The Eagle Essays and Criticism
by Alfred, Lord Tennyson

The Eagle book cover
Start Your Free Trial

Download The Eagle Study Guide

Subscribe Now

Nature of TheEagle in Tennyson's Works

(Poetry for Students)

The fact that Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem “The Eagle” is still studied along with the rest of his poetry is an oddity unto itself, testimony to the simple, clean package that the poem presents, to its unique power. The poem has hardly any large-scale significance in the history of literature, it just happens to be a powerful, solid piece of work. It certainly does not have the pointed mythological references, the historical significance or the biographical elements that stir modern curiosity about some of Tennyson’s other works.

“The Eagle” deserves attention not for where it came from but for what it is, which is a poem that makes use of all of the tools at its disposal. It makes optimum use of poetic devices, such as the rhyming tercets, the alliteration, and the elevated language that all work to raise its natural subject to a position of nobility. At the same time, the poem is modern enough to avoid the pretense that it can give its readers a complete picture of what is going on with only this fragment. Its honesty comes from provoking readers to think about the scene described, as opposed to the sentimental manipulation that critics have accused Tennyson of stooping to at his worst.

The poem was first published in 1851, the year after Tennyson achieved the triple blessings of marrying his longtime lover, publishing an immensely popular book, and winning the Poet Laureateship of England, succeeding William Wordsworth. Most critics have considered it a period of transition in the poet’s life from his humble struggle out of poverty to almost universal fame, taking the most prominent government literary position in a country that values its literary heritage. The year 1850 is considered the crease in the center of Tennyson’s life and literary career, and his style took a subsequent change of direction. “The Eagle,” at the division, shows signs of both his old style and his new.

The way that the poem was released does not match what might be expected of what would grow to become one of this much-studied writer’s moststudied works. It was not brought out in a triumphant volume of new poetry by the new Poet Laureate but slipped into the latest edition of his Poems, which had first been published nine years earlier and was then on its seventh edition. It might be thought that, in a sense, Tennyson published this incomplete fragment to burn off old material that he did not intend to develop further. It certainly is a better fit for his earlier persona as a struggling artist than as his new one, in which he had the moral responsibility, as a member of the government, for recording the public mood. It seems to be an example of nothing else that occurred in Tennyson’s life or in his work, but examining the works that surround it, “The Eagle” can be seen as fitting perfectly into the situation of its publication.

Tennyson was always a writer with a wide range of abilities. The 1842 collection, which has survived to be his most critically acclaimed, shows off his diversity. That book gave the world such classic Tennyson pieces as “The Lady of Shallott,” a long narrative about one of the knights of Camelot (a subject he also explored in Idylls of the King, which was started around this time but published more than a decade later); “The Lotos-Eaters,” which was also a long narrative with a mythical theme, in this case concerning sailors who travel to an enchanted land and eat lotus flowers, which make them too lethargic and content to return to their homes any more; and “Break, break, break,” a short piece of four quatrains that calls upon the sea to act out the speaker’s violent anguish by smashing against the shore. The first two of these were completely revamped versions of poems that had appeared in his last published collection, ten years earlier, and are the versions that readers study today. These and others from the 1842 Poems were proof of Tennyson’s power in handling short and long forms and...

(The entire section is 3,992 words.)