Study Guide

The Eagle Symbols, Imagery, Wordplay

By Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Symbols, Imagery, Wordplay

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

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.

  • Lines 2: These lines practically bop you over the head with alliteration, with the use of hard "c" sounds in the words "clasps," "crag," "crooked," and "close." Also, the eagle's claws are personified as "crooked hands," as if the eagle were a person with a really terrible case of arthritis. For the record, he isn't, and doesn't.
  • Line 6: The phrase "like a thunderbolt" is a simile that describes the speed and energy of the eagle's flight. The word "falls" is a deliberate understatement. What Tennyson really means is something like "dives."

The Mountain

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.

  • Line 1: The poem opens with an image of the eagle perched on a "crag," a piece of rock that juts out from a cliff or a rock. The word "crag" fits into a pattern of alliteration: repeated hard "c" sounds.
  • Line 5: Tennyson describes the "mountain walls" as if they were the eagle's property. They are so inaccessible that nothing else could ever reach the walls to claim them.

The Sea

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.

  • Line 3: You could think of the "azure" world as relating only to the sky, but we think Tennyson uses the color azure specifically to suggest the color of clear, blue water. Plus, haven't you noticed how the sky seems bluer when you're on the ocean? The reflection of the sun in the sea produces this effect.
  • Line 4: "Wrinkled" is an unusual word to describe the sea. It makes us think of a shirt that we've crumpled up and thrown in the corner of our room, or of wrinkled skin. If "wrinkled" is meant to make us think of skin, then it's another example of personification.

The Sky

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.

  • Line 2: Close to the sun? We'd say that's a bit of an overstatement, or hyperbole. The eagle appears to occupy the same general space as the sun in the sky, but in reality, the sun is very, very far away. Also, "lonely lands" could be a metaphor if it is meant to refer to the sky. Finally, "lonely lands" is an example of alliteration.
  • Line 3: The color "azure" may or may not refer to the sea, but it certainly refers to the sky. The bright blue sky circles the eagle like a ring in all directions.

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