Parsing Poetry – “The Eagle” – Tennyson



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Happy New Year readers and fans. As my followers know, Friday is “Whittled Words” day, but as we turn the page to 2021, I want to try out a new entry to see if it is something my readers would enjoy as a weekly series. So, I am expecting some honest feedback in the comments.

I am calling this series, “Parsing Poetry”, and envision it as an opportunity to analyze some of our favorite poems to gain a greater understanding of the techniques, artistry, and creativity that can be found within. In this inaugural edition, we will be analyzing “The Eagle”, by Alfred Lord Tennyson, one of my personal favorites. So, welcome to “Parsing Poetry – ‘The Eagle’ – Tennyson”.

 

“The Eagle”

By Alfred Lord Tennyson

 

 

He clasps the crag with crooked hands;

Close to the sun in lonely lands,

Ring’d with the azure world, he stands.

 

The wrinkled sea beneath him crawls;

He watches from his mountain walls,

And like a thunderbolt he falls.

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Summary of “The Eagle”

‘The Eagle’ by Alfred Lord Tennyson is a short two stanza poem that speaks on the power and solitude of a lone eagle on a rocky cliff. The poem begins with the speaker describing how a solitary eagle is standing on the top of a craggy cliff. From where he is perched, with his “crooked hands” gripping the rocks, he can survey the whole “azure world” around and below him.

Tennyson’s eagle is in a real place of power and as soon as he is ready to, and not a moment sooner, he dives. In the final line, he makes his surprise move, barreling down towards the water in search of prey.

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Structure of “The Eagle”

This two-stanza poem is separated out into two sets of three lines, known as tercets. These tercets follow a simplistic rhyme scheme that conforms to a pattern of AAA BBB. The poem also makes use of the metrical pattern of iambic tetrameter. This means that each line contains four sets of two beats, known as metrical feet (or iambs). The first is unstressed and the second stressed. It sounds something like da-DUM, da-DUM.

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Poetic Techniques in “The Eagle”

Tennyson uses numerous poetic techniques within ‘The Eagle’. These include alliterationcaesura, metaphor, and personification. The latter is perhaps the easiest to spot. It occurs when a poet imbues a non-human creature or object with human characteristics. In this case, the eagle is described as having “hands”. It is also referred to as “he” rather than “it,” therefore increasing its agency and individuality. We also see it in the “crawling” of the sea in the second stanza.

Another technique, alliteration, occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same letter. A great example is in the first stanza with the use and reuse of the letter “c”, “He clasps the crag with crooked hands”.

Caesura is another interesting technique that involves splitting a line of verse in order to shift the emphasis. The last line of the first stanza, with the comma falling after “world” is an example.

Lastly, Tennyson offers a powerful metaphor in the words “wrinkled sea” to creatively lead the reader to envision the wave-tossed waters of open water that lie beneath the lofty perch.

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Analysis of “The Eagle”

Stanza One

He clasps the crag with crooked hands; 

Close to the sun in lonely lands, 

Ring’d with the azure world, he stands. 

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This piece begins with a description of a creature, only labeled with the pronoun “He”. The speaker is assuming that a reader will understand who this “He” is, and if one reads the title of the poem it is clear. Tennyson’s speaker is describing an eagle, who as the poem starts, is up on a “crag,” meaning a rugged, exposed cliff face.

This is somewhere human beings could not, or would have trouble, reaching. There is something transcendent about this opening scene. It is beyond that which humanity can experience, except through the words of writers such as Tennyson. Tennyson also makes use of alliteration in this first line to increase the rhythm of the phrase.

The simplicity of the rhyme in these lines carries the poem forward. It is contrasted by the dramatic images Tennyson has crafted. These only expand as he discusses the “lonely lands” that stretch out underneath the “crag”. This emphasizes the feeling of loneliness and isolation. As well as the fact that no human being can touch the place.

Tennyson expands the landscape further as he describes the ring of blue sky that wraps around “the azure world”. The eagle stands as if lording, over the lands below him. He represents a clear image of power and knowledge, as well as the traditional meanings associated with eagles: freedom and bravery.

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Stanza Two 

The wrinkled sea beneath him crawls;

He watches from his mountain walls,

And like a thunderbolt he falls.

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In the second stanza, the speaker gives the reader a few more details about the eagle’s surroundings. The rocky cliff on which the creature is perched is, as already made clear, very steep. Tennyson adds that it is also jutting out over the sea. The eagle is so high up, the sea appears to be covered in wrinkles. They represent the various shapes of the waves and might make one consider how age and time play into this description.

In the next line, the eagle’s position of power on the rocks is reemphasized. He is high above everything else and able to “watch” what is going on below and around him. A reader should also take note of how Tennyson called the mountain walls the eagle’s walls as if they belong to him. He has a claim over this piece of land and because he is the only creature capable of reaching it, there is no one to challenge him.

The transition from the second line to the third is powerful. Suddenly, the eagle drops from his perch, plunging towards the sea below. This intentional dive was pre-planned on the eagle’s part, certainly, but for the reader, it comes as something of a shock. “He” is hunting a smaller creature below him and knew when the precise moment would be for him to dive for it. In the final line, Tennyson describes the eagle as a “thunderbolt”. Again, this speaks to his god-like power in this world and might even inspire an indirect comparison to the god Zeus.

