Themes

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Last Updated on April 1, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1005

Freedom

The bird soaring in the sky has always been used as an example of freedom from the bonds of gravity, which anchors plants, people, and most animals to the earth. The eagle in this poem is pictured “close to the sun”—another symbol of highflying freedom that is not controlled by the limitations of the earth’s atmosphere. This area of the sky, just inside of and barely contained by the “azure world” of outer space, is what is meant by “lonely lands.” Loneliness implies detachment or a lack of responsibility to any other thing, while referring to the eagle’s perch as a different land once more enforces the idea that it is free of the rules and constraints that govern the lands of the earth.

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He is not, however, completely detached: as the poem’s first words put it, the eagle “clasps” onto the side of a mountain. This verb usage implies a sense of desperation. In a poem this short, using so few words, the words that the author chooses to include must be chosen with precision for their broadest implications. Tennyson’s use of the word “wall” suggests more than the simple description of the side of a mountain and can be taken as a reminder of the limitations that a wall usually implies. The eagle is free to roam the skies but is also attached to a stone wall. It hangs on tightly to the wall instead of soaring freely, and when it lets go of its grasp, it does not move freely but falls to earth like a rock. Even if the action at the end is not just the eagle succumbing to gravity but is in fact a dive toward a prey that it has seen, the thunderbolt- like speed of its descent still implies a compulsion beyond its free will.

Flesh versus Spirit

Readers are not told anything directly about the eagle’s spirit in this poem. It is written from the point of view of an observer down on the ground, who sees the bird high above, with the sky as a backdrop. The eagle’s spirit is implied in the words that were chosen by Tennyson. There is strength implied by the hard k sounds repeated, early on, in the words “clasps,” “crag,” and “crooked.” Other words stir up emotional associations of power in the reader because they are commonly used to describe powerful things. These words, used for their connotative effect, include “clasps,” “sun,” “ringed,” “stands,” “mountain,” and especially “thunderbolt.” All of these images of strength are associated with the eagle, implying that he has a powerful spirit. Readers get a sense that this is a noble creature that reigns over the world beneath him.

On the other hand, there is plenty of evidence that this eagle is old, that its body is weak. In the first line, its claws are called “crooked hands”— this image brings to mind the look of a bird’s claws, but it also implies an old, arthritic human. “Wrin- kled” is not used to describe the bird but refers instead to the rippling waves on the sea, but the very mention of age in this poem, which is so brief, reflects on the eagle. The sea is a crucial part of the bird’s environment. It is wrinkled and crawling, establishing a mood of weakness in this poem.

The eagle’s physical weakness is shown most emphatically in the poem’s last word. Tennyson could have chosen a more forceful, proactive word if he meant to show the eagle to be as physically powerful in body as it is in spirit. To say that he “falls” implies that the bird has lost its ability to hold on or to fly. The powerful spirit that is implied by other forceful words in the poem is turned inside-out by this evidence that it is a doddering, weak, incapable, old thing that is not in control of its own body, much less its world.

Permanence

Most of the imagery used in “The Eagle” is used to show things of a lasting, geological scale absorbing the eagle into an unchanging landscape of stone and sky. The crag in line one and the mountain walls in line five are permanent fixtures that will not change within the course of centuries. The eagle’s crooked hand fits into the crag in both an audible sense (“clasp” and “crag” have matching sounds) and in a visual sense. The poem’s use of these images implies that the eagle is just as permanent as the stone wall. The reference to the “azure world” of the sky also implies a sense of permanence, with celestial bodies appearing in the same places overhead consistently each year regardless of what changes are taking place on the earth in the ensuing time. Even the sea, which is constantly in motion, is presented here as unchanging, because the small, always-moving waves are described as stationary wrinkles.

One more clue that subtly makes readers believe that the scene presented here is unchanging is the poem’s strict rhyme scheme. There is a sense of concreteness in the fact that all of the lines are of the same length and that they all end with similar sounds. This poem is built like a block of granite, raising expectations that the same tone that has been established in the first five lines must necessarily be carried on into the last.

By showing the eagle’s environment to be still and unchanging, Tennyson leads readers to view the bird as permanent, an unchanging part of an unchanging setting. In the end, though, he turns expectation on its head and exchanges the stillness for sudden, lightning-fast motion. The last line comes as a surprise because the abrupt, almost violent activity that it describes shatters the poem’s stillness. This abrupt reversal of expectations reminds readers of the ever-changing nature of living things more effectively than the poem could have done had it not reversed directions.

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