Emblem, Prisoner and Fiction: The Tiger in Western Literature
The tiger first entered western literature as a fanciful, third-hand, distant image based on travelers’ tales: a creature of imagination, like a dragon. What changed over time was how people saw this image: how it mutated and grew when they actually saw tigers; what they brought to their idea of it; and how they used the image then.
The energy of Western writing often depends upon its imagery. At least, Aristotle thought so, back in the fourth century BC. Sanskrit, however, which is so rich (I am told) in the vocabulary of art, has many words for imagination (such as kalpana, meaning “fancy”), which have rather more varied verbal roots. In the Balaramabharatam, a text on dramaturgy dating from the eighteenth century, the art of the actor or creative artist is based on bhavananubhava: imaginative experience. bhavana, "the power of imagining", has an important connection to bhava, "feeling". There may be enormous and fascinating gulfs between cultures and languages in the ways they perceive imaginative understanding, and relate imagination to other areas of experience. But among the western heirs of practical-minded ancient Rome, and of Greece whose word phantasia is related to phainomai, "I appear", the visual image is the prime basis of that perception. For better or worse, English is the language-home of the empirical tradition. Its concept of “imagination” is related to Latin imago, "appearance": meaning "what is seen" either with the physical eye or with the inner one. The real tiger was unavailable, so the image, at first, was everything. The changing ways in which European writers saw and imagined tigers is deeply intertwined with the ways painters represented them.
So how did painters represent tigers? In the Middle Ages, most Europeans who saw a picture (or received a physical description) of a tiger got it from a bestiary, a didactic book based on the classical Physiologus (produced by Aristotle, among others) of animals both real and (as we now know) imagined. Bestiaries were illustrated by people who had little to go on and drew griffins, basilisks, and snakes with legs, as well as animals we now agree are real. Their point was allegorical and symbolic. Their beasts were emblems for moral or spiritual truths about human beings.
In the bestiary, as in heraldry where an animal’s supposed shape and nature symbolized human traits, biological errors abounded. Lion cubs were supposedly born dead; their parents breathed life into them. But every bestiarist enjoyed refuting his predecessor. “It hath been falsely supposed,” said Edward Topsell combatively in his early seventeenth-century Historie of Foure-footed Beastes, “that all Tigers be female and engender by copulation with the wind.”
Even early on, in Anglo-Saxon texts, “tiger” is a byword for cruel ferocity. A tiger is bloodthirsty, savage as a force of nature. The distant unknowable places inhabited by tigers added to the power of their image. “Egre as is a tygre yond in Ynde,” wrote Chaucer in the fourteenth century. Shakespeare’s Romeo, in the sixteenth, breaks into Juliet’s tomb to kill himself. His "fierce intents” are "savage-wild" he says; fiercer "than empty tigers or the roaring sea.” Macbeth wants the ghost to take any terrifying shape but that of murdered Banquo. He would not tremble, he boasts, at “the rugged Russian bear, / The armed rhinoceros or the Hyrcan tiger.” But tigers are also occasionally said to be brave in their raging. “Imitate the action of the tiger,” Henry V tells his troops before battle.
The bloodthirsty-ferocity cliché persisted for centuries. In Bach’s St Matthew Passion (1727), Jesus in the dock is “a lamb in the tiger’s claws.” An eighteenth-century encyclopedist who never saw a tiger explained that it was “more ferocious, cruel and savage than the lion”: “Though gorged with carnage, his thirst for blood is not appeased. He seizes and tears in pieces a new prey with equal fury and rapacity, the very moment after devouring a former one; he lays waste the country he inhabits.”
Behind this rhetoric, mixed in with mistakes, are traces of travellers’ tales that included real observation: “When he kills a large animal, as a horse or a buffalo, he sometimes does not tear out the entrails on the spot; but to prevent any interruption, he drags them off to the wood, which he executes with incredible swiftness. This is a sufficient specimen of the strength of this rapacious animal.” But the author corrupts this nugget of observation with ignorant moral judgment: “Neither force, restraint or violence can tame the tiger. He is equally irritated with good as with bad treatment: he tears the hand which nourishes him with equal fury as that which administers blows: he roars, and is enraged at the sight of every living creature. Almost every natural historian agrees in this horrible character.”
