Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.
When Aunt is dead, her terrified hands will lie
Still ringed with ordeals she was mastered by.
- Whoa. The poem takes a morbid turn here. The speaker starts imagining what will happen when Aunt Jennifer dies, and it's not pretty.
- When Aunt J is dead, the speaker tells us, her hands will still be "terrified." (Of course, it's impossible for hands to be literally afraid. This is synechdoche, or using a part—Aunt J's hands—to represent the whole, or Aunt J's terrified self.)
- Poor Aunt Jennifer will also be "ringed with ordeals she was mastered by" in death, as she was in life. The symbol of the wedding band reappears here with the word "ringed."
- Again, the speaker doesn't mean that all of Aunt J's ordeals will sit around her in a circle and play some perverse game of Duck, Duck, Goose. Nope, this is figurative language that suggests that, even in death, there is no escape from her troubles.
- We are also getting a bit more detail here about Aunt J's marriage. We can tell from Rich's diction (or word choice) that her marriage wasn't just unhappy. It was terrifying, and filled with ordeals. Sounds like some kind of horror movie.
- For example, Aunt Jennifer is "mastered by" her ordeals. The word "master" suggests that Aunt J is in a slavery-type relationship. The poem figures her as a slave. The master is "the ordeals" that she suffers, presumably at the hand of her husband. Though the poem is not explicit here, it still suggests that Uncle is the master and Aunt Jennifer is the slave in the relationship. Now that is not a good formula for wedded bliss.
- Rich's syntax here is really interesting, too. Aunt Jennifer's hands are "mastered by" her ordeals. Aunt J is in the passive position in this sentence. Her ordeals "master" her, and she is the actually the grammatical object in this sentence. Now, don't run away at the mention of grammar. What we mean is that she's not the subject who acts. She is made powerless both by her husband, but also by the poem's diction and syntax.
- On a related note: do you know the word "patriarchy"? It's not in the poem, but it's a pretty important word for understanding Rich's work. Patriarchy refers to a male-dominated society in which men hold authority and power and women are subordinated to them. One of the interesting questions about the poem is whether Aunt J's struggles are due to her relationship with her husband, or because of the lack of power for women in the patriarchal society in which Aunt J lives. In other words, is her problem her husband's fault, or is it the problem of an entire culture that subordinates women to men? Play the blame game with us. Where would you place it?
The tigers in the panel that she made
Will go on prancing, proud and unafraid.
- Now we've got a final switcheroo. This stanza began super-morbidly, as the speaker anticipated her aunt's death. We also learned about how, even in death, Aunt Jennifer will be experiencing bad times. But now, the speaker imagines what will happen to the tigers when her aunt dies.
- And, guess what? Those tigers keep on truckin'. They "prance, proud and unafraid," as ever. (Again, to say that a tiger, especially a needlework tiger, would prance, or feel proud, of be unafraid is an example of personification.) Aunt J may die one day with "terrified hands," but her tigers will be just the opposite of those hands. No, they won't be feet. What we mean is that they'll keep up their bravery, chivalry, and fearlessness.
- Obviously, we see a contrast between the future of Aunt Jennifer and the tigers. But what's interesting to think about is what the tigers say about Aunt J's life.
- Did Aunt Jennifer imagine herself as a tiger? We might say that the tigers are a symbol of her inner life that she couldn't express. Rowr! Or we could argue that the tigers are representations of all the qualities that she herself wanted to have, but couldn't, because of her husband. Option C: we could argue that Aunt J seems pretty lame compared to her awesome tigers.
- Or, we could think about the poem a little differently. Even if she was unsatisfied by her marriage, Aunt J found a life for herself in her art. The wedding ring will be buried with Aunt J's body, but the tapestry and Aunt Jennifer's tigers will live forever. Even if her husband held her back in life (boo!), Aunt J will live forever through her tigers, "prancing, proud and unafraid" (yay!).
- And, we should just note one more time that what allows Aunt Jennifer to live on through her art is not some crazy huge painting or sculpture—it's a delicate, and historically feminized, tapestry of animals in the forest. The speaker finds a distinctly feminine art form through which Aunt J can become immortal. And you know what? We like it.