Line 1: The words “clasps,” “crag,” and “crooked” associate the eagle with age: “craggy,” for instance, is still used to describe a lined, age-weathered face. The hard “c” sound that begins each of these words also establishes a hard, sharp tenor to this poem’s tone that fits in with the idea of the eagle’s similarly hard, sharp life. The repetition of first sounds is called alliteration, and Tennyson uses it in this short “fragment” to convey a sense of the eagle’s situation.
If there is any question in the reader’s mind about why we should care to read about the habits of an eagle in the wild, Tennyson settles it at the end of the line, where he uses the poetic technique of personification in talking about the eagle’s “hands.” When Tennyson makes the association of the eagle’s claws with human hands, he lets us know that the story of the eagle is not just a study of an animal in its natural environment, but that, symbolically, he is telling us about human beings. Because of the implications of the descriptions mentioned above, we can assume that the eagle represents an elderly person.
Line 2: The idea that is presented to the reader in the phrase “close to the sun” could be expressed more directly, but in using these words Tennyson accomplishes two goals. First, by bringing the sun in to describe how high up in the air the eagle is, he uses hyperbole, or exaggeration, to associate the eagle with a sense of grand majesty. Tennyson lived during the Enlightenment, a time when scientific curiosity and learning were greatly valued, and as an educated man he would not have believed that an eagle’s altitude could reach anywhere near the sun’s, but this association makes the eagle seem, like the sun, more powerful than anything of this earth. Placing the eagle near the sun also alludes to the myth of Icarus. An allusion is a reference to something else, specifically another literary work, so that readers can use knowledge of that other work to sharpen their understanding. In Greek mythology, Icarus and his father Daedalus escaped from imprisonment on the Isle of Crete by making wings out of wax and feathers and flying away, but Icarus became too ambitious and flew close to the sun; the wax melted, and Icarus fell into the sea and drowned. By placing the winged eagle near the sun, Tennyson seems to be implying that it may be too confident of its own ability, just as Icarus was. This connection is made complete in the last line of the poem, when the eagle falls.
Line 3: The image in this line points backward, to the ancient notion that the sky consisted of a series of spheres that circled the earth, as well as forward to modern science’s understanding of the earth’s atmosphere. The “azure sphere” brings to mind not just a blue (azure) sky reaching from horizon to horizon; it also alludes to a sense of confinement. Being “ringed” traps the eagle, keeps him surrounded, so that, in spite of what line 2 says about the eagle being close to the sun, he is still bound to this earth. If we take into account the fact that this poem, by using words to describe the eagle that are usually used for humans, makes a connection between eagle and human lives, we can assume that Tennyson is telling us something about the human condition in the way the eagle has the power to approach the sun but is held down by the earth. The idea of the majesty of the intellect or spirit being weighed down by the body’s weakness is a common idea in Tennyson’s works.
Line 3 provides a perspective from which the poem is being told. If the eagle were being viewed from above, the background that “rings” him would not be the blue sky but the ground. There is not much revealed about the speaker of the poem, but this detail divulges that the speaker, and by association the reader, “looks up” to the eagle.
Line 4 : The two...
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