Tiger in the Menagerie

Overview

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-)

Analysis
Click through the tabs below to explore my analysis of different aspects of the poem.
ContextThemesContentLanguage and techniquesMiss Parker + class' InterpretationStructureTone

Context

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.

Emma Jones

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:

Themes

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.

Content

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’.

Structure

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.

Tone

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.

Author: Mr Sir

Although I've only been teaching Literature since 2011 and did my degree in History, I think that makes me better placed than many Lit teachers to provide notes that make sense and aren't garbled and wrapped up with inaccessible terminology and effluent nonsense. After adventures in Uganda and Uzbekistan, I am now settling down in the Netherlands. However, currently I am just about as unsettled as I have ever been, with a new job, a new baby, a new country and a hundred other things going on! Ask me a question, collaborate or abuse me.

46 thoughts on “Tiger in the Menagerie”

    1. Sorry, I’m not accepting essays at the minute as I was completely overwhelmed by submissions and some people were a bit demanding (bearing in mind I was helping them out and not charging them anything!).

      I may accept at a later date, but it will be for specific tasks and may be something I charge for.

      Cheers,

      Mr Sir

      P.S I completely agree with your username 🙂

  1. I answered the question about this poem in the exam on Monday, thanks very much for all of the great analysis, I think it has helped a lot.

  2. Thank you for this helpful post! I would like to share my interpretation and it would be wonderful if you could give some feedback and comments as I do have some trouble trying to express what I am trying to say.

    My interpretation is actually very similar to Mr Sir’s. I’ve interpreted the poem as a comment on violence versus civility in our modern day society. The tiger in my interpretation represents violence whilst the animals of the menagerie depict cilivity and it’s customs. Basically the fact that tiger has gotten into the menagerie is an implication that violence is infused within us. This is further emphasised by the fact that the bars (which is supposed to shield us from the violence) and the stripes (the things that belong to the source of the violence!) become one. I also got the impression that when “the eyes rock shut” and when we are asleep, this primitive violence fuses with the customs of civility as they “walk together in their dreams”. However then the sun rises, they’d gone. When the sun rises and when they awake, the civility which they once possesed is now gone. Violence now overpowers the civilty. The “aviary” talked about in the last stanza might represent the vanity of human’s as usually in an aviary there are many exotic birds and it’s main purpose is for display.

    Based on my interpretation, this poem is a comment of the futility of trying to “protect” ourselves from violence and trying to seperate violence and civility as violence is infused into all our beings.

    Thank your for reading and I would really appreciate any comments I can get!

  3. What do the lines
    ‘the bars were the lashes of the stripes
    the stripes were the lashes of the bars’
    refer to or interpreted as? I do not get this line at all

    1. Think of a tigers black stripes and the black stripes that are bars of a cage. When it gets dark and we can only see blackness, it becomes difficult to see what is bar and what is tiger.

      Any clearer?

      Mr Sir

  4. I find this poem dense and unfathomable. Do you have any idea as to which poems might come up in the IGCSE Lit 2016 exam? Because if it is this and/or Passion by Kathleen Raine, game’s over 🙁

    1. Haha, I can understand that. In my experience there are always one or two poems that I just don’t get on with. However, remember you have a choice of question and that often questions give you a relatively free choice as to which poem you want to analyse. You’ll be alright!

      Cheers,

      Mr Sir

  5. Me sir I believe u dint receive my previous message for some reason so I m sending it again

    Sir can u please take some time out to correct my answer on this poem and give feedback as I have my boards coming up in less than a month and I k sure ur comments will be a great help.
    Where can I send u the Answer if I can?

    Thanks

  6. Sir can u please take some time out to correct my answer on this poem and give feedback as I have my boards coming up in less than a month and I k sure ur comments will be a great help.
    Where can I send u the Answer if I can?

    Thanks.

  7. I have another suggestion on what the aviary at the end could represent.
    Maybe it represents Heaven or maybe the upper class society and this heaven/upper society tries to ‘lock it’s door’ to keep evil – represented by the tiger – out but can’t.
    And the message of the poem is that evil resides in all places, even in Heaven or the top of society, and there is hidden violence everywhere, even in something as seemingly harmless as a ‘painting of a tiger’, and this violence is locked away in a cage (ie. bars/in a menagerie) but comes out during the night when society can ‘shed its fretwork’ and the true inside emotions come out.

    1. So basically what I mean is that the tiger represents hidden criminality that is inside everyone and is everywhere.

      1. I’m not sure I would term it criminality. I see this more as the illusion of our civility, when in fact we are all just animals with animal urges.

    2. That certainly sounds plausible and something you could develop successfully in an essay.

      Cheers for commenting,

      Mr Sir

  8. According to what i have learnt, the tiger is an outsider to a group/ family, and this tiger breaks them apart, causes cracks in the family. After reading these lines specifically, I interpreted:

    the bars were the lashes of the stripes
    the stripes were the lashes of the bars
    that when the sun rose they’d gone and the tiger was one clear orange eye
    (Have left lines in the middle so that it makes more sense)

    It waited there, perfectly camouflaged, for the correct chance to pounce on its prey, which was inside the menagerie. After a while, the bars of the cage were gone and so were its stripes (which were shown to have merged in that line) so that means that, there was nothing to control the tiger now and also, its camouflage had gone, so its prey realized its real motives

    I need to know if this is valid. Also I feel that this is kinda alike to Miss’s interpretation, however we haven’t been told that this is a male and female… Help
    Thanks, Mahek

    1. So , if i have to write a 25 marks essay on a question for this poem.
      Do i write according to your interpretation or miss’s interpretation.
      I’m confused here.

