Sunday, July 16, 2006

"The Eagle (A Fragment)"

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.:
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:
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: 'claps', 'crag', 'crooked'; in the second line we have 'close', linking it to the first line; then: 'lonely' and 'lands', 'ring'd' and 'wrinkled', 'watches' and 'walls'.

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 'clasps', 'crag', 'hands', 'lands', 'azure' and 'stands'. The second stanza is peppered with the stressed-'a' sound in 'crawls', 'watches', 'walls', with near-rhymes in 'mountain' and 'thunder-'. Another obvious example of assonance in this poem are the 'ee' sounds in the fourth line: "The wrinkled sea beneath..."

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.

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Blogger dreamer idiot said...

:) The eagle loomed large in my imagination when I was a kid as a majestic prince/ king among other birds...its large, sharp all-seeing eyes, wide wings outstreched soaring in the air with dominion , and its beak of power that meant death to its enemies.

The imagery of the poem has the eagle perched majestically among mountain peaks, among the clouds high over the earth spreading out before it...and the sea 'crawling' below. A really awe-inspring picture. Then, at the last line... the eagle plunges down sharply with a kind of 'god' / 'force' (the comparison with thuderbolt).
[That is why I like the pause that comes with the comma... which gives it its abrupt suddenness. The comma also completes the symmetry of the previous stanza, both of which are tightly composed, rhyming with a regular, 'majestic' beat.]

10:02 PM, July 16, 2006  
Blogger dreamer idiot said...

Oh yeah, Machinist, thx for link to info about eagles. This hasn't been just a poetic 'lesson', but a zoology 'class' too! :)

10:05 PM, July 16, 2006  
Anonymous Natasya in the Sky said...

I think the beauty of this poem is that if we were to turn to Britannica or Wiki or any reference books to learn about eagles, we will learn about everything we need to know about eagles EXCEPT the eagles’ themselves - its soul. We miss out on the lonely majesty, its power and the ‘wild grandeur’ of its surrounding that would make the eagle a living creature than some bird that is some country’s national bird or that great winged creature soaring the great big sky (I’ve seen an eagle before, as a stiff Falconidae museum specimen, in Chicago!). Hence, we turn to literature, or poetry for that matter.

Before I start plagiarizing, allow me to quote my notes (reference unknown):
"Literature’s function is not to tell us about experience but to allow us imaginatively to participate in it".

I loved how the expressions "crooked hands", "close to the sun", "ringed with the azure world", "wrinkled", "crawls" and "like a thunderbolt" are peculiarly effective in helping us understand eagles better, a far cry from the technical ‘soulless’ information we can get from other forms of information.

Allow me to point out another eagle-eyed observation you missed: Notice the formal pattern of the poem, particularly the contrast of "he stands” in the first stanza and "he falls" in the second (among other contrasts between the two stanzas. Absolut brillance.

Thanks for mentioning caesura, assonance, alliteration, tetrameter etc. Woah, brain freeze.

Nate, Lit Grad, Poster Child for the Metaphysical Poets, Class of ’02.

10:40 PM, July 16, 2006  
Blogger bibliobibuli said...

hey - you were in plymouth too??? i studied and taught there and spent many happy hours just sitting gazing out to sea ...

i love this poem, especially the alliteration of the first line. the eagle is so majestic - a king of all he surveys. and "thunderbolt" is such a great word to describe his sudden descent

you did a great job, machinist

11:21 PM, July 16, 2006  
Blogger Leon Wing said...

MM- I so enjoyed reading your very detailed analysis. Great work. You mention line 2 starts with a trochee, which is true, of course. Still this 2nd, and also the 3rd one, also similar, with stress-unstress, are basically iambic. Technically, Tennyson inverted the first pair of syllables, for both 2nd and 3rd lines. This is a very popular technique to give an iambic piece some variety, and sometime emphasis by breaking an expected rhythm.

2:17 PM, July 17, 2006  
Blogger madcap machinist said...

Just another thought... there is so much written about the eagle that perhaps the notation "A Fragment" is a nod to the immense body of literature as a whole.


That Nature article is a nice one isn't it?

In classical mythology the Greek uber-God Zeus either takes the form of an eagle or uses one as a messenger. So, more than any other animal, the eagle appears to be Zeus' favourite.

In some versions of the myth of Prometheus it was an eagle that Zeus sent to peck at Prometheus' guts when he was chained to a mountain for his transgressions. Here, the eagle is the agent for Zeus' punishment. Zeus also wields thunder and lightning to wreak his wrath on mankind.

It is a match then? The eagle, Zeus' thunderbolt. And of course, as far as I know, Zeus is the only god in the Greek pantheon that has all-seeing vision.


Well said -- Science can only do so much for knowledge; it is art that drives the imagination, hence the desire to know. Have one without the other, and you have nothing.

The eagle lets go of the world and falls. As it builds up speed, hurtling to the ground, it spreads its wings wide, like a parachutist, catches the wind and soars. Can I make a parable? -- Science is knowledge of the world, concrete and palpable; it is art, mutable as air, that lofts us (the eagle) up high.

If we can agree, I have another reason to love this poem.

Good call on the stand/fall contrast. I didn't miss; just left it out. Interesting that with so many comments about the "high-flying" eagle, nothing in the poem suggests any flying, yes?


Yes! Looks like we are "sekampung"! I was there 1998-2002, at PCAD and UoP. Lived right in the city center and went to the Hoe every chance I get, which is, whenever the sun is out. The moors was also a favourite escape, though that took a lot of effort. Counting the days when I'd visit again.

Were you from there originally?


Yes I agree, 'inversion' is much more accurate description of the 2nd & 3rd lines. It's my first time attempting proper scanning and writing about it -- was a bit nervous about it. This poem seemed to be an easy one to start with. I'm glad you enjoyed it :-)

12:54 PM, July 18, 2006  
Blogger bibliobibuli said...

we were "sekampung" indeed!

i was there at the same time exactly! at marjons (colege of st. mark and st. john) doing my masters. and then i stayed on to teach.

i loved the moors ... loved even more taking the cremyll ferry over to cornwall and walking walking for hours

have been back since as i was working for marjons on a teacher-training twinning programme here for 8 years

7:55 AM, July 19, 2006  

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