Thursday theme – The Tyger

Today’s theme song for ENGL 203-04 is a musical setting of the English poet William Blake’s “The Tyger,” composed by Andrew Miller and performed here by the Concordia Choir.

Each of the poems we’re looking at today — including Blake’s “The Tyger” — exists in multiple versions. This is what makes them fluid texts. But what do we mean by a version?

The term has no clearcut definition (as we shouldn’t be surprised to learn, since the same holds true for the most fundamental terms of literary criticism, such as poetry or literature), but perhaps we can say the following. A text may be called a “version” when it belongs to a family of texts that, while different from one another, are all recognizable on some level as “the same” text. A text that’s different enough from these others that it not longer feels like the same thing is not a version of that thing but something else. Perhaps it’s not a version of anything, or perhaps it’s actually a version of a different text – a member of a different family.

This doesn’t get us terribly far, since we still don’t know how different Text A must be from Text B before we say they’re not versions of something in common. But it’s enough of a start to get us thinking about where we find versions and how their existence might influence the way we think about texts in general.

Some of the places we find versions:

  • In an author’s drafts of a work. Walden is a perfect example. We can think of each significant revison of a text as constituting a distinctive version of it. We can then ask how these versions differ and what the differences contribute to our understanding of the work in general.
  • In an author’s revisions of, or multiple productions of, a published work. Authors sometimes revise their works after publication or (as in the case of Blake’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience, the source of “The Tyger”) produce multiple physical copies that are not identical. Lincoln wrote out his Gettysburg Address on several occasions, sometimes by request; the copies are not identical.
  • In publishers’ printings of a work that differ in some material way from other printings. The versions of “The Tyger” that Blake himself printed weren’t set in type, and they were part of an overall graphic design. These elements are lost in the version I asked you to read for today. In class, we discussed the asterisks that separate some of the lines in Archibald MacLeish’s “Ars Poetica” on this website. Yet if you follow the link on the site to look at the poem as it originally appeared in the issue of Poetry for June, 1926, you’ll see that this version contains no asterisks.
  • In translations of a work to another language or a different medium. We could call Miller’s composition a version of “The Tyger,” one that adds something new to the poem in the form of musical accompaniment. It’s also a version that omits some lines from the end of the poem, and we might ask ourselves how that omission affects our understanding of the poem’s meaning.

This isn’t an exhaustive list of version-types. And talking about versions doesn’t exhaust what we can say about textual fluidity. The last kind of version listed above points us in the direction of what we’ve been calling follow-on creativity, which sometimes produces new works different enough from their sources that we might not want to call them versions, but that we can nevertheless see as testimony to the underlying sources’ fluidity.

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