19 pages 38 minutes read

Alfred, Lord Tennyson

The Eagle

Fiction | Poem | Adult | Published in 1851

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Summary and Study Guide


Alfred Tennyson is the English author of “The Eagle.” He published the poem in 1851 and called it “Fragment.” There’s debate about whether the poem is complete or intended to be a part of a larger text. Assessing the poem as a finished work, it qualifies as a lyric due to its short length and personal perspective. The speaker describes their vision of an eagle in nature. The picture of the predatory bird links to themes of power and vulnerability and arguably sends mixed messages about dominance: The reader can conclude that Tennyson is reinforcing the eagle’s dominance or, conversely, that he’s subverting its force. Tennyson isn’t directly part of any single literary movement. However, the poem’s emphasis on nature links it to Romanticism, and its vivid depiction of the bird anticipates the Imagists of the early 1900s.

“The Eagle” doesn’t reflect the extent of Tennyson’s famous canon. His better-known poems—like “Ulysses” (1842), “The Lotos-eaters” (1832), The Princess (1847), and "In Memoriam" (1850)—tend to feature narratives and explicit lessons. In Memoriam helped Queen Victoria grieve the loss of her husband, Prince Albert, in 1861. Eleven years earlier, the Queen named Tennyson the Poet Laureate, and in 1883, nine years before his death, the Queen gave Tennyson a barony, making him a part of the English aristocracy.

Poet Biography

Alfred Tennyson was born on August 6, 1809, in Lincolnshire, England. His father, George Clayton Tennyson, had to become a clergyman after his own father, the harsh George Tennyson, made George’s young brother, Charles, his primary heir. George’s vitriolic relationship with his father impacted Alfred, his numerous siblings, and their mom, Elizabeth Fytche. George was an abusive alcoholic, but amidst the tumult, Tennyson developed a love for literature. The Romantics inspired him; he was writing poems by age 11 and epics in his teens. By 18, Tennyson was a published poet. He and his brother put out a collection of poems, Poems by Two Brothers, in 1826.

In 1828, Tennyson started at Trinity College, where he met his best friend, Arthur Hallam. In the biography, Tennyson (Pegasus Books, 2013), John Batchelor writes, “To Alfred Tennyson, Arthur Hallam was simply dazzling—elegant, worldly, assured and rich, all the things Tennyson felt he could never be” (eBook, p. 63). In 1830, Tennyson published Poems, Chiefly Lyrical, and Tennyson and Hallam traveled to the Pyrenees—a mountain range bordering Spain and France which is the setting for “The Eagle.” Tennyson and Hallam gave funds to Jose Maria Torrijos y Uriarte and his battle against the King of Spain, Ferdinand VII of Spain. Around this time, Batchelor says Tennyson also wrote “radical sonnets about the oppression of Poland” (93).

Due to his dad's death in 1831, Tennyson never graduated from Trinity. In 1833, while in Vienna with his own father, Hallam suddenly died from a brain aneurysm. The shocking loss propelled Tennyson to write many poems, including “Ulysses” and the longer In Memoriam. Tennyson published the latter title in 1850, and as literature scholar Michael Millgate says, it “became an immediate ‘best-seller’” (Tennyson: Selected Poems, Oxford University Press, 1963, p. 11 ). That same year, he married Emily Sellwood and became Poet Laureate. Tennyson personally met Queen Victoria and maintained a relationship with her. When his son, Lionel, died in 1886, Queen Victoria sent Tennyson a condolence letter.

A prolific writer who lived into his early 80s, Tennyson published all types of poems, including political lyrics, an epic based on the legends of King Arthur, and an ode to Queen Victoria. Emily became his de facto assistant and spent up to seven hours each day attending to his correspondence. According to Batchelor, Tennyson “had become a monument” (479), and his “stateliness, propriety and endorsement of Queen, Country and Empire” (480) made him a target. Yet if Tennyson hadn’t written such influential poetry, there’d be no pedestal to push him off.

Poem Text

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.

Tennyson, Alfred. “The Eagle.” 1851. Poetry Foundation.


As the title implies, Tennyson’s poem revolves around an eagle. The “He” in Line 1 is the eponymous eagle, and the poem starts with the eagle in action: He grabs onto a cliff with his claws or “clasps the crag with crooked hands” (Line 1). The eagle is near the sun and by itself. He’s the only figure in the spotlight—he's in “lonely lands” (Line 2). As the eagle “stands” on a high cliff, it’s as if he’s in the blue sky or “[r]ing’d with the azure world” (Line 3).

Below the eagle is a “wrinkled sea” that “crawls” (Line 4). From his place on the crag, the eagle “watches” (Line 5) the crawling, wrinkly ocean, and then “like a thunderbolt he falls” (Line 6). The eagle leaves the crag and flies down to the sea with the force of a powerful bolt of thunder. Conversely, a bolt of thunder could have knocked the eagle off its ledge, undermining the eagle’s prowess and exposing its vulnerabilities. With this reading, the poem ends with the eagle defeated; that is, the eagle is literally fallen.