Alfred, Lord Tennyson, “The Eagle”

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.

1 Comment

  1. I have always loved Tennyson, Christina Rossetti, Seinburne, poets whom I suspect you like less. Tennyson has a way of skimming assonances and alliterations out of poetry which nevertheless blend into the meaning and in this he is quite unique.

    Unlike you I don’t see this poem as being about aging; I see it rather as a poem about power, here depicted beyond good and evil. The alliteration of r’s has something almost cruel about it and adds to the characterisation of the bird an almost Beethovenian power. The eagle is simply itself as nature created it. From its height the waves in the sea would seem like wrinkles. This disconcerting depiction of power, whether we like it or not, is enobled by the vast landscape in which it is portayed I interpret ‘falls’ as dives down on his prey and suppose that Tennyson used this word to rhyme with ‘crawls.’ The nature of the prey is tactfully left out. The’lonely lands’ strike a poignant chord of pathos in this image of power.

    P.S. I see that there is a slot for web sites. I have put in my blog of translations of poetry. I have been wondering for long how I could get you to have a glimpse at this, even though you may not like this poetry. The short introduction has errors in it which I still have to correct. I did put the blog url on Facebook once.

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