Study Guide

The Eagle

The Eagle Summary

Look! Up there, on that steep, rocky cliff. Is that…an eagle? It is! Honey, get out the binoculars! Wow – the cliff is sharp and jagged, but the eagle can hold on to it, no sweat. His claws look like the hands of an old, ragged man.

The cliff is so high it looks closer to the sun than to the earth. Perched in such a high place, the eagle is surrounded by blue sky in a circle around him.

The sea also resembles an old man: it has wrinkles. The eagle is so high up that the waves like small, crisscrossing lines moving slowly toward shore.

This eagle does what eagles spend most of their time doing: looking around. Eagles have great eyes, and the craggy mountain cliff provides the perfect vantage point for seeing everything below.

Did you see that? Where'd he go? The eagle dove off the cliff so fast that he looked like a bolt of lightning. Maybe he spied something tasty to eat below, or maybe he just wanted to stretch his wings. Either way, he's too quick for our eyes to follow.

  • Stanza I

    Line 1

    He clasps the crag with crooked hands;

    • The eagle holds on to a cliff with claws that look like "crooked" or deformed human hands.
    • He "clasps" the cliff the way you clasp someone's hand in a handshake. The eagle is holding on super-tight to the rock.
    • He's also a male eagle. Don't ask us how the speaker knows this. If you were being critical of Tennyson, you might say that the eagle is supposed to make us think of so-called "masculine" virtues like strength and self-sufficiency.
    • We all know that a "crag" implies sharp rocks and cliffs, but we can get more specific than that. A crag is not just a cliff, but it's the part of a cliff that juts out from the main body of rock. Crags can be massive – almost the size of mountains themselves – but they always jut out from some larger rock. They are exposed and hard or dangerous for humans to access. The eagle is out of our reach.
    • As if to emphasize the eagle's inaccessibility, the first line features alliteration using the harsh, hard "c" sound.
    • The eagle is thinking, "Whose hands are you calling crooked, Poet?" The comparison of the eagle's claws to hands means that the poet is not trying to describe nature independently of humans. He describes nature in reference to humans.

    Line 2

    Close to the sun in lonely lands,

    • The eagle is really high up there, and all by himself. So far up that it appears to be near the same height as the sun. (What's that, like 93 million miles or something?) OK, "close" is a relative term. If the earth and the sun are the two opposite poles of distance, than the eagle seems closer to the sun than to earth, which makes us wonder how the speaker can see the eagle so well, if it's so far away.
    • "Lonely lands" is another straightforward example of alliteration. It's also an unusual way to describe a high rock surrounded by sky.
    • Why does the poet use the plural, "lands," if the rock is the only land in sight? Once again, the eagle's world is described in reference to our own earthly world, where we have lands in abundance. And do eagles get lonely? We'd guess not. Otherwise they'd likely hang out with each other more often.

    Line 3

    Ring'd with the azure world, he stands.

    • The eagle is surrounded by blue skies. The blue sky forms a "ring" or circle around the eagle.
    • We now appear to be seeing the world from the eagle's perspective. The eagle sees nothing but blue, but the person looking at the eagle would also see the rock on which it was perched. The speaker's imagination has leapt into the sky to join the bird.
    • "Azure" is a kind of deep, bright, beautiful blue color often associated with clean ocean water. When the sun is shining, the sea appears azure, and so does the sky. The sky also appears more blue, or azure, the further away from the horizon that you look (source). Basically, the eagle is at the very center of the bluest, most central part of the sky. It's in the center of the center.
    • Tennyson contracts "ringed" to "ring'd" to emphasize that we should pronounce it as one syllable, and not as "ring-éd," as it often is in Shakespeare and other Renaissance plays.
    • Speaking of pronunciation, "azure" is an incredibly difficult word to pronounce. If you know any French, you can just say, "azeure." The rest of us can take comfort in the fact that even the people on this cool pronunciation website can't seem to agree.
    • For all the fuss that the poem makes about the eagle, you'd think it were doing something really interesting, right? False. The first stanza builds to the thundering climax: "he stands."
    • Let's review: we first met the eagle when it was clasping the rock in order to stay upright and now it's, um, still…just…standing there. However, we can note that "stand" sounds like another projection of human qualities on to the bird. Not that birds don't stand, but when they are perched, don't we normally just say "perches"?
  • Stanza II

    Line 4

    The wrinkled sea beneath him crawls;

    • The sea looks "wrinkled" like a shirt that needs ironing. We can't help thinking of a sheet of tin foil that has been crumpled up and then spread out again.
    • The wrinkles on the sea are waves seen from a very great distance – the eagle's perspective. The waves are so small compared to the huge body of water that they "crawl" slowly toward shore.
    • The eagle looks down on the world from a privileged position. He doesn't see the tumult and chaos of crashing waves; he sees only small lines on the water.
    • The words "wrinkled" and "crawls" normally relate to people. Recall the first line of the poem, where the eagle's claws are compared to "crooked hands." What kind of person would have crooked hands? Sounds like an older person whose body shows the signs of advanced age. Well, here too you have a physical indication of old age in the image of wrinkles. But suddenly you also have the image of an action performed by babies: crawling.
    • Tennyson very subtly uses words that make us think of human life cycles. Nature carries these cycles within it; or, more accurately, the speaker projects them onto nature. The speaker thinks of the natural world as a body undergoing continuous decay and renewal.

    Line 5

    He watches from his mountain walls,

    • The eagle performs the passive action of watching along with all his standing and grasping. If the eagle had written a journal entry for his day so far, it might read, "Today I stood on the cliff…held on to the rock…looked around…thought about letting go of the rock, but then how would I stand? So I kept holding on…stood…and looked around."
    • We don't know what the eagle is looking for, or at. Our guess would be food. Most people know that eagles have fantastic vision – much better than ours – and that they like to perch in high places so they can survey a large area for animals to munch on. This eagle might be thinking about grabbing himself a tasty fish out of the water.
    • The mountain walls are described as "his," as if he owns them. Not that anyone else could even reach the walls to claim them. The walls are the eagle's turf.

    Line 6

    And like a thunderbolt he falls.

    • Finally, all our careful observation of the eagle pays off. In a magnificent show of grace and speed, he dives off the cliff and shoots downward in a straight line. Maybe he's seen something to eat or else just wants to stretch his wings.
    • Interestingly, the verb used to describe the eagle's flight is also passive: "he falls." That's a lot different than "dives," "swoops," "soars," or any number of more active verbs used to describe flight. The eagle lets gravity do all the work.
    • A thunderbolt is a good simile to describe how the speaker views the eagle. The speaker only catches the eagle zooming down towards the sea, and not the moment he leaps off the cliff. When you look for lightning in the sky, you can never predict when there will be a flash, and your eye can only move fast enough to catch a split-second of bright light.
    • The last two words of the poem echo the last two words of the first stanza. Both stanzas end with a subject and verb that come after the descriptive part of a sentence. The poem has been building to this climax from the beginning.