Recently I came across “The Eagle” by Tennyson. I don’t usually like his work, but this tercet is something else. He simply paints with words:
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.
I took the poem to be about aging; “crooked” and “wrinkled” suggest that much. The central action of poem is a dramatic descent from the height of one’s powers. But exactly what response to aging makes one like an an eagle, lonely and proud?
“Claps the crag,” “close to the sun,” and “ring’d with the azure world” indicate that only a few people age like an eagle. Nothing hints at any want of friendship or companionship. The “azure world,” the sky, brings forth themes of serenity, purity, possibility, and control. “He stands:” this has always been about the strength to be. To really be, some of us feel, we not only have to be at peace but in complete control. Those “crooked hands” may be more than a bit ironic.
The second stanza observes the eagle moved by the vast motion of the sea. The sea, too, wears its age and a kinship exists between it and his own efforts. It does look ridiculous to say that one who spends his whole life trying to be sure of himself sees something in common with the sea. On the one hand, people looking for such confidence don’t usually pay attention to elaborate metaphors outside of “how to succeed in business” books. On the other hand, if such a person does pay attention to the sea, it still looks ridiculous.
But the sea is ageless. Quite obviously, it has no insecurities. It absorbs change. Moreover, only an eagle can fall like a thunderbolt, with the power not just to descend but do the same again. If your ambition is to be completely secure in your pride, good luck.