What is the theme of Alfred Lord Tennyson's "The Eagle"?

Quick answer:

The author's message in "The Eagle" is that those who hold great power, even absolute power, are often lonely and even vulnerable. It is a "lonely" position for the eagle, a symbol for a ruler, because he cannot share it. Further, such a leader will eventually fall "like a thunderbolt" when their reign comes to an end.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

One of the prominent themes in this poem is that even the most majestic of creatures (including people) have limitations. In poetry and literature, the eagle is often a symbol for majesty, power, and of a regal nature. The eagle can soar to great heights and is a powerful predator. All of these descriptions suggest power and strength. However, in this poem, the majestic eagle is portrayed as being old. The eagle "clasps the crag with crooked hands." The "crag" is an uneven chunk of rock, perhaps on a cliff. Crag resembles "craggy" which can also describe the uneven wrinkles of an older person's face. The eagle's "crooked" hands suggest arthritis. The use of the word "hands" personifies the eagle and suggests that this poem can be read as a metaphor for humans. The alliteration of the hard "c's" in this line suggest the hardness or difficulty of the eagle's situation. It is a once majestic creature now limited by its old age. 

He (the eagle) is close to the sun. This suggests an allusion to the story of Icarus, the winged young man who flew too close to the sun. His wax wings melted and he fell into the sea. This parallels the eagle, a creature who can also soar "close to the sun," free and untethered. But in this case, the eagle's suggested fall is the result of old age, its physicality, and/or the limits of a lifespan. 

In the last stanza, the speaker repeats hints of old age: "wrinkled" and "crawls." Although the eagle can fly, he will inevitably have to come back down to earth. As the sea, part of the earth, is associated with wrinkles and crawling, so is the eagle. The imagery is focused on the eagle but the implication is that this can be applied to humans as well. No matter how great are our successes, we are inevitably mortal and therefore will eventually experience some sort of "fall." This fall is not necessarily a punishment; it could symbolize a fact of the limitations of life. It could be death or some other kind of limitation, and the fall could be as sudden as a thunderbolt. 

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

What is the author's message in "The Eagle"?

The message of "The Eagle" is that being in a position of power, especially a position of absolute power, can be extremely lonely and even dangerous. The eagle itself is a symbol of a person in such a position, personified as possessing "crooked hands," which seems to imply that the figurative leader rose to his position of power through some corrupt means (as "crooked" can mean bent or corrupt). The adjective "crooked" also bears connotations of age, suggesting that the figurative ruler is older. The eagle is "Close to the sun," literally quite high up on a mountain; the leader is figuratively elevated, possessing more power than anyone else over whom he rules. He oversees "lonely lands"; indeed, it is a lonely position for both eagle and leader, because the position requires solitude. One cannot rule absolutely if power is shared.

The "wrinkled sea" literally exists far below the eagle's perch, and it also signifies the "crawl[ing]" and powerless subjects of the leader's power and position. Moreover, "wrinkled," like "crooked," underscores the connotations of agedness. The "mountain walls" literally refers to the mountain on which the eagle "stands" and figuratively evokes the stone keep or castle from which the leader surveys his dominion. "He watches" from this literal and figurative heigh. The eagle dives "like a thunderbolt" to catch his prey, mercilessly and without hesitation, and the leader might do something similar, enacting his justice "like a thunderbolt"—that is, doing so inexorably and with great authority. The word "falls," however, also provides a clue as to his undoing, as most leaders do not simply hand over their power to their successor. Instead, they are often overthrown, ousted from their position by someone even more powerful, and such a "fall" from power can be precipitous indeed.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

What is the poem "The Eagle" by Lord Alfred Tennyson about?

"The Eagle" by Lord Alfred Tennyson is a short poem, consisting of two three-line stanzas. It is a purely descriptive poem written in the third person. The narrator is an impersonal voice describing the eagle; no information about the narrator is provided in the poem.

The first stanza describes the eagle perched on a rocky outcropping. It is clasping the rocks with its talons and appears framed against the sky and sun from the narrator's perspective.

In the second stanza, the narrator informs us that the crag on which the eagle is perched is close to the sea. In the last line of the poem, the eagle is described as falling like a thunderbolt. This suggests that the eagle in question is a type of sea or fish eagle and is diving to grab a fish from the water.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

What is the poem "The Eagle" by Lord Alfred Tennyson about?

This little gem of a poem packs quite a vivid description of an eagle into a mere 6 lines!  The poem describes a lone eagle as it perches on a stoney outcrop above water below.  In the last line of the poem, the eagle takes flight and soars down to possibly catch some prey.  The poem is filled with alliteration in the first line with all of the harsh "c" sounds:  He clasps the crag of crooked hands."  His isolation is emphasized by the alliteration in line 2 "lonely lands."  There is a wonderful description of how the water would look from above when it is described as a "wrinkled sea" that "crawls."  The last line of the poem plays off of an allusion to the might Zeus whose symbol/weapon is the lightning bolt.  The line says that the eagle falls like a lightning bolt suggesting speed and power as he launches off his mountain wall down towards to the water below.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

What is the poem "The Eagle" about?

As the title indicates, this short poem is about an eagle. The eagle is depicted in nature, far from cities or human civilization. He seems to be at one with nature, for he clasps a crag high up a mountain wall, close to the sun and sky. The sea below him is "wrinkled" from waves. He is likened to an object of nature as he falls from his mountain wall. The poem is, in summary, a brief vignette about an eagle, first at rest and then in motion.
For all that it shows the eagle as a part of nature, it also personifies him. To personify an animal or object is to give it human attributes. This eagle doesn't have talons or claws but "hands," like a human's that "clasp" a crag. The poem also uses alliteration, putting words beginning with the same consonant close to one another. For example, "clasps," "crag," and "crooked" are alliterative, as are "lonely" and "lands." Emphasis falls on alliterative words, so through use of this literary device, Tennyson bring attention to the austere quality of the natural world in which the eagle lives.
Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

What is the poem "The Eagle" about?

On the literal level, the poem is simply a description of an eagle who sits high on a rock above the water, then dives down. As a poem, it gains the power it has through the quality of its description, its structure and word choices, and what non-literal things it alludes to.

Tennyson personifies the eagle, making it "he" and more active and intentional than it might be. The rhyme and rhythm are markedly present. References like the eagle's presence near the sun links it to Icarus in Greek mythology, making it sound like an older human filling that position of mythic youth.

http://www.enotes.com/eagle/24787

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

What is "The Eagle" about?

On one level, the poem could just be about the experience of an eagle.  He's up on a mountaintop, by himself, in a clear blue and sunny sky.  The eagle is up so high that the sea looks like wrinkled cloth or paper below him, and he watches over everything before diving down and striking his prey.

On another level, the poem could be interpreted as a symbolic comment on absolute power.  In this case, the eagle represents a supreme ruler with unlimited power.  This ruler holds onto "the crag," his authority, with "crooked" hands that could refer either to bent talons or corrupt practices.  He is alone, in his absolute power because to share that power would mean his is no longer absolute.  Everyone else is below him; "crawl[ing]" is an action associated with the powerless.  He keeps an eye on everything from the seat of his power, perhaps his castle atop a mountain, and when he loses his position or "falls" from power, it is violent and swift, or, perhaps, strikes out swiftly and violently when someone threatens his power or disobeys him.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Last Updated on