Fall of the Eagle  
Posted on January 4th, 2017

By Rohana R. Wasala

(It is with pleasure that this article is being shared with Lankaweb readers, particularly for those among them who enjoy reading poetry as well as reading about it. It is expected to provide a few minutes of recreational diversion and desirable respite from monotony. Published here courtesy The Island.-RRW)

What is a poet? An unhappy person who conceals profound anguish in his heart but whose lips are so formed that as sighs and cries pass over them they sound like beautiful music.

  • Soren Kierkegaard, 19th century Danish philosopher

Poetry is the most refined use of the verbal resources of any language for creating aesthetic beauty. Here is one very short, sweet and simple English poem for us to enjoy. Although the author called it a fragment, it is a complete 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.

Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809-1892)

As we can see, ‘The Eagle’ consists of two verses of three rhyming lines each. It purports to tell us about an eagle seen watching from the top of a cliff near the sea; suddenly we catch a glimpse of the bird darting down like a flash of lightning. That is all that is there by way of a story. It sounds like a snatch of running commentary that we usually hear at a sports event, however short it is: the eagle ‘stands’ holding the crag tightly; the sea  beneath him ‘crawls’; the bird ‘watches from his mountain walls’ and he ‘falls’. The predatory bird is swooping down on a prey, probably. At least, that’s what we’d naturally assume is happening here: the eagle stands poised to strike, watches and dives. But Tennyson says nothing about whether the bird is hunting or going to join his mate or doing something else. He is apparently not concerned with such information clearly because it is not essential for what he wants to ‘communicate’ to the reader. What the poet pictures here is the bird plummeting down at great speed  from that dizzying height.

Reading this skillfully crafted short poem will mean enjoying its lyrical quality (i.e., its singability coupled with the beautifully creative way that it conveys the poet’s emotion or state of mind). The reader is required to imaginatively interact with the poem, attending to its literal and literary aspects, the sights, sounds and other sensory impressions it invokes through its imagery, and its overall expressive power; these things collectively contribute to what we call an ‘aesthetic experience’. (Let’s remember that the philosophically  complex notion of aesthetics, at an informal practical level, can be said to be about realizing the joy of discovering and contemplating the beauty of a work of art.) Reading poetry is no less creative than writing it.

Although the title announces an eagle as the subject, the text doesn’t include the sort of words we’d normally expect the poet to use to describe an eagle: such as talons/claws, perch, fly, or swoop. The words Tennyson actually uses in the poem better suit a tough military looking mature man, not a hunting bird. Attributing human characteristics or qualities to a nonhuman creature in literature is known as personification as we know. In common usage, the pronoun that replaces the noun bird is ‘it’, not ‘he’, unless we wish to attribute a human personality to that bird or to express love and a degree of recognition or respect towards it. So, when Tennyson writes ‘He clasps the crag with crooked hands’, he represents the eagle in human terms. An eagle does not have ‘hands’; its forelimbs, like in any other bird, are modified as wings; it has two hind limbs (legs) ending with taloned feet. Whereas an ordinary bird ‘perches’ on some rest, this one ‘stands’ like a human. The sea is similarly personified: it ‘crawls’ like a decrepit old man, and again like one, it is ‘wrinkled’. Obviously, a choppy sea is what is meant in the poem, but the description reminds us of an old man’s wrinkled skin. The eagle has ‘crooked hands’ like an old man’s, we can say.  Of course, ‘crooked hands’ need not necessarily indicate age. Hands twisted out of shape could also be a sign of a mature man who maintains a tough body through constant physical exercise. In fact, the eagle who  ‘stands’ and ‘watches from his mountain walls’ is like a victorious general  surveying  his conquered territory from the top of his battlements, and his posture exudes machismo! While the macho eagle ‘stands’, the  frail sea beneath him ‘crawls’! It is the power of the eagle that is emphasized by this implicit contrast.

