How can you prove "The Eagle" is more than just a description of an eagle?

Quick answer:

Tennyson's poem is not really about an eagle, but it is about the "strength and wisdom" associated with eagles, which are ultimately what make one powerful. While this answer is good, it can be improved upon by emphasizing the clues that Tennyson uses to show that the eagle represents more than just a bird: most notably, personification and word choice (1). Using these techniques will also help you remember your argument for this question in future exams. In summary: your goal on this essay should be to ensure that you know the meaning of every single word in the passage and then use those meanings to identify what kind of poem it is and how each theme functions in that poem.

Expert Answers

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First, the eagle is personified, described as having "hands," and this is a big clue that he represents more than just an eagle (line 1).  In addition, the fact that his hands are described as "crooked," a word with two pertinent denotations, is another clue: "crooked" can mean "bent" (as an eagle's talons would be) as well as "corrupt" (as an unethical or immoral person would be) (1).  Further, the eagle is described as "stand[ing]" and "clasp[ing]" instead of perching, two more word choices that hint at his power and strength (especially compared to the "crawl[ing]" sea in the second stanza) and suggest that he is not just a bird.

Moreover, the description of the sea as "crawl[ing]," a movement associated with the weak or powerless, helps to show that this is, ultimately, a poem about power: who has it, how they keep it, and who doesn't.  Finally, the speaker says, in the last line, that the eagle "falls," not that he dives, and this compels us to consider the poem as a comment on absolute power and, perhaps, how it changes hands (6).

Therefore, by choosing words that more often describe human features or activities, Tennyson forces us to reflect on the way in a human being could acquire and exploit absolute power, as the eagle does.

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