29

First published in Songs of Experience in 1794, the first stanza of the poem “The Tyger” by William Blake is:

Tyger! Tyger! burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

It is easy to guess that in those years that was the way tiger used to be written.

On the other hand, symmetry is not a rhyme for bright, night, eye by today’s usual pronunciation.

Was it ever a rhyme?

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    It could not have been any different at any time past. This is poetry: a bit of poetic license needs to be provided for in following it. – Kris Dec 22 '14 at 15:24
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    Not only is this poetry, this is Blake's poetry. Blake was, to put it mildly, unconstrained by details like etymological pronunciation. For more on the rhyme, and other linguistically interesting facts about The Tyger, see Ross's paper on the poem. – John Lawler Dec 22 '14 at 15:34
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    I remember reciting this poem in 6th grade...whether or not Blake meant it as a rhyme, the rest of the poem has such steady meter and unflinching rhyme scheme that it really stands out like a sore thumb if you don't mispronounce it. Personally, I think that bears consideration in weighing how it would have, or should be, pronounced... – chronometric Dec 22 '14 at 15:49
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    Yes, Haj loves that phrase "sore thumbing" to talk about things that stick out in a poem. They do so on purpose, of course; that's the point. – John Lawler Dec 22 '14 at 15:53
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    Incidentally, eye and symmetry do rhyme in a Birmingham accent. – OrangeDog Dec 23 '14 at 9:44
23

In Shakespeare's time, because of the Great Vowel Shift, symmetry was a much closer rhyme with eye than it is today (if it wasn't exact), and Shakespeare and his contemporaries used rhymes like this all the time.

Shakespeare: Sonnet 1:

From fairest creatures we desire increase,
That thereby beauty's rose might never die,
But as the riper should by time decease,
His tender heir might bear his memory:

Shakespeare: Sonnet 33:

Full many a glorious morning have I seen
Flatter the mountain-tops with sovereign eye,
Kissing with golden face the meadows green,
Gilding pale streams with heavenly alchemy;

By Blake's time, I suspect the Great Vowel Shift had progressed enough that these words no longer rhymed well. Certainly, by the early 19th century, these words were pronounced very much the way they are today. (This can be checked by looking at Walker's Pronouncing Dictionary.) However, Blake (along with some of his contemporaries) seems to have thought that the fact that Elizabethans rhymed these words gave him the license to do so as well.

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    Pope seems to have agreed with Blake in this regard — or, rather the other way around, insofar as Blake was the later poet. – tchrist Dec 22 '14 at 17:10
  • Did the word symmetry even get invented before the "great vowel shift", or was it coined during the 18th century years of scientific renaissance? – Blessed Geek Dec 22 '14 at 17:23
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    @Blessed Geek: the OED has citations for simetry in the 16th century, which was in the middle of the Great Vowel Shift. – Peter Shor Dec 22 '14 at 17:28
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    @BlessedGeek That doesn’t really matter, because the vowel [i] in symmetry didn’t change. It was the vowel in die and eye (erstwhile [iː]) that changed and became diphthongised. Symmétrie in French has always ended in [-i(ə)] (whether the schwa was still there in the 16th century upper-class French I’m not sure), so whether it was borrowed into English before, during, or after the Great Vowel Shift, it would still have ended up with an [i] in English, too. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Dec 22 '14 at 21:43
  • Quite probably, but not necessarily. A lot of English Latin and French (i.e, Latin and French spoken by English speakers) words and phrases changed pronunciation right along with the GVS. Note legal English pronunciation of sine die as /sayni day/, et cetera. – John Lawler Dec 23 '14 at 15:22
19

We are not completely certain what is happening here, and it has been the subject of much controversy for a very long time.

The poem’s author, William Blake, lived from 1757–1827. In “The Tyger”, he is using the same sort of rhyme that was earlier used by Alexander Pope (1688–1744) who in his “Essay on Man” once wrote a similar rhyme:

To Be, contents his natural desire;
He asks no angel’s wing, no seraph’s fire;
But thinks, admitted to that equal sky,
His faithful dog shall bear him company.

As Pope rhymed equal sky with company, Blake rhymed hand or eye with symmetry. Perhaps more importantly, Pope writes four lines of iambic tetrameter where the end rhyme differs in stress from what you would today expect. He does this again a bit later in the poem:

More rich, more wise; but who infers from hence
That such are happier, shocks all common-sense.
Heaven to mankind impartial we confess,
If all are equal in their happiness:

There Pope has rhymed we confess with happiness. That one differs only in stress, while the rhyme of equal sky with company differs (possibly) in that way but also in the quality of the vowel.

The [aɪ] and [ɪ] which we now think of as two completely separate vowels were once considered to be rhymes of each other. Another such example can be found in Pope’s “Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot”, in which Pope rhymes lies and blasphemies (which is the same thing he did rhyming sky and company in his “Essay on Man”):

Or at the ear of Eve, familiar toad,
Half froth, half venom, spits himself abroad,
In puns, or politics, or tales, or lies,
Or spite, or smut, or rhymes, or blasphemies.