As tigers came into European menageries, the bestiary tradition was supplemented by observation. Menageries became an exciting resource for visual artists—for Albrecht Dürer, for instance, and for Leonardo in Milan. This had a knock-on effect on writers, too.
By the beginning of the seventeenth century, there were zoos all over Europe. James I’s favorite item in the Tower menagerie was a tiger presented to him in 1613 by the ambassador of Savoy. It arrived on July 1 with a lioness and the remains of a lynx “that died upon the road.” Other royal tigers in London were housed at Bankside at the Paris Gardens.
In the eighteenth century, the tiger’s literary profile in the West, and people’s feelings about tigers, began to expand. One of the "leopards, or tygers” in the Tower menagerie (as in many languages and cultures, spots and stripes are often confused) had been there, poor thing, “ever since Charles Second’s time but is now in decay.” So said John Strype, writing the entry in a new edition of John Stow’s Survey of London on this (no doubt horrible) royal zoo: “The other very beautiful and lovely to look upon, lying and playing, and turning upon her back wantonly when I saw her.” By 1741, two tigers named Will and Phillis were kept there. So was their son, a lone cub named Dick. The playwright Oliver Goldsmith (1728–1774) described the Tower’s tigers as “fierce and savage beyond measure,” but he, clearly, was seeing what he expected to see.
William Blake (1757–1827) was a very different story. He added many things to the ferocity cliché, and among them, at last, beauty. For centuries, beginning with the Greeks, the West had endowed the tiger only with the thin, crass image of cruelty. Now, in the masterpiece of a genius, it got a whole glittering tapestry of emotional and religious symbolism all at once.
Blake may have made the effort to see the Tower tigers. He could also have seen the tiger exhibited in Leicester House during his early years as a child; his parents lived round the corner in Green Street. His tiger painting in Songs of Experience (which were published in 1794) is a more accurate shape than many seen at the time. But he may simply have known George Stubbs’s painting of a tiger in a menagerie. It hung in Pars' Drawing School in London, which stood at 101 the Strand, and acted as the preparatory school for the Academy of Painting and Sculpture in St Martin's Lane; and this was where his parents sent him when he was ten.
Whether he saw this painting or real tigers in a cage, Blake was a true Enlightenment artist. To understand his tiger, we need the full layout of his imagination. Born the son of a hosier in a Dissenting and nonconformist household - that is, one holding strong Protestant views, but reacting against Church of England coziness and gilded ceremony—he was later caught up in the anti-Catholic Gordon riots. He was passionately excited by the French Revolution and spiritual radicalism, but also fascinated, technically and emotionally, by all aspects of physical creation. He illustrated the Botanic Garden of Erasmus Darwin; he took a keen interest in contemporary scientific ideas and new technologies, like geology, the production of iron, the power of magnetism, volcanoes, electricity, and the stars.
But though he explored profoundly the scientific rationalism of the day, Blake cared most about the spirit. He was deeply conscious of the parallel between human art and divine creation, and identified God’s creative process with that of the human artist. Plato had imagined the world created by a demiurge; Blake saw the Creator in similar terms, as a divine blacksmith, rather like the Greek god Hephaestus, the gods’ furniture-and-statue maker. Blake’s God is the connection between the technological, or the making of the world, and the moral: a connection which bears crucially upon the problematic nature of human beings.
Blake also thought deeply about physical making. That was his day job. He was a printer, working with metal, fire, and words. But as the son of a nonconformist urban artisan he also thought passionately about the social and industrial misery he saw around him. He felt its causes were demonic. Satan, he said, was “prince of the starry mills.” Factories in his poem “Jerusalem” were “dark Satanic Mills.” His images of beautiful creation had to address the origins of destruction, pain, evil, and savagery, in man and in the world.
