This poem evokes the solitude and charged suspense of a high mountain pass or a rocky cliff. Its six lines are full of echoes, like standing in a canyon and shouting: "HELLO! Hello! hello! Hello!"
In the first line, listen to the sound of loose rocks falling down a slope, like when you kick a stone off a ledge to see how long you'll be able to hear it tumble. The alliteration of words that begin with "cl" and "cr" sound like rocks cl-icking and cr-ashing into one another. The falling rock and gravel echo through an enormous open space. There's a reason that so many related English words – words that can describe the sounds of large rocks – tend to begin with this hard "c" sound: crumble! crack! collide! Alliteration is built into the English language; Tennyson just takes advantage of tools that already exist.
The alliteration continues throughout the poem, from "lonely lands" in line 2 to the placement of "wrinkled" and "watches" in lines 4 and 5. It produces the same effect as an echo. Moreover, the unusual rhyming triplets produce another kind of echo at the end of each line. In stanza one: "ands...ands...ands." In stanza two: "awls...alls...alls." Rhyming couplets would have been more typical, but Tennyson wanted the poem to be saturated with similar sounds.
Finally, the syntax or sentence structure of the second stanza is an echo of the first stanza. Both stanzas have two instances of the repeated subject-verb structure, "He…(blanks)." In particular, lines 3 and 6 both place this structure at the end of a sentence. Both stanzas build toward a kind of climax, but the first stanza has a false climax that only increases our suspense. Surely we know that the eagle will do more than just stand around.
Despite its short length, by pairing sounds and images in the poem, Tennyson makes the reader feel like a speck in an immense landscape. The eagle rules here – not us.
The title informs us that the poem is describing an eagle. Otherwise, how would we know? As an interesting exercise, try showing the poem, without its title, to someone you know who hasn't read it. What did she think the poem was about? Did he guess that it was about a bird, or a bird of prey in particular?
But there's more. Chances are that your edition of the poem includes the title but not the word below it, "fragment," that appeared in editions from the 19th century. But that little word tells us that the poem we read today was just a part of a larger poem that Tennyson had imagined completing.
The poetic "fragment" was a big deal in the 19th century. The period of British Romanticism, which preceded the Victorian Age, had taught writers to think about incomprehensible things like infinity and the sublime. Artists had a hard time representing these huge ideas on limited canvasses or within the cover of a book. They would start a work with grand intentions to reveal the complexity of nature, only to realize that the task was too large for any artist to complete. The fragment was kind of the 19th century equivalent of saying, "Yada, yada…you know how the rest goes."
A sunny day on a tall seaside cliff near the Pyrenees Mountains in Southern France. There's not a cloud in sight, and the amazing deep blue of the sky seems to find a reflection in the water below. The color "azure" reminds us of our favorite color of crayon from grade school, the mysterious and difficult-to-pronounce "cerulean." The sheer difficulty of pronouncing these words gives them added power.
Aside from blue, we see brown and gray rock. The "crag" of the cliff is a tall, jagged piece of rock sticking out over the ocean. The eagle stands at the very edge of this cliff, clinging to the rock to steady itself against sudden gusts of wind and somehow making it look easy. There are no humans in sight (except maybe our speaker way down below); there aren't even any other birds or animals. The eagle watches over the entire area like the owner of some grand estate.
In the second stanza, the setting shifts to the eagle's viewpoint. He watches the puny waves "crawl" towards the shore, like a thirsty man crawling towards an oasis. The sea looks no more significant than wrinkles on a shirt. Pass an iron over those suckers and the sea would be completely flat. The eagle swivels its head from side to side, up and down. What is it looking for? A moment later, we see a feathered shape drop off the crag and hurtle toward the sea below. It takes us a moment to process this sight, but when we look back at the crag and see that the eagle isn't there, we know what has happened.
The speaker could be the narrator of a nature documentary. He watches the eagle from a very great distance but can see details that we wouldn't expect, like the bird's crooked hands. He's like David Attenborough, the famous British environmentalist who has narrated a bazillion nature documentaries, including Blue Planet and Planet Earth. (If you haven't seen either of these shows – RUN to your library to go check them out. That is, after you've finished reading about Tennyson.) He even has that distinctive British quality to his voice – at least when we imagine how the poem should be read. He tends to go for odd or over-the-top descriptions and loves to use dramatic-sounding words like "ring'd" and "wrinkled." Also, just like the narrator of a documentary (heck, just like David Attenborough), he has mastered the art of the dramatic pause. "RING'd with the azure world...he stands." "And like a THUNDERbolt…he falls." We wouldn't be surprised to learn that our dear Mr. Attenborough had read a lot of Tennyson in his day. After all, Tennyson is still a bigger deal in Great Britain than in America.
