(von Guerard, E. 1870. Serra Range, Grampians)

9. The Eagle: Alfred Lord Tennyson 1851 

Section
1. Build the Nature-Human Relationship
Chapter
1.9 Poems
Page
1.9.9

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.

 

‘The Eagle’ is nearly as famous as Blake’s ‘Tyger’, but it has too many important things to say to be left out, no matter how much of a schoolbook favourite it’s been over the years.

First, why the predator? The predator crops up again and again in our artists’ confrontations with Nature – Hughes (hawk), Rousseau (lion), Blake (tiger), François (fox), Carruth (hawks and foxes) – in poem, painting, photo and film. Nature documentaries themselves were, for many years, little better than ‘Nature porn’ as they showed image after image of wild animals attacking and killing one another. As with some of the early documentaries, was it a cheap trick to frighten and excite us and get our attention? Perhaps yes, in more tawdry examples, but hopefully these works were aiming higher. Does the predator sharpen the focus on ‘the other’, more urgently ask the questions about other lives, morality and universality? Blake explicitly asks these questions about the tiger, while artists like Rousseau and Hughes and Tennyson seem to be saying you can ask, but the predator is utterly free and powerful and unreachable, so much so that “No arguments assert my right”2. The predator’s unblinking eye challenges in a way that a lamb, or a butterfly, or a flower can’t.

Tennyson’s ‘Eagle’ truly fits this tradition with the predator positioned aloof and distant in “lonely lands”, “Ring’d with the azure world” and watching from his “mountain walls”. He also is to be feared with his clasping “crooked hands” and his hurtling from above as a “thunderbolt”. The poem’s very brevity and short simplicity brook no dissent, no quibbling, no doubt, just as Hughes’ ‘Hawk’ swept all arguments aside ibid.

Is the eagle from God? Is he Zeus or Thor or a messenger of same? Certainly the thunderbolt symbolism would seem to hint at connection with, or representation of, a great deity, but pinning down Tennyson’s belief is no easy matter, either in life or in poem3. He seems to have had doubts all his life and been most unconventional in his religious beliefs, but did say, at the end of his life, albeit in delightfully ambiguous language, that he was a “Pantheist, of sorts”ibid..

Despite these twistings and turnings I think ‘The Eagle’ is ultimately about power and mystery as informed to us by Nature. It tells us that there is more, much more to existence than day-to-day drudgery and triviality, but that we cannot hope to grasp it until the end – through death. Tennyson – in the last years of his life – requested that his poem ‘Crossing the Bar’ be included at the end of all editions of his poetry, and it is a poem of ‘crossing the Styx’. Nature has alerted him to the journey, to its possibilities, but it is only in the crossing that: “I hope to see my Pilot face to face”.

 

1 Section from Von Guerard, E. 1870. View in the Grampians from the Top of the Serra Range. (See Paintings 1.7.2).

2 Hughes, T. 1960. Hawk Roosting. (See Poems 1.9.6).

3 Wilkinson, C. 2021. Tennyson and Religion. Cambridge Authors. https://www.english.cam.ac.uk/cambridgeauthors/tennyson-and-religion/

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