This is where the tiger comes in. Blake imagined the Songs of Experience as a satire on his Songs of Innocence, published five years earlier. Formally, ostensibly, they were (or were like) children’s poems. He etched some of them on the back of the copper plates on which he engraved the Innocence poems, writing backwards.
He had to write backwards, as part of the printing process. But “backwards” is also a metaphor for the way Experience resees the material of Innocence. Together, said his title, the two sets of poems showed “The Two Contrary States of the Human Soul,” the coexistence of good and evil, in ourselves.
For Blake, too, was going to use the tiger emblematically, as an image of non-animal qualities. It is very hard not to, when an animal has come from an unknown, mainly unimaginable other world. In his Proverbs of Hell, Blake says, “The tigers of wrath are wiser than the horses of instruction.” Unless you see the real tiger in its own wild context, the animal’s potential as a symbol for ideas about human things will outweigh what you learn about its reality.
Of all the relations between the poems that speak to one another across these two sequences, Innocence and Experience, that of “The Tyger” to “The Lamb” best encapsulates Blake’s whole point: the relationship of knowledge (including knowledge of evil) to lamblike innocence.
Within that relationship, Blake’s tiger took up an intricately ambiguous position, becoming capable of representing many different, maybe incompatible, things at once. Having stood simply and crudely for ferocity, the tiger now blossomed as a symbol into many open-ended and uncertain possibilities of meaning. Critics have interpreted “the tyger” as industrialization; as the French Revolution, the violence of which was intended to redeem an oppressed society; as nuclear power and the splitting of atoms (Blake is credited with clairvoyance here); as technology; as the narcissistic self-admiration of our own human savagery. This is one of the most argued-over poems in the English language, and there is no right answer to its questions nor to understanding the ways in which it may mean them. Yet whatever else it is “about,” “The Tyger” is concerned with creativity and with its use of the supreme creative and destructive world force, fire. It suggests that wherever there is a making, there is also pain and the potential for violent destroying. Ferocity and vulnerability, risk and beauty, creation and destruction, all come into the “tiger” package.
One question the poem is certainly asking is, Where does creating come from? (“What the hand, dare seize the fire?”) If God is the benign Creator and His world is good, why bloodshed, violence, burning? Why war imagery and the need for pity? Why did stars throw down spears and water heaven with tears?
Blake’s tiger fire also seems to be imagination: maybe human, maybe divine. The tiger is becoming an image for imaging itself. Imagination, too, has to be approached cautiously: what you make with it, whether a poem or a revolution, can turn and rend you. The created tiger, “burning bright,” is kin to the violence that made it. Whoever created it had to “seize” something both beautiful and lethal:
What the hammer? what the chain?
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? what dread grasp
Dare its deadly terrors clasp?
This ambiguous poem could not have been made without the poet’s sense of the animal’s overwhelming beauty, yet its explicit awe is for the physicality behind it and a divine physique that made the tiger:
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?
Despite its beauty, the animal stands also for destructive violence. The combination of its qualities, as Blake imagined them, sum up the created coexistence of good and evil, beauty and savagery, both in ourselves and in the world God made.
Emblem of Energy, Sexuality, Imagination
By the nineteenth century, the British presence in India meant new physical consciousness in Britain of tigers, if only as animals to be shot. Tiger skins flooded into cities. The tiger’s beauty was appreciated, but as a trophy or drawing-room ornament. To the hunters, the tiger was the highest animal adversary, so the military values of the day meant it became an image of courage as well as of savagery, something to be admired as you destroyed it.
Yet the tales of shooting did include some naturalist’s observation, some understanding of the tiger’s own motivation. It was not simply all the time a cruel, bloodthirsty monster. This dynamic was embodied by Jim Corbett, whose natural gifts as a writer made Man-Eaters of Kumaon (1944) a literary classic that also offered insights into what made tigers man-eaters. The pressures on them, their real lives, and their sufferings.
