There are two ways of viewing this poem. Is it an appreciation of the deadly beauty of the tiger (a bit like Hunting Snake) or is it a metaphor/analogy for the violence that exists within us all, no matter how civilised we think we are?
I think the second interpretation makes for the more interesting analysis so I will be focusing on that, but inevitably commenting on the imagery literally too.
No one could say how the tiger got into the menagerie.
It was too flash, too blue,
too much like the painting of a tiger.
At night the bars of the cage and the stripes of the tiger
looked into each other so long
that when it was time for those eyes to rock shut
the bars were the lashes of the stripes
the stripes were the lashes of the bars
and they walked together in their dreams so long
through the long colonnade
that shed its fretwork to the Indian main
that when the sun rose they’d gone and the tiger was
one clear orange eye that walked into the menagerie.
No one could say how the tiger got out in the menagerie.
It was too bright, too bare.
If the menagerie could, it would say ‘tiger’.
If the aviary could, it would lock its door.
Its heart began to beat in rows of rising birds
when the tiger came inside to wait.
Emma Jones (1979-)
The good news here is that Emma Jones is alive! She is one of a select few living poets to have received the great honour of being put on the syllabus by CIE.
The bad news is that she is Australian and she’s squatting in William Wordsworth’s old cottage. Okay, I’m being facetious here – she’s not there anymore and when she was she had full permission as she was the poet in residence. Also, she has a British mother so can’t be all bad.
Anyway, there isn’t much more I can tell you about her and not much that will help us with this poem. I’m giving you permission to ignore this section if you want to. I guess it might be a bit late now though.
Here she is reading the poem:
A bit of a departure from the rest of our collection here as I can’t see anyway this about love, unless you take it to be some kind of protest about keeping animals in zoos and thus being some sort of animal based love. I don’t think this is a reasonable argument.
However, I would look at the main theme of this poem as being the delusions of mankind or our true nature. In the poem we have tried to disguise this as part of our past and the menagerie is a very civilised way to examine our former selves, but it all goes wrong and the tiger runs amok showing that our true nature cannot be caged and will always remain free.
Let’s start with the title. A menagerie is an exotic collection of animals, but is not really something that commonly exists in the modern day. Kings and nobles may have kept exotic animals to show off their wealth and to provide entertainment in the same sort of way as we visit the zoo to watch the monkeys fling their faeces at each other.
Typically these menageries would be full of relatively sedate animals such as parrots, peacocks and that sort of thing, but there were also more lavish collections that included more dangerous animals like lions, leopards, bears and even elephants.
To own such a collection was to demonstrate ones wealth and status. It was a very civilised way to view the wonders of the wild world. However, our title is framed so as to make us think that the tiger has come to upset this civilised affair and indeed it has.
Now I’m going to zoom through the poem as I want to explore it in detail in the next section.
Jones begins with questioning how the brightly coloured tiger/offensive behaviour that is violence was able to get unnoticed into this civilised environment.
Once the tiger is there it seems to actually blend into the night, its stripes camouflaged with the bars. It becomes one with the bars and is able to move through them and goes forth to consume the rest of the menagerie or, if we are thinking about violence, it overpowers all elements of our supposed civility.
The poem ends with the timid birds of the menagerie trapped and suppressed by the tiger, who is waiting to consume them.
Language and techniques
If things didn’t make sense above, hopefully they will here as I will really drill down into detail.
Let’s start by examining the imagery that Jones presents to us. She sets the scene as something similar to during the rule of the East India Trading Company or British Raj in India. She describes a ‘long colonnade’ with intricate wooden carvings (‘fretwork’), painting an image of a large palace or palatial mansion in the Greek columned style – a colonnade is a walkway framed with columns on either side. Additionally, a menagerie is a show of opulence, the utmost luxury and something that is meant to demonstrate how civilised an individual is and contributes to this image of extreme high living.
I don’t think Jones is necessarily commenting on an actual historical event or being specific to India here, but instead she wants us to view our own existence in these terms. We view ourselves in a self-congratulatory way, considering ourselves civilised, intelligent and forward thinking, particularly in the Western world. However, Jones wants us to recognise our civility is a thin veneer or disguise to our true nature.
The tiger then represents our natural savagery and the suppressed violence we all have beneath our suits and ties. We don’t notice our natural urges or instincts because they are ‘too flash, too blue’, which suggests that violence is so obviously uncivilised and obscene that we do not consider it something that can sneak back into our being.
‘Too flash’ and ‘much like the painting of a tiger’ work together to create an image of something bright, obvious and inescapable. What is really powerful here is the simile comparing violence to a picture of a tiger rather than a tiger itself. We know tigers are really distinctive with their orange fur and black stripes, but in the wild you’ll never see this as they are master hunters and use the jungle to disguise their movements until it is too late.
Not convinced, watch this irrelevant, but interesting clip:
The ‘too blue’ comment should at first have you scratching your head: what part of a tiger is blue? However, this is again focused directly on describing the violent part of our nature and Jones means ‘blue’ as obscene or vulgar rather than the colour. Thus our violent natures are too vulgar for us to consider that we could ever give into them.
