UPDATE: This poem has been updated. See below.
“Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers” is a poem about a woman who, like Penelope in Homer’s Odyssey, takes to creating a tapestry in order to convey the inner pain she can’t express in words. There’s nothing in the poem that speaks to the cause of that pain except “the massive weight of uncle’s wedding band” — something about her marriage to Uncle Jennifer’s Husband is very oppressive (or he gave her a uranium wedding ring which is heavy and radioactive to boot). So what’s wrong with their relationship? There’s no evidence that she was mistreated in any way. But there is evidence that it’s not even necessarily Uncle’s fault: the institution of marriage (as such) is the thing that weighs so heavily upon her: the ring. And the formal evidence of the poem’s scansion and of its odd metaphorical habit of treating tigers as if they were horses is how I will prove that this is a feminist poem written against the expectation that women were made to marry. I’m assuming the speaker is Aunt Jennifer’s niece, since she seems so preternaturally sympathetic to Aunt Jennifer’s situation, although vastly preferring her artistic achievement to the oppression that served as its catalyzing crucible.
This poem is generally written in iambic pentameter, which means there are ten beats per line, and the stress gets put on the second of every two beats: the iambic “foot” of a conjoined unstress followed by a stress. Except, there are a large number of abridgements to that normal pattern: Jennifer, denizens, chivalric, fluttering, ivory, and terrified. All of these words provide an extra beat to the normal ten, and they all also follow the same pattern of one stress and two unstressed beats: they’re dactyls, and they are all examples of “dactylic inversions,” modulations of the overall meter in which the normal iambic line gets modified to include this three-beat foot instead. That’s the technical way of explaining what’s going on, but the point of bringing it up here is to demonstrate that the rhythm only functions to call attention to certain words, which are various enough that they may or may not constitute a pattern.
But the metrical evidence in combination with the poem’s imagery, figures, and diction point to a feminist reading. First of all, consider how often the poem gestures toward some concept, item, or person sticking out against overwhelming odds — the “bright topaz” of the tigers against the “world of green” of their backdrop, the lonely ivory needle “fluttering” through the mass of wool, her weakened fingers buckling under the “massive” band, and her dead hands outnumbered by the “ordeals” they succumbed to. In each case, one of these things is not like the other, and it’s Aunt Jennifer. The awesome thing about the tigers is that, although they seem out of place, they also seem untroubled by “the men beneath the tree,” who I suppose are there to capture and tame them and rid them of whatever makes them feral tigers, forces to be reckoned with and feared in their own right.
Except, they aren’t tigers, or at least they shouldn’t be. given the logic of the rest of the poem. For one thing, tigers stalk their prey rather than prance; even housekittens are playful without prancing. No, horses prance (that’s why in The Fellowship of the Ring Tolkein’s hobbits drink at Barliman Butterbur’s “Inn of the Prancing Pony” rather than the “Inn of the Prancing Tiger”), and horses are also the single defining feature of chivalry, the knightly code of conduct that gets an explicit reference in the fourth line (“sleek chivalric certainty”). In French the word for horse is cheval, and horseman is chevalier, from which UVA gets its official mascot. Add this to the slight hint to the trial by ordeal, a travail to decide guilt or innocence that had nothing whatsoever to do with justice and everything to do with the Middle Ages’ love of torture and brute physical violence, and you have a pretty medieval mindset being referenced:
The chivalric code was introduced in order to corral some of the rampant abuses that the armed bands of fighters who helped fight back the Vikings were guilty of, and to the extent that the modern equivalents for such quaint notions as “women = property,” like holding doors open for women or picking up the check on a date, substitute for automatic violence and rape, that is… better than the Middle Ages, yes. But it’s still enough to torment someone obviously possessed of artistic talent, if her niece’s judgment of her tiger tapestry is to be believed, and chivalry does seem to be the sole blameworthy agent in this poem. Jennifer is terrified because she is denizen in a world ruled by chivalry. And that last sentence incorporates most of the dactyls in the poem, so I’m pretty sure I’ve adduced the relationship between those metrical modulations and the speaker’s point in drawing out her aunt’s example: marriage to an unenlightened partner is a trap for thinking women. The best Jennifer could do, perhaps, was to transmute horses to tigers. She couldn’t escape the cage.
UPDATE 7/10/2017: I’m looking at this poem afresh, and it occurs to me there might be more going on with the dactyls than I blithely talked about above. “Jennifer, denizens, chivalric, fluttering, ivory, and terrified,” doesn’t even include “heavily,” another good dactyl. The thing about that list is that all of them can be associated with Aunt Jennifer except chivalry, which as I note above is very much her opponent and all women’s opponent. HOWEVA, if you’re pronouncing it in English, your stress will actually fall on the second syllable of ‘chivalric,’ so although it looks like it belongs, it’s not a dactyl.
I bring this up because I wonder if, after all of these dactylic inversions, the poem has been training us to reread the final word.
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.
The consonant closing “d” couples “proud” and “unafraid,” which is coherent already. But although the second syllable of “unafraid” is normally stressed, there’s a part of me that wants to make this one final dactyl. That word is the locus of the poem’s feminist politics, its transformation of oppression into aesthetic triumph, its recognition that although women are oppressed, they need not allow their fears to define them. I’d like it also to be the conclusion of a metrical argument the poem’s been conducting unbeknownst to everybody.