Historical Context

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Tennyson was appointed by Queen Victoria to be England’s Poet Laureate in 1850, a year before “The Eagle” was first published, and he served in that position until his death in 1892. He is considered to be one of the most influential voices in the long period of British prosperity during Victoria’s reign, which is broadly referred to as the Victorian Age.

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Queen Victoria was born at Kensington Palace on May 24, 1819. She ascended to the throne of England and Ireland in 1837, when her uncle, William IV, died without any children. For sixty-four years she ruled Great Britain, which was the most powerful country in the world. At first, the eighteen-year-old queen upheld liberal sentiments. The early part of the nineteenth century was still marked by liberalism, which was a belief in equality and individual rights. The height of liberalism had occurred earlier marked by the American Revolution in 1776 and the French Revolution in 1789. In both cases, the old, hereditary, aristocratic order was overturned in favor of the ability of the people to govern their own affairs. Victoria’s early liberalism is considered to have been influenced by a number of things, including her own youthful idealism and the world’s lingering enthusiasm with liberal ideals.

The nineteenth century was a time of great social transformation, and the queen’s sympathies altered as both she and England changed. One of the most profound influences on her thinking came when she married Albert, her first cousin, in 1840. For the next twenty years, Victoria and Albert ruled Great Britain closely. His conservative attitude came to be hers. Albert was formal, straight-laced, and it is his prudish attitude toward public behavior that has left the Victorian Age with the reputation for being repressed about matters of social behavior.

At the same time, the Industrial Revolution was reorganizing the structure of society and raising doubts about the effectiveness of liberalism. Because mechanical efficiency was creating larger and more successful cities, there was a shift in population in Western countries (meaning, mainly, England and the Americas) away from farms and toward cities. Machines that were powered by steam that was created by burning coal were able to turn out products at a rate many times what had been possible before. Society was redefined by such technological developments as the telegraph (1844), which made long-distance communication possible; the daguerreotype (1837), which was the first workable method of photography; and the first development of the electric lamp in 1808, which eventually led to Edison’s light bulb in 1879. At the same time that these technological marvels were being introduced, though, the problems associated with the rapid growth of cities made life miserable for large masses of people.

Cities, unprepared to absorb the rapid growth that they were faced with, became crowded, squalid, dirty pockets of poverty. London, the main city of the world at that time, quadrupled in population in forty years from 598,000 in 1801 to 2.42 million in 1841. The resulting population density led to overworked and inefficient waste disposal methods, which hastened the spread of disease, particularly tuberculosis and cholera. Early industrial methods created the dense pollution that readers are most familiar with from the novels of Charles Dickens such as Bleak House or Great Expectations. In one of Dickens’ most familiar descriptions, based on an actual situation, the streetlights of London had to be lit at midday because the pollution from coal-burning industries had blocked out the sun. The liberal ideal of having government run by common people gave way quickly when faced with the increasing perception of the “common people” being a grubby crowd fighting for survival among squalid conditions, living like rats among rats. The mood among the educated toward aristocrats keeping tight control of the political process coincided with Victoria’s political views, as influenced by her Prince Consort, Albert.

In the second half of the century, the plight of the urban poor could not be ignored, and the government set about passing reform measures that regulated their exploitation. Work days were shortened to ten hours for women and children, health inspectors began closing down the worst boarding houses, and mission houses were opened to try to help the poor rather than just throwing them into jails. Labor organizations were formed, and they fought for better working conditions, while Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto redefined the relationship between laborers and the owners of the means of production.

After Prince Albert died in 1861, Queen Victoria never remarried but tried to stay true to his memory for the forty years that she continued to live. As the upper social classes continued to recognize and accept the “vulgar” behaviors of the lower classes, the court of the Queen became more insistent on what was considered proper behavior, leaving the Victorian era with a dual legacy of over-sentimentalization and hypocrisy. The age included the very earliest experiments in artistic photography and the rise of the impressionist movement elsewhere in Europe, but the image that the phrase Victorian Art conjures up today is an idealized, ornate style with swirls of pastel and flower petals filling in the borders of every scene. Likewise, public behavior was, in keeping with the queen’s tastes, based in hypocrisy. The modern concept of polite social manners comes from the Victorian tastes regarding public behavior, and books outlining the rules of those manners defined the elements of “class” for the new aristocracy who had not been born to the upper class, but who had risen into it as the old social rules came apart and wealth became the deciding factor of one’s social position.

Tennyson’s death in 1892 and Victoria’s death in 1901 coincided with the birth of a new century. They had both lived long and been in the public eye for decades, and were seen as relics of the past by a world that was ready for change. The Victorian manner, which developed as a response to the country’s industrialization and its uneasy adjustment to the passing of the strictly hereditary social class system, was no longer practical. Attempts to hold onto the image of a gentler and politer time stopped being charming as Great Britain began losing its economic edge to other countries, especially America, and the codes of the Victorian Era became an embarrassing sign of faded greatness.

Literary Style

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“The Eagle: A Fragment” is written in two stanzas of three lines each and utilizes the iambic-tetrameter form of meter. Iambic meter is structured in units of two syllables where the first syllable is unstressed and the second is stressed. If the stresses are identified, the first line appears as follows:

Heclasps / thecrag / withcrook / edhands;

“Tetrameter” (“tetra” meaning four) indicates that there are four iambic units, or feet, in each line. It should be noted, however, that Tennyson varies the iambic pattern in two places. In both lines 2 and 3, the first two syllables do not form an iamb (an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable), but rather a trochee, meaning that the first syllable is stressed and the second unstressed. After these first two syllables, the lines revert to iambic construction.

