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

Updated on January 16, 2017
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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 | Source

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 in 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 are likewise 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

Aunt Jennifer's tigers prance across a screen,
Bright topaz denizens of a world of green.
They do not fear the men beneath the tree;
They pace in sleek chivalric certainty.

Aunt Jennifer's finger fluttering through her wool
Find even the ivory needle hard to pull.
The massive weight of Uncle's wedding band
Sits heavily upon Aunt Jennifer's hand.

When Aunt is dead, her terrified hands will lie
Still ringed with ordeals she was mastered by.
The tigers in the panel that she made
Will go on prancing, proud and unafraid.


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

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 builds to an ideal conclusion, although there are many questions to ask as to why Aunt Jennifer needed to escape in the first place.

A Successful Poem?

Aunt Jennifer seems to be a victim but is also a quiet heroine? The poem is ambiguous, leaving the reader to choose. Her relationship has been a difficult one and although no specifics are mentioned it becomes quite clear that she has been dominated throughout her married life. She had a need to escape, to somehow perservere in what might have been an abusive marriage. Aunt Jennifer finds solace in her sewing and the tigers are true symbols of her pent up energies: proud and unafraid.

Further Analysis

First Stanza

The reader is immediately taken into this highly visual and symbolic scene. The tigers which 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 ther 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 stanza. The first is vibrant, light and sure of itself whilst 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, the prancing, free spirited tigers, will continue indefinitely. This gives a ray of hope for those who see no way out of a relationship. Art can bring a sense of inner peace and instil confidence, however fragile.


Female Role in Home

Female Role in Marriage

Animals as Symbols

Women and Nature

Patriarchal Power

Individual Freedoms

Political Issues

Art as escapism

Questions & Answers

    © 2017 Andrew Spacey


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