Two Sides of the Same Coin: How Gender Is Depicted in Poetry
Sir Thomas Wyatt, according to Peter Hühn, is not only recognized as one of the most important poets in the revival of the sixteenth-century English lyric, but he is also remembered for establishing the conventions of Petrarchan love in the English lyric both with his translations from the Italian and poems of his own. In his poem, as a matter of fact, he follows “the basic situation with which the Petrarchan conventions operate, that is that of a man wooing a socially superior lady in a courtly context where, for social and moral reasons, his desire cannot be fulfilled” (16). However, Wyatt poem “They Flee from Me” could not be more different from the description provided by De Gruyter. Indeed, even though this poem was intended to be a love poem, it reveals and subverts the stereotypical gender dynamics of the 16th century since it is the woman the one who gets slowly in control of the situation. On the other hand, Adrienne Rich is a feminist poet who focused both on “women’s history and movement” as well as on women’s oppression (Riley 1), and, as a consequence, it is not surprising that she wrote her poem “Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers” with the purpose to serve as a feminist poem. Indeed, the poem was written in 1951, a time in which there were much fewer options for women in terms of careers and family planning, so that most women were not financially independent. Thanks to both poem, we get a glimpse into the lives of the Wyatt and of the Aunt Jennifer’s of the world, and a glance into the ways in which gender construction affected and still affect us.
Sir Thomas Wyatt’s “They Flee from Me” is a poem in which the speaker, Wyatt himself, challenges the normal Renaissance gender constructions. The poem is divided into three stanzas, each of which shows the progressive increase of a woman’s power. The first stanza, for instance, shows the typical male-dominant relationship so that the author does not refer to a single woman but talks in general always referring to the woman with the more generic pronoun “they”: They flee from me that sometime did me seek With naked foot, stalking in my chamber. I have seen them gentle, tame, and meek, That now are wild and do not remember That sometime they put themself in danger To take bread at my hand; and now they range, Busily seeking with a continual change. (1-7) Indeed, in the first three lines, the speaker reveals that he was used to submissive women, who were willing to endanger their lives to stay with him. Yet at the end of the first stanza, he also reveals that these women, who once were submissive and “tame,” are now taking it upon themselves to seek out whatever sexual partner they please. The speaker also implies that women are never satisfied and that they have an insatiable appetite for “a continual change” (7). Nevertheless, In the second stanza, the relationship that the speaker has with these women flips, from being male-dominated, to being female-dominated. The dominant gender’s change is reflected in a modification in the speaker’s use of pronouns. If before he referred to women in general, as if the whole category could be in his possession, now he refers only to one specific woman, who exercises control over him: Thanked be fortune it hath been otherwise Twenty times better; but once in special, In thin array after a pleasant guise, When her loose gown from her shoulders did fall, And she me caught in her arms long and small; There with all sweetly did me kiss And softly said, “Dear heart, how like you this?” (8-14) The speaker admits that this particular woman is reversing the gender roles established in the first stanza by taking control of the situation and seducing him. However, the speaker does not seem to mind these night visits, indeed he admits that they are “twenty times better” (2), and he seems to particularly appreciate the woman’s way of dressing. In line ten, he admits that what makes this woman so special is her dressing “in thin array,” that is to say that this woman wore sexy, “elaborate and beautiful clothing” (OED). Moreover, in line twelve, he also acknowledges that he was “caught” in the woman’s arms, which are apparently long and small. By saying that he was caught in the woman’s arms, the speaker may be suggesting that that they were embracing each other, but he also reminds us of hunting and traps, as if the speaker is no longer in control of the situation. Furthermore, instead of saying she caught me, he says “she me caught” (13). This inversion can just be a stylistic trick used by Wyatt to stick to the iambic pentameter rhythm, but it can also be a trick used to emphasize the word “caught” and the man consequent loss of power. Then, the woman kisses the man, and, to underline her position of supremacy, she asks him whether he liked the kiss or not. Now, the woman is not just exerting control over the man, but she is also mocking him, by assuming a behavior that would be typically associated to a man.
By the third stanza, it is clear that the male seducer is the seduced and that the female character is the aggressive hunter. However, in this last stanza, the speaker appears confused since he is not able to fully comprehend their relationship: It was no dream: I lay broad waking. But all is turned thorough my gentleness Into a strange fashion of forsaking; And I have leave to go of her goodness, And she also, to use newfangleness. But since that I so kindly am served I would fain know what she hath deserved. (15-21) The speaker is apparently confused, so that he has to repeat to himself that what had happened was not a dream but the reality. His confusion stems from the fact that in the Renaissance period gender roles were clearly defined, and they were rarely openly challenged. He also confesses that the relationship they were having was not exclusive since both are allowed “to use newfangleness” (19), so both could have been “easily carried away by whatever is new” (OED). In the final lines, the speaker becomes more sarcastic and suggests that her beloved left him because he was being too kind, blaming himself for this outcome. Indeed, the roles of the man and the woman, as they were presented at the beginning of the poem, have now completely reversed, until the point that the speaker has become the one who is “gentle, tame, and meek” (3).
