2. Miss Groggery
Blake could very well have seen and read about a tiger in the zoo in the Tower of London. In An Historical Description of the Tower of London, and its Curiosities (London, 1768) the anonymous writer refers to three tigers living in the Tower. This work was a popular guidebook published by John Newbery, the bookseller for whom the Newbery Award in children’s literature is named.
One of the bookseller’s most popular publications, the Tower, with its two companion volumes on Westminster Abbey and St. Paul’s Cathedral, was reprinted frequently between 1753 and 1774; and the three works were sometimes bound together under one general title. During Blake’s apprenticeship with the engraver James Basire, he spent some time sketching the monuments in Westminster Abbey, and he may very well have used Newbery’s Historical Description to point out the most interesting of these monuments. It is at this time that he might have seen the Tower, and, either in the book or at the zoo, he may have been impressed by the tigers. The writer refers to Sir Richard, “a fine young Tyger presented to his Majesty by the Earl of Northumberland,” (p. 17) and Miss Jenny, “a Bengal tygress, brought from Madrass by governor Piggot, and presented to his majesty as a great curiosity. She is a most beautiful creature, far exceeding any other in the whole collection.” (p. 18) Of the three, however, the writer describes one, Miss Groggery, at considerable length, and that description may shed some light on the contrast between Blake’s poem and the illustration which accompanied it:
It is an old maxim, that evil communication corrupts good manners, and as a companion to this adage, we may assert, that good company and kind treatment will tame the most savage animals. We have an instance of this, in the courteous behaviour of Miss Groggery, who is altogether as kind and familiar as her companion [Dunco, a lion], and, though a tygress, discovers no marks of ferocity—But notwithstanding the polite and friendly behaviour of these beautiful creatures, I would not advise my friends to be too great with them; for, like other couples, they may sometimes happen to be out of temper.begin page 41 |
The tyger is in shape not much unlike a cat, only much larger, and when wild is prodigious fierce and ravenous. It lurks in the woods, and seizes its prey by a sudden spring. Men in traversing the woods, are frequently surprized by this animal. Tygers are finely spotted; they are of a yellowish colour, and their spots black; they are very playful, and leap a prodigious height, when they are playing their gambols. (pp. 15-16)
Although the writer does describe tigers as being spotted, it is clear that he is not confusing them with leopards or jaguars, both of which he mentions later in the account of the zoo. This description of Miss Groggery includes almost precisely the contrast between the amiable, almost kittenish tiger of Blake’s illustration and the ferocity of the subject of his poem.