Adrienne Rich 1929 - 2012
Background • Poet and political activist • American poet born into a white, middle-class family. • She was white, Jewish, lesbian and a feminist. • She also understood the relationship between men and women on a personal level, having been married to her husband from 1953 – 1970. • Her poems deal with the central themes of gender, power, sexuality, the private and the political.
Three ideas about the poem • The poem introduces a metaphor “Aunt Jennifer’s tigers prance across the screen. • It depicts a married woman who is completing a piece of embroidery. • The woman, as suggested through the language of the poem, is oppressed (broken and exploited) by her husband. She is compared with the “proud and unafraid” tigers that she creates through her needlework.
“Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers prance across a screen”
“They do not fear the men beneath the tree”
“They pace in sleek chivalric certainty”
First Stanza – What is going on? What do you notice? What impression do you get of her? • The poem opens with the speaker’s aunt embroidering on a decorative screen. • The image on the screen is full of life, colour and energy, depicting tigers moving through the jungle. • With their gleaming (‘sleek’), golden (‘bright topaz) coats, they are masters of their jungle domain, and have no fear of the men also depicted on this scene. • The tigers move through their ‘world of green’ with the supreme confidence of medieval knights, ‘They pace in sleek chivalric certainty. ’ This image powerfully reinforces the idea of the tigers as emblems of male power.
“Aunt Jennifer’s fingers fluttering through her wool find even the ivory needle hard to pull”
“the massive weight of Uncle’s wedding band”
What does stanza 2 focus on? How is Aunt Jennifer feeling? • Stanza two focuses on the tiger’s creator, Aunt Jennifer. In sharp contrast to the strong, dominant, confident tigers, Aunt Jennifer is weak and anxious. • Her nervousness is suggested by the image of her ‘fingers fluttering through her wool. ’ A frail, delicate figure, she finds her ivory needle ‘hard to pull’. • The reference to ivory reminds us of how man dominates his world, hunting and killing elephants for their tusks. • The poet’s aunt is ‘weighed’ down by ‘The massive weight of Uncle’s wedding band’. The ring seems to impede her movements, sitting ‘heavily’ on her hand.
• Significantly, the ring she wears is ‘Uncle’s wedding band’. Marriage is portrayed in a dark, negative light in this poem. Years of marriage have left Aunt Jennifer weak, weary and nervous. • The wedding band symbolises her husband’s power and control over her. • Her frailty (‘fluttering fingers’) is contrasted with her husband’s strength (‘massive weight’). The poem implies that the speaker’s aunt is oppressed by marriage.
“When Aunt is dead, her terrified hands will lie still ringed with ordeals she was mastered by. ”
What does stanza three suggest about Aunt Jennifer’s experience with marriage? • Stanza three imagines Aunt Jennifer after she has died. The speaker pictures her as in life – timid and repressed, ‘When aunt is dead, her terrified hand will lie/ Still ringed by ordeals she was mastered by’. • The verbs ‘ringed’ and ‘mastered’ suggest that her marriage involved confinement and domination, while the noun ‘ordeals’ evokes the idea of harsh, painful experiences. • In essence, the marriage is seen as a limiting, unhappy experience that stifles a woman’s personal development.
“The tigers in the panel that she made Will go on dancing proud and unafraid”
What do the closing lines suggest? • The closing lines contrast the transience of life with the enduring power of art. • After Aunt Jennifer has died, the timeless embroidery that she created will live on, testament to her talent and creativity.
Key points to note • Key theme is marriage and the oppression of women that this institution brings about. Art is also a key theme – the poem examines the power of art as a form of escapism and expression. • Sharp contrast between the power and confidence of the tigers and the weakness and timidity of their creator. • Effective use of imagery and symbolism. • Formal style – the poem is written in rhyming couplets. • Regular rhyming scheme (AABB) and alliteration (‘chivalric certainty, etc. ) give the poem a musical quality.