Adrienne Rich’s “Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers” is a three stanzas poem that tells the entire story of aunt Jennifer’s life. By contrasting the movement of the tigers with the stillness of Aunt Jennifer, the poem explores the controlled condition of women. Indeed, the poem opens with the description of the tigers: Aunt Jennifer’s tigers prance across a screen, Bright topaz denizens of a world of green. They do not fear the men beneath the tree; They pace in sleek chivalric certainty. (1-4) Instead of opening the poem with a description of Aunt Jennifer, Rich opens the poem with a description of her tigers. In the first line, the speaker describes the way in which the tigers move by saying that they “prance across a screen;” this description implies that the tigers move in a lively fashion, perhaps arrogantly. The speaker may be using the word topaz for its golden color, or topaz may be a representation of the strength and impenetrability of the tigers since the ancient Greeks believed that topaz had the ability to increase the strength of those who wore it, and Egyptians thought that it could protect people from physical harm (“Topaz”). The tigers certainly seem to be aware of their own power since they have no fear of “the men beneath the tree” (3). In the last line of the first stanza, the tigers “pace in sleek chivalric certainty”. The pacing of the tigers may represent fluid and controlled motion, as compared to the frolicking movement of the first line.
In the second stanza, the speaker finally introduces some details about Aunt Jennifer. The speaker reveals us that Aunt Jennifer finds herself weighted by her marriage ring given her by the narrator’s uncle. Yet, Aunt Jennifer’s hands are the only details that the speaker reveals about her, and which work as a synecdoche for her personality: Aunt Jennifer’s finger fluttering through her wool Find even the ivory needle hard to pull. The massive weight of Uncle’s wedding band Sits heavily upon Aunt Jennifer’s hand. (5-9) Aunt Jennifer’s hands are described as intimidated, enchained, and shaking. Unlike her tigers, Aunt Jennifer is presented as an insecure person who feels oppressed by her marriage. The narrator does not tell us if Aunt Jennifer’s husband is alive or not, yet in the last line of the quatrain the narrator reveals to us that the ring “Sits heavily upon Aunt Jennifer’s hand,” so the presence of the husband oppresses her even only through the memory that the ring arouses. This quatrain also adds another detail about the tigers: if in the previous stanza we discover that the tigers are in a screen, now we can deduce that the screen is actually an embroidery created by Aunt Jennifer.
In the last stanza, the narrator imagines what will happens once Aunt Jennifer will be dead, and asserts that not even death will put an end to the command of her husband over her: When Aunt is dead, her terrified hands will lie Still ringed with ordeals she was mastered by. The tigers in the panel that she made Will go on prancing, proud and unafraid. (10-14) According to the narrator, what will provoke Aunt Jennifer’s death will be the prolonged oppression to which she is subjected. However, her death will not be forgotten: the tigers she has painted will continue to live in the future and will symbolize her will to be free and rebel from a male-dominant relationship. Yet, this poem does not show only the dynamics that characterize the relationship between Aunt Jennifer and her husband, but it also shows the point of view of the niece. The niece, along with the tigers, represents the change that has occurred from one generation to the other. Through the description offered by the niece, the reader can understand that she is not subjected to the same dynamics to which the aunt was subjected; indeed, both the niece and the tigers are the product of an extremely patriarchal generation that no longer accepts this old mindset. What the poem wants to highlight is that the mindset has started changing, but it does not say that the patriarchal societies have been completely eradicated; it just suggests that it is possible to put them to an end if the mindset changes.
Both Wyatt and Rich’s poem can be analyzed to observe different gender dynamics and the different kind of relationship that can occur between men and women. Yet, on one hand, Wyatt amazes the reader by presenting a story that the reader would not expect, in which the woman is the “predator” and the man is the “poor victim.” On the other hand, Rich confirms and highlights the disparity that occurs between man and woman, and how this disparity can lead to toxic relationships that can affect one of the two partners for life.
“array, n.” OED Online, Oxford University Press, March 2018, www.oed.com/view/Entry/10979. Accessed 20 April 2018.
Hühn, Peter, and Jens Kiefer. The Narratological Analysis of Lyric Poetry : Studies in English Poetry from the 16th to the 20th Century, De Gruyter, Inc., 2011. ProQuest Ebook Central, https://ebookcentral-proquest-com.jcu.idm.oclc.org/lib/johncabot/detail.action?docID=3041939.
“newfangledness, n.” OED Online, Oxford University Press, March 2018, www.oed.com/view/Entry/126553. Accessed 20 April 2018.
Rich, Adrienne. “Aunt Jennifer’s Tiger.” 1951. Riley, Jeannette E. Understanding Adrienne Rich. University of South Carolina Press, 2016. Understanding Contemporary American Literature. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=nlebk&AN=1221948&site=ehost-live.
“Topaz.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 24 Jan. 2018, www.britannica.com/science/topaz.
Wyatt, Sir Thomas. “They Flee From Me.” 1557.
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