Fearful Symmetry: How Two 18th-Century Poems Speak to a 21st-Century Apocalyptic Wasteland

The Walking Dead: World Beyond Gets Old School in the Best Way

PopPoetry is poetry and pop culture Substack written by Caitlin Cowan. You can learn more about it here. If you like what you read and want it in your inbox, subscribe so you won’t miss a post! Time for a little light apocalypse reading. Let’s go!

Things are bad, and they have been for a long time. That’s all you need to know in order to enter the world of The Walking Dead: World Beyond, the latest offering in the gory, incredibly successful Walking Dead franchise. Based on the comic book series created by Robert Kirkman, Tony Moore, and Charlie Adlard, TWD (2010) has now spawned two spinoffs: Fear the Walking Dead (2015) and The Walking Dead: World Beyond (2020). All three shows are still currently airing on AMC and AMC+ at the time of this writing. If you’re a fan, it’s a fun time to be watching television. And if you’re a Walking Dead fan who likes poetry, it’s an even better time to be alive.

I’ve written about The Walking Dead before. In fact, that post was actually the very first thing I wrote that directly led to the creation of PopPoetry. I used to keep a personal blog, and during the early years of the original show’s run, I felt compelled to write about the ways that Kevin Prufer’s “Apocalypse” made me think about The Walking Dead and vice versa. I found that they were mutually informing, even though one was a poem and the other was a tv show about zombies. I’ve been attuned to instances of poetry that crop up in popular culture ever since, and I ended up reposting that piece, along with one about Call the Midwife’s engagement of Federico García Lorca and another about American Horror Story: Cult’s knowing nod to Shelley. This trio I first uploaded to Substack formed the core set of articles that exemplified what I hoped to do moving forward.

Here we are again, considering what poetry might be able to tell us about the apocalypse. But this time we have a whole new cast: While Fear shares a timeline and several characters with the original series, World Beyond focuses on the lives of young people who were just children when the world fell apart. Now, years into the future, they’re coming of age in a world that’s on the brink of extinction.

The series centers on sisters Hope and Iris Bennett (Aliyah Royale & Alexa Mansour), who leave their relatively safe Nebraska survivor community in search of their father, who has gone to the secret location of a shady pseudo-government of survivors called the Civic Republic in order to lend his scientific expertise. Beyond the walls of the Bennett girls’ community, zombies walk the land and humans do what they can to survive either on their own or in their own communities. But the girls decide to venture out after receiving a cryptic misspelled or mistyped message from their father.

That’s right: the Bennett girls’ community has electricity. And dot matrix printers! In other words, things are nearly as good as they can be in a world where civilization as we know it has collapsed. But Hope and Iris are convinced that their father needs their help, so they make a plan to escape.

On this journey, the girls are accompanied by brawny, quiet Silas Plaskett (Hal Cumpston) and brainy, wiry Elton Ortiz (Nicholas Cantu). The foursome is pursued, at first unbeknownst to them, by older-brother figure Felix Carlucci (Nico Tortorella) and Jennifer “Huck” Mallick (Annet Mahendru), a former Marine with a mysterious past. Felix and Huck want to bring the teens back to safety (or “safety”—this is still an apocalypse, after all). They spend the first season’s 10 episodes on the road, facing various obstacles, threats, and internal crises as they make their way from Nebraska to New York on foot.

The Season 1 episode “The Tyger and the Lamb” is named after the poem that Iris reads in a voiceover during a particularly tense scene. The group of travelers has to cross a scorched wasteland around a tire fire known as “the Blaze,” which has been burning for years. In addition to regular zombies, there are melted zombies, charred zombies, and zombies that have fused together. The smoke from the fire covers everything in a haze, preventing the group from seeing their surroundings clearly. It’s extra gross and extra treacherous.

The poem itself is welded to his image of her: a young woman of great substance and artistic sensibility, rare qualities in a world where survival outweighs almost all other human activities and interests.

