The Eagle

Alfred Lord Tennyson

wordsinthewoods –

This poem is a masterpiece of concision. In just 6 lines, it packs a punch and, in doing so, includes some ‘tricks of the trade’. There’s alliteration. Note the initial letter ‘c’, 4 times in the 1st two lines. There’s caesura. The pause at the comma in line 3 causes the words, ‘he stands’, to stand out even more. There’s simile. The falling eagle is likened to a thunderbolt. There’s also personification. The eagle is a ‘he’, not an it; he has ‘hands’ rather than talons; and he ‘stands’ rather than perches. Something’s being said here about humans, as well as eagles!

The poem is about solitude. There’s no mention of a mate or fledglings. This eagle is a ‘loner’, located on a forbiddingly inaccessible crag, sticking out near the top of vertiginous ‘mountain walls’. These erupt out of a heaving ocean, so far beneath him that it appears only to ‘crawl’, with its waves looking like mere ‘wrinkles‘. From below, the eagle seems ‘close to the sun’. Surrounding him are the vistas of ‘lonely lands’. No one is likely to hazard a passing visit, or expect a friendly welcome. 

The poem is about control. His hands are ‘crooked’ as they ‘clasp’ the crag tightly. He’s completely at home in his chosen environment, in which ‘he stands’ unmoving, like a lordly landowner surveying his estate. The only things that move are his eyes – he ‘watches’. Although the ‘lands’ over which he presides are ‘lonely’, they do contain other life, and he can see what others can’t – the smallest creature or tiniest movement. Everything is at his mercy, or the lack of it.

The poem is about decisiveness. The eagle waits patiently until the opportune moment, and then there is neither hesitation nor half-measures. There are no questions to be asked or caveats to be entertained. On the contrary, ‘like a thunderbolt he falls’, and heaven help whatever is in his sights.

The poem is about awareness. The eagle’s focus must be narrow if he’s to have his morning snack – it must centre on his prey. What he’s not aware of, is the majesty and beauty of the entire scene. He can’t imagine the striking image of himself, silhouetted against radiant sunlight and haloed by the deep blue of an ‘azure’ sky. His eyesight seems limitless, but his awareness isn’t.   

If the poem were only about the eagle, then he would surely merit our admiration. He is being what an eagle is, and doing what an eagle does, with consummate ‘professional’ skill. But since the poem is also about ourselves, what can we say about being what humans are, and doing what humans do? Our potentials are much greater than the eagle’s, and our choices much more open. 

We can choose to balance solitude with sociability, to the enrichment of both. We can relinquish the tight grip of control, let the universe unfold, and go with its flow. We can act immediately and decisively, or leave room for flexibility and reassessment. We can focus narrowly on a task in hand, but also learn how to expand our awareness. We are each part of one entirely interlinked whole, which calls for care and compassion for one another and for all that is. Sometimes it’s perhaps ok to be, and act, like Tennyson’s eagle. Most times, most likely, it isn’t !

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