This came after a century in which Europe developed a slow-growing compassion for, and the beginnings of understanding of, all animals. At the same time, there were social reforms about how to treat animals, a move expressed in literature by seeing things from the animal’s side, giving animals voices. These works can come across as sentimental now. Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty was written in 1877, Felix Salten’s Bambi in 1926. But as writing they were innovative, imaginative, and influential. Black Beauty had enormous impact on horse management in England.
And this writing often appeared in the newly dynamic genre of children’s literature. It may not be an accident that both “The Tyger” and Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Books (1894–1895) were ostensibly aimed at another unfranchised class that was slowly being given a voice: children.
Shere Khan the tiger is, of course, a villain in The Jungle Book. But he is also the vehicle by which Mowgli comes to the jungle, as if the tiger’s jaws were a necessary part of arriving where you belonged. In Winnie-the-Pooh (1926), A. A. Milne translates tiger ferocity into the undirected excess energy of Tigger; he is well meaning but bouncy: ferocity turned funny and cuddly. The early twentieth century is aware, of course, of the irony. In Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited (1945, but set in part in 1920s Oxford), the cynical Anthony Blanche sees through the hero’s jungle paintings. They are, he says, simply “creamy English charm, playing tigers.” And so are the endless soft toy tigers today.
In popular western imagination, and therefore in its literary imagination, too, the clichéd tiger ferocity gradually mutated into admirable wild energy. This could be associated with out-of-control drunken dreams—in the nineteenth century, a dive that sold illegal alcohol was called a “blind tiger.” But it was also a sacred, yearned-for energy. “God invented the cat,” said Victor Hugo, “so man could touch the tiger.”
Why should we want to touch the tiger? Because the tiger was becoming the West’s extreme image of physical, exquisite, savage energy, at a moment when the western world was beginning to worship the jungle (or, rather, how it perceived the jungle.) The century’s music was ignited by “African” jazz rhythms in Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring (1913). Harlem clubs in the 1920s were advertised as re-creations of jungles.
The tiger is still not itself in all this; it is an emblem for a human quality, but its perceived qualities are newly valued; in, for example, the 1967 film Le Samouraï. “Only the tiger in the jungle,” says Alain Delon, “is as lonely as the samurai.” Esso and Exxon still tell us to “Put a tiger in your tank.” Gird yourself in tiger energy, pour it into your car. Or into yourself: Kellogg’s tiger on the cereal box zooms in over amber wheat flakes in the bowl, to show what energy you will have when you eat them. The upper notes in a recent orchestral piece by the British composer Judith Weir titled “Tiger under the Table” (2002) are underpinned by what she describes as a “furious bassoon,” which refers, she explains, to the “exceptional energy in the bass register.” “Tiger economies” are all-conqueringly energetic. The phrases “paper tiger” and “shabby tiger” suggest ferocious energy faked or betrayed.
But the twentieth century evolved another aspect to this energy, a quality that the West, increasingly explicitly, admired. The essayist and novelist G. K. Chesterton (1874–1936) called the tiger a symbol of “terrible elegance,” but it was not only beauty that made tiger skins popular in Britain before the Second World War. The mix of tiger beauty with tiger energy led to a third quality, which still hangs around the tiger’s image in the West today. We do not say “He’s a lion in bed.” He is a tiger. In the early twentieth century, the tiger became a symbol of rampant sexuality.
In 1907, the romantic novelist and Brighton beauty Elinor Glyn published a novel called Three Weeks. It was not a brilliant bit of writing, but it shocked everyone and enjoyed rocketing sales, mainly because it described a love affair consummated on a tiger skin. It inspired the anonymous lines, “Would you like to sin / On a tiger skin / With Elinor Glyn?” Glyn later wrote It, which became a silent movie about sex appeal that made Clara Bow famous, and three other novels with racy female protagonists. But despite her fame (and the sales ofThree Weeks), Glyn was annoyed by the reception of her tiger-skin effusions. “The minds of some human beings are as moles,” she wrote crossly, “grubbing in the earth for worms. Those who look beyond will understand the deep pure love and Soul in Three Weeks.”
