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Aunt Jennifer's Tigers

Aunt Jennifer's Tigers

by Adrienne Rich

Analysis: Form and Meter

Rhymed Couplets

"Aunt Jennifer's Tigers" has twelve lines, and is made up of three stanzas of four lines each. Each stanza is made up of two couplets. A couplet is a pair of lines, which in the case of this poem also rhyme.

For example, we have the poem's final lines:

The tigers in the panel that she made
Will go on prancing, proud and unafraid.

"Made" rhymes with "unafraid." Get it? Good. Easy as pie.

Now, let's think about why Rich chose to use this form. We mean, using rhyming couplets is one of the most basic ways to put a poem together (I really love my kitty cat / He's cuddly soft, but not too fat). In this way, Rich's poem (on the surface) comes off as a little… simplistic.

But, if we think about what she's up to, in revealing the hidden powers of poor Aunt Jennifer, then this choice starts to make more sense. Think about it: Aunt J is able to interject some element of majesty (the tigers) into her work (sewing), which is typically thought of (and not at all in a good way) as "women's work" that might be beneath the menfolk. By the same token, this simply, sing-songy poem is really filled with a keen observation and (we think) a fierce sense of indignation about women's inequality. Just as Aunt Jennifer is filled with potential that lies just below the surface, then, the rhyming couplets remind us that so is this poem.

All's Well that Ends Iambic

The other thing that you should know about the poem is that it is written in sort-of iambic pentameter. Iambic pentameter is the rhythm made famous by our old pal Shakespeare, who used it all over his plays and poems. In each line of iambic pentameter, we have five ("penta-") syllable pairs. Each pair includes an unstressed syllable, followed by a stressed one. (Say the word "allow" out loud and you'll hear what an iamb sounds like: da-DUM.)

Now, the last two lines of each stanza, which means the last two lines of the poem, are actually in perfect iambic pentameter. The stressed syllables are in bold:

The tigers in the panel that she made
Will go on prancing, proud and unafraid
.

What you need to know about "Aunt Jennifer's Tigers," though, is that, while the stanzas each end in a couplet of iambic pentameter, the first two lines of stanza are always messy, rhythmically speaking. It's almost as the poem, in telling this story of an oppressed woman, is not going to fall into a nice, neat, super-conventional rhythm. There's a back and forth with this very conventional metrical pattern. The poem embraces, but then bucks the pattern, perhaps similar to the way that Aunt Jennifer is both trapped in a rigid system (her marriage), but yearns to break loose (through her tigers).

What might Rich be prodding us to think about Aunt J, then? One clue comes in her choice of rhythms. Know what a rhyming couplet that uses iambic pentameter is called? If anyone out there said "heroic couplet," go ahead and give yourself like a million bonus points. Or maybe just buy yourself an ice cream cone because you, friend, have nailed it. Now, why would Rich decide to end her stanzas, and her entire poem, with heroic couplets? Do you think she's subtly encouraging us to see Aunt Jennifer's work of art as an act of heroic value? Hmm.

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