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Tennyson’s “The Eagle”: 6 straightforward lines that evoke so much



Anna O'Neil - published on 09/05/17

This particular poem works on a very emotional level, and here is why.

The Eagle He clasps the crag with crooked hands; Close to the sun in lonely lands, Ring’d with the azure world, he stands. The wrinkled sea beneath him crawls; He watches from his mountain walls, And like a thunderbolt he falls. –Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Why did Tennyson want to write about this eagle? Or more specifically, why did he want to write a poem about it? His subject matter isn’t complicated, and it isn’t even that unusual. Eagles are great at catching fish. There, done. What gets me about this poem though, is how it make me feel. I don’t say that flippantly — poetry is no more about “feelings” than anything else is, and I’m generally resentful when something tugs at my emotions. But this particular poem works on a very emotional level, and I want to know why. ‘Cause for six lines on a white page, it never fails to leave me with a tangible feeling of excitement, and some measure of awe. How the heck did Tennyson make that happen? Well, a lot of ways.

Right off the bat, he’s referencing the eagle’s “hands,” instead of the more accurate choice that “talons” would have made. It has the effect of making the eagle seem almost human. Hands imply agency, and connote action, power, choice — not characteristics we would associate with a dumb beast.

Actually, forget seeming human, the next line makes him out to be almost godlike. “Close to the sun,” which is factually an absurd exaggeration, emphasizes his other-worldliness. Icarus, a mere human, died flying too close to the sun, but this eagle lives there, “in lonely lands” where no one else, man or beast, can live.

To underscore the idea of his separateness, the eagle is “Ring’d with the azure world.” There’s an incredibly subtle, powerfully effective shift in perspective here. See before, when we were thinking about his talons, we were looking straight at the eagle. Now we’re looking up at him. The sky spreads around him in a huge dome. It is all his, and he stands confidently in its center.

So far, the rhythm of the first three lines has been regular enough, but not flawless. You feel it when you’re speaking the words, and if you’re counting syllables (don’t bother) the lines don’t match up. He’s even deliberately slowed you down in places. If you were reading aloud, you had to be careful with “clasps the crag.” It’s not easy to say quickly. The back-to-back consonant sounds in “Ring’d with” and “azure world” have the same effect.

The second stanza is another story, though. You can hardly help but speed up. The sense of energy and anticipation follows with the rhythm. Now, instead of tripping over the phrases, each word throws you right into the next.

We were looking up, but the perspective switches again. Now we’re seeing through the eagle’s own eyes. The sea, immeasurably huge, crashing on the rocky cliff hardly seems to be violent and dangerous, as it is to the ships who might sail near the rocky coast. From this height, in contrast, it’s “wrinkled,” a word you can hardly use without thinking of weakness and age. It doesn’t crash over the rocks, it just crawls along.

“He watches from his mountain walls / and like a thunderbolt he falls.” First a sense of electrically charged stillness. The eagle isn’t moving, nor is he showing any sign of preparing to move. But all of a sudden, he’s seen what he was looking for, and notice — he doesn’t fly down, or glide, or descend, he falls. It’s an entirely passive word. He dives into the void and lets his weight alone pull him downwards, a deadly force. His dive is controlled, since he’s aiming for the precise source of the movement he saw, but nevertheless, it’s effortless.

So yes, Tennyson has given us a quick six lines about how a bird of prey pulls an unsuspecting fish out of the ocean, but it isn’t the plot that brings the poem to life. How the poem works as a whole, the dizzying changes in perspective, the speed of the piece, and of course, the precision of his word choice, work together to make the piece much more than the sum of its parts.

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