Tennyson was appointed by Queen Victoria to be England’s Poet Laureate in 1850, a year before “The Eagle” was first published, and he served in that position until his death in 1892. He is considered to be one of the most influential voices in the long period of British prosperity during Victoria’s reign, which is broadly referred to as the Victorian Age.
Queen Victoria was born at Kensington Palace on May 24, 1819. She ascended to the throne of England and Ireland in 1837, when her uncle, William IV, died without any children. For sixty-four years she ruled Great Britain, which was the most powerful country in the world. At first, the eighteen-year-old queen upheld liberal sentiments. The early part of the nineteenth century was still marked by liberalism, which was a belief in equality and individual rights. The height of liberalism had occurred earlier marked by the American Revolution in 1776 and the French Revolution in 1789. In both cases, the old, hereditary, aristocratic order was overturned in favor of the ability of the people to govern their own affairs. Victoria’s early liberalism is considered to have been influenced by a number of things, including her own youthful idealism and the world’s lingering enthusiasm with liberal ideals.
The nineteenth century was a time of great social transformation, and the queen’s sympathies altered as both she and England changed. One of the most profound influences on her thinking...
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“The Eagle: A Fragment” is written in two stanzas of three lines each and utilizes the iambic-tetrameter form of meter. Iambic meter is structured in units of two syllables where the first syllable is unstressed and the second is stressed. If the stresses are identified, the first line appears as follows:
Heclasps / thecrag / withcrook / edhands;
“Tetrameter” (“tetra” meaning four) indicates that there are four iambic units, or feet, in each line. It should be noted, however, that Tennyson varies the iambic pattern in two places. In both lines 2 and 3, the first two syllables do not form an iamb (an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable), but rather a trochee, meaning that the first syllable is stressed and the second unstressed. After these first two syllables, the lines revert to iambic construction.
The rhyme scheme in the poem is aaa bbb, meaning that the last words in the three lines of the first stanza rhyme with one another and the same is true of the last words in the lines of the second stanza.
Another device employed by Tennyson in “The Eagle: A Fragment” is alliteration, which is the repetition of the first sounds in words. This is most noticeable in the line 1, with the repetition of the hard “c” sound: “clasps,” “crag,” and “crooked.” “Lonely lords” in line 2 and “watches” and “walls” in line 5 also use this technique...
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Compare and Contrast
- 1851: The Crystal Palace is commissioned for the first World’s Fair, London Great Exposition. Made of glass walls, it is the largest structure in the world, four times the size of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.
Today: World’s Fairs seldom attract attention, because communications advances have allowed new wonders to be shown to the world in books and on the Internet.
1851: Slavery is legal in the United States, and opponents of the practice struggle with slave holders to tip the balance of power. The 1850 Fugitive Slave Act, providing stiff federal penalties against anyone who helped a slave escape, is part of a compromise made for admitting California to the Union as a non-slave, “free” state.Today: Federal laws are designed to prevent discrimination on the basis of race, although many Americans identify racial tension as one of the country’s greatest problems.
1851: A telegraph cable is laid across the English Channel, connecting France and England with telegraph communications for the first time.Today: Cell phones are inexpensive and enable anyone anywhere to call anyone else who has a phone.
1851: The largest city in the world is London, with a population of 2.37 million people.Today: The largest city in the world, Tokyo, has almost 27 million people.
1851: Ireland continues to suffer from...
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Topics for Further Study
Write a brief descriptive poem about an animal, making people look at it in a way they never have before. In the last line, include a surprise action.
Compare this poem to Ted Hughes’s “Hawk Roosting.” Why do you think both birds are portrayed with such nobility? Which poem do you think contradicts that noble appearance most? How?
This poem has references to the ancient Greek myth of Icarus. Study that story, and explain how you think knowing it helps a reader interpret what Tennyson is saying here.
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A group named Techno has a short clip of music incorporating Tennyson’s poem into what they call “a groovin’ ramble,” available at http://artists.mp3s.com/artists/26/interval.html for download from MP3.
The Teaching Company, of Springfield, VA, includes an audiocassette lecture titled “Alfred, Lord Tennyson, England’s National Treasure,” as Lecture Twelve in a lecture series by John B. Fisher titled Great Writers: Their Lives and Works.
Robert Speaight and Arthur Luce Klein read poems from Tennyson on a cassette recording from Spoken Arts called A Treasury of Alfred Lord Tennyson from 1963. Included are selections from The Princess and In Memoriam.
A 1997 collection on audiocassette called The Victorians features poems by Tennyson, as well as Robert Browning, Lewis Carroll, Matthew Arnold, and others. Tennyson’s poems are on Tape One of a six-tape set from Recorded Books.
Center for the Humanities presents a 1986 videocassette named The Victorian Age, which presents excerpts from the writings of Dickens, Browning, Arnold, Tennyson, Carlyle, and Ruskin.
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What Do I Read Next?
One of Tennyson’s most respected biographers, Norman O. Page, wrote the text accompanying a book of pictures illustrating the poet’s life and works called Tennyson: An Illustrated Life.
Replica Books has recently reissued the book Alfred Lord Tennyson: A Memoir by His Son, by Hallam Tennyson. For over a hundred years, this has been an important primary source for students studying Tennyson.
Robert Browning was the poet whose career most closely paralleled Tennyson’s. A good collection of Browning’s poetry is found in the Penguin Poetry Library’s Robert Browning: Selected Poems.
Harold Bloom’s volume Alfred Lord Tennyson for Chelsea House’s Modern Critical Views series collects some of the most insightful, short essays available about the poet, including works by T. S. Eliot, Marshall McLuhan, and Cleanth Brooks.
Tennyson: The Growth of a Poet, by Jerome Hamilton Buckley, is a well-considered, psychological biography. It was published by Harvard University Press in 1960.
Ekbert Faas’ book Retreat into the Mind: Victorian Poetry and the Rise of Psychiatry traces how the poetry of Tennyson and his contemporaries led almost directly to the science of the mind.
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Amis, Kingsley, “Introduction,” in Tennyson, Penguin Books, 1973, pp. 7–19.
“Explanations: The Eagle,” GaleNet, “Exploring Poetry,” Gale Group, 2000.
James, Henry, quoted in Nineteenth-Century Literature Criticism, Volume 30, Gale, 1991, p. 203.
Kissane, James, Alfred Tennyson, Twayne Publishers, Inc., 1970.
Lockyear, Sir Norman, Tennyson as a Student and Poet of Nature, Russell and Russell, 1910.
Lucas, F. L., Tennyson, Longman Green & Co., 1957.
Priestly, J. B., Victoria’s Heyday, Harper & Row, 1972.
Tennyson’s Poetical Works: Student’s Cambridge Edition, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1898.
Thorn, Michael, Tennyson, St. Martin’s, 1992.
Tucker, Herbert, Jr., “Tennyson and the Measure of Doom,” in PMLA, Vol. 98, No. 1, January, 1983, pp. 8–20.
For Further Reading
Carr, Arthur J., “Tennyson as a Modern Poet,” from Critical Essays on the Poetry of Tennyson, edited by John Killham, Routledge and Paul, 1960, pp. 41–66. Examines themes and styles used in Tennyson’s works that anticipated the twentieth-century rise of modernism.
Culler, A. Dwight, The Poetry of Tennyson, Yale University Press, 1977. Culler looks at “The Eagle” as both an example of Victorian poetry and as an example of...
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