozymandias” inscribed on the base of the beehive. What self-respecting “Tyger” would stoop to such self-mockery? As British absurdist Viv Stanshall of the Bonzo Dog Band once sang: “How many tigers can you find with false subservience?” In keeping with the “cosmic fabrication saga” of the fourth stanza, it might be useful to think of the Fool as the “Design Engineer,” the Moon as the profusion (and confusion) of design variables, the Magus as the “Bionics Technician,” the Priestess as “Quality Assurance” and the Emperor (aka “Tyger”) as the formidable construct of their collaboration. (The Empress will have her say later.)
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?
The Star; the Ace of Wands; the Devil; the Lovers; the Aeon
Commentary: The Star creates the impression of extraordinarily vast and remote spaces; as the “Root of the Power of Fire,” the Ace of Wands is the “gleam in the eye” of the Devil, who corresponds to the Hebrew letter Ayin, meaning “Eye;” the Lovers symbolizes the aspiration implied by the “chymical wedding” that unites Fire and Water through the intervention of Air; The Aeon (Judgement) is the card of Primal Fire and the alchemist’s furnace or athanor in this card is its symbol.
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?
Art; 4 of Wands; Ace of Cups; Death
Commentary: Art (Temperance, or “one who tempers”) as the artificer or “Alchemist” is self-explanatory and signifies the consummation of the union depicted in the Lovers — the Fire and Water measured out by the Alchemist prefigure the next two cards; the 4 of Wands (Completion) implies “well-made heartstrings;” the Ace of Cups is the “Root of the Power of Water” and analogous to the pulsing life-blood of the “beating heart;” nothing speaks of “dread” like Death, which in the old decks appeared to be harvesting souls (not something you would want to encounter in the form of an incandescent “Tyger” in the middle of the jungle on a dark, steamy night).
What the hammer? what the chain,
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? what dread grasp
Dare its deadly terrors clasp?
4 of Disks; the Chariot; 10 of Wands; the Tower
Commentary: This eloquent stanza conveys the idea of “forging” throughout. The 4 of Disks as “Power” represents the kind of physical clout that is emblematic of the “hammer” and the “chain;” according to Paul Foster Case, a “furnace” is one of the occult symbols for the Chariot; I often think of the 10 of Wands as showing “true grit” or “tenacity and force of Will” — its title is “Oppression,” but I see in this version the principle of “Compression,” the kind of intense heat and pressure required to fuse diamonds. The “hard as nails” Tabula Mundi image is dominated by an anvil and two forging hammers, giving rise to the idea of metal fabrication or “tool-making” — but with our incorrigible “Tyger” it’s probably swords and not plowshares being made; the Tower is a symbolic purveyor of the “terrors” that might arise from a furnace run wild — it doesn’t so much “clasp” the juggernaut as commit to derail it, but a well-crafted “Tyger” would seem to be hardened to its rough embrace.
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?
4 of Swords; Hanged Man; Lust; the Empress
Commentary: The 4 of Swords is titled, “Truce,” a good match for the metaphor of “spears thrown down;” the Hanged Man denotes the essence of “Primal Water,” here showering the “sub-Lunar heavens” with his aqueous benediction; Lust as Leo implies ego-gratification (smiling indulgently on the work of creation); although its context in the poem is religious, the Empress as Venus imparts the gentleness and mildness of the Lamb in contrast to the fierceness of the “Tyger,” a stereotype of Mars (exalted in Capricorn and thus kin to the Devil), with which she is equal in every way despite being contrary in expression. (This strikes me as a resounding “Yes!” to Blake’s question: God is author of the infernal as well as the supernal.)
Tyger! Tyger! burning bright,
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?
Commentary: The “Tyger” returns to the crucible of its creation.
Final Thoughts: These decks play nicely together, which is not surprising since the Tabula Mundi is a very close Thoth clone with re-imagined imagery. It would have been better for the optics if they were identical in size, but my large-format Thoth is too big and my standard-size deck is slightly too small. Still, it’s a workable compromise and they all photographed quite well. I normally don’t mix decks but I needed to get some more experience with interpreting the Tabula Mundi, and it was the one I used in the reading I mentioned above so I wanted to work its 10 of Wands into this effort.