While they make this dangerous move, running through the smoke and killing hideous zombies along the way, Silas’ mind takes him to a more comforting thought: Iris’ handwritten copy of William Blake’s “The Tyger,” complete with a drawing of the fearsome creature. While working as a janitor in the Nebraska community’s school, he found it in the trash and has kept it ever since. Silas may even carry a torch for Iris, and the poem itself is welded to his image of her: a young woman of great substance and artistic sensibility, rare qualities in a world where survival outweighs almost all other human activities and interests.

In a voiceover, Aliyah Royale reads the entirety of the poem slowly and quite well, which is remarkable in and of itself. Frances McDormand’s character in Nomadland did the same with a Shakespeare sonnet, but I find that screenwriters are more inclined to use only an excerpt of a poem, as the writers of Madam Secretary did with Maggie Smith’s poem, “Good Bones.” But showing just one corner of a painting doesn’t give the full effect of the work, and neither do a few lines from a poem.

You can hear part of Royale’s reading in the video below.

Blake’s poem was first published in 1794 as part of his collection of illustrated poems known as Songs of Innocence and Experience, or Songs of Innocence and of Experience Shewing the Two Contrary States of the Human Soul if you’re into long, Romantic-era titles. As you might expect, the poems contained in Innocence are of a somewhat lighter nature, and those contained in Experience are darker, but it isn’t quite that simple, and the relationship of the two halves is key.

Post-apocalypse, the struggle between good and evil, or the intermixture of the two, colors the characters’ lives in vivid hues. Blake was interested in showing both the light and dark parts of human existence, and some scholars point to the “Innocence” poems as examples of an “unfallen” world in a Christian sense (the “Experience” poems thus reflecting the “fallen” world). If we understand the wasteland of The Walking Dead as a kind of “fallen” world, we might say that our characters, even though they are still children, are no longer innocent.

In the poem, the speaker asks the tiger who its maker is. In a series of more than two dozen questions, the speaker arrives at some conclusions, though this might not be easy to see at first.

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

In what distant deeps or skies
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand, dare seize the fire?

And what shoulder, & what art,
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
And when thy heart began to beat,
What dread hand? & what dread feet?

What the hammer? what the chain,
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? what dread grasp,
Dare its deadly terrors clasp!

When the stars threw down their spears
And water'd heaven with their tears:
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?

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

The speaker wonders about the creature, how it was made, and who made it. You, tiger, are fearsome, he seems to say. If you are fearsome, the creator who made you must be even more fearsome.

Other than the refrain of the first and last stanzas, “Did he who made the Lamb make thee?” may be the most famous line of the poem, and it’s the one that guides my interpretation here. We know, at least on some level, that the answer to that question is yes: whatever made the lamb according to your belief system (e.g., God, evolution, space aliens, magic) made the lamb, too. Therefore, that creative force is capable of making both sweet, herbivorous, puffy lambs and savage, carnivorous tigers. The world is comprised of both light and dark.

I’d like to thank Dana & Siavash Farahani—the writing team responsible for this episode—for adding this poem to the show. Its inclusion is daring, beautiful, and relevant. However, some critics don’t seem to understand why it’s here.

“Maybe I’m missing the point,” writes Erik Kain in his review of the episode for Forbes. And indeed he is.

I mean, I enjoy William Blake as much as the next guy, I just don’t really get what this show is trying to achieve with this fearful symmetry? It feels like another attempt at “artsy” in a very heavy-handed way. Sure, Silas finds a version of the poem that she’s written out with a picture of a tiger when she, and almost nobody else, is nice to him at school, but it feels like an attempt to make something seem profound or meaningful without actually doing that. 

Setting aside the almost certain fib that he “enjoy[s] Willam Blake as much as the next guy,” I can’t tell if this is willful ignorance or some silly attempt to seem “cool” for not “getting” poetry, man. I disagree on all points: the profundity of the poem echoes the profundity of what’s going on in a very sophisticated and moving way, here.

In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, TWD: WB showrunner Matt Negrete offered his own interpretation of the poem:

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: So the episode is called “The Tyger and the Lamb”, and we hear the poem by William Blake at one crucial point. So what can you tell us about why you all chose to make this unlikely connection between an 18th century English poet and some kids taking on zombies?

