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In the poem THE TYGER by William Blake:

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

Why is "Tiger" spelled Tyger, with a y?

If it's just a difference in the orthography (or lack of convention) at the time, why don't modern editors update the spelling?

  • 1
    There is a Literature.SE site that is currently in private beta. It will become a public beta in a few weeks. – Mick Jan 24 '17 at 23:57
  • I remove the meta-question about a poetry stack from your post. As Mick says, there will be a Literature.se available soon. – Dan Bron Jan 24 '17 at 23:59
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    In fact, Literature SE is available now: this link will let you in even if you weren't an Area 51 committer. We definitely take questions about poetry - do come on over and check out the site! :-) (Not that your question is off-topic here, of course - this comment is just a response to your query about a poetry SE.) – Rand al'Thor Jan 25 '17 at 0:32
  • @randal'thor and I've already asked a question there :) – user1383058 Jan 25 '17 at 0:50
55

SUPPLEMENTAL:

There are two reasons for not "updating the spelling".

The first is that scholars are reluctant to tamper with an author's work; they do so only in order to make works which would otherwise be unintelligible accessible to a larger audience. There's no evident need to update "The Tyger" to make this poem accessible.

The second is that Blake was not only a poet but an accomplished visual artist—he made his living as an engraver—and he published many of his works, including "The Tyger" as visual compositions. These cannot be modernized if you want to encounter them as Blake presented them to his own public.

enter image description here

(This image of the page was published by the Guardian, credited to 'Photograph:British Museum'.)

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    Flammable felines. What a weird subject for poetry. – Wayne Werner Jan 25 '17 at 17:06
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    Doesn't answer why he spelled it that way. – user39425 Jan 26 '17 at 10:31
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    @fredsbend As I said, the answer is 'supplemental' to J. Siebeneichler's answer to the primary question -- that's why I made it a CW. – StoneyB Jan 26 '17 at 14:15
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    That is one startled-looking tiger. I mean tyger. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Jan 26 '17 at 16:16
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    @CarlWitthoft That's a photograph of the page from Songs of Experience as Blake himself published it; I've added a link to the source. Very fine reproductions of all Blake's works are available from the [William Blake Archive](www.blakearchive.org/) at the University of Virginia. – StoneyB Jan 26 '17 at 16:29
41

Tyger is an archaic spelling that was used alongside tiger; it is safe to assume it was a standard spelling since it occurs in old encyclopedias and dictionaries.

According to the Google Ngram data (see picture), both spellings had a similar ratio of use until the early 1800s, when tiger became the prevalent form (perhaps because they realised that there is no etymological justification for using a Y). Nowadays tyger is quite rare in spontaneous use, but it is still visible due to the popularity of William Blake's poem.Usage of the words *tyger* (blue) vs. *tiger* in the English corpus between 1600 and 2000

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    Not to mention the way he rhymes "eye" and "symmetry". – Andrew Jan 25 '17 at 1:51
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    @Andrew so it's supposed to be read "symmetr/ai/" ? – Pierre Arlaud Jan 25 '17 at 8:35
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    Old poems rhyme a lot better in a Birmingham accent. – Stop Harming Monica Jan 25 '17 at 9:46
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    As an important point of reference, Blake published "The Tyger" in 1794. – R.M. Jan 25 '17 at 15:20
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    @PierreArlaud I don't really know, I just assume that, as Blake spoke (spake?) them they probably rhymed. Relevant Shakespeare. – Andrew Jan 25 '17 at 16:49

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