Consider the majestic eagle, the 'nobility of the feathered society', soaring high among the clouds, searching — with eyes capable of spotting a rabbit from miles away or a fish beneath the water — and swooping to meet the ground to snatch its prey with his 'crooked hands'... and consider Lord Alfred Tennyson's brilliant poem:
The Eagle (A Fragment)
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.
— Lord Alfred Tennyson, 1854
I used to spend long summer hours sitting on the steep slopes of the Plymouth Hoe
, with its spectacular view across the Plymouth Sound, watching the surf and the sea-birds. This poem reminds me of those cliffs, the biting wind carrying the smell of the sea, and the harsh calls of the gulls. Conversely, whenever I see the sea I would be be reminded of Tennyson's description of the 'wrinkled sea' and remember this poem. So strong is the connection — that deliriously mutually-reinforcing association — between the sea, the Devonian coastline, and this poem in my mind that in my fanciful memories I would see on a clear day an eagle gliding high above the coastline and, through its eyes, see myself looking up — but I don't remember ever having seen an eagle in the wild.
This poem is short — almost abrupt — and while some may wonder if it is a part of a larger work (because Tennyson titled this poem The Eagle (A Fragment)
), I sense that it is meant to be so short, for in a lifetime one could be so fortunate to glimpse an eagle in its natural element.
I have, however, never looked more closely at this poem before today. For Puisi-Poesy
, for the first time, I am going to take the poem apart and delve its intricacies. It might get a bit dense but do come along with me and let's see what we'll find.
We'll start with the first line:
He clasps the crag with crooked hands;
The alliterative hard 'c' sounds in this line — clasps, crag, crooked — heckle for the listener's attention. The metaphor in this line is remarkable: 'crooked hands'. Why not 'feet'? — the eagle uses its talons to grab and carry away its prey, using its feet like how we would use our hands. Also, the use of the word 'clasp' evokes an image of a link in a chain, as in the clasp of a bracelet, and here it is literally an image of a mountain chain linked to the eagle. It makes the eagle seem larger than life.
We see that the first line is set in a regular iambic tetrameter, but the lines immediately following it, the second and third lines, both start with a trochee (a stressed syllable followed by a non-stressed one, e.g. TI-ger) i.e.:
He CLASPS the CRAG with CROOKed HANDS;
CLOSE to the SUN in LONEly LANDS,
RING'D with the AZure WORLD, he STANDS.
At the end of line 1, we would expect the next syllable to be an unstressed one but as we move to line 2, we encounter a stressed beat. The intuitive reaction is to speed through the next syllables to regain the rhythm. In line two, the phrase 'lonely lands' can be slowed down, dwelling on the l's, lengthening the beats to compensate for the compression earlier in the line — the line's rhythm is balanced; after the compression, the expansion.
In line 3, a caesura is used as a device to control the poem's rhythm. As with line 2, again we intuitively speed through the first part of the line (note also the contraction of the word ring'd
). Then, the comma after 'azure world' — the caesura in question — prompts a short pause before we continue with 'he stands'. Again the rhythm of the line is balanced; after a compression, a pause for expansion.
Contrast the first stanza with the second one, which follows a rigid rhythm instead:
The WRINkled SEA beNEATH him CRAWLS;
He WATCHes FROM his MOUNTain WALLS,
And LIKE a THUNderBOLT he FALLS.
I have seen versions of this poem with a comma in the sixth line i.e. "And like a thunderbolt, he falls." Others leave it out. Perhaps it is a revised version, or maybe it is simply where people would intuitively pause and therefore they have inserted the comma. I would prefer to omit the comma, for I believe that Tennyson intended this stanza to be read continuously, building the momentum with the unwavering beats to flow unimpeded until we arrive at the final image of the eagle's fall.
Try reading the line out loud to sense the difference:
And like a thunderbolt [pause] he falls.
And like a thunderbolt he falls.
Which do you like better?
The poem is strongly end-rhymed, as you can see. It has an aaa bbb
rhyme structure. No run-on lines... all are strongly end-stopped, giving a stately pace to the poem.
Because of its rhythmic qualities, as we have seen, and also for its sounds, it is a delightfully euphonious poem. I have noted the alliterative 'c'-words in the first line: 'c
rooked'; in the second line we have 'c
lose', linking it to the first line; then: 'l
onely' and 'l
'd' and 'wrink
atches' and 'w
Alliteration is the repetition of words with the same starting sound while assonance is the repetition of the vowel sounds. This poem exhibits a high level of assonance.
The first stanza is dominated with the sounds of the long-'a' in 'cla
zure' and 'sta
nds'. The second stanza is peppered with the stressed-'a' sound in 'cra
lls', with near-rhymes in 'mou
ntain' and 'thu
nder-'. Another obvious example of assonance in this poem are the 'ee' sounds in the fourth line: "The wri
Wooh! What a rigorous examination of just six lines of poetry! I hope nobody nodded off :-) I think that this poem was quite easy to analyze, and no wonder that it is a favourite of teachers to introduce the art of poetry. Last month Sham posted a richly musical poem called Sleep-stealer by Rabindranath Tagore
. Have a look at it again, and try to spot the sound devices — alliteration and assonance — that I have shown, and see why it is such a fine poem.
What else to say about The Eagle
? We haven't really explored the imagery used in the poem. Perhaps the personification of the eagle can be discussed. Do you think that there is an allusion to mythical role of the eagle as a messenger to the gods anywhere in the poem? Can you guess why, at the end of the poem, the eagle falls? [Find the answer here!
Hope you all enjoyed this post. I certainly did enjoy writing it. Until next time...
1. About Lord Alfred Tennyson:
We still look to the earlier masters for supreme excellence in particular directions: to Wordsworth for sublime philosophy, to Coleridge for ethereal magic, to Byron for passion, to Shelley for lyric intensity, to Keats for richness. Tennyson does not excel each of these in his own special field, but he is often nearer to the particular man in his particular mastery than anyone else can be said to be, and he has in addition his own special field of supremacy. What this is cannot be easily defined; it consists, perhaps, in the beauty of the atmosphere which Tennyson contrives to cast around his work, molding it in the blue mystery of twilight, in the opaline haze of sunset: this atmosphere, suffused over his poetry with inestimable skill and with a tact rarely at fault, produces an almost unfailing illusion or mirage of loveliness.
— Edmond Gosse, "Tennyson," in the 11th edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica.
2. Picture of the American bald eagle from National Geographic
Labels: madcap machinist's choices, poems about animals, poems about birds