Will the tiger burn bright?

William Blake’s poem on the tiger has been iconic ever since it was first published in 1794. Those who admire the animal for its beauty often turn to his verse. A poet of revolution in a bygone age wrote evocatively of a species that, for all its strength, is today engaged in a struggle for survival.
“Tyger Tyger, burning bright,
In the forests of the night:
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?”

The verse may have resonated with tiger specialists who met this July in Bali. The smallest of three famous Indonesian islands, Bali had, as it turned out, its very own brand of tiger. In 1929, a European naturalist, E. Schwarz, submitted to the Annals and Magazine of Natural History a paper arguing its case.
It was a tiger all the same, but one somewhat different from those in Java and Sumatra. Ironically, Bali’s tigers were the first to vanish, the Javan following suit in the 1970s.
Late in the 1990s, the systems of classifying tigers underwent a change. Earlier they were based on skin size and body weight, or morphology, to call it by its proper name.
Now, the revolution in genetics came into play. Even old skin samples could be looked at afresh, their genetic material offering coda the naked eye would only glaze over. These were more reliable than mere measurement of body parts.
It turned out that all island tigers were genetically similar. Called, or rather renamed, the Sunda Island Shelf tigers, they still endure in Sumatra.
But Blake, writing over two centuries ago, was not a tiger aficionado. For him tiger was a symbol not of human co-existence with nature but of the deep yearning for freedom. Writing as he was in a year of upheaval, after the epochal French Revolution, his draft included lines that never made it to the poem.
“In what clay and in what mould”, asked Blake, “Were their eyes of fury rolled?” His allusion was to slaves in the Americas and their passion for freedom. The fire to be seized was the blaze of freedom.
And sorry, biologists, at Bali and elsewhere in tiger land, but all indications are that the animal that inspired William Blake, an Englishman, was not panthera tigris but the jaguar of the Americas. Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker in their book Many Headed Hydra explain how the poet was inspired by Captain Steadman of Surinam: The good Captain had once captured a jaguar, the great cat of the American jungle, “a tiger cat which is extremely beautiful, a very lively animal with its eyes emitting flashes of lightning”. The power of the wild animal was contrasted to the plight of the slaves.
Not that it matters much today. The jaguar may have lit the fire but it is the tiger that seizes the imagination. Blake may not have known much of it but the tiger, spelt with an “i” not a “y”, was seen by the conquering British, engaged in the wars of peninsular India, as sign of their great adversary, Tipu Sultan of Mysore.
It is still remarkable that Tipu was the first ever ruler in India to evoke tiger imagery as a mark of royalty. The lion was standard fare and even more in early India was the elephant.
The tiger was an opposite choice. Tipu may have been a hereditary ruler but he founded a Jacobin Club and plated a Liberty Tree. With the French for allies, he also got them to make a mechanical toy of an immense tiger astride and dispatching a prostrate British soldier. Pull the tiger’s tail and the soldier emitted a shriek.
Tiger imagery was rife in the Mysore of Tipu. Tiger stripes on uniform and tiger head shaped cannon to fire at the enemy. Nobody knows for sure but he may well have, as a Muslim ruler in a diverse, mostly Hindu society, consciously taken aboard an animal worshiped along with the deities and symbol to ever so many subjects.
That story and its brave hero’s life ended at the gates of Srirangapatam in 1799. With Tipu’s death, the Company issued its own medallion showing a British lion, mane and all, slaying a tiger.
What is it about the tiger that has lent itself to symbol in so many ways? Maybe it its power and majesty, or else its ferocity and strength. The greatest of the great cats was present in poetry and imagery, on flags and on uniforms at the start of our modern age.
Will it live on in flesh and blood as more than an icon? Maybe the verse can still inspire for the fire now has to be not just for human freedom but for concord with nature.
Could we “seize the fire”, giving Blake and the “tyger” fitting tribute?

Mahesh Rangarajan is an environmental historian and co-editor of The Environmental History of India (Permanent Black, In Press).

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