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. http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/172943.
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. http://www.bl.uk/romantics-and-victorians/articles/an-introduction-to-the-tyger#sthash.OSg8AAv8.dpuf%29. Norton also comments on the industrial imagery I highlight.