Fortunately, this poem isn't nearly as high up the Mountain of Toughness as the eagle is up its own craggy mountain. "The Eagle" is the perfect poem to begin an exploration of poetry. It's almost too perfect, in the sense that we wouldn't want you to expect every poem to be so orderly, straightforward, and, yes, short. Once you figure out your own personal way of pronouncing the word "azure," you can devote your energies to visualizing the poem's breathtaking imagery.
"The Eagle" has a formal-sounding rhythm that seems to announce, with a flourish of trumpets: "This...is poetry!" The meter, weighted with the tradition of centuries of English poetry, expresses the nobility of the eagle. Tennyson rearranges sentences in order to keep a regular iambic meter or to produce an interesting effect like the stressed beats at the beginning of lines 2 and 3. The attention to sound and rhythm reminds us of two of Tennyson's most famous lines from other poems. First, in his "Charge of the Light Brigade," about a glorious military defeat, he writes, "Theirs not to reason why / Theirs but to do and die." Second, his great poem "Ulysses" ends with the line, "To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield." Never mind what these lines mean in context – we just want you to notice how Tennyson uses traditional-sounding rhythms to glorify figures of nobility.
Tennyson and other Victorian poets like Robert Browning used more traditional, regular forms that the Romantic poets who came before them. The Victorian Age is often thought of as a "reaction" to the heady experiments of Romanticism. The form of "The Eagle" is very neat and regular. Both stanzas are a series of three rhyming lines, so the poem is written in rhyming triplets. The rhymes are formed from simple, one-syllable words.
The meter of the poem consists primarily of iambs, an iamb being a type of metrical "foot" with one unstressed beat followed by a stressed beat: He clasps the crag with crook-ed hands. The two words "He clasps" make up one foot, and so on. Iambic meters are the most traditional in English poetry. Poems usually have lines made up of five iambs. This meter is called iambic pentameter. "The Eagle," though, has only four feet. That iambic pentameter: always hogging all the attention! At least it must be easier to walk with four feet than five. Sorry – bad pun.
The meter isn't completely perfect, though: that might get boring, even in a six-line poem. The second and third lines each begin with a stressed beat followed by an unstressed beat. The name for this kind of foot is a trochee. We're thinking, "Whoa there, Alfred, don't get too crazy!" Fortunately (we suppose) he doesn't, and the rest of the poem follows the iambic pattern to perfection.
Welcome to the land of symbols, imagery, and wordplay. Before you travel any further, please know that there may be some thorny academic terminology ahead. Never fear, Shmoop is here. Check out our "How to Read a Poem" section for a glossary of terms.
The eagle doesn't do a whole heck of a lot in this poem, but that's OK. We're so conditioned to think of eagles as majestic and free that we're willing to forgive this one for a little inactivity until he puts on a show at the end. The eagle is male and may represent some kind of masculine ideal. Its actions are described very modestly by very four subject-verb pairings: "he clasps," "he stands," "he watches," "he falls." Interestingly, all of these behaviors, including falling, are passive. The eagle never breaks a sweat.
We know that "The Eagle" was inspired by Tennyson's travels through the picturesque Pyrenees mountains near the border of France and Spain. But the mountains he describes are not land-locked. The eagle is perched on a rock overlooking the blue ocean. The poem uses words that put the mountains out of human reach, words like "crag" and "walls." The entire mountain seems to belong to the solitary eagle.
You wouldn't know that the poem is set overlooking the ocean without the image from line 4. Nonetheless, that single images leads us to completely re-imagine the setting. The blueness that surrounds the eagle is truly a "ring" or circle, encompassing the space both above and below him. And "wrinkled sea" gets our vote for the most interesting phrase in the poem.
The world of the sky is like a mirror of the earth, complete with its own "lands." Even parts of the sky located at a relatively short distance from the earth (a thousand feet, perhaps) seem closer to the sun than to us. Nonetheless, we get to imagine what it's like to look down on the water from such a great height.
The eagle in this poem is not really a sex symbol, but rather a symbol of rugged, solitary masculinity. The phrases "crooked hands" and "wrinkled sea" squash any outside chance there might be to get turned on by this poem.