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.

— Adrienne Rich

 

Adrienne Rich penned “Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers” quite early in her career, and in so doing foreshadowed the vast majority of her other works. By Rich’s death in 2012 (approximately 60 years after the publication of “Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers”), she was well known as an incredibly accomplished writer, and even more so as a relentless champion of women’s rights in her works. The tale of Aunt Jennifer and her needlepoint in this poem overlays (perhaps unsurprisingly) Rich’s complex critique of social inequality and disempowerment.

In the first quatrain, the speaker describes what exactly Aunt Jennifer’s tigers are. They are not some attraction in a safari park or circus; rather, they are the images on “a screen” – on Aunt Jennifer’s needlepoint. Rich’s imagery is surreal: the tigers are “bright topaz” in “a world of green”. They demand attention. In addition, they are dauntless and indomitable. They are fearless in the face of the “men beneath the tree”. They have “sleek chivalric certainty.”

Aunt Jennifer stands in sharp contrast to her tigers in the second quatrain. Her fingers barely flutter through the wool. Her hands are weighed down, almost stilled even, by the great weight of “Uncle’s wedding band.” This weight, of course, is metaphorical and, by that virtue, arguably even more oppressive. She is chained to one very special role in a marriage that the speaker refers to not even as her own, but as “Uncle’s”.

The third quatrain begins describing how Aunt Jennifer’s hands will “lie” when she dies “still ringed with ordeals she was mastered by”. The word ‘lie’ could have various interpretations. Perhaps her hands are finally lying still. Perhaps she is buried with her ring, and her hands portray a false image of her marriage. While these possibilities could be analyzed in greater detail, the final two lines of the poem hold greater significance.

In Rich’s last quatrain, the speaker concludes, “The tigers in the panel that she made will go on prancing, proud and unafraid”. These lines are often interpreted as a silver lining to the story, or as some sort of redemption. The speaker seems to indicate that Aunt Jennifer – the true, free Aunt Jennifer – lives on in her creations and finally finds expression in them. In some small way, they save her.

Despite this common interpretation of the significance of Aunt Jennifer’s tigers, I believe there is another way to understand this metaphor that drives home Rich’s concern with sexism and disempowerment even more. What if the tigers represented not Aunt Jennifer’s saving grace, but rather her oppressors? What if the tigers were not part of the redemption, but part of the problem? If the tigers represented men, or perhaps even a society governed by the patriarchy, the themes of the poem would come across even stronger. Unlike Aunt Jennifer, the tigers have nothing to fear from “the men beneath the tree” because they are men themselves. And they continue on oppressing others yet maintain in false certainty that their actions are “sleek” chivalry. When Aunt Jennifer is finally dead after years of oppression, the tigers “go on prancing, proud and unafraid”. They don’t care. They are proud, and unafraid that any power dynamics will change.

— Rachel Campbell ’18

 

Rich, Adrienne. “Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers.” University of Pennsylvania, Web. http://writing.upenn.edu/~afilreis/88v/rich-jennifer-tiger.html

[For more by Adrienne Rich, her collected poems may be found for purchase here: https://www.amazon.com/Collected-Poems-1950-2012-Adrienne-Rich/dp/0393285111/ref=la_B000APH346_1_2?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1510543664&sr=1-2 ]


To Tell the Beauty Would Decrease

To tell the Beauty would decrease
To state the Spell demean
There is a syllable-less Sea
Of which it is the sign
My will endeavors for its word
And fails, but entertains
A Rapture as of Legacies –
Of introspective Mines –

— Emily Dickinson

“To tell the Beauty would decrease, to state the Spell demean….” If Emily Dickinson’s opening lines prove bewildering, the rest of her poem offers little clarity. She writes in metaphor- but, more significantly, in mystery. Though this piece is a mere eight lines, it is hard to digest quickly. Dickinson’s esoteric language demands a reader who will “endeavor for its word.” Perhaps it is hardly surprising that a woman who interacted with the world as if from behind a veil for most of her self-contained life would leave behind such an amorphous legacy. But, on the other hand, perhaps if she spoke plainly “the Beauty would decrease.”

Mystical language infuses the very core of this poem – a far cry from the traditional, exacting Calvinist theology Dickinson would have grown up with. But, then again, she never exactly cared about the status quo. The true mysticism Dickinson reveals in this piece extends far beyond her mention of “spells” and “signs.” From both the meaning and also the convoluted nature of her very first lines: “To tell the Beauty would decrease, to state the Spell demean.…” her reader perceives the apophatic thinking fundamental to the piece as a whole, and in Dickinson’s opinion, probably to life. Her strategy is brilliant and well suited to her message: in the obscurity, lies the transcendence.

The “it,” the “Sea,” that Dickinson describes her spirit reaching to comprehend seems almost reminiscent of the speech used in one of the most famous pieces of mystical literature: Plato’s allegory of the cave. In it, one must ascend from the darkness of the cave into the light and, until one does so, one’s comprehensions are limited to only the bare shadows of things. One achieves this transcendence – this rapture as it where – through knowledge and wisdom.

Here is where the similarities between Dickinson’s piece and Plato’s allegory break down. According to Dickinson, knowledge only limits the transcendence of the spirit because the “Sea,” the realm of rapture and paramountcy her spirit feels its absence from and yearns to perceive, is “syllables.” It is not confined. It cannot be limited to words or language, and to try to do so – “to tell the Beauty” or to “state the Spell” would only demean its true nature. Thus, leaving behind the explainable and rational, the spirit attains a state of rapture, and perceiving beauty – which Dickinson so aptly capitalizes – becomes the way, and (dare I say it?) the truth and the life.

— Rachel Campbell ’18

Dickinson, Emily. “To Tell the Beauty Would Decrease.” Edited by Thomas H. Johnson, Emily Dickinson Archive, Web.  www.edickinson.org/editions/2/image_sets/80008.

[For more by Emily Dickinson, her collected poems can be found for purchase here: https://www.amazon.com/Poems-Emily-Dickinson-Reading/dp/0674018249]