Meg Boerema Gillette On "Aunt Jennifer's Tigers"

Deborah Pope's and Thomas B. Byars's readings of Adrienne Rich's "Aunt Jennifer's Tigers" describe the poem as a contest between the individual and the social, between "imagination" and "gender roles and expectation" (Pope), between the "oppressed" and the "oppressor" (Byars). Reading the poem through oppositions, these critics search for the poem's resolution. The question for Pope and Byars seems to be, who wins? Imagination or gender roles? The oppressed or the oppressor? For Pope, the answer is an evasive, Rich fails to "recogniz[e] the fundamental implications of the division." For Byars, the answer is the unforgiving, "Rich's poem itself [is] ineffectual as rebellion, because the means of their rebellion are inscribed in the oppressors language." Ultimately, as these critics argue, "Aunt Jennifer's Tigers" fails to resolve the conflict between the individual and the social.

My reading of the poem, however, is that the poem resists those oppositions upon which Pope's and Byars' criticisms depend. I would argue that "Aunt Jennifer's Tigers" does not stage a contest between the individual and the social, but rather characterizes them by their interdependence. (The personal in this poem is deeply implicated in the political, and vice versa.) In the central symbols of the poem--the tapestry tigers and the Uncle's wedding band--the individual and social, the personal and the political meet. The tapestry tigers are not just individual artistic expressions; they are politically inflected, engaged in patriarchal chivalry myths (as Byars argues), and--as icons of colonialism (I would add)--suggestive of capitalist regimes of power (notice too they are sewn with an "ivory needle" (line 6)). The personal and the political again meet in the intimacy of "Uncle's wedding band" (line 7). By the physical intimacy of a wedding band and by the familial presence conferred by "*Uncle's* wedding band" (emphasis added), "Aunt Jennifer's Tigers" personalizes the presence of patriarchal politics.

The poem's structure also draws the personal into the political and the political into the personal. The parallel syntactical structures of verses one and two suggest the relatedness of their content. Both follow the construction "Aunt Jennifer's," with verse two substituting "tigers prance across the screen" (line 1) with the similar sounding "fingers fluttering though her wool" (line 5). The use of color in the second lines of each verse--"topaz" and "green" (line 2) and "ivory" (line 6)-and the presence of men in the third lines-"the men beneath the tree" (line 3) and "Uncle's wedding band" (line 7) persist in the stanzas' parallelisms. These parallelisms draw associations between the images described. Owing to such parallelisms, the straining "fingers" of the second verse resonate with the energetic "tigers" of first verse. Reading the second stanza back to the first, the weight that "sits heavily upon Aunt Jennifer's hand" of its final line (line 8) lends sobriety to the "chivalric certainty" of the final line of the first stanza. Though verse one nominally describes artistic freedom, and verse two nominally describes patriarchal power, the structural affinities between the two verses resist the strict binarizing of rebellion and repression. The final verse of the  poem persists in this destabilization as here rebellion and repression meet in the simultaneity of the fearless tigers and the lifeless aunt:

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. (lines 9-12)

To condemn "Aunt Jennifer's Tiger's" then, as Byars does, for its rebellion's indebtedness to patriarchal culture is, I would argue, to miss the point. What makes the poem interesting, I think, is the very interplay between rebellion and repression, between the individual and the social, between the personal and the political. To demand a resolution wherein individual expression wholly escapes the social/political, magically rising above patriarchal discourse, seems to me a least a little naive and largely dismissive of the poem's more sophisticated conceptualization of power.

Copyright © 2001 by Meg Boerema Gillette

Anneliese Harrison on Robert Lowell

Steven Gould Axelrod

The first four stanzas of "Skunk Hour" describe the Maine seacoast village of Castine (and nearby Nautilus Island and Blue Hill), where Lowell spent the summer of 1957. . . . The amiability of his tone is a ruse. He is describing more than scenery, he is describing the rotting of a whole social structure. The "hermit heiress" longs for "Queen Victoria's century" and is senile. Her social successor, the "summer millionaire," is also past his prime -- his yawl has been auctioned off. Even nature has grown old and sinister, covered with "stain" . . . . The once vibrant New England culture and economy have been degraded: their traditional implements -- nets and corks of fishermen, cobbler's bench and awl - are now only items displayed by an interior decorator to attract wealthy tourists.

In stanza five the "sterility" howling through the landscape is given its point. . . . The observation in stanza three that "the season's ill" might have referred innocently to seasonal change, but by stanza six its full implication is manifest: this season of human habitation on earth is ill -- decadent and debased. And Lowell, his spirit "ill," personifies that disease. Just as he embodies his ailing civilization, so the town inhabitants turn out to have prefigured Lowell himself, who is as isolated and demented as the heiress, as fallen as the ruined millionaire, and as loveless and artistically failed as the decorator.

Lowell has entered a monstrous world akin to the world of "For the Union Dead" in which automobiles and steamshovels appear as creatures out of the Mesozoic era. The monsters of both poems embody the inner truth of the observed scene and, equally frightening, make manifest his own disordered feelings. In "Skunk Hour" he sees the graveyard hill itself as a "skull," an expressionist figure of death. He projects his feelings of lovelessness and balked lust into a scene of automotive sexuality, in which not only the car's occupants but the "love-cars" themselves couple "hull to hull," while bleating like sheep of "careless Love." Disconnected from the observed scene and even from his own inner self, Lowell perceives himself to be a "skull" of death, an empty "hull" in which his spirit chokes.

The self-portrait Lowell has created calls to mind other sexually and emotionally withdrawn characters in our post-Puritan literature, preeminently those of Hawthorne and Henry James . . . . As in Hawthorne, Lowell's depiction of psychological separateness manifests a cosmic condition. Because he is now exiled from God as well as human society, he is constrained, in the manner of Ethan Brand, to judge and punish himself:

I myself am hell; nobody's here --

Lowell has written of his stanzas, "This is the dark night. I hoped my readers would remember St. John of the Cross's poem. . . ." Like Christ on Golgotha, the "place of a skull," Lowell confronts death on the "hill's skull" near the graveyard; not a death leading to resurrection, but an existential death, yielding nothingness.

From Robert Lowell: Life and Art (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1978), 124-126.