      1. No! It’s not about writing other people’s views, you need to interpret the poem yourself and answer the essay question in your own way. These notes are not intended to be a definitive understanding of the poem with all the key points signposted for you, but rather to help you understand it and develop your own understanding of its meaning and significance.

        Cheers,

        Mr Sir

  9. I don’t understand the part about the long colonnade- what does this mean in context to the rest of the poem and how could you link it to love and violence?

    1. I’m not sure it is particularly important and I think it just relates to the imagery we are being presented with. However, I think there are a few other comments with different ideas that might help.

      Cheers,

      Mr Sir

      1. i think that the collonade of the indian main is a reference to The Life of Pi by Yvann Martel, as they the tiger here and Richard Parker in TLOP both travel along the Indian Ocean. Furthermore, the act of the cage bars and the tigers stripes are symbollic of PI realising that he is Richard Parker, in his story in the hospital, and also the act of them having to adapt and work together to survive. And the “one clear orange eye” is symbollic of RP leaving PI on the beach to enter his habitat,after being caged all this while.

      2. I can see how they are similar, but I am not convinced they are connected. When were both texts written? Is there any connection between the writers? Why would the poem link to a book in meaning, but have no obvious link?

    2. Some of my students (who thought that these were 2 people who couldn’t really be together) felt the long colonnade – a long sequence of columns – could represent life and them discussing their potential future, dreams, life together. However, it ‘shed its fretwork’, meaning its ornamental woodwork, which could mean that the attractive facade was stripped away leaving brutal reality (that they couldn’t be together).
      This could also my applied to my interpretation of the tiger being the person who’s attractive but ultimately bad for you, I suppose. The life together etc. before the shedding of the fretwork to reveal the tiger’s true character.

  10. I still don’t understand what relevance does dreaming about the ‘long colonnade’ make reference to the rest of the poem. how does relate to violence here?

    1. I’m not sure it does. I think it sets the scene of the poem in our minds. In my interpretation the palatial ‘colonnade’ suggests our own self-congratulatory vision of ourselves (humanity) as being truly civilised and just splendid!

      Hope this helps,

      Mr Sir

      1. My interpretation was that the colonnade mirrors the tigers bold and defined stripes to show that its presence is reflected everywhere, even in the architecture of the world. This again reflects back on the fact that the tiger is a symbol of violence and destruction. We can relate this poem to ‘Passion’ by Kathleen Raine, as she delineates that both ‘the flower’ and ‘the tiger’ share the same world and that both must exist together but it is up to us to choose who we must live like.

        I hope this helps!

      2. Also, in the theme section, you can say that the poem is used to indicate the terror that is opposed against love and peace because of the violence in our world(i.e. in the poem, the tiger)

  11. I have thought of a combination of the two ideas here (yours and miss’). What if the persona (a her in my case) put up these barriers (the cell around the tiger) to protect themselves from this beautiful and dangerous man/tiger , but at night the primitive instincts of both parties take over and the barriers are broken between them (they get together ). Then , in the morning, there are no longer any barriers to protect her from getting hurt (physically and emotionally ) by this tiger/man.

    1. You could be on to something, although I think it works better with Miss’ interpretation than mine. Or do you think we want to give into our primal urges? I suppose so.

      Regardless, as long as you can justify and argue your position your interpretation is valid and interesting.

      Cheers for commenting,

      Mr Sir

    2. This is exactly what I have annotated! She’s caged herself but at night we lose our inhibitions. The bars of her cage become merged with the stripes of the tiger, meaning she’s still trapped, but a kind of emotional imprisonment through her love for the tiger.

  12. Thank you so much, this helped a lot. I was wondering more about how this would link to love. The line “At night the bars of the cage and the stripes of the tiger looked into each other for so long ” intrigues me… Could it imply any love between the Tigers stripes and the bars of the cage, or what they represent ?

    1. I know you’re really exploring Miss’ interpretation here, but I think the line doesn’t relate to love at all. I love the line too and it is a bit of a head scratcher, but I believe it just represents the black stripes becoming one with the night as the day disappears.

      Apologies for how long my reply took!

      Mr Sir

  13. Hi there! As a fellow English teacher, this site has been invaluable when preparing to teach these poems. I always annotate the poems in advance and find my analysis so much stronger if I can bounce off someone else’s interpretations. Thank you!

    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’.

    1. Glad to hear I’ve helped in some way.

      I really like these ideas as a different interpretation and they make complete sense to me. I’m not sure I buy the bit about different races and I don’t think it is needed to tie this interpretation of the poem together.

      I’ve added it as a second interpretation onto the post, thanks for contributing!

      Mr Sir

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *