The Tiger in the Menagerie, by the poet Emma Jones, is a seven stanza poem. The stanzas alternate couplets and tercets in the order of, t,t,c,t,c,t,t. They rhyme scheme of the poem is written in free verse meaning that there is no rhyme scheme in the lines. Although, there is a notable amount of repetition in these of “menagerie” and “tiger” as the endings words of five lines of the poem.
The Tiger in the Menagerie Summary
The poem begins with an answer to a question that is asked before the first line, “How did the tiger get into the menagerie?” The first line answers this question, “No one could say…” The poem continues from there provided vivid and emotional descriptions of the movements of the tiger, “too flash, too blue.” The speaker of this poem is contemplating how such a creature as a tiger could have joined the “menagerie.” The menagerie is seen as a controlled environment, the creatures in it may be wild, but they are controlled by the structure of their cages and enclosures. The menagerie is a metaphor for our society, and the tiger a representation “wildness” or anger being introduced into what is considered a civilized group. The tiger becomes a part of the menagerie and the menagerie is changed because of his presence. The tiger/“wildness” gets out, and although no one can understand how, they all experience it and are changed by this introduction of anger to their hearts. Just as human beings are changed when they first allow anger to control their actions. This poem is a warning and also a foretelling of the coming of violence, and the damage it will cause. You can read the poem in it entirety here.
The Tiger in the Menagerie Analysis
As stated above, this poem begins with the answer to a question, “How did the tiger get into the menagerie?” The first line answers, “No one could say…” It happened too quickly, the tiger came “too flash, too blue.” Those observing this incident of the tiger, didn’t see it happen because the whole event didn’t seem real, it was too much like a painting. This line can be interpreted different ways, perhaps it seemed fake, like a painting. Or perhaps everyone saw the event but didn’t not realize the significance of it.
Second and Third Stanza
The second and third stanza begin by describing what the tiger’s cage is like. At night, while this large and powerful creature is trapped behind bars, the bars and the tiger begin to blend together. The tiger, the wildness of man, is seeping into the civilized world, the menagerie. The bars of the cage and the tiger look back at each other so intently that they became one and when it was time for the menagerie, or the people of the world, to close their eyes they imagine the bars of the cage and the tiger to be the same creature. “The bars were the lashes of the stripes,” and the stripes had turned into the lashes of the bars.
The use of the word lashes here is a curious one. It invokes the image of a lash being used as punishment on someone who has done something horribly wrong. When someone is lashed, red stripes will appear on their body. Perhaps Jones means to insinuate that when one is punished for acting as a tiger, acting on the wildness they have inside them, they will only be pushed farther toward violence. Violent actions lead to more violent actions.
The fourth stanza begins with,
and they walked together in their dreams so long,
The “they” that she is referring to could either be the tiger and the cage, or the idea of the tiger and the rest of the menagerie. Both of these come out to a similar meaning. That as they walked together at night, the bars of the cage or the stripes of the tiger fell away, the tiger is “shed[ding] its fretwork.” (Fretwork is a decoration or addition to a surface.) This happens as the tiger is walking along a long colonnade, or hallway of large columns toward the Indian main. This is a reference to the homeland of a tiger. It is seeking an escape from the cage, it wants to rejoin a world that it knows. It will soon find a new home in the civilized world.
The fifth stanza begins with the sun rising, the stripes of the tiger or bars of the cage, have gone and all that is left is “one clear orange eye.” One can imagine the sight of a tiger without its stripes being blinding like the orange eye of the sun. This orange eye has entered the menagerie, it was caged, became one with the world around it, and is now walking free. The fear of a loose tiger in the middle of a zoo is similar to the fear of wild aggression set loose in a civilized society.
The sixth stanza is an echo of the first line of the poem except for one difference,
No one could say how the tiger got out into the menagerie.
The opening of the poem describes the tiger getting into the menagerie, now he is getting “out” into it. This makes it seem as if the tiger has now escaped its cage and the menagerie itself and is roaming free in the larger world. There are a couple of different interpretations of the next two lines. The speaker describes the the action of the tiger getting out as being “too bright, too bare.” Then, if the menagerie could it would call out the word “tiger.” What has happened that the menagerie of animals, or the civilized world, that it can no longer speak? Has the tiger eaten all of the animals? Has anger and wildness over taken the civilized world to such a great extent that no one can any longer remember a time before that wildness was present? Another interpretation could be that the menagerie is so surprised by the presence of the tiger that no one has time to yell out “tiger” in warning.
The last stanza of the poem refers to another point in the zoo, the aviary, or where different types of birds would be kept. The speaker says that if it could, “it would lock its door.” Why is it unable? Because all the creatures inside are already dead? One interpretation could place the aviary as a representation for the interior of the human heart. Into it the tiger comes to wait, and “Its heart began to beat in rows of rising birds.” An attempt to flee that comes too late.
About Emma Jones
Emma Jones was born in Sydney, Australia in 1977. She was raised in New South Wales, and studied at MLC School in Burwood. Later she would receive a PhD in English Literature from Trinity College, Cambridge. She had her first collection of poetry, The Striped World, published in 2009. This collection won the Forward Prize for Best First Collection, along with two other prizes. She has also stretched her talent to music, writing the libretto for City Songs, performed by Imogen Heap at The Round House in London.