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Inspired by “The Eagle”

 

The Eagle’ by Tennyson was a source of inspiration to Ted Hughes. He wrote ‘Hawk Roosting’ by imitating the Tennysonian model.

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And here is my attempt at imitating the Tennysonian model:

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The Turkey

by Brad Osborne

He falls a loud flapping of flightless wing

Down from protected pine that makes wind sing

Leaves his roost to see what the day will bring

Gone is the noise and ruckus of his start

As he plies woods with practiced silent art

Seeks a lover in hopes to win her heart

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Thank you for reading and I hope you have enjoyed this analysis of a beautiful poem by one of the greatest poets of our time. I hope it will inspire you to find your own heights to look out over our “azure world”!

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Comments
13 Responses to “Parsing Poetry – “The Eagle” – Tennyson”
  1. Greetings my good friend. I think you’ve a great idea here. New Year, new thoughts, new hopes, new dreams. And reshaping the blog is a fab way to ensure continuity but at the same time adaptation. The analysis of poems is a great way to learn, to develop talent and will lead many to write more, I believe. So I thoroughly applaud this new series, although the old one will be missed, one cannot stay in the past, growth implies forward momentum. Great idea Brad! All the best to you and may you enjoy a lovely New Year Day!
    F.

    • Brad Osborne says:

      Thank you my dear friend for your honest comments and encouragement. I have not yet decided exactly how to proceed into 2021 with the Friday series, but I do think that the “Whittled Word” entries will still find a spot on occasion. Maybe switch back and forth between the two for Friday posts. Just trying something new to keep things fresh on the blog. I appreciate you, love you, and wish you the happiest of new years!

  2. Okay, you asked for honesty, and you know I’m brutal, so be forewarned! I, personally, have never cared about the structure of poems in terms of rhyme schemes like the AAA, BBB, ABC stuff. I’ve always moved past that in any blog post where you’ve added it. But that’s me, personally. The rest of this I found articulate and interesting, enjoyed having a ‘lay person’s’ experience with a poet’s words. Having 6 short lines looked into in terms of meaning gave Tennyson’s poem much more meaning and insight than I would have gotten just reading it, and it made me appreciate the poem so much more for that in-depth understanding! I hope you keep up with this (I can always ‘ignore’ the structure paragraph!). What a great way to start a new year!

    • Brad Osborne says:

      As always, I rely on your honesty and it is greatly appreciated. I agree the structure part is less than enthralling to read, but for would be poets it does help them to ascertain the structure that sometimes is not as clear as it is in Tenyyson’s verse. This is just a test run, but if the responses are positive, I may try to turn it into a weekly series or maybe share Friday’s with the continuation of “Whittled Words”. We will see what the New Year holds. Thank you sis for all your thoughts and support!

  3. beth says:

    I always enjoy the ‘backstory’ or meanings of things and often look them up when finding an interesting quote or poem I’m drawn to. I appreciate the explanation it gives me new eyes to read it with again. Ps – I used one of his quotes today in my post )

  4. kristianw84 says:

    I agree with josborne17602 in regards to the structure. I’ve never been called a poet or poetess, so perhaps my opinion is invalid, however; as someone who does and enjoys writing poetry, to me it’s something that needs to be felt. When I try to make my poems fit into some sort of scheme, it is never my best work. With that being said, I do enjoy reading the history and meaning behind poems, especially the classics. I also love being exposed to poets I may not have heard of, and watching you nail every form of poetry you try, so I hope you continue it. I think it’s brilliant. ❤

    • Brad Osborne says:

      I don’t know that anyone revels in the challenge of writing to form the way I do, and form is not a requirement for the creation of beautiful works. The artist is given full license to express themselves in whatever manner they wish. What I have drawn from studying these classic forms is the use of structure, the rhythm of rhyme and meter, but most of all how to edit succinctly. But you have never required these tricks to create the beauty of your words as your thoughts seem to flow effortlessly and create their own structure to live within. For me this series is really more about looking deeply at the poems we consider classics and try to draw inspiration from them, not only through their form, but through all the beautiful techniques highlighted and used by the greatest of our times. I appreciate your feedback and support always! That is the greatest gift a writer can ask for. You are the best!

      • kristianw84 says:

        Not many people can write to form the way you do, it’s something I have always admired about you and your writing. Your passion for it clearly shows! I understand the inspiration, I tend to turn to the classics when I’m looking to be inspired, just for different reasons. It’s why I often turn to you when I’m in need of inspiration, your poetry is a classic in my book! Thank you for your kind words, my dear. 😘😘

  5. Jim Borden says:

    I liked this analysis. I was never much into poetry until I started reading yours, and I have become curious about the art form, so this type of analysis is right up my alley. Many times I’ll read a poem and often wonder what the poet is trying to say. Your insights will be quite helpful in this regard. Perhaps you can also, on occasion, analyze one of your poems…

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