Deep pure love, however, was up against the zeitgeist, and its appetite for tiger eroticism. In prewar bohemian London, a model called Betty May made her career out of playing tigers. Her party trick was lapping a saucer of brandy on all fours, and she was known as Tiger Woman. “I am sure I am born for adventure,” she says in her 1929 autobiography of that title, which carries a photo of her, black hair over her face like an unbrushed Mowgli about to bite. Born in the East End, May caught the eye of the sculptor Joseph Epstein, modeled for him, joined the Parisian underworld, tangled with cocaine, and landed up in Aleister Crowley’s Satanist cult in Sicily. She did have competition: a blond dancer called Jessica Valda nicknamed herself Puma. But a puma cannot compete with a tiger, and Betty May remained the most famous of the many bohemian beauties courting a precarious living in the prewar Café Royal.
Imagination and the Cage
George Stubbs may have unwittingly painted the cage bars he saw into his tiger’s stripes; Eugène Delacroix and Henri Rousseau gave their zoo tigers a wilderness or jungle background; twentieth-century poets, however, focused on what they saw standing between them and the wild animal: the cage itself. They identified with the animal’s imagined fury at it. Reared on the taking-the-animal’s-side pulse in children’s literature, they brought to the big-cat image all sorts of other associations, including anger and frustration at being enclosed, as Bagheera the black panther was held in a king’s cage at Oodeypur in The Jungle Book. He had a bare place on his throat where the jeweled collar had rubbed; eventually, he set himself free: “I broke the silly lock with one blow of my paw.”
In September 1905 a young German poet became secretary to the sculptor Auguste Rodin. One day, he confessed to his master that he had a block; he had not written a poem for a long time. Go to the zoo, said Rodin, following the tradition of the visual artist inspired by the menagerie. Go and look at an animal “until you really see it.”
The result was one of the twentieth century’s most famous poems, “The Panther,” in which Rainier Maria Rilke (1875–1926) marvels at a leopard’s power and beauty:
the movement of his powerful soft strides
is like a ritual dance around a center.
He sees the leopard’s jungle vision dimmed by the bars. “There are a thousand bars, and behind the bars, no world.”
Half a century later, Ted Hughes responded to Rilke in his poem “Jaguar”:
His stride is wildernesses of freedom:
The world rolls under the long thrust of his heel.
Hughes picks up Rilke’s image of a beauty and power that belong in the wild but stresses the rage as well as cage.
In a sense, these poems are on a continuum with Blake’s “The Tyger.” They look intensely at the wild cat; they “really see,” in Rodin’s words, its living beauty. They also see how misplaced it is in a cage. But they, too, implicitly use the animal as an image for something in the human spirit: not destructive (the twentieth century knew more about human potential for destructiveness even than Blake) but imprisoned, unfulfilled.
And yet, ever since Blake, there had been another aspect of the tiger image running through western imagination, though not one that was obvious to British subalterns, trooping out with guns to shoot a tiger. In the West, a tiger was the most glamorous representative of the non-indigenous wild. And so tigers became a conscious image for the exotic, the elsewhere; or for imagination creating the elsewhere in oneself.
To the American poet Wallace Stevens (1879–1955), imagination was “the power that enables us to perceive the normal in the abnormal, the opposite of chaos in chaos.” His poem “Disillusionment of Ten O’Clock” (1923) pictures conventional people at home at the end of their day, pressured to be like everyone else. Even in dreams they are caged, not free. They do not “dream of baboons and periwinkles.” Out on the street, however, an old sailor, “Drunk and asleep in his boots,” conjures up in his stupor the exotic dreams he once had in far-off places. In his alcoholic haze, he “Catches tigers / In red weather.”
