What is so great about this poem is the way that it carries you along with strong, simple words and imagery, whisking you past moments of highly ambiguous meaning, delighting the senses. Having blasted our way through many of these moments with an almost nursery-rhyme use of rhythm and alliteration, we come to this spectacular moment:
When the stars threw down their spears, /
And watered heaven with their tears
On the first day of my junior seminar in poetry with Stephen Booth at UC Berkeley, we read this poem. Then Professor Booth asked if there were any questions or comments on the poem. I rose my hand timidly, and said that while these two lines were my favorite part of the poem, the truth is that I did not understand their literal meaning. He proceeded, rather than chastening me, to expand upon the significance of this conclusion that I had come to: that one can find profound enjoyment in something not totally literally understood. He asked me if I understood why I did not understand. When I said no, he replied, “well, then I may still have something left to teach you.”
For the remainder of the lecture, he pointed out the various turns of precious nonsense in this poem, starting with these two lines. Are the stars throwing down their spears in an act of war or defeat? With what arms do stars throw? Are the stars below heaven? Or the other way around? The lines don’t quite literally make sense–they are, in fact, the best kind of poetically strange.
Likewise the various references to arms, hands, and even wings are ambiguous and strange–as they can seem to be referring to either the tiger or the god creating the tiger. So many small ambiguities get immediately glossed over as we are carried along by the force, the tom-tom rhythm, and the great assertive conviction of the poet’s voice. I can see why Professor Booth chose this poem to illustrate his point. Little did I know that in risking the embarrassment of being brutally honest about what I did and did not understand, I would become an integral part of that point.
The poem remains a brilliant work. So brilliant, in fact, its essential, primal nature seems to resonate well even with children. It was the first poem I tried to teach to my then neighbor’s seven year old son. We loved to read it aloud.
What is so great about this poet is his prolific outpouring of prophetic works that are as artistically sound as they are visionary. His interpretations of biblical themes are as significant as Milton. His lines and images–in poetry as well as engraving–are nothing short of brilliant.