Study Guide

The Eagle Themes

  • Man and the Natural World

    The eagle lives in a place that cannot be easily reached by human beings, and the speaker is definitely aware of this. The poem imagines what the eagle's world is like, and by extension imagines a world without people. Still, the speaker can only describe the landscape using human or human-like attributes. Those darned "people" just keep popping up in the poem, like when you're looking at some cool geological formation and can't help thinking, "Hey, that looks just like my Aunt Gertrude!" "The Eagle" is a classic case of a nature poem that ends up being just as much about the person describing the scenery as anything else.

    Questions About Man and the Natural World

    1. When you imagine the landscape of the poem, do you see things that aren't in the poem?
    2. Are humans entirely absent from the poem? Is it possible to imagine nature without projecting ourselves onto it?
    3. Does Tennyson believe in a hierarchy of living things? If so, would humans be above or below the eagle?
    4. If you didn't know that "The Eagle" was inspired by Tennyson's travels through the Pyrenees, where would you think the poem might be set? Do you think landscapes like this exist in America?

    Chew on This

    The poem compares the natural world to a person who experiences all stages of life at once: infancy, adulthood, and old age.

    The speaker is incapable of imagining a non-human world. The poem's humanistic descriptions of nature are symptomatic of a society that views nature only as a means to achieve other things, not as an end in itself.

  • Strength and Skill

    The eagle remains motionless for most of the poem; if you're like us, though, you imagine him turning his head from time to time to look around. You know the eagle has tremendous strength for its size, and Tennyson knows that you know this. We've all seen eagles or comparable birds in action. The poem builds suspense by playing on the expectation that the eagle will perform some amazing feat of acrobatics or descend on some poor rabbit or fish…any moment now. But instead, the eagle takes a swan dive off the cliff and allows himself to "fall" far below. The eagle of course achieves this with almost effortless grace. Great vision, powers of flight, and big talons: the eagle must have been first in line when the eagle was assigning skills to all the animals.

    Questions About Strength and Skill

    1. Do we ever witness the eagle's full strength and abilities in action?
    2. The eagle makes everything he does look easy. Do you think this is an illusion, that he must struggle to survive, or is it really that easy to do the things the eagle does?
    3. What specific skills does the eagle have? Which ones are suggested by the poem? Which are left out?
    4. How do you explain the pair of opposite verbs that ends each stanza, "stands" and "falls"? (Obviously, there's no right answer.)

    Chew on This

    The poem shows how exceptionally strong individuals often look awkward and bizarre to more ordinary individuals.

    The eagle's strength manifests itself at the end of the poem as pure energy. To borrow an expression from physics, the poem converts the eagle's potential energy to kinetic energy.

  • Exploration

    "The Eagle" was inspired by Alfred Tennyson's explorations through the Pyrenees region of southern France, which began in his early twenties. But the poem features another kind of exploration: it allows us to see the world from the eagle's perspective. The high cliff and the sky are depicted as part of another world, one that is nearer to the heavens than to earth. The eagle has no competition in his domain: he flies around like he owns the place.

    Questions About Exploration

    1. How does the speaker know so much about the eagle's appearance, like his "crooked" talons and his sex? Isn't the speaker supposed to be far away?
    2. Do you think "azure" stands for the sky, or the sea, or both?
    3. Do you think there are more or fewer opportunities for exploration today than in the Victorian Age? How would you explain this difference?
    4. How does the poem depict the sky? Why does the eagle seem "close to the sun"?

    Chew on This

    The speaker projects his own tendencies toward exploration onto the eagle. In fact, the eagle isn't really much of an explorer, but the speaker wants to think that his own travels imbue him with some of the eagle's grandeur and nobility.

  • Men and Masculinity

    Men? There are no human beings in the poem, so what's this about "men"? Well, the first word of the poem is "he," so we know that this eagle is a guy. But, really, how does the speaker know this? Clearly the speaker has chosen to assign a gender to the bird, and he must have had a reason for doing so. The eagle represents a kind of masculine ideal of power, solitude, and gracefulness. Just as a superhero seems most powerful when he holds his powers in reserve, the eagle awes us simply by standing there. He lives apart from society but can descend to our level when he needs to. You could easily read the eagle as an old-fashioned portrayal of a great and noble man. Nowadays, most of us wouldn't bat an eye if the eagle were called a "she."

    Questions About Men and Masculinity

    1. Would the poem be different if "The Eagle" were female, not male? How would a modern audience's reaction to this change differ from that of a Victorian audience?
    2. Do you think the speaker wishes he were like the eagle? Is the eagle romanticized?
    3. Is the eagle supposed to be a role model for human beings, or do we admire him (it? them?) precisely because of his foreignness.
    4. Are we just making a big fuss over nothing in focusing on the pronoun used to describe the eagle? Don't worry – we won't be offended.

    Chew on This

    The eagle is a fantasy of male power held in reserve. The eagle is located at the center of the sky, and he assumes a dominant position relative to the old-looking, "wrinkled" sea, which "crawls" before him as if in supplication.

    The poem has nothing to do with gender. The speaker gives the eagle a male gender simply because it would have been customary to do so.