Rich's own remarks on this poem, in "When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Re-Vision" (1971), are an important starting place; she discusses how even in a formal and consciously distanced poem of her early period, she can discover clear (if latent) feminist concerns (Lies 40). Perhaps most interesting, however, is the fact that the needlework tigers, like Rich's poem itself, are ineffectual as rebellion, because the very means of their rebellion are inscribed in the oppressor's language, and thus reveal an unhealed split in the psyche of the oppressed.
The tigers display in art the values that Aunt Jennifer must repress or displace in life: strength, assertion, fearlessness, fluidity of motion. And the poem's conclusion celebrates the animal images as a kind of triumph, transcending the limited conditions of their maker's life. Accepting the doctrine of "ars longa, vita brevis," Rich finds in her character's art both persistence and compensation; she sees the creations as immortalizing the hand that made them, despite the contrary force of the oppressive structure of Aunt Jennifer's conventional marriage, as signified by the ring that binds her to her husband. This doctrine is utterly consonant with what was, according to Rich, "a recurrent theme in much poetry I read [in those days]. . . the indestructibility of poetry, the poem as vehicle for personal immortality" (Blood 168). And this more or less explicit connection helps show how deeply implicated Rich herself was in Aunt Jennifer's situation and her achievement, despite the "asbestos gloves" of a distancing formalism that "allowed me to handle materials I couldn't pick up barehanded" (Lies 40-41).
The problem, however, is that the tigers are clearly masculine figures--and not only masculine, but heroic figures of one of the most role-bound of all the substructures of patriarchy: chivalry. Their "chivalric certainty" is a representation by Aunt Jennifer of her own envisioned power, but it is essentially a suturing image, at once stitching up and reasserting the rift between her actual social status an her vision. Aunt’s name, after all, echoes with the sound of Queen Guinevere's; her place in chivalry is clear. Her tigers are only Lancelots, attractive because illicit, but finally seducing her to another submission to the male. So long as power can be envisioned only in terms that are culturally determined as masculine, the revolutionary content of the vision, which was all confined to a highly mediated and symbolic plane in any case, will remain insufficient. Indeed, the fact that assertion against the patriarchy is here imagined only in terms set by the patriarchs may be seen as this poem's version of the tigers' "fearful symmetry." And the "Immortal hand or eye" that framed their symmetry is not Aunt Jennifer's framing her needlework, but patriarchy's, framing Aunt Jennifer.
From World, Self, Poem: Essays on Contemporary Poetry from the "Jubilation of Poets." Copyright © 1990 by The Kent State University Press.