Last Updated on April 1, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1301
The words “clasps,” “crag,” and “crooked” associate the eagle with age: “craggy,” for instance, is still used to describe a lined, age-weathered face. The hard “c” sound that begins each of these words also establishes a hard, sharp tenor to this poem’s tone that fits in with...
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The words “clasps,” “crag,” and “crooked” associate the eagle with age: “craggy,” for instance, is still used to describe a lined, age-weathered face. The hard “c” sound that begins each of these words also establishes a hard, sharp tenor to this poem’s tone that fits in with the idea of the eagle’s similarly hard, sharp life. The repetition of first sounds is called alliteration, and Tennyson uses it in this short “fragment” to convey a sense of the eagle’s situation.
If there is any question in the reader’s mind about why we should care to read about the habits of an eagle in the wild, Tennyson settles it at the end of the line, where he uses the poetic technique of personification in talking about the eagle’s “hands.” When Tennyson makes the association of the eagle’s claws with human hands, he lets us know that the story of the eagle is not just a study of an animal in its natural environment, but that, symbolically, he is telling us about human beings. Because of the implications of the descriptions mentioned above, we can assume that the eagle represents an elderly person.
The idea that is presented to the reader in the phrase “close to the sun” could be expressed more directly, but in using these words Tennyson accomplishes two goals. First, by bringing the sun in to describe how high up in the air the eagle is, he uses hyperbole, or exaggeration, to associate the eagle with a sense of grand majesty. Tennyson lived during the Enlightenment, a time when scientific curiosity and learning were greatly valued, and as an educated man he would not have believed that an eagle’s altitude could reach anywhere near the sun’s, but this association makes the eagle seem, like the sun, more powerful than anything of this earth. Placing the eagle near the sun also alludes to the myth of Icarus. An allusion is a reference to something else, specifically another literary work, so that readers can use knowledge of that other work to sharpen their understanding. In Greek mythology, Icarus and his father Daedalus escaped from imprisonment on the Isle of Crete by making wings out of wax and feathers and flying away, but Icarus became too ambitious and flew close to the sun; the wax melted, and Icarus fell into the sea and drowned. By placing the winged eagle near the sun, Tennyson seems to be implying that it may be too confident of its own ability, just as Icarus was. This connection is made complete in the last line of the poem, when the eagle falls.
The image in this line points backward, to the ancient notion that the sky consisted of a series of spheres that circled the earth, as well as forward to modern science’s understanding of the earth’s atmosphere. The “azure sphere” brings to mind not just a blue (azure) sky reaching from horizon to horizon; it also alludes to a sense of confinement. Being “ringed” traps the eagle, keeps him surrounded, so that, in spite of what line 2 says about the eagle being close to the sun, he is still bound to this earth. If we take into account the fact that this poem, by using words to describe the eagle that are usually used for humans, makes a connection between eagle and human lives, we can assume that Tennyson is telling us something about the human condition in the way the eagle has the power to approach the sun but is held down by the earth. The idea of the majesty of the intellect or spirit being weighed down by the body’s weakness is a common idea in Tennyson’s works.
Line 3 provides a perspective from which the poem is being told. If the eagle were being viewed from above, the background that “rings” him would not be the blue sky but the ground. There is not much revealed about the speaker of the poem, but this detail divulges that the speaker, and by association the reader, “looks up” to the eagle.
The two strongest words used to describe the sea, “wrinkled” and “crawls,” reflect the images of old age that were associated with the eagle in line 1. Unlike the eagle, though, the sea is not being shown as proud and strong in its old age, but as decrepit— crawling like a drunkard. Here, Tennyson may be implying that the things of the earth are more vulnerable, more susceptible to decay, than things of the sky like the eagle. Since the perspective in this line is obviously the eagle’s (the sea would only look “wrinkled” from a great height), the poem seems to be implying that it is the eagle, and not necessarily the speaker of the poem, who views the sea as weak. This fits with the myth of Icarus whose thoughts of his own power and importance led him further and further away from the earth.
The dominant image in this line is one of a stone barrier: “mountain walls.” Although nesting and perching on the sides of mountains could be seen as simply an accurate description of eagle behavior, a reader has to wonder why Tennyson took the time and space to mention it in this short poem, when so many other eagle behaviors have been left out. The most apparent explanation would be that the poet not only wants to give a fact about eagles, lifestyles, but that he also wants to mention “walls” for the symbolic associations it brings. The implication is that there is something restraining the eagle, setting a limit to his abilities, the way a stone wall would. Earlier lines indicate a contrast between the glory of flight, height, and the sun and the weakness of the earth, the sea and the eagle’s own body: if there is something holding him back, it is that the eagle, although he can fly, is still a creature of earth.
Line 5 also uses a strangely passive verb to describe the eagle’s action. “He watches.” The reader, naturally, must wonder what he is watching, since watching would have to be focused on a specific thing. What do eagles watch? It is this verb that justifies interpreting the “fall” in the last line as a dive into the sea to pluck a fish from the water, because eagles and animals in general watch mainly for food. In this interpretation the eagle is mighty and supreme through to the end, and is so much a part of the natural world that attacking his prey is described as an act of gravity.
Although line 5 raised a question about what was going through the eagle’s mind, what he was watching, just before he fell, the most common interpretation of line 6 is that the eagle really did fall unintentionally, the victim of illness or decay. This is a sudden, shocking end for the strong and proud creature portrayed in the first five lines, but it is not unanticipated in the rest of the poem. Line 2, for instance, alludes to the myth of Icarus, who ended up falling into the sea and drowning. Line 5 ends with a mention of “walls,” which increases the reader’s awareness of this strong creature’s limitations. If Tennyson actually did structure this poem around reversing the reader’s expectations, we can see why he left it “a fragment,” rather than expanding it: the balance between the first five lines and the sixth would have to be exact. If the eagle, the proud bird, can drop dead off of the face of a mountain, Tennyson seems to be warning us that people, no matter what heights they reach, can fall in the end.