The Poets

February 14, 2014

Tennyson's Eagle: A Victorian Poem

The Eagle

He clasps the crag with crookèd 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.

Of the Poem:

Line I:
He clasps the crag with crookèd hands

Right from the jump one gets a sense of the mood of this poem. First of all, there’s the alliteration that's caught tightly within the eight syllables of this first line. The rough and almost turbulent sound of these 'Cs' lends a kind of harshness to the opening of the poem that corresponds to harshness that is this eagle's life and environment. Indeed, clasps, crag, and crookèd taken merely as words here are all indicative of the eagle's state of austerity, and the poet would have us know that this majestic bird of prey resides right there on that rocky mass in a somewhat rigorous, and flinted, and nearly defiant way.

Note the intentional use of the word ‘hand’ as opposed to ‘claw’ or ‘talon’. This should be the first indication that this bird- which Tennyson may or may not have experienced- may serve as a symbol of something other than its literal self. It's cool how Tennyson uses a great deal of personifications (like 'hand' vs talon) in so short a poem.

Line II: 
Close to the sun in lonely lands

There’s a beauty that I read in these lines that I’ve seen reflected in so many figures of the past- from Socrates to Spinoza, Buddha to Thoreau- individuals who moved as close as they could to that which they deemed transcendental (or as as our poet says, closer to the sun) only to find themselves alienated in various ways from common society. Not that this is what Tennyson intends, but that image always pops up in my mind. The point I think Tennyson means to convey here is the eagle's noble solitude on those lonely heights.

I love how the poet enjambed the rough alliterations of line one with the line that follows

He clasps the crag with crookèd hands
Close to the sun in lonely lands

and then ends that line with the smoother lonely lands ...

Line III:
Ring'd with the azure world, he stands

The poet ends the first stanza by establishing the height and heavenly grandeur within which his bird abides: the azure sky, his world, his domain and plain of freedom.

By reading the first line, the poem almost seems to impart the idea of an unforgiving habitat, a remote and perhaps cold and lonely place; but now there's something about this particular line that hints to us that this is exactly where this eagle belongs, and more importantly, wants to be. This sky, this world of his surrounds all he is and all he wishes to know, it is the source of not only his liberty, it is the source also of his sovereignty (as we will see in the following stanza).

Again, that the first stanza ends with this majestic creature standing on that rocky formation is a powerful image to contemplate.

Lines IV and V:
The wrinkled sea beneath him crawls
He watches from his mountain walls

The vantage point from which the eagle looks is the high summit of a rocky crag, where all is exalted and serene. The waves and the beakers beneath him seem to be little more than wrinkles crawling slowly along the water's tempered surface. The eagle, quite literally, transcends this tumultuous, chaotic world below.

Now Tennyson, like a true and faithful poet, deliberately and carefully chooses his words here. He doesn't say, He watches from the mountain walls; but rather, He watches from his mountain walls. As was previously mentioned, this is exactly where this eagle belongs, and more importantly, wants to be.

But a question is begged ... what does the eagle watch? Let's check out the last line.

Line VI:
And like a thunderbolt he falls

Probably one of the best lines of the poem, and most certainly and most appropriately the most climatic. I love this line, and how Tennyson uses lightning to depict the incredible speed that this bird takes on.

Another thing that I love that Tennyson does is that he doesn't tell you what's happening, he shows you (a technique mastered by some of the best writers the world has known). The first time I read this poem and came to this line I immediately, and without any mental effort, pictured this eagle diving down from off his perch fixed on a fish he eyed from the crag. When that final line was read and that image flashed through my mind I thought to myself, as I often do of poetry, how amazing it is that so much detail can be expressed in so short amount of space.

Conclusion (And One More Consideration): 

Now, the above outline was intended to be a general line by line commentary of the poem- modest and not reading too much into it. The truth is there could be many interpretations rendered about what Tennyson was trying to impart when he wrote this particular piece ... was it just a poem referring to an actual event, or could there be some other hidden, symbolic meaning to it?

To be honest with you, a few things popped up in my mind after having read it. For example, when I read the last line of the poem: and like a thunderbolt he falls, I instantly remembered the line out of Luke 10:18 where Jesus said, "I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven." In that instant I thought to myself that this poem could very well be talking about Satan's fall, and that the eagle is a symbolic representation of the Devil himself. 

If this were true- and this is just a suggestion- would it explain the uneasiness of the the poem's opening; and would it not make sense of the crookèd hands personification, as the Devil is depicted as a wingèd creature with hands. Maybe I'm reaching, but perhaps crookèd could also mean crooked in the sense of dishonesty (the Devil is, after all, said to be the father of all lies).

And what of this, my curiosity begs ...

Close to the sun in lonely lands / Ring'd with the azure world 

The sun is easily symbolic of God; and the azure world, easily symbolic of heaven. And no doubt such an environment, as unappealing as it would be to the Prince of Darkness, would be a lonely place. Hence the rebellion, or 'stand' as it were. The context, as conjectured as it may be, seems to correspond quite well ...

Close to the sun in lonely lands,
Ring'd with the azure world, he stands

And then there's the sea upon which the 'eagle' gazes. The sea is often depicted as a place of hell in the Bible, a place where Leviathan, that great and evil serpent dwells. Indeed, Revelation 20:13 parallels the idea of the sea directly with that of hell. So there would be no wonder why the eagle here, potentially symbolic of Satan, would be transfixed on the sea below.

Remember how carefully Tennyson selected his words when he said,
He watches from his mountain walls rather than He watches from the mountain walls ... wouldn't that be just like the Devil, to lay claim of possession to that which is in fact not his own at all-especially heavenly possessions.

This discontentedness with the celestial spheres (that azure world), this rebel disposition (his stance), combined with that unlawful notion that the vaulted heights are his possession, could only lead to his inevitable expulsion: like a thunderbolt he falls.

And this is only one of a few interpretations that I have pertaining to this poem!

Make no mistakes, though- I take Tennyson's poem for what it's worth, and delight in it, and marvel at it's details and imagery, but I cannot deny that it's language conjures up within me the suspicion that he means something more by it than the simple sighting of so magnificent a creature.

With that, I would love, love, love to hear your interpretation of it.

1 comment:

Jane De Silentio said...

Hey, have you heard the MacDowell piano piece inspired by this poem? It may be on youtube somewhere. Totally worth a look in (sorry if I didn't see you already referencing it). A great musical interpretation of the work.

As of April 9th, 2010