That was written only 60 years before Blake’s poem. Whether or not they actually “rhymed” then in the way that we think of rhyme, those two vowels were CONSIDERED rhymes at that time: Pope and Blake did not publish casual cacophony.

It is often observed how once upon a time, the last vowel of eye and sky was a long monophthong, the same one we now hear in tree. However, we CANNOT casually dismiss as a victim of the Great Vowel Shift the odd-to-us rhyming of Pope, let alone of Blake who lived after him, for sky was already a diphthong in Pope’s day, while symmetry was not.

It IS likely, however, that the final vowel of company and symmetry was a longer one in their days than we now find at the end of RP happy, which is now analysed as “short” in RP (although not so in North American analyses of Modern English).

One possibility is that there is a secondary stress on the last syllable of company, happiness, and symmetry. But even if so, we are stuck by the mismatch of a long vowel in eye with the short one ending symmetry. In H.P. Lovecraft’s essay on “The Allowable Rhyme”, the author writes that:

The rhyming of a long vowel with a short one is common in all the Georgian poets, and when well recited cannot but be overlooked amidst the general flow of the verse. . . .

Lovecraft discusses Pope at some length, observing:

Yet who can take offence? The unvarying ebb and flow of the refined metrical impulse conceals and condones all else.

This echoes the epigraph Lovecraft used at the top of his essay, a quotation from Horace* excusing the occasional formal lapse in Homer.

Pope was known to have rhymed not just obey with tea, but even also line with join, which no GVS explanation can possibly “explain”. Today we may call this slant rhyme, or even eye rhyme, but I am not so sure that was the intended effect, especially eye rhyme.

In the examples from Pope and Blake, the final foot differs from the predicted stress in a way that has an effect on the entire quatrain. The first three words have masculine rhymes, at least in assonance: bright – night – eye and desire – fire – sky. Then they (seem to?) switch to a different final foot where only the short vowel seems to match, and the stress not at all — maybe.

In Blake, assonant rhyme appears internally in the repeated Tyger, which is stressed, and in thy, which is not. He was setting up your ear. By asymmetrically breaking the pattern at the very end, he draws attention to it. The irony that the very symmetry of symmetry itself should be brought into question cannot be accidental.

So it may be that THAT was what he was doing. It might also be that he considered it a “close enough’ rhyme to fit the line. As Lovecraft observes, there is no question that our older poets had notions of rhyme that were not quite the same as our own.

Other examples of odd-to-us rhymes are easily found in Blake. For example, in “The Sick Rose”, he rhymes worm and storm. In most accents of Modern English, those two do not rhyme, although in some they do. What about in Blake’s accent? The real answer is that we’re not sure. They might have rhymed for him, but they may well not have.

If they did not, it is important that one not think them casual deviations, or misreadings. Their rarity speaks to this. Look but at the “perfect” rhyme of Blake’s “The Lamb”, the poem that became a Christmas carol, to see how strong his normal pattern was.

The occasional break from normal stress or rhyme can improve a poem, that it not become too plodding to the ear and so be reduced to trite doggerel. Certainly there are poets who casually ignore formal structure for no especial effect.

But Blake was no more one of these than was Pope, and yet both would from time to time deviate from obsessive precision in ways that elevate the form, not detract from it.

On the other hand, they may also have simply felt that [aɪ] and [ɪ] rhymed.

In the end, we cannot now be sure, howsoever many scholarly arguments should be produced.


Footnotes

The exact verse of Horace’s which Lovecraft was citing in his epigraph is the italic portion of the following longer extract from Horace’s Ars Poetica:

Sunt delicta tamen quibus ignovisse velimus.
Nam neque chorda sonum reddit, quem volut manus et mens,
poscentique gravem persaepe remittit acutum,
nec semper feriet, quodcumque minabitur arcus.
Verum ubi plura nitent in carmine, non ego paucis
offendar maculis
, quas aut incuria fudit,
aut humana parum cavit natura. Quid ergo est?
Vt scriptor si peccat idem librarius usque,
quamvis est monitus, venia caret, et citharoedus
ridetur chorda qui semper oberrat eadem,
sic mihi, qui multum cessat, fit Choerilus ille,
quem bis terve bonum cum risu miror; et idem
indignor quandoque bonus dormitat Homerus.
Verum operi longo fas est obrepere somnum.

This was somewhat liberally but certainly artfully translated into English verse by Philip Francis (circa 1708–1773) as follows:

Yet there are Faults that we may well excuse,
For oft the Strings th’intended Sound refuse;
In vain his tuneful Hand the Master tries,
He asks a Flat, and hears a Sharp arise;
Nor always will the Bow though fam’d for Art
With Speed unerring wing the threatening Dart.
But where the Beauties more in Number shine,
I am not angry, when a casual Line
(That with some trivial Faults unequal flows.)
A careless Hand, or human Frailty shows.
But as we ne’er those Scribes with Mercy treat
Who, though advis’d, the same Mistakes repeat;
Or as we laugh at him who constant brings
The same rude Discord from the jarring Strings;
So, if strange Chance a Choerilus inspire
With some good Lines, with Laughter I admire;
Yet hold it for a Fault I can’t excuse
If honest Homer slumber o’er his Muse
And yet perhaps a kind indulgent Sleep
O’er Works of Length allowably may creep.
Poems like Pictures are, some charm when nigh,
Others at Distance more delight your Eye;
That loves the Shade, this temps a stronger Light,
And challenges the Critic’s piercing Sight;
That gives us Pleasure for a single View;
And this, ten times repeated, still is new.

