Sunday, December 20, 2009

Fearful Symmetry

I have never been happy with William Blake's use of the word "symmetry" in his poem The Tyger from his 1794 Songs of Experience:

"TYGER, tyger, burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?"

I think that he means proportions instead of symmetry. The word "proportions" would louse up the meter, it is true; but even a mystic needs to observe accepted word definitions.

This symmetry/proportions confusion was perpetuated in the Doc Savage pulp fiction series (1933-1949) by Lester Dent, writing under the house name of Kenneth Robeson. Doc Savage was described in the first novel:

"The big bronze man was so well put together that the impression was not of size but of power! The bulk of his great body was forgotten in the smooth symmetry of a build incredibly powerful."

Or am I doing Lester Dent an injustice? Perhaps he was making a subtle literary reference to Blake's tyger in describing the Man of Bronze.

At any rate, mere bodily symmetry of man or beast is unlikely to provoke fear, as in: "Horrors, that man's right side is the mirror image of his left side!"

However, slavish pursuit of symmetry in architecture can produce, if not fear, at least a sense of coldness and sterility. I have been considering what new domicile I might purchase next year and am not inclined to choose one that looks like the architect designed half the building and then got lazy and did a cut-flip-paste using his computer software to finish the design. If I purchased one of the left-side townhouse units in the above complex, I worry that I would be expected to live like the person in the corresponding right-side unit. A fearful symmetry indeed!