Taken literally, it is as if the lines report an actual event that Tennyson witnessed in that particular setting. But it could hardly be newsworthy, unless the reader happened to be an ornithologist (a scientist studying birds), perhaps.  What’s so exciting or remarkable about an eagle suddenly diving from a cliff top in that deserted landscape? But we at once realize that this is not meant to be reportage, and that we are required to look for an explanation for the poet’s use in these short six lines of what we normally identify as figurative language including such things as personification, hyperbole, and other literary devices like rhyme, alliteration, assonance, comparison, contrast, and parallelism, etc.   The poet’s actual focus of attention goes beyond the wild eagle that seemingly fired his lyrical imagination. The bird of the poem is actually an imagined eagle, rather than a real one that he actually closely observed. His assignment of male gender to the bird (using ‘he’, ‘him’,’ his’ to refer to it) is arbitrary, for how could he determine it wasn’t  a ‘she’?

The poet sees the eagle that ‘clasps the crag with crooked hands’ as being ‘Close to the sun in lonely lands’ (‘Close to the sun’ is an example of hyperbole or exaggeration, and ‘lonely lands’ of alliteration, which is the effect produced when adjacent words or closely connected words begin with the same sound). Assonance (occurrence of the same vowel sound in nearby words) is exemplified in the line ‘Close….lonely lands’. The poet cannot get  near enough to the bird to see its ‘crooked hands’. He is a long distance below where the eagle ‘stands’. So the poet is only imagining these details. But what he sees in his mind’s eye is ‘concretely’ conveyed to the reader through the alliterative /k/ sound (clasps, crag, crooked) in the first line. It takes some effort to pronounce the initial, voiceless plosive consonant /k/ in ‘clasps’, ‘crag’, and ‘crooked’ because it is a rather hard sound that makes our enunciation of the words less easy, virtually giving us a physical feel of the toughness and strength of this powerful creature. The /k/ alliteration continues into the next line, appropriately linking the bird thus conceived to an equally impressive background that is inaccessible to any mortal except the eagle: ‘Close to the sun in lonely lands’, where the alliteration in ‘lonely lands’ highlights the impression of solitude that it expresses (No doubt, a deeply evocative line, particularly for readers of Tennyson’s age – 19th century – who were familiar with English and classical Western literatures).  Ring’d” in the last line of the first triplet is alliteratively echoed by  wrinkled” in the first line of the second triplet. The rhyming words at the end of the  lines are also functional in that they flag the key concepts dealt with in the poem, in addition to contributing to its musicality. It is this kind of fusion of sound with meaning that Tennyson is specially known for. The device of parallelism (i.e., the recurrence in a literary text of similar words, grammatical patterns, parts or full sentences) is also found in this little poem:  ‘…he stands.’ …..’He watches’….. ‘he falls.’ The literary effect of parallelism  contributes to the rhythmic movement of the lines, and makes them memorable.

The majesty and grandeur attributed to the eagle are not directly stated, but are strongly suggested by the imagery used.

Ring’d with the azure world, he stands.

………………….

He watches from his mountain walls,

And like a thunderbolt he falls.

As he stands, the eagle is circled/surrounded (ring’d) by the ‘azure world’ (the bright blue sky). Usually, the sea is also described as being of the same bright blue colour. So, the sea must be considered a part of this ‘azure world’ where the eagle reigns. The blue sky and the deep blue sea are stupendous and awe-inspiring, but the eagle is associated more with celestial than with terrestrial grandeur. Azure is akin, as well, to the blue associated with heraldry. Heraldic blue distinguishes coats of arms and other armorial bearings. ‘Mountain walls’ are suggestive of fortified battlements. Such imagery enhances the military bearing of our eagle.  ‘And like a thunderbolt he falls’. This is an interesting simile. Apart from  suggesting extremely high speed, the lightning simile (‘..like a thunderbolt’) embodies a symbol of devastating destructive power: the bolt or shaft/arrow that the ancients imagined a stroke of  lightning carried. The Greek  god of the sky  Zeus (Jupiter or Jove among Romans) carried the thunderbolt as his specific weapon in the same way that Poseidon, the Greek god of the sea  (Roman equivalent, Neptune) held a trident. Like the thunderbolt, the eagle was a symbol  of Zeus or Jupiter. The kinglike or even godlike  power that the eagle is shown to possess is enhanced by these classical mythological associations.