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    as line was moving in the Great Vowel Shift from /iː/ to /aɪ/, it passed very close to the vowel of join, /ɔɪ/, so they actually merged in some dialects during the late 17th century. In fact, they were still merged in some dialects in Dickens' time, as you can see in Great Expectations, when Joe says "Somebody must keep the pot a-biling, Pip, or the pot won't bile, don't you know?" – Peter Shor Dec 22 '14 at 17:22
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    So for Pope and his contemporaries, line and join would at least have been very good near-rhymes. – Peter Shor Dec 22 '14 at 17:31
  • I have seen the period which concludes the line "(That with some trivial Faults unequal flows.)" rendered elsewhere either as a comma or absent altogether. (Which punctuation belongs to the definitive version of the poem – assuming there is one – I have been unable to determine with certainty.) At any rate, it seems to me that the period must be extraneous, since it occurs in a parenthesized aside and also makes the grammatical construction of the parent sentence appear incoherent. – Erik Kowal Dec 23 '14 at 5:07
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    @Erik: when Philip Francis wrote this, the conventions for punctuation were quite different. I don't think you can conclude anything from today's punctuation rules. (And in fact, I think the period is more likely, because somebody would be more likely to correct this line to be in accord with today's punctuation than the reverse.) – Peter Shor Dec 23 '14 at 13:37
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    "I think the period is more likely, because somebody would be more likely to correct this line to be in accord with today's punctuation than the reverse." — This principle is so generally applicable that it has a name: lectio difficilior potior. – Quuxplusone Jan 25 '17 at 18:04
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The etymology and forms listed in OED indicate that this is an eye-rhyme (where words look alike rather than actually sounding alike).

Symmetry has an etymology from French:

< Middle French symmetrie (1529), French symétrie (= Italian simm- , Spanish sim- , Portuguese symetria)

or possibly Late Latin symmetria. However, the 1529 entry is close to when it's first shown in English:

1563 J. Shute First Groundes Archit. sig. Aiiiv, Concerning ye proportion and simetry to vse the accustomed terme of the arte of the fornamed columbes.

OED gives various forms from the 1500s and 1600s, in addition to symmetry:

Also 15 symmetrye, simetrie, 15–16 simetry, sym(m)etrie, 16 simmetry, simmetrie, symetry.

The continued use of -ie from the French -ie would tend to suggest a pronunciation similar to French, which is highly unlikely to rhyme with eye.

  • Just for the record, symmetry becomes "simetria" in Portuguese. – Jorge Hounie Dec 22 '14 at 21:26
  • Before the Great Vowel Shift (1350–1700), words like bite really did have the vowel the French used in symmetrie. – Peter Shor Mar 30 '19 at 23:38
3

I think this is a tough one. I have seen this question discussed in a number of different forums and it is really hard to say what Blake had in mind. He was/is known for using archaic word forms in his poetry. That being said, it is a matter of debate on how he is asking the reader to rhyme "eye" and "symmetry". It might be that he is asking us to read "eye" (like sky) with "symmetry" (like try" but he could also be using an older pronunciation of "eye" (like eee) with "symmetry" pronounced as normally is the case.

0

I am no entymologist - simply a modest actor (should such a think exist). I am planning a video on Tygers anchored on this poem. And have absorbed, as best I can, the oppinions expressed here

Should I pluck up the courage I shall be pronouncing Symmetry as SymmeTRY - - I don't like the standard 'sore thumb' pronunciation - it simply jars! and in poetry that counts.

However I might compromise and extend eye to 'eyee' - although this might be more 'sore thumbish' than the other alternatives :)

-4

Even today, the British take many words that end in -tary, -tory, -tery and -try and pronounce (some might say butcher) them as -tree.

Take these, for example

mili-tary becomes mili-tree
ceme-tery becomes ceme-tree
his-tory becomes his-tree
secre-tary becomes secre-tree

If you listen to the BBC's Woold Service, you'll hear many cases of where the British reporters take questionable liberties with their own language. I'll have to say that this particular example stands out to my ears.

  • I don’t think that’s what’s going on here; if it were, the syllable count would be off. – tchrist Dec 30 '14 at 15:25
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    I don't see how this actually relates to the question, unless you're trying to insinuate that Blake meant "cemetery" since modern Brits pronounce it similarly to "symmetry"...? – Hellion Dec 30 '14 at 16:01
  • I'm suggesting that the pronunciation of the word may have been different when he wrote it. My post is submitted as an example of how the British pronounce similar suffixes differently than the way they are spelled. – Alex Zavatone Dec 31 '14 at 16:13

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