Thursday, December 3, 2015

"Dare": Thoughts on Daly's Epigraph

When I was scrolling through the title pages of Mary Daly’s Beyond God the Father: Toward the Philosophy of Women’s Liberation to reach the main text, the epigraph caught my eye. Daly includes the final stanza from William Blake’s “The Tyger.” I found this choice intriguing. Though the poem certainly references religion (“Did he smile his work to see? / Did he who made the Lamb make thee?”), the connection between the poem and Daly’s desire to create a new, feminist theological lens is not immediately obvious. Why this poem? What about Blake’s work did Daly feel reflected her own ideas?

At first, I considered whether the tiger might be Christ. The chosen stanza’s last two lines, I felt, recalled earlier class discussions about Mary as a way to see Jesus. If it is through Mary that God becomes visible, then, she functions, in essence, as the “immortal hand or eye” working to “frame” Jesus. Yet, though this interpretation fits easily with earlier Marian tradition, it seems questionable to apply these earlier notions to interpreting Daly’s work. After all, Daly is actively bucking against tradition as she understands it and seeking to institute a new theological understanding of the Christian religion and Mary. Interpreting her work in light of earlier tradition seems flawed. While I do believe that Daly intends the stanza to reference Mary, I believe she seeks to highlight the exact opposite of Mary as a frame for Christ; her choice of this poem I believe, speaks to and works with her desire to move Mary outside of the shadow of Christ.

Certainly, one of the initial criticisms she levels against Marian tradition is that she feels “as symbolically portrayed then, Mary is ‘good’ only in relation to Jesus” (82). Further, she believes: “The inimitability of ‘Mary conceived without sin’ ensures that all women as women are in the caste with Eve” (82). But, because Mary functions as a symbol, she argues that Mary has the ability to be used a different manner. She writes, “the burden of my analysis is to show that the symbol has been a two edged sword” (83). I believe that “The Tyger” meshes with her desire to show the potential for Mary to be a feminist symbol.

Breaking down Blake’s poem supports this notion. The first line runs “Tyger! Tyger! burning bright.” This image, along with other more explicit industrial images later in the poem (“What the hammer? what the chain / In what furnace was thy brain? / What the anvil? what dread grasp”), calls to mind Henry Adams’ depiction of Mary. Daly specifically references Adams’ text. She cites him as an example of those who “have intuited something” different that the trend to reject connections between Mary and “the Great Mother” (90). She excerpts from Adams, quoting him saying:

Symbol or energy, the Virgin had acted as the greatest force the Western world ever felt, and had drawn men’s activities to herself more strongly than any other power, natural or supernatural, had ever done.  (91)

To Daly and to Adams, Mary is a “symbol” and “a force” (91). Further, Adams, elsewhere in his work, draws explicitly on industrial imagery through his discussion of the dynamo. In choosing “The Tyger,” Daly pulls on the same imagery as Adams, reinforcing the argument she uses Adams to support: Mary, to Daly, works as “free-wheeling symbol” (87). Mary, and more specifically, the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, when used to see Mary as this “free-wheeling symbol,” “can be seen as reflecting the power and influence of the Mother Goddess symbol which Christianity was never able to wipe out entirely” (87).

Further, Daly’s project argues that Mary can be interpreted in a way that somehow challenges, even threatens to overturn what Daly characterizes as “the stranglehold of Christian patriarchalism” (83). She claims, “the image of Mary as the Virgin, moreover, has an (unintended) aspect of pointing toward independence for women” (84). She talks about how the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception “can be understood as a negation of the myth of feminine evil, a rejection of the of religion’s Fall into servitude of the patriarchy” (86). She speaks of “the unintended threat to male supremacy” posed by the doctrine (87). The language Daly uses when discussing these concepts is language of subversion and revolution (“independence,” “negation,” “rejection,” “servitude,” “threat,” and “supremacy”). Daly sees Mary as holding the potential, through her potency as a symbol, to subvert the status quo.

The language of Blake’s poem, too, is revolutionary, complementing Daly’s stance. George Norton, in a short piece dissecting “The Tyger,” observes:

The poem is full of references to rebellion: to Satan’s revolt in Paradise Lost (‘the stars threw down their spears’), to Prometheus, a favourite rebel of the Romantics (‘What the hand dare seize the fire?’), and, perhaps to Icarus (‘On what wings dare he aspire?’ – though this line might just as easily evoke Milton’s Satan).

Norton goes on to note that the tiger, too, was often associated with revolution in the France of Blake’s time.

Finally, it is worth noting that the poem is circular. The first and final stanzas are nearly identical, differing only by a single word. The first stanza ends with the question, “What immortal hand or eye, / Could frame thy fearful symmetry?” The final stanza replaces “could” with “dare.” As Norton aptly notes, dare “implies transgression and disobedience.” Daly chose between the two stanzas, chose between “could” and “dare.” Unsurprisingly, Daly chose “dare.”