Among those with a passion for language, the pleasurable activity of exploring the artistry of a good poem like ‘The Eagle’ is virtually endless. They will go beyond the mere prosody (sound, rhythm, etc.) and other structural features and talk about the central theme or themes, symbols, and traditions that it relates to. For, once written and published, it becomes public property among the readers. Such a poem is like a shape-shifting animal that changes the appearance of its body to attract prey as well as to escape predators. A good poem survives through generations of readers by its potential for inviting and sustaining different but informed and intelligent responses. However, poems come to life in the minds of readers, unlike shape-shifting animals in natural physical environments, like the Indonesian mimic octopus.

‘The Eagle’ is equipped with what it takes to support a variety of interpretations that could be developed around different themes that the poem may be argued to embody. One such theme is interaction between Nature and humanity, the former always having the upper hand.  Masculine pride may be another. Power and its vulnerability, and the fall of the mighty can be suggested as a theme, too. Yet another theme may be the likely collapse of the present scientific civilization due to humanity’s  vainglorious self-absorption. The poem may also be used as a medium for conveying religious themes, such as the Christian doctrine of man’s catastrophic fall from divine grace due to his disobedience, the Buddhist idea of ignorant worldlings’ helpless enslavement by ‘thirst’ (tanha or craving) despite their inherent potential for attaining enlightenment,   etc. It is not possible to dwell on any of these here. They may be safely left for the readers’ individual, private contemplation. But I feel it worthwhile to touch on something biographical about Tennyson that might provide a clue to the likely inspiration behind the composition of these lines.

Arthur Hentry Hallam and Alfred Lord Tennyson met as students at Cambridge and became the dearest of friends. Their parents and families knew about their friendship. They were both budding poets, and were, no doubt, inspired by the revolutionary political idealism of P.B. Shelley, an earlier poet of the Romantic tradition which they too followed. In 1831, Hallam and Tennyson (then aged 20 and 22 respectively),travelled to the mountainous Pyrenees area that forms a natural border between France and Spain.  They carried money and messages written in invisible ink to be delivered  to a rebel general who was planning a revolution against the then king of Spain, who was being criticized as a tyrant. While on the tour, Tennyson loved in particular a valley called Cauteretz. It was there that he saw eagles and other similar birds of prey circling high above in the sky.  (‘The Eagle’, however, was not set against that mountainous background, but instead  an ocean cliff was imagined as the setting.)

Hallam saw Tennyson’s younger sister Emily during a visit, and he fell in love with her. Then he was eighteen, the girl being only seven months younger. With everyone’s consent they got engaged to marry, but Hallam’s father required him to wait until he came of age to get married. Sometime later, father and son made a continental tour together.  While staying in a hotel in Vienna, Hallam suffered from an attack of ague (probably, malaria), but seemed to have recovered after treatment. Unexpectedly, though, a day or two later, he died of a stroke while convalescing in the same hotel.

Hallam’s death shocked both families and his friends with grief. Tennyson’s sorrow was beyond measure. His dear friend’s death had a most profound effect on his poetry. He frequently celebrated his memory in elegiac poems. Among his many poems which were connected to  Hallam’s untimely death were the often anthologized ‘The Lady of Shallot’, ‘Mariana’, and ‘Break, break, break’ . ‘In Memoriam A.H.H.’ which was written in 1849 is a much longer poem. It was about the death of his beloved friend that Tennyson wrote the memorable lines of solace: ‘Tis better to have loved and lost – Than never to have loved at all’ (which are often quoted with no relevance to the original context/given a different interpretation as referring to a failed love affair between a man and a woman); the lines are from ‘In Memoriam A.H.H.’.

‘The Eagle’ was published in 1851. Anguished memories about his most tragically lost friend must have been at the back of his mind. Tennyson had said about his friend: ….he was as near perfection as mortal man could be….”. Perhaps, he saw an image of this perfection in the eagle, but at the same time, an example or a demonstration of the inevitable condition of mortality that all humans must ultimately succumb to. Thus, ‘The Eagle’ could reflect, among other things,  yet another  instance of Tennyson trying to come to terms with the loss of his friend whom he so dearly loved and whose memory he cherished so much.

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