Now we move onto an image that could more literally be taken to describe a real tiger. As darkness of night grows, the black stripes of the tiger blend in with the bars of its cell in the menagerie until the ‘time for those eyes to rock shut’, night time when we are preparing for sleep, then the tiger and the cell become indistinguishable. The third stanza consists of two lines that are the direct inverse of each other, which helps convey how camouflaged the tiger becomes in the darkness. Once it has become the bars it is able to move through them and consume the rest of the menagerie.
How does this relate to the analogy of our inner violence? I have a few ideas: when we sleep we are free of the restriction of society and maybe a little more relaxed or less subject to social condition and thus are more in touch with our natural instincts. Alternatively, the darkness may represent something terrible happening to us and our response is to allow the violence within us to emerge, escape its bars at this time, thus losing our civilised control on our nature.
Another interpretation rests with the fact Jones positions our belief that we are now civilised as ‘their dreams’. ‘They’ here refers to the other animals of the menagerie, but in the analogy I am exploring represents the Westernised world. From these dreams we are being hunted by our natural instincts, the now hidden tiger within us is ready to consume us. Perhaps this is a call from Jones for us to be a bit more in touch with our natural instincts in order to prevent them bursting out uncontrollably.
Dreams are shattered ‘when the sun rose’ and the idea of civilised human beings is gone and what we have left is just ‘one clear orange eye’. Once something comes along to shatter the idea of a people being civilised and above violence and killing, then they show their true colours and we are left with a violent outpouring.
To stick with my idea of the British in India, who lived in luxury while they exploited India for everything she was worth, you could see this in something like the massacre of 500 or so mostly English civilians in India in Kanpur in 1857, which was met with a British assault on the rebel city of Jhansi in 1858 where 5,000 men, women and children were slaughtered. Violence striking the civilised reveals their true nature and makes a mockery of any suggestion of one people being somehow above another or more civilised.
For a more modern example think about September 11th 2001. The World Trade Centres being destroyed by suicide Jihadists cost the lives of almost 3,000 people. The response of the Western world was to retaliate in Afghanistan (over 20,000 Afghans dead) and Iraq (500,000 dead from war related causes). So, even today the response of a supposedly civilised nation to conflict or threat is to resort to violence and brutality.
The tiger then leaves the menagerie and again we have no idea how the violence has fled. ‘It was too bright, too bare’ suggests that it is something like an uncontrollable blast and ‘too bare’ makes me think that when we resort to violence we do so without any element of control (imagine our civilised nature to be clothes we think protect us from these instincts).
In the final stanza, Jones takes us to the aviary. I think the aviary represents the vanity of the Western world, dressing itself up in the bright colours of peacocks or parrots and pretending to be something better or above their nature. ‘If the aviary could, it would lock its doors’ suggests that violence escaping is unavoidable and it is impossible to completely curb our instincts.
When the tiger enters the aviary what happens? ‘Rows of rising birds’ attempt to escape by leaving their perches, which suggests to me that when violence rears its head, these vestiges of civility disappear and only the tiger remains.
In terms of linking it to love, I had an interpretation, as did my students, although they were all completely different!
For me, the connotations of a tiger being both beautiful and dangerous are relevant – that the tiger is that person you are attracted to despite knowing they they are no good for you (This is the point where I played the class Taylor Swift’s ‘Trouble’ ha!).
She has been hurt before and so has locked herself away (menagerie, aviary) – the tiger’s stripes becoming the bars and ‘lashes’ (will end in pain) shows how she opened herself up for this relationship but remained just as isolated (emotionally) – he’s after a fling – ‘flash’ (short-lived) -wants her for entertainment (one of the purposes of a menagerie). She also may have been blinded by his ‘flash’ of wealth – ‘blue’ linking to royalty, old money, wealth.
To cut it short, the last stanza could suggest that it is inevitable that he’s going to break her heart (the aviary = her heart/mind – common sense- ‘would lock its door’ against him) – just as it’s inevitable that the tiger will consume the birds, it’s just a matter of when.
Others felt that the different species of tiger and birds could suggest that they are different races, or were like star crossed and it was never going to work, despite their ‘dreams’ and the intensity of their love – ‘too bright’.
Lots of good stuff in here.
Notice that the poem is completely irregular in terms of rhyme. This is a deliberate attempt to throw off the vestiges of civilised poetry, i.e. poetic convention and typical form. Additionally there is no rhyme, which contributes to the effect of this poem seeming wild and uncontrollable just like our instincts.
She also uses enjambment from the second stanza through to the end of the fifth. This is ten lines and it is pretty difficult to say this all in one without taking a breath. This hurried pace emphasises how quickly the tiger or our violence can lash out. These five stanzas contrast with the opening stanza and the final two. In these we have a much slower explanatory tone where people are trying to explain what has just happened, whereas the actual violence is a bluster of pace and seemingly uncontrollable.
Also notice that the word ‘tiger’ is repeated so often throughout the poem, where often a pronoun would suffice. The word and the instinct runs through us and this is illustrated through its almost every presence in each stanza.
I think the poem reads as if the poet is judging others for not recognising their natures or trying to hide it. The opening and closing stanzas of the poem seem to me to imply that people should know where the tiger is coming and going from, but to do that people have to acknowledge its existence in the first place.