That “red” could mean many things, but it certainly suggests the power of imagination. Unlike the people caged in their houses, and in boring “white night-gowns,” the tramp-like sailor is colored and enriched; saved, by dreaming of tigers, from the caging “disillusionment” of modern living. Catching tigers in red weather is an image for imagination and dream.
And with dream, we move on to the tiger’s greatest western fabulist.
“There Are No Words That Can Rune the Tiger”
Jorge Luis Borges (1899–1986) sums up western experience of tigers. Meeting them in images, words, and zoos, he thrilled to them in imagination, investing them with the motifs of his extraordinary internal universe.
Borges was born in Buenos Aires but learned English before Spanish; his imagination was European and he was profoundly influenced by English and American literature. His mother was a translator, his father a lawyer and psychology teacher of Italian, Jewish, and English heritage. He grew up in a house with a library and garden, which laid down important external features of his imaginative landscape. In 1914, the family moved to Geneva, where Borges learned French and German and received his degree. After World War I, the family lived in Spain, where he published his first poem, in the style of Walt Whitman. In 1921, he settled back in Buenos Aires and began his career as a writer. From the late 1930s to 1946 he worked at the Buenos Aires Municipal Library. Sacked by the Perón regime, he was appointed poultry inspector for the municipal market but from 1955 to 1970 taught literature at Buenos Aires University.
Borges was entranced by the idea of the philosopher George Berkeley that the sensible world consists only of ideas that exist as long as they are perceived; that the “real world” may be only one in an infinite series of realities. These ideas inform his fictions. So, side by side with them, do tigers. He was obsessed with tigers in childhood, and they often appear in his work.
As a child, Borges drew tigers incessantly. He adored going to the Buenos Aires Zoo. It always smelled, he wrote, “of candy and tigers,” and he had to be dragged away from the tiger cage. In Borges’s work, the tiger often symbolizes unattainably absolute physicality: pure sensuality, which lives in a world without language. He was not afraid of tigers, but he was afraid of mirrors. There were three large ones in his bedroom as a child. “I saw myself in the dim light thrice over,” he once wrote, “afraid the three shapes would begin moving by themselves.” He was scared, apparently, of being repeated or replicated. Mirrors became his emblems of the other, the double: what might happen on the other side of reality and the possibility of different identities.
In the short story “The Writing of the God” (1949), the markings on a “tiger” contain a secret divine message. The story is told by an Aztec priest imprisoned by the Spanish. In the next cell, there is a jaguar (tigre in Spanish), “which with secret, unvarying paces measures the time and space of its captivity.” The prisoner remembers that on the first day of creation his god wrote a magic phrase somewhere, and one of the names of his god was tigre: “I imagined my god entrusting the message to the living flesh of the jaguars, that web of tigers, that hot labyrinth of tigers, bringing terror to the lanes and pastures in order to preserve the design.”
Over the years, he learns the spots on the “tiger’s” skin by heart: “Black shapes mottled the yellow skin. Some made circles; others formed transverse stripes on the inside of its legs; others, ringlike, occurred over and over again—perhaps they were the same sound, or the same word.” Gradually deciphering the sacred text, he reads the secret of the universe hidden in the markings on the “tiger.” But he no longer remembers who he was, because now that he has seen “the burning designs of the universe,” he has a different identity. So, he says, “Let the mystery writ upon the jaguars die with me.”
“Blue Tigers” (in Shakespeare’s Memory, 1983) is set in India in 1904 and told by a Scottish professor of Eastern and Western logic at the Lahore University, whose love of tigers brought him from Scotland to India. It opens with the idea that “there are no words that can rune the tiger,” and draws on Borges’s childhood obsession with tigers to sketch the speaker’s character:
“I have always been drawn to the tiger. As a boy I would linger before one particular cage in the zoo; the others held no interest for me. I would judge encyclopedias and natural histories by their engravings of the tiger. When the Jungle Books were revealed to me I was upset that the tiger, Shere Khan, was the hero’s enemy . . . In my dreams I always saw tigers.”
