What is peculiarly effective about the expressions "crooked hands" and "close to the sun"?
Tennyson's short poem leaves much undone, certainly by its brevity, but also in the two phrases that are examined here. For there is an ambiguity to both the phrases "crooked hands" and "too close to the sun." This ambiguity is "peculiarly effective" because the phrases conjure a number of images, thus lending the poem more significance.
The phrase "crooked hands" suggests age, since the feet of the great bird are personified as human hands that have become crooked through the debility that accompanies age. Additionally, this phrase can suggest energy as the bird perhaps flexes his powerful feet for grabbing prey that he spots in the "wrinkled sea beneath him."
In a similar fashion, the phrase "close to the sun" may simply denote that the eagle is perched high on a cliff or in a tree top. It may also be a subtle allusion to the Greek myth of Icarus, who in flying too high to the sun brought upon himself his demise. Thus, the eagle may be headed for a similar end.
Because there is a certain ambiguity in the verses, Tennyson himself called this short poem "a fragment" (“The Eagle: A Fragment”). In this way, the poem can be considered like a detail from a painting or a partita (a variation from a musical piece) in a musical composition. Certainly, birds have long been symbolic figures, and in this short poem the bird's attributes are limited or "fragmented."
Unlike his later poetry, this early verse of Tennyson is in line with the Romantic vision of the world, as the plummeting dive of the eagle "like a thunderbolt" is lent a sense of drama by the powerful images of the earlier lines in the poem.
The expression "crooked hands" is significant. Tennyson uses it when we might expect him to use "claws" or "feet" instead. What he's doing here is emphasizing certain characteristics of the eagle that set him apart from the natural world around him. The eagle, as an animal, is part of that world, but at the same time there's something almost human about him and the way he conquers nature with his dramatic swoops and turns.
If we accept, as some critics do, that the eagle is a metaphor for Arthur Hallam, Tennyson's late friend, then we can understand more easily why the poet endows the eagle with such human qualities. Hallam occupied this earth for only a short time; yet during his brief life there was something different about him, something that set him apart from the world in which he lived.
The eagle as metaphor for Hallam also applies to the line, "Close to the sun in lonely lands." Hallam was close to the sun in the sense that he was, for Tennyson, one of its brightest rays of light. And that he lived in "lonely lands" highlights once again his difference to other people, his uniqueness as a human being.
Tennyson describes the eagle's claws as "crooked hands". This is personification, giving human qualities to nonhuman things. He refers to the eagle's "hands" to tell us that the poem is really about humans. In describing them as "crooked hands", the eagle then symbolizes an older person whose hands have been disfigured by arthritis and old age.
"Close to the sun" is used for two reasons. Tennyson uses hyperbole, or exaggeration, to describe the eagle's power by placing it so high in the air that it is close to the sun. Tennyson also uses this phrase as an allusion, a reference to a famous person, place, or work of literature that the reader should befamiliar with. Here, he's referring to the Greek myth of Icarus where he and his father escape imprisonment by making wax wings. Icarus falls into the sea and drowns when he flies too close to the sun. Tennyson is implying that the eagle is overconfident of its ability, causing it to fall. If the eagle symbolizes human beings, what is Tennyson then saying?