The rhyme scheme in the poem is aaa bbb, meaning that the last words in the three lines of the first stanza rhyme with one another and the same is true of the last words in the lines of the second stanza.

Another device employed by Tennyson in “The Eagle: A Fragment” is alliteration, which is the repetition of the first sounds in words. This is most noticeable in the line 1, with the repetition of the hard “c” sound: “clasps,” “crag,” and “crooked.” “Lonely lords” in line 2 and “watches” and “walls” in line 5 also use this technique to heighten the musical sound of the poem.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Amis, Kingsley, “Introduction,” in Tennyson, Penguin Books, 1973, pp. 7–19.

“Explanations: The Eagle,” GaleNet, “Exploring Poetry,” Gale Group, 2000.

James, Henry, quoted in Nineteenth-Century Literature Criticism, Volume 30, Gale, 1991, p. 203.

Kissane, James, Alfred Tennyson, Twayne Publishers, Inc., 1970.

Lockyear, Sir Norman, Tennyson as a Student and Poet of Nature, Russell and Russell, 1910.

Lucas, F. L., Tennyson, Longman Green & Co., 1957.

Priestly, J. B., Victoria’s Heyday, Harper & Row, 1972.

Tennyson’s Poetical Works: Student’s Cambridge Edition, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1898.

Thorn, Michael, Tennyson, St. Martin’s, 1992.

Tucker, Herbert, Jr., “Tennyson and the Measure of Doom,” in PMLA, Vol. 98, No. 1, January, 1983, pp. 8–20.

For Further Reading
Carr, Arthur J., “Tennyson as a Modern Poet,” from Critical Essays on the Poetry of Tennyson, edited by John Killham, Routledge and Paul, 1960, pp. 41–66. Examines themes and styles used in Tennyson’s works that anticipated the twentieth-century rise of modernism.

Culler, A. Dwight, The Poetry of Tennyson, Yale University Press, 1977. Culler looks at “The Eagle” as both an example of Victorian poetry and as an example of Tennyson’s balance of nature with spirit.

Madden, Lionel, “Tennyson: A Reader’s Guide,” in Writers and their Background: Tennyson, D. J. Palmer, Editor, Ohio University Press, 1973, pp. 1–22. Gives an overview of the poet’s life. Directs readers to many other significant works about Tennyson.

Mustard, Wilfred P., Classical Echoes in Tennyson, The Folcroft Press, Inc., 1970. Traces similarities between “The Eagle” and Virgil’s The Aeneid.

Pinion, F. B., A Tennyson Chronology, G. K. Hall & Co., 1990. Provides a detailed accounting of Tennyson’s life, month-by-month in some parts. An invaluable tool for students of Tennyson.

Compare and Contrast

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  • 1851: The Crystal Palace is commissioned for the first World’s Fair, London Great Exposition. Made of glass walls, it is the largest structure in the world, four times the size of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.

    Today: World’s Fairs seldom attract attention, because communications advances have allowed new wonders to be shown to the world in books and on the Internet.

1851: Slavery is legal in the United States, and opponents of the practice struggle with slave holders to tip the balance of power. The 1850 Fugitive Slave Act, providing stiff federal penalties against anyone who helped a slave escape, is part of a compromise made for admitting California to the Union as a non-slave, “free” state.Today: Federal laws are designed to prevent discrimination on the basis of race, although many Americans identify racial tension as one of the country’s greatest problems.

1851: A telegraph cable is laid across the English Channel, connecting France and England with telegraph communications for the first time.Today: Cell phones are inexpensive and enable anyone anywhere to call anyone else who has a phone.

1851: The largest city in the world is London, with a population of 2.37 million people.Today: The largest city in the world, Tokyo, has almost 27 million people.

1851: Ireland continues to suffer from the potato famine that began in 1846, causing thousands to starve and even more to move to other countries.Today: Modern shipping methods make it possible to transport food to famine-stricken nations, but government bureaucracies and corruption often make it difficult to distribute donated food.

Media Adaptations

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A group named Techno has a short clip of music incorporating Tennyson’s poem into what they call “a groovin’ ramble,” available at http://artists.mp3s.com/artists/26/interval.html for download from MP3.

The Teaching Company, of Springfield, VA, includes an audiocassette lecture titled “Alfred, Lord Tennyson, England’s National Treasure,” as Lecture Twelve in a lecture series by John B. Fisher titled Great Writers: Their Lives and Works.

Robert Speaight and Arthur Luce Klein read poems from Tennyson on a cassette recording from Spoken Arts called A Treasury of Alfred Lord Tennyson from 1963. Included are selections from The Princess and In Memoriam.

A 1997 collection on audiocassette called The Victorians features poems by Tennyson, as well as Robert Browning, Lewis Carroll, Matthew Arnold, and others. Tennyson’s poems are on Tape One of a six-tape set from Recorded Books.

Center for the Humanities presents a 1986 videocassette named The Victorian Age, which presents excerpts from the writings of Dickens, Browning, Arnold, Tennyson, Carlyle, and Ruskin.

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