He reads that a blue tiger has been discovered in the Ganges delta, and starts to obsess about tigers again, though has apparently done nothing about this love that drew him to India since he came to Lahore. He wonders what “blue” means. Could the animal be a black panther? The London press published a fantasy, a blue tiger with silver stripes, which was obviously rubbish. He starts to dream blue tigers, whose color, like the tiger itself, could not be described in words. “I saw tigers of a blue I had never seen before, and for which I could find no word."
Then a colleague says he has heard there were blue tigers in a village some way away from the Ganges. He decides to go and see and arrives at a village below a flat hill. Praising the locality emptily, by saying that its fame has reached Lahore, he sees the villagers’ faces change. He feels they possess some secret. Maybe, he thinks, they worship the blue tiger and he is not supposed to know. He says he wants to see it. They look at him strangely, stupidly; they seem frightened. Then he says he wants to capture it, and they seem relieved. They start waking him at night, saying it has been seen. But he never gets to see it. He always turns up just when as the tiger has left. They show him a track, a pugmark, broken twigs; but he begins to suspect these signs are faked.
These traces remind Borges' reader of that first idea, that no words can "rune" the tiger: that it is impossible for marks made by human writing (as opposed to the divine writing on the tiger’s skin in the earlier story) to represent the reality of the world, or of the tiger.
He is told the hill cannot be climbed. There are magical obstacles blocking the path. He would be in danger; he might see some divinity he should not see, or go blind; or mad. So he climbs it alone at night and finds a crevice filled with little stones, which are exactly the same indescribable blue as the blue tiger of which he originally dreamed. He pockets a handful of them and returns to his hut.
The stones begin to send him mad, for they are obsessively impossible to count. They keep multiplying: they are another Borges image of sinister, ungraspable replication. The villagers say they are “the stones that spawn,” whose color they are forbidden to see except in dreams. He leaves the village and keeps trying in vain to count the stones, but they “destroy the science of mathematics;” and he, of course, is a logician. He prays in a mosque to be free of them and offloads them on a blind beggar who assures him he may now “keep wisdom, habits, the world”—everything he felt the blue stones taking from him.
The blue tigers of this fable are an open image. Like all symbols in Borges’s mysterious fictions, they could stand for many things. But one thing they certainly stand for is the beautiful danger—which Borges associated with tigers—of an obsessive dream. It can deprive you of your “habits,” your sense of order and logic, of “the world.”
The voice of Borges’s more apparently autobiographical piece “Dreamtigers” (The Maker, 1960) says that when young, the writer was “a fervent worshipper of tigers.” Like the speaker in “Blue Tigers,” he lingered for hours in front of their cage at the zoo and judged encyclopedias “by the splendor of their tigers.” “The tigers and my passion for them faded” after childhood, “but they are still in my dreams.” When he realizes he is dreaming he says to himself, “I am going to bring forth a tiger.” But it never works. “Oh incompetence. My dreams never seem to engender the creature I so hunger for. The tigers that appear are all wrong. Too small, wrong shape, or flimsy.” Again, the Borges tiger is connected with the limit and failure of dreams, with how impossible it is truly to visualize or write the real.
Borges’s poem “The Other Tiger” also argues that human imagination cannot make the tiger real. The poet imagines a tiger and longs to touch the physical, language-less animal itself; but he cannot. He is not in a jungle. He is in that archetypal Borges space, a library. Writing a poem about a tiger, this poem discovers, means failing to write the real tiger, its power, innocence and footprints in the mud. Thinking of the tiger puts the library's books at a distance for the poet, but the real distance is between the poet sitting in a library in South America and a real tiger in India beside the Ganges. All he can do, he tells the tiger, “is dream you.” But the tiger he dreams is "made of symbols and of shadows". It is "a set of literary images,/ scraps remembered from encyclopedias." The poem tries to conjure the real thing, the tiger living its tiger life, but only succeeds in making what human beings do make, a fiction. The real tiger is “out of reach of all mythologies.”