MATT NEGRETE: That's a great question. The Farahanis, who wrote the episode, actually came up with that and I just really loved the idea of the poetry. And having Iris’ voiceover carry it through that final action sequence and the thing that’s interesting about that poem for me is it’s essentially... There are many interpretations, but it’s essentially about the duality of mankind. And how no one is purely good and no one’s purely evil.

I think that the lamb symbolizes a goodness, and not that the tiger is pure evil, but I think that's the point of the poem is that there’s also is some darkness there. And I think another level to add on to that is the idea that the lamb personifies innocence and the tiger is fierce. And I think that’s the journey that these characters are on and the show itself is on, is it's really going from a place of innocence to a place where these characters have to earn their stripes. And ultimately, become these fierce warriors, if they’re going to make it in this world. So it’s all a personification of their journey.

Though I laugh uncontrollably at Ron Swanson’s assertion that when it comes to art “anything is anything,” I do think there are multiple interpretations of any poem, including Blake’s, though I wouldn’t say, as Negrete does, that there are “many.” I actually quite like Negrete’s interpretation, and I generally believe that the act of interpretation matters almost as much as the interpretation itself—ascribing meaning to things is, well, meaningful, even if it doesn’t end up being a meaning supported by scholars, others readers, etc.

But rather than the duality of human beings, I tend to think that Blakes’ poem is about another kind of duality.

The poem isn’t about the duality of man: it’s about the duality of god. Though they don’t ask these existential questions out loud, the voiceover of the poem asks us to imagine the characters asking questions like the ones Blake poses in the poem. These young people have lived relatively sheltered and innocent lives within the confines of their survivor community, which is a literal walled garden (sound familiar?) Now, experiencing the horrors of the world beyond (there, I said it) they are asking themselves existential questions.

The poem isn’t about the duality of man: it’s about the duality of god.

Instead of wondering Did he who made the lamb make thee? They might be thinking If God made me, did he also make these zombies? Or the perennial why do bad things happen? Why is the world the way it is now? The poem is more interested in how god could make something as sweet as a lamb and also something as fearsome and violent as a tiger (or, on the show, something as pure as a child and as horrifying as a walker).

Songs of Innocence contains the sister poem to “The Tyger,” the other half of the episode’s title. Though Blake intended for readers to move from Innocence into Experience, as life often asks us to, considering “The Lamb” now, having delved into “The Tyger,” imbues it with a kind of sinister underlayer.

Little lamb, who made thee?
Dost thou know who made thee,
Gave thee life, and bid thee feed
By the stream and o’er the mead;
Gave thee clothing of delight,
Softest clothing, woolly, bright;
Gave thee such a tender voice,
Making all the vales rejoice?
Little lamb, who made thee?
Dost thou know who made thee?

Little lamb, I’ll tell thee;
Little lamb, I’ll tell thee:
He is called by thy name,
For He calls Himself a Lamb.
He is meek, and He is mild,
He became a little child.
I a child, and thou a lamb,
We are called by His name.
Little lamb, God bless thee!
Little lamb, God bless thee!

Dost thou know who made thee, Lamb? A being that creates monsters. I lived in Texas for nearly a decade, and in some ways, the final couplet’s refrain of “God bless thee!” puts me in mind of the Texan “Bless your heart,” a seemingly benign phrase often uttered in order to express that the poor recipient is foolish, impaired, or can’t be helped.

Bless your heart, little lamb. Just wait until you see the other side of the coin.

Late last year, I wrote about how every generation feels that it might be the last. But apocalyptic media has always had a certain appeal. It’s that sense of timelessness that makes the writers’ choice to use an 18th-century poem by William Blake to talk about the collapse of the 21st-century world so moving.

The second and final season will air later this year. I’ll be watching. Will you?

This poem is indelibly famous and has appeared in several other pieces of media that I hope to one day write about. Have you heard it elsewhere? If so, where? Drop a note in the comments with your favorite, and let me know which other iterations of the “The Tyger” you’d like to see on PopPoetry.

P. S.

  • Judy Greer playing an erotic slam poet? This I’ve gotta see.

  • You knew poetry was powerful. But did you know it could cause stocks to tumble?

  • Poet Al Young, who understood poetry’s easy marriage with jazz, has died at 81.

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