Kenneth S. Abraham

Statutory Interpretation and Literary Theory: Some Common Concerns of an Unlikely Pair

Rutgers University Law Review

UVA Law Faculty Affiliations


One of the most famous questions in all of English poetry still has

no authoritative answer:

Tyger Tyger, burning bright,

In the forests of the night;

What immortal hand or eye,

Could frame thy fearful symmetry? 

Interpreters of William Blake's poem have suggested a number of answers to its central question, "Who made the tyger?" Some have characterized the tiger and his creator as evil, 2 a contrast to, Blake's later reference in the same poem, "Did he who made the Lamb make thee?" Others have thought the tiger to be good, the celebration of a divinity capable of such "fearful symmetry." Concluding that the poetic question is rhetorical and therefore unanswerable, critics of both of these views have argued that it is wrong to suggest an answer at all, because Blake himself had none. The interpreters of "The Tyger" have differed not only in their answers to the question it poses, but also in the approaches they have chosen to reach an answer. One critic found the key in the poet's life and cited Blake's interest in Gnosticism as a way of resolving the question. A second saw the parallels between "The Tyger" and traditional biblical and Miltonic imagery as the most enlightening. Others looked to the countenance of Blake's own engraving of the tiger for guidance, although, not surprisingly, the tiger each critic saw there hardly seems to be the same animal. Proponents of still another point of view considered these interpretations to be attempts to understand Blake, not "The Tyger," and advised studying the poem instead of its author. Interpretation of a literary work such as "The Tyger" may appear to raise issues very different from those presented by statutory interpretation.

The issues that trouble literary theory, however, are strikingly similar to those that have troubled thinking about statutory interpretation. Practitioners of both disciplines have debated at length about the nature of the texts with which they are concerned, the relation of the author's intention to the meaning of a text, and the character of the reader's knowledge of a text's meaning. 10 In this article I will explore some of the ways in which the debates in both disciplines have been about similar issues, and discuss how a common concern, the nature of texts and their interpretation, is a pivotal philosophical issue for both.



Kenneth S. Abraham, Statutory Interpretation and Literary Theory: Some Common Concerns of an Unlikely Pair, Rutgers University Law Review, 676-694 (1979).

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