This poem is about reaching for the reality behind the symbol and never being able to get there, not even with all the resources imagination can draw on: tradition, language, a library, encyclopedias (that great Borges image of the ordered but bafflingly endless repository of knowledge), or poetry and myth.
There is a cage here, but it is not the physical bars that Rilke and Hughes saw around the animal. The animal is fine, and free. It is human imagination that is caged, doomed to the “ancient, perverse adventure” of struggling to touch reality in language, bridging the gap between the image and the real.
The poet rejects the image tiger, created out of fragments floating from the leaves of encyclopedias. He yearns to see the tiger as, in Rodin’s words to Rilke, “it really is.”
But he never can. Borges’s tiger is the image of all images that most brings human imagination, and human words, up against their own limit, reminding us that we cannot reach the real.
As It Really Is?
So where does this leave the tiger in western literary imagination? Throughout, it has been an image for things other than itself, in which developing western literary consciousness saw reflections of human nature through the centuries. Once the animal’s living beauty made an impact, there was a shift from symbol of simple ferocity to other symbolizing: it could stand for creativity, imagination, or the reality that imagination cannot reach. It came to symbolize more human qualities as more accurate information about tigers, and personal zoo observation, trickled into the tradition, and especially as the culture changed—as savagery, associated with energy and sexuality, was increasingly admired. But as Borges’s poem points out, human self-images and verbal secondhand ideas do not really come up to the tiger itself.
I suspect that Blake did see tigers in the Tower menagerie. His poem, more than any other, is full of awe at the tiger’s presence. But his main purpose, like everyone else’s, is symbolic. Apart from “The Tyger,” no western writing breathes the sense of the tiger as itself that you get, for example, from the passage below from Jim Corbett.
Corbett is engaged not in allegory but in compassionate observation, writing not about himself or human nature but about a tiger. It is not great literature. But it does have writerly power, which comes from the fact that in his often rather stiff, conventional language, Corbett implies but never foregrounds his own (clearly very strong) feelings about what he sees. Above all, he is writing, as none of the others did, about what he knew.
In the following passage from The Temple Tiger, Corbett is tracking the Chuka Man-Eater who killed many people in the Ladhya valley in 1936. He is up a tree watching a kill. But the tiger that arrives is not the one he expects.
A tigress came into view, followed by two small cubs. This was quite evidently the first occasion on which the cubs had ever been taken to a kill, and it was very interesting to see the pains the mother took to impress on them the danger of the proceeding and the great caution it was necessary to exercise. Step by step they followed in her tracks; never trying to pass each other, or her; avoiding every obstruction that she avoided no matter how small it was, and remaining perfectly rigid when she stopped to listen, which she did every few yards. . . .
Passing by my tree she lay down on a flat piece of ground overlooking the kill and about thirty yards from it. Her lying down was apparently intended as a signal to the cubs to go forward in the direction in which her nose was pointing, and this they proceeded to do. By what means she conveyed to them the information that there was food for them at this spot I do not know, but that she had conveyed this information there was no question. Passing their mother—after she had lain down—and exercising the same caution they had been made to exercise when following her, they set out with every appearance of being on a very definite quest. . . .
The blowflies disclosed its position and at length enabled them to find it. Dragging it out from under the leaves the cubs sat down together to have their meal. The tigress had watched her cubs as intently as I had and only once, when they were questing too far afield, had she spoken to them. As soon as the kill had been found, the mother turned on her back with her legs in the air and went to sleep. . . .
When the cubs finished their meal they returned to their mother and she proceeded to clean them, rolling them over and licking off the blood they had acquired. When this job was finished she set off . . . for there was no suitable cover for the cubs on this side of the river.
I did not know, and it would have made no difference if I had, that the tigress I watched with such interest that day would later, owing to gunshot wounds, become a man-eater and a terror to all who lived or worked in the Ladhya valley and the surrounding villages.
How Borges would have loved to be up that tree with Corbett. Blake too. We can only wonder what, had they been, they might have written.