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Adrienne Rich's "Aunt Jennifer's Tigers"

Poetasters, dirty politicians, and other liars soil the cosmos. Exposing them remains in my toolkit. I read charlatans so you don't have to!

Adrienne Rich

Adrienne Rich

Introduction and Text of "Aunt Jennifer's Tigers"

Adrienne Rich's poem, "Living in Sin," remains one of the best poems ever written in American English. Unfortunately, the poet's prowess eluded her in "Aunt Jennifer's Tigers," a piece of propaganda that fails to rise above the label of doggerel.

Structured in three awkward movements, Rich's "Aunt Jennifer's Tigers" explores a theme that radical feminists employ to assert the damage done to women by patriarchal marriage.

The speaker is contriving a drama about the life of her Aunt Jennifer. The aunt passes her time with needlework, even though her feeble fingers are barely able to pull the needle through the "screen," as the speaker announces, those fingers find "the ivory needle hard to pull."

According to the speaker, Aunt Jennifer, even after she has died, will remain an intimidated soul whose "terrified hands" and "ordeals" in life will have "mastered" her. The tigers on her needle-work will remain free to dance happily while Aunt Jennifer will lie in her coffin, still quaking from the terrors that prevented her from experiencing a pleasant, successful life.

The speaker is implying that Aunt Jennifer has been a victim of marriage. Her aunt married a man, and marriage transformed her into a cog in the wheel of patriarchy. The speaker then assumes that she has the prescience to predict that her aunt will die a married woman. However, the simple fact remains that her aunt could, in fact, divorce her uncle, or the uncle could die before the aunt.

When propaganda is infused into poetry, both poetry and truth suffer. According to Michael Warren Davis’ "Poetry, Propaganda, and Political Standards,"

. . . the wider point, perhaps, is this: Art can either serve political ends, or it can serve some other ends. What those ends are is the topic for another conversation. But let us be clear: Poetry very certainly should serve that "other purpose," if only because, as a political medium, poetry is useless.

The propagandist masquerading as poet will take flights of fantasy that those with differing points of view can perceive to have alternate possibilities. Poetry is based on eternal, universal human emotion, not on passing fads of a political nature that flit from issue to issue in search of power for the politician.

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 fingers 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.

Reading of "Aunt Jennifer's Tigers"

Commentary

Propaganda masquerading as a poem results not in a genuine poem but instead in a piece of doggerel. While political propaganda attempts to appeal to human emotion, true political treatises must be based on objective fact. Poetry on the other hand results directly from human emotional experience, as described by William Wordsworth:

I have said that poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquillity: the emotion is contemplated till, by a species of reaction, the tranquillity gradually disappears, and an emotion, kindred to that which was before the subject of contemplation, is gradually produced, and does itself actually exist in the mind.

First Movement: Sad Aunt, Happy 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.

In the opening movement, the speaker offers a portrayal of the scene of happy tigers that her aunt has embroidered on a "screen." By the speaker's own admission in describing the scene, Aunt Jennifer has skillfully crafted a piece of needle-work art that dramatizes "tigers pranc[ing] across a screen." Thus, the speaker is quietly suggesting that her aunt has had leisure time, sufficient to allow her to perform this artistic task.

In a statement that does not square accurately with the behavior of animals in their natural environment, the speaker claims that the tigers "do not fear the men beneath the tree." By making this erroneous claim, she is suggesting that the happy tigers live in freedom and fearlessness that is precluded from her aunt’s life.

Yet, the near total opposite is accurate in nature. Tigers must and do keep a healthy fear of humans; otherwise, they would fail to survive or thrive in their native habitat. Jim Corbett in Man-Eaters of Kumaon explains: "Human beings are not the natural prey of tigers," but "[w]hen a tiger becomes a man-eater, it loses all fear of human beings . . ."; this statement clearly implies that tigers originally do fear and try to avoid human beings.

And tigers become "man-eaters" only through limited conditions: after being wounded or in old age, as is the case of male tigers. Ironically, Rich's analogy loses all credibility because it is the female tiger that is the second most vicious "man-eater" in the Top 10 Worst Man Eaters in History.

While the issue of factual accuracy in poetry remains complex in the face of profound truth, still the inaccuracy employed in this poem refutes it own purpose: misidentifying the nature of tigers negates the crucial contrast asserted between brave tiger and timid, fearful aunt.

Second Movement: The Heavy Ring

Aunt Jennifer's fingers 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.

In the second movement, readers discover that Aunt Jennifer has crafted her art with much difficulty because the needle has been "hard to pull" through the wool because of the big, heavy wedding band on her finger. The speaker qualifies the "wedding band" by asserting that it is "Uncle’s"—again, subtly but quite obviously hinting that Aunt Jennifer possesses nothing, not even her own wedding band.

Nevertheless, the speaker again seems to overlook that fact that Aunt Jennifer has had sufficient leisure time to do this artistic needlework. The speaker is skewing certain facts, in order to suggest her aunt has been the victim of drudgery through the patriarchal system of marriage.

If Aunt Jennifer had needed to work a forty-plus-hour week outside the home, while struggling to make house payments, utilities payments, and other bills, quite obviously, she would have had much less time to practice the craft of needlework or any other hobby.

Third Movement: The Power of the Patriarchy

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.

Finally, the speaker offers a scene from the future only available to a clairvoyant. She sees her aunt lying in her coffin with "terrified hands," still burdened by a that heavy wedding band. But the aunt is also still suffering other "ordeals"; the speaker does not offer any examples of those "ordeals," even though she claims that her aunt was "mastered by" them.

The speaker has engaged three subtle hints that suggest that marriage, as a central tenet of the patriarchy, creates victims of women: (1) contrasting the free, fearless lives of tigers with the aunt’s bound fearful existence as a married women; (2) the heavy wedding band, which had made even her artistic hobby more difficult to accomplish, and (3) even after Aunt Jennifer dies, her hands will still be "terrified" by that heavy ring, and she will still remain "mastered" by the heinous system under which she suffered in life.

Sources

Manuscript copy

Manuscript copy

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes

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