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Analysis of the Poem "Aunt Jennifer's Tigers" by Adrienne Rich

Andrew has a keen interest in all aspects of poetry and writes extensively on the subject. His poems are published online and in print.

Adrienne Rich

Adrienne Rich

Adrienne Rich and "Aunt Jennifer's Tigers"

"Aunt Jennifer's Tigers" is a poem about an oppressed woman who escapes into an alternative world of embroidery and sewing, despite a heavy marriage to a terrifying man.

It's a formal rhyming poem, an early example of Adrienne Rich's work.

  • In three verses, the reader is left with no doubt that Aunt Jennifer has suffered over the years and is looking for a positive way to express her artistic talents before it's too late.
  • The tigers she creates will outlast her and become a symbol of freedom and independence.

Poet, teacher, critic, political activist, and women's rights advocate Adrienne Rich (who died in 2012) once said that "poems are like dreams: in them you put what you don't know you know."

Could it be that "Aunt Jennifer's Tigers" is composed of dream elements?

The role of women in society and the language used by men for social and political gain go hand in hand. For poet Adrienne Rich the personal becomes the political and this short poem, whilst not overtly political, hints at more radical work to come.

Aunt Jennifer's Tigers


Literary and Poetic Devices

Rhyme Scheme

Three verses, all quatrains, and full end rhyme in a scheme of aabbccddeeff with a mixed iambic meter - a formal-looking poem written in 1951 by a poet whose style would change significantly some years later.

Poetic Devices

Note the alliteration in lines five - fingers/fluttering and prancing/proud in the final line. And some internal near rhymes, notably: prance/topaz, beneath/sleek, terrified/unafraid. These help bind the sounds as you progress through the poem.

Each couplet rhymes so the reader tends to get a sense of what is unfolding in a regular fashion. Like the tigers prancing, certain lines encourage a rhythmic approach, others stutter, and jar, as if there's a little obstacle in the way.

The whole poem builds to an ideal conclusion, although there are many questions around why Aunt Jennifer needed to escape in the first place.

Stanza-By-Stanza Analysis

First Stanza

The reader is immediately taken into this highly visual and symbolic scene. The tigers that Aunt Jennifer creates are topaz in color, that is wine-red, yellowy-orange, and live in a green world where their majestic movements express fearlessness.

Green is often associated with the season of spring and rebirth. They prance (step high), and are sleek (smooth and glossy) as well as chivalric. Chivalry is an ancient knightly term and means courteous treatment, especially of women by men.

So the tigers know exactly what they're doing, being confident and vital, thanks to Aunt Jennifer's skill at sewing.

Second Stanza

The second stanza focuses on Aunt Jennifer's hands. Her fingers flutter as if she's nervous, or a little feeble, and even the ivory needle seems too heavy as she works the wool. Ivory is a luxury material, from the tusks of elephants. The wedding band (ring) doesn't help either. It weighs heavily on Aunt Jennifer, perhaps as a result of the emotional baggage associated with it via her marriage.

There's a hint of hyperbole here, 'massive' seems over the top for a mere band. The poet is reinforcing the idea that Aunt Jennifer isn't happy; the work is a challenge despite the fact that it allows her a certain freedom.

Note the contrasts between the first and second stanzas. The first is vibrant, light, and sure of itself while the second is uncertain, a little dark, and hard work. Patriarchal power is apparent in the second stanza, whilst the first highlights the creative drive of Aunt Jennifer's tigers.

Third Stanza

A shift in emphasis, from the here and now, to the possibility of what's to come. Again the poet concentrates on the hands of Aunt Jennifer, using language that is pretty extreme: dead, terrified, ringed, ordeals, mastered. The hands that have been so creative are now thought of in this negative way. An ordeal implies long-term experience so we can take it that this woman had to endure a long-suffering marriage, oppressed by her domineering husband.

Even in death the submissive lifestyle she led shows through in her hands, the workhorses of the woman at home. The one redeeming feature of her life, however, is that the prancing, free-spirited tigers, will continue indefinitely. This gives a ray of hope to those who see no way out of a relationship. Art can bring a sense of inner peace and instill confidence, however fragile.


Norton Anthology, Norton, 2005

© 2017 Andrew Spacey