The Eagle Questions and Answers
by Alfred, Lord Tennyson

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What are the metaphors in Tennyson's poem "The Eagle"?

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Though there are no direct metaphors, Tennyson uses a variety of poetic devices in his 1851 poem "The Eagle." Most notable is his use of simile (which is itself a kind of metaphor) and personification. The last line of the poem employs a simile to describe the way the eagle dives to the ocean below:

The wrinkled sea beneath him crawls;
He watches from his mountain walls,
And like a thunderbolt he falls.

The comparison to a thunderbolt is meant to illustrate the eagle's speed, strength, and inevitability; Tennyson's eagle evokes a thunderbolt's sudden, powerful, and unstoppable nature.

Tennyson also uses personification, most likely to allow the reader to better connect with the eagle, as people empathize with other people more strongly than with birds. Tennyson uses words like "hands" and "stands" to make the eagle seem more like a human being. Tennyson also never uses the word "eagle" in the whole poem—only "he"—making it easier for readers to interpret the eagle as more of a human figure.

Tennyson wrote this poem after writing poetry for some twenty-five years already. There is some speculation as to whether the end of the poem is meant to reflect simply an eagle diving down to the ocean or, rather, an eagle dying, considering that the verb "falls" is used as opposed to a more active verb like "dives" or "flies." Some who believe that the eagle dies see the poem as an homage to Tennyson's beloved college friend, Arthur Hallam, who died suddenly at the age of 24. However, Hallam's death was in 1833, and Tennyson spent seventeen years writing In Memoriam, a lengthy collection of poems commemorating his late friend. In Memoriam was published on June 1, 1850, the year before "The Eagle" was written, so it is unlikely that this poem too centers around the loss of his friend nearly twenty years earlier. In this context, the final sentence can most logically be interpreted to mean that the eagle does in fact dive toward the ocean rather than die before plummeting into the sea.

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There are no obvious metaphors in the poem. Although there is a simile in the very last line, and similes are indeed a kind of metaphor in that they apply a word or phrase to an object to which it isn't directly applicable:

He watches from his mountain walls, 
And like a thunderbolt he falls.
Tennyson dedicated "The Eagle" to his dear late friend Arthur Henry Hallam. And many critics over the years have seen the figure of the eagle in the poem as a metaphor for Tennyson's deceased friend. The eagle is powerful, so much more so than the "wrinkled sea" beneath. Tennyson's description of the sea implies that it is old, in contrast to the youthful vitality of the eagle as it swoops below. Hallam died tragically young, so it's possible that Tennyson is using the poem to tell the story of his short life. The eagle's flight, like the poem, and like Hallam's life, is short. But in his all-too-brief appearance on this earth, Hallam soared to the very heights, dominating those around him as the eagle dominates the forces of nature, before suddenly falling to earth "like a thunderbolt," in a tragic, premature death.

 

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Alfred, Lord Tennyson is considered one the finest English Romantic poets. As with William Wordsworth, his contemporary and predecessor as Poet Laureate of England, Tennyson wrote many poems glorifying nature. His poem, "The Eagle" is about the majestic bird perching high on a mountain cliff in the first stanza and then diving powerfully toward the sea to hunt for prey in the second stanza. The eagle is admired as beautiful and mighty.

Technically speaking there are no metaphors in the poem, but there are comparisons using personification and simile. Personification is when a non-human object or an animal is given human qualities. In the first stanza the eagle is personified as Tennyson says, "He clasps the crag with crooked hands." and "Ring'd with the azure world he stands." Of course, he doesn't have hands, he has talons, and he doesn't stand, he perches.

In the second stanza, Tennyson uses a simile, much like a metaphor except it uses the word like or as in the comparison. Tennyson compares the eagle to a thunderbolt as he swoops down from the cliff. The association is meant to show the swiftness and awe-inspiring quality of the bird. 

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