Adrienne Rich in her younger days
Rich aptly masquerades this poem as a frivolous story about an aging woman doing embroidery.With a more careful reading one realizes that the poem is about how art immortalizes the struggles and dreams of the human spirit.
The first quatrain presents a very optimistic picture.It shows that Aunt Jennifer is knitting a panel of prancing tigers.The tigers created by Aunt Jennifer are beasts demanding respect ; full of majestic virtues like vigor , valor & chivalry.
Aunt Jennifer's melancholic life is made apparent in the second stanza of the poem, which deals with ambiguous images of her weak fingers & the heavy wedding band. The ring symbolizes that she feels trapped under the burden of her marriage to the absent uncle. Aunt Jennifer is more than likely abused-at least emotionally-by her husband.
The last quatrain suggests that no matter what Aunt Jennifer does she will be defeated by life.Even in death Aunt Jennifer is ringed by her ordeals, and is weighed down by her previous relationship with Uncle, unable to be free like the tigers she depicted on the sewing panel.
Depicting the doctrine of "ars longa, vita brevis," Aunt Jennifer's tigers continue to live on , proud & unafraid , even after her death.
Aunt Jennifer's tigers are everything that she isn't .She creates the tigers to escape to a different world where she is powerful (contrary to reality in which she is a weak fragile person). The irony is that the tigers are clearly masculine figures- depicting chivalry, one of the most role-bound attributes of patriarchy. Even her art depicts male dominance.
Hence the tragedy is the she could never really escape from the clutches of patriarchy-in her life & in her art.