If we keep in mind I am referring only to poetic metaphor, we should see it is the opposite of a concept. A concept results from a process of abstraction from messy sense data. It removes all that confusion to create a few defining principles. The removal of that messiness of sense data gives a clean principled concept reduced to to a few defining characteristics that fit all entities in the category. That clean and orderly definition can almost give one a sense that the reductive concept is the reality. Maybe reality exists in an immaterial realm of perfection. In fact, maybe it is god thinking this perfection, while we’re stuck in this fallen and sinful world of confused senses.
Let’s think of a tiger. It’s yellow with stripes, growls, and lives in specific areas of the world. It’s a clean concept abstracted from a confusion of sense data from actual tigers encountered in the world. The concept we have doesn’t accurately picture any one tiger we could meet – all tigers will differ from the concept to a degree. A Siberian Tiger differs from a Bengal Tiger, individual Siberians differ from each other. And what counts as a tiger? Saber Tooth Tigers are very different from today’s tigers. And what of their progenitors? Physical reality is mucky and confused, so let’s ascend to the dry aerie of concept.
Tyger Tyger, burning bright,
WTF? The spelling of tiger, already archaic and a bit strange when Blake wrote it, throws us off kilter at the very first word. Something odd here. And nowhere in most of our concepts of tiger is the animal aflame. From the first, this image cracks our concept and forces us back to the sense data.
There are many interpretations of this image, some of them partially correct and even in conflict with others equally partially correct. But none can exhaust the meaning. Its oddity is what attracts and holds our attention, but we can never quite resolve the strangeness. The mystery behind the image.
In what distant deeps or skies
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
In the eyes of the tyger we stare into a terrifying, proud, aggressive, and awesomely beautiful aspect of Being itself, met in our gaze. The Being whose essence presents itself as this tyger. And in that tyger, we stare at our own essence derived from this Being. Beyond mere definition. Subject/object metaphysics dissolved as we sense that nature is not separate from us, but rather we are as integral a part as that tyger. Nature is not separated from us as an external object, but rather we are the same stuff: we burn with that same fire. The same fire at the center of the stars from which we came.
Not only can we never exhaust the meaning of that image, but that image doesn’t exhaust Being itself. Blake also gives us its counterpart. Who made the little lamb?
For He calls Himself a Lamb.
He is meek, and He is mild,
He became a little child.
A later poet will update from a different aspect as he speaks of “Some infinitely gentle and infinitely suffering thing”. Another unfathomable aspect of Being, even stranger along side the tyger; equally essential. Nor do those two inexhaustible images exhaust Being.
The metaphor has its counterpart in music and art. In the greatest works of Beethoven, we have the delicate run in the treble, gentle and at play. Below growls the tyger in the bass, suddenly shifting the foundation; discord threatening the structure above. Organization, play, and dissolution; eternally.
This is where we meet truth: in the thrall of physical experience, even more immediate and non-reductive in music than in the metaphor. To do so, we first surrender our pretense to truth as deduction from ideas, or as objective analysis, and accept a wholly different type of understanding. In the metaphor we take part in the event. We come to see an aspect of the essence of Being. We see it within ourselves, and we sense who we are, what the world is, and our place in it. Worth infinitely more than all the definitions in the dictionary, theories of spacetime, or musing of angels dancing on pins.
We learn to seek the holy right here, around and within us, without the sere inventions of god or the immaterial.