The Eagle Questions and Answers
by Alfred, Lord Tennyson

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What is the theme of the poem "The Eagle" by Alfred Lord Tennyson?

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One of the prominent themes in this poem is that even the most majestic of creatures (including people) have limitations. In poetry and literature, the eagle is often a symbol for majesty, power, and of a regal nature. The eagle can soar to great heights and is a powerful predator. All of these descriptions suggest power and strength. However, in this poem, the majestic eagle is portrayed as being old. The eagle "clasps the crag with crooked hands." The "crag" is an uneven chunk of rock, perhaps on a cliff. Crag resembles "craggy" which can also describe the uneven wrinkles of an older person's face. The eagle's "crooked" hands suggest arthritis. The use of the word "hands" personifies the eagle and suggests that this poem can be read as a metaphor for humans. The alliteration of the hard "c's" in this line suggest the hardness or difficulty of the eagle's situation. It is a once majestic creature now limited by its old age. 

He (the eagle) is close to the sun. This suggests an allusion to the story of Icarus, the winged young man who flew too close to the sun. His wax wings melted and he fell into the sea. This parallels the eagle, a creature who can also soar "close to the sun," free and untethered. But in this case, the eagle's suggested fall is the result of old age, its physicality, and/or the limits of a lifespan. 

In the last stanza, the speaker repeats hints of old age: "wrinkled" and "crawls." Although the eagle can fly, he will inevitably have to come back down to earth. As the sea, part of the earth, is associated with wrinkles and crawling, so is the eagle. The imagery is focused on the eagle but the implication is that this can be applied to humans as well. No matter how great are our successes, we are inevitably mortal and therefore will eventually experience some sort of "fall." This fall is not necessarily a punishment; it could symbolize a fact of the limitations of life. It could be death or some other kind of limitation, and the fall could be as sudden as a thunderbolt. 

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