In my English class, we recently had an essay to write about this absolutely fantastic poem. I won't copy/paste the essay I wrote (it's not that good), but I will post the essay and the gist of my thoughts about it.

I'm uncertain as to when the poem was published (I'm inferring from my prof that it was written/published somewhere between the 40's and the 60's), but it was originally written in spanish. A poor google search reveals poor translations, but this translation I have is Borges-approved - he worked on the translation with the translator. With this in mind, prosodic effects should be taken with a grain of salt, but the overall effect is still pretty good.

The Other Tiger

A tiger comes to mind. The twilight here
Exalts the vast and busy Library
And seems to set the bookshelves back in gloom;
Innocent, ruthless, bloodstained, sleek,
It wanders through its forest and its day
Printing a track along the muddy banks
Of sluggish streams whose names it does not know
(In its worled there are no names or past
Or time to come, only the vivid now)
And makes its way across wild distances
Sniffing the braided labyrinth of smells
And in the wind picking the smell of dawn
And tantalizing scent of grazing deer;
Among the bamboo's slanting stripes I glimpse
The tiger's stripes and sense the bony frame
Under the splendid, quivering cover of skin.
Curving oceans and the planet's wastes keep us
Apart in vain; from here in a place far off
In South America I dream of you,
Track you, O tiger of the Ganges' banks.

It strikes me now as evening fills my soul
That the tiger addressed in my poem
Is a shadowy beast, a tiger of symbols
And scraps picked up at random out of books,
A string of laboured tropes that have no life,
And not the fatal tiger, the deadly jewel
That under sun or stars or changing moon
Goes on in Bengal or Sumatra fulfilling
Its rounds of love and indolence and death.
To the tiger of symbols I hold opposed
The on that's real, the one whose blood runs hot
As it cuts down a herd of buffaloes,
And that today, this August third, nineteen
Fifty-nine, throws its shadow on the grass;
But by the act of giving it a name,
By trying to fix the limits of its world,
It becomes a fiction, not a living beast,
Not a tiger out roaming the wilds of earth.

We'll hunt for a third tiger now, but like
The others, this one too will be a form
Of what I dream, a structure of words, and not
The flash and bone tiger that beyond all myths
Paces the earth. I know these things quite well,
Yet nonetheless some force keeps driving me
In this vague, unreasonable and ancient quest,
And I go on pursuing through the hours
The other tiger, the one not found in verse.
To me, Borges seems to be talking specifically about academic pursuits. He opens by talking about a library and transitions into a description of setting that even hints back to a library: "the bamboo's slanting stripes" makes me think of stacks in a library, and his description of the tiger with a "splendid, quivering cover of skin" hints at it existing within or as books. This tiger of symbols is a metaphor for academic ideas. The whole scene set up is - within the library, the academic world, there is an ecosystem of ideas and concepts that exist and battle for survival in the minds of students or independent learners. There are powerful ideas, the tigers, and weaker ideas, the "grazing deer". These ideas aren't easy to find, being disguised in stacks (as in bamboo stripes or within books), but they almost seem to live and breathe as living things do. This reminds me of Dawkin's concept of memes, which made the whole idea much easier to visualize. These idea-tigers, much like apex predators, are captivating to behold and are, at times, the focus of much obsession. Borges himself had a huge obsession with tigers in general.

It's at this point Borges makes a hard break and steps back, shifting his perspective on the matter. As captivating as these idea-tigers are, he says, they aren't real. "a string of laboured tropes that have no life" is the key concept to keep in mind. With this change in perspective, a reread of that first stanza can change one's opinion on the description - where before I was captivated by his expression of this beast living in "its forest and its day", suddenly they're a little more ashen and less wonderful than they first seemed. Perhaps my taste is influenced by peer pressure, but I like to think otherwise. He actively compares his idea-tiger to a real tiger and does so unfavourably for the former. As wonderful or powerful as the idea-tiger is (for ideas are what shape our world, for better or worse), they aren't actually real. He also briefly hints at the difficulty in explaining what an idea-tiger is: in my view, in our heads there lie concepts that exist beyond our language. These are our genuine understandings, and we communicate them ineffectively through language. "By trying to fix the limits of its world / It becomes a fiction, not a living beast,".

"We'll hunt for a third tiger now," Borges continues. If the first tiger is the "tiger of symbols", the second is the real tiger, what is the third? We need to find a reality based corollary, which, to me, is: There is, first the world (the second tiger). There is then thought that remains in the world of thought alone (the first tiger). Between this is the thought that manifests itself in reality. This is finding ways of expressing these heady abstract concepts in our lives in a tangible way - if we learn of a philosophy, then to live it is the find the third tiger.

As a slight change, because Borges is never actually clear (even for a poet) what the third tiger is, it could also represent a genuine contribution to the academic world. He defines this third tiger as: 1) "a form of what I dream, a structure of words" 2) "not / The flesh and bone tiger that beyond all myths / Paces the earth" and 3) "one not found in verse". This is still an idea-tiger, for it is a structure of words, explicitly not a real tiger, but it's also not found in verse. It could be an original idea that hasn't been written down yet - if one learns of all his philosophy through books and merely parrots the ideas he's extracted, he isn't contributing anything; he hasn't found the "other tiger".

Alternatively, it could be a combination of the two. Like I said, I don't think Borges is particularly clear on specifics of the third tiger.

This is all pretty tl;dr already, so I won't go into how much I like the technical things that make the poem work so well, except for a little bit. "A tiger comes to mind" is such a powerful way to start this poem. Borges introduces his theme, his metaphor and begins his argument with 6 words. The interplay between the light/dark imagery (when interpreted as knowledge/ignorance) is also a nice touch.