Novelist Henry James once made a comment that was meant to address Tennyson’s work in general, but is especially true of “The Eagle: A Fragment”: “a man has always the qualities of his defects, and if Tennyson is … a static poet, he at least represents repose and stillness and fixedness of things with a splendour that no poet has surpassed.” In general, critics tend to praise Tennyson’s skills more highly when he writes about inactivity than when he writes about activity, because his weakness is in describing what motivates action. Since the eagle in this poem clasps, stands, and watches, and his only motion, in the poem’s last word, is passive, Tennyson avoids his weakness and shifts the focus to his stronger descriptive abilities.
In delineating a situation, Tennyson’s style often implies concepts beyond the state at hand, shedding light on the interaction between humans, nature, and God. Critic Herbert F. Tucker referred to such unexplained inferences as “naked lyrical address.” In his essay “Tennyson and the Measure of Doom,” Tucker notes that “The Eagle” is one of several Tennyson poems that uses this technique lightly. Nonetheless, writes Tucker, in these works “Tennyson’s theme and imagery gravitate toward some inevitable ground on the power of God, the drift of nature, or the obsessions of human nature.”
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