The Eagle by Alfred Lord Tennyson: Summary & Analysis

In this lesson, you will learn some background information on Tennyson in order to understand his poem ‘The Eagle.’ Then, you will analyze the poem to reach the deeper meaning behind the words.

Background

‘The Eagle’ is a poem written by the Englishman Alfred, Lord Tennyson. Tennyson lived during the Victorian Era, during the 1800s. In this era, a movement called Romanticism became extremely popular within the literary society. It was the reaction to the previous Age of Reason among the culture.

Romanticism focused on freedom instead of formalism, individualism instead of conformity, and imagination instead of reality. Romantic poets believed that nature was beautiful, and humans are the center of nature. They believed humans should get in touch with their inner soul by appreciating the beauty of nature. Tennyson’s ‘The Eagle’ clearly shows an emphasis on appreciating nature.

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Poem and Summary

Let’s take a look at this poem:

‘The Eagle’

by Alfred, Lord Tennyson

He clasps the crag with crooked hands;
Close to the sun in lonely lands,
Ringed with the azure world, he stands.

The wrinkled sea beneath him crawls;
He watches from his mountain walls,
And like a thunderbolt he falls.

The poem has a very simple concept. It focuses on one eagle alone in the wild. In the first line, the eagle is atop a mountain, poised to strike. He is high up where no other animal or human can go. He is alone in his grandeur, with the sun and the bright blue sky forming the perfect background scenery.

The second stanza shows the only action of the eagle. The first and second line show that, as he watches from his high perch, the sea moves below him. Then, in the final line, the eagle makes a grand dive towards the sea. The poem ends here, with the reader not quite sure why the eagle dived off his mountain roost.

Analysis

‘The Eagle’ is one of Tennyson’s shortest poems. It is composed of only two stanzas, with three lines each. However, it is full of figurative language and deeper meaning. Let’s look at the figurative language in each line.

Reread the first line of the poem. You should be able to detect alliteration (a repetition of similar sounds in the beginning of words) in the words ‘clasps,’ ‘crag’ and ‘crooked.’ Each of those words begins with a hard ‘c’ sound. Tennyson uses this technique to make emphasis and create a specific melody. The reader cannot breeze through these sounds; each hard ‘c’ makes the reader pause and enunciate.

In this way, Tennyson is ensuring the reader pauses to consider the eagle, high up on his perch. In addition, these lines have personification, which gives human traits to inhuman objects. Do eagles have hands? Of course not. Describing the eagle as holding on with hands makes the comparison to humans, which in turn, makes the eagle seem much more important than a simple bird.

Move on to the second line. Again, there is alliteration in the phrase ‘lonely lands.’ There is also hyperbole, which is an extreme exaggeration, in the phrase ‘close to the sun.’ Is the eagle actually close to the sun? Not really, the sun is millions of miles away from the Earth. Again, Tennyson uses these devices to emphasize how this eagle is sitting on top of the world, where no other living being could possibly be, even man.

Reread the third line. It contains imagery, or words that appeal to the five senses, that are extremely visual. Tennyson uses the color word ‘azure,’ which literally means bright blue, and this blue sky is ‘ringed’ around the eagle. This creates a very majestic image. Picture looking up at this tall, rocky mountain. The eagle sits on top, above all other life, with the sun blazing behind him, and the bright blue sky accentuating his silhouette. It’s a pretty impressive visual.

Now look at the second stanza. The first line has more personification; the sea is described as ‘wrinkled’ and it ‘crawls,’ both very human traits. In this case, the emphasis adds to the imagery of the poem as a whole. Is the eagle moving? Squirming in any way? Not in the slightest. He is perfectly still, while the sea, which should be a very powerful entity, wrinkles and crawls. Again, the eagle is made to be more powerful than any being, man or nature.

Reread the fifth line. This adds more to the image of the eagle resting, high and mighty, above all else. ‘Mountain walls’ is a metaphor (a comparison without using like or as) comparing the mountain to walls built to keep things out. The eagle watches from these walls, which are called ‘his.’ Again, implying the eagle’s reign over all.

Finally, look at the last line. This line has a simile, which is a comparison using like or as. Tennyson compares the eagle to a thunderbolt. Why not, say, lightning? What does thunder imply? Tennyson uses this simile to once again show the power of the eagle. The eagle dives as fast as lightning, but shaking the earth like thunder.

Overall, every use of figurative language in this short poem centers on putting the eagle in a powerful and majestic picture. Analyzing the deeper meaning behind Tennyson’s words, the reader can see the beauty in nature. In this way, Tennyson can show the power nature has over all mankind.

Lesson Summary

‘The Eagle’ is a poem written by the Englishman Alfred, Lord Tennyson. Tennyson lived during the Victorian Era during the 1800s. In this era, a movement called Romanticism became extremely popular within the literary society. Romanticism focused on freedom instead of formalism, individualism instead of conformity, and imagination instead of reality.

The poem uses many examples of figurative language, all with the purpose of creating a majestic and commanding representation of an eagle. In this way, Tennyson shows how man needs to connect to his human soul through the appreciation and admiration of nature. Some of this figurative language includes alliteration, personification, hyperbole, imagery, metaphor, and simile.

Notes on the Poem

Portrait of Alfred, Lord Tennyson
  • ‘The Eagle’ is a poem written during the Romanticism movement in the Victorian Era.
  • The poem is one of Lord Tennyson’s shortest at two stanzas of three lines each.
  • The poem uses figurative language, like personification, simile, and imagery, to make the eagle more than just a bird.

Learning Outcomes

Upon finishing this lesson on ‘The Eagle,’ you could be prepared to do the following:

  • Provide an analysis of ‘The Eagle’ by Alfred, Lord Tennyson
  • Recognize the literary devices used in the poem and understand their intended effect on the reader
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