This final point, I believe underscores exactly why Daly selected “Tyger” for her epigraph. Daly sees her project, her desire to see more in Mary than she feels past theologians have, to view Mary as powerful and good outside of her relation to Christ, as just that, daring.


Adams, Henry. "The Dynamo and the Virgin (1900)." In The Education of Henry Adams by Henry Adams, 379-90. New York: Modern Library, 1931.

Blake, William. “The Tyger.” Accessed December 3, 2015.

Daly, Mary. Beyond God the Father: Toward a Philosophy of Women’s Liberation. Boston: Beacon Press, 1973.

Norton, George. “An introduction to ‘The Tyger.’” Accessed December 3, 2015. Norton also comments on the industrial imagery I highlight.



  1. Just the last stanza of "The Tyger"—Daly's chosen epigraph, not the poem as a whole—can seem to echo some of the myriad Marian images we have previously seen. "Burning bright/In the forests of the night" could be read as similar to descriptions of Mary as "star of the sea," where Mary is a bright, guiding light in the darkness. The notion of Mary as a mirror of God could be read into the mention of "fearful symmetry." Questioning "what immortal hand or eye/Dare frame" (for argument's sake) Mary could reflect the difficulty of dealing with a figure such as Mary. The use of "dare" might also, as you mentioned, emphasize the audacity and daringness of Daly, who is writing about Mary from a feminist perspective and does try to "frame" her in her analysis. Though Daly eschews some of the more traditional conceptions of Mary and her role, she is no doubt familiar with the imagery associated with the Mother of God.

    That being said, I think that an epigraph, while valuable, is difficult to dissect and to try and associate directly with the text. Moreover, we have not read all of Daly's book, which, judging by its table of contents*, deals with more than just Mary. Though the last stanza of "The Tyger" can be pulled apart and read as relating to Daly's writing about Mary, particularly with reference to the entire poem, it is challenging to assign such specific meaning to an epigraph.

    - LS

    *found on Google Books:

    1. I actually read the most into Daly's analysis of the doctrine surrounding Mary's Assumption, as set forth by Pius XII. "It was taught that the Virgin was taken up body and soul into heavenly glory upon completion of her earthly sojourn... She was exalted by the Lord as Queen of all, in order that she might be the more thoroughly conformed to her Son, the Lord of lords and the conqueror of sin and death." I did not see as much potential here for Mary to be seen as a symbol to subvert the old sexist status quo, however. Daly's analysis of Jung mostly just reinforced for me the notion of the Catholic Church's use of Mary and Marian devotion to "captivate the psyches of men and women..." The discussion of evil is particularly interesting to me; maybe I just read it wrong, but Daly's bringing up of basic human psychology to see both good and evil was another suggestion that the doctrine of the Assumption is inherently designed to enforce an idea of female evilness. As she points out, Pius XII issued this doctrine while at the same time preaching that women had a rightful place in society as childbearers, subservient to men. In short—I wonder if there is a connection that Daly wanted to draw between the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption as symbols of potential female power, because I don't really see one here.


  2. As creative a theologian as Daly is, I am certain that she chose her epigraph with some care, and I am intrigued by your close reading here. I am especially intrigued by the thought that the poem itself ends as it begins, with only a small but significant change of verb. This seems to me to be an apt metaphor for Daly's own project: to subvert Christianity by turning it against itself, which is, of course, why it is so very hard to answer her without getting drawn into the terms which she sets for the subversion. Our discussion here is helping me understand both why I find Daly so difficult and what it must have felt like in the early centuries of Christianity arguing about how to read the imagery in the Old Testament. It all depends on the lens you bring to the text--and how does one critique a lens? RLFB

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  4. In regards to EC's comment, I think that Daly's discussion around Jung, the Assumption and good and evil may have a slightly different character than we are working out here. Daly argues, concerning Jung, that the psyche of Western society tends to dichotomize good and evil in an extreme (probably exaggerated) fashion. In this already-established psyche (which seems to be something outside of religion and theology, though undoubtedly influenced by it, according to Jung) woman is understood to be associated with evil. The doctrine of the Assumption is therefore according to Jung "a hopeful sign of the collective psyche's effort to overcome a shallow and rigid dichotomizing of good and evil." (Daly, 89). In short: 'Mary is a woman, Mary is associated with evil, Mary is assumed into heaven, and this fact marks a moment at which maybe - just maybe - the 'Western psyche' becomes willing to recognize the intertwining of good and evil’. With these arguments in mind, I do not think that Daly is arguing that the Assumption enforces a notion of female evilness - she's also not arguing that it mitigates the notion. If anything, we are left at the end of these lines of reasoning realizing that woman is still associated with evil. But the biggest problem for Daly, it seems to me, is that the Assumption "presents itself in a context that ensures the subordination of the female." (Daly, 88) The Assumption for Mary is a passive act, she does not do anything to make herself assumed - it's a passive verb for crying out loud. I do not think she sees either the Assumption or Immaculate Conception as doctrines that it is possible to read female power into, because of the inherent passivity always accorded to Mary.