“Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers,” which appeared in Rich’s first collection of poems, is typical of her early work, illustrating the modest poetic ambitions for which she was praised by Auden. Technically, the work displays flawless craftsmanship, with a carefully regulated meter and rhyming couplets. Only later did Rich recognize how formalism functioned as she writes, “asbestos gloves,” enabling her to grasp potentially dangerous materials without putting herself at risk, as in this poem.
The formalism of “Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers” hides the more disturbing aspects of the poem and subordinates the theme of Aunt Jennifer’s “ordeals” in marriage to the more “poetic” theme of the transcendence of art. The first verse of the poem describes the fearless tigers Aunt Jennifer creates in needlepoint. Their freedom and dignity is contrasted in the second verse to the restrictions of marriage, symbolized by the wedding band that weighs down Aunt Jennifer’s fingers as she sews. The themes are resolved in the final, third, verse: Even death will not free Aunt Jennifer from her “ordeals,” but the tigers she has created will continue to appear “proud and unafraid.”
While the poem is technically brilliant, the themes that art endures beyond human life and that suffering may be redeemed through art are hardly original. Rich, however, uses an inventive image to recast these conventional themes in a new way and even hints, in the image of Aunt Jennifer weighed down by an oppressive marriage, at the feminism that would permeate her later work. Yet the poem remains quite impersonal; the reader sees Aunt Jennifer but is scarcely aware of the voice of the poem’s narrator. For the reader, it is as though the picture is framed by an invisible hand, in contrast to Rich’s later work, where the reader cannot help being aware of the poet’s personal presence.