Why is the eagle referred to as "he" in Tennyson's "The Eagle"?

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The eagle is referred to as a "he" instead of an "it" in the poem "The Eagle," because it helps to make the meaning of the poem more ambiguous. If you read it and think it's just about an eagle, then you're right, but if you read it and think that it symbolizes some sort of powerful ruler, then you're also right. The use of the gendered pronoun draws your attention to other possible interpretations of the poem.

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One reason that the eagle is referred to as a "he" instead of as an "it" is that the gendered pronoun is a clue that the poem is not necessarily just about an eagle. If you read the poem and think, "Oh, it's about an eagle," you wouldn't be wrong,...

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but it is also definitely possible to read it on another, symbolic, level. For example, the poem could be a comment on what it's like for a person to have absolute power, like the eagle seems to have in nature. If the poem is about a person with such power, then he could be "clasping the crag," or holding on to that power (symbolized by the crag), "with crooked hands." The word "crooked" could refer to corruption. Absolute rulers don't tend to come to power peacefully; they tend to take power, often using less-than-virtuous methods. This ruler is high up, figuratively, with no one above him, and he stands above all, almost like a god ("Ring'd with the azure world"). The "wrinkled sea" crawling beneath him could be the masses of people over which this powerful ruler rules, and he watches them from his fortress (which could be both literal and figurative). Finally, the last line could refer to such a ruler's fall from power (which is almost never peaceful), or it could refer to the way he attacks anyone who dares to rise against him. By giving the eagle a personal pronoun, Tennyson draws our attention to other possible interpretations of the poem.

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The eagle is personified in Tennyson's poem. Personification occurs when human qualities are given to an object or an animal. The eagle "clasps," has "hands" and "stands" as he surveys the blue sea below. It is only natural that "he" should be referred to as a man.

Romantic poets of the nineteenth century often personified nature (see Wordsworth's famous poem "I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud" where flowers dance or Keats's "On the Grasshopper and the Cricket" where an insect is also referred to as "he"). In stanza two, Tennyson portrays the eagle as a powerful force in the world, as strong as a thunderbolt, echoing Victorian confidence. In the latter half of the century, while Tennyson was poet laureate, England was considered the strongest nation on earth so it is only fitting that Tennyson's eagle is the epitome of that vigor.

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In "The Eagle," why does the poet address the eagle as "he," not as "it"?

In order to understand the impact of the choice to refer to the eagle as "he" instead of "it," consider the first line of "The Eagle":

He clasps the crag with crooked hands

This is an example of personification; we typically think of eagles as having talons, not hands. This particular description makes the eagle seem quite human; to match this sense of personhood, the author has chosen to refer to the eagle with the pronouns "he," "him," and "his."

The eagle sits on the crag, which is a steep and rocky cliff, in a way that makes him seem like royalty. No human can reach this space, yet the eagle claims it as his own; these are "his mountain walls." (emphasis added). He is in a position of power, which enables him to keep a watch on the world around him, much like a king watching over his kingdom. In the final line, the eagle is compared to a "thunderbolt," alluding perhaps to Thor, the god of thunder.

These characterizations of the eagle transcend the typical associations with the animal world, which usually places man at the top of all life. Instead, the use of "he" helps to develop the great power of the eagle as he watches over the land in ways that humans cannot fathom or achieve.

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