Perhaps one of the best known bird poems, Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s “The Eagle: A Fragment” packs a punch as powerful as a Golden Eagle‘s in merely six lines. First published in 1851 in the seventh edition of Tennyson’s Poems, it became a favorite and is now frequently anthologized. The alliteration and assonance utilized by Tennyson let the lyrical verses roll off of one’s tongue and the imagery of the poem is as simple as the rhyme scheme but memorable. The first time I got a good view of an eagle’s talons I immediately thought of “crooked hands.”

The Eagle

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 employed the pairing of two-syllable adjectives with one-syllable nouns to help keep the meter of the poem intact.  Indeed, Tennyson used no other adjective-noun combination, just “crooked hands,” “lonely lands,” “azure world,” “wrinkled sea,” and “mountain walls.”  In fact, he used no word longer than two syllables until the last line of the poem where the three syllables of “thunderbolt” stand out to the reader, much as a loud clap of thunder would draw one’s notice.  It conveys power, which any eagle certainly has.

The only thing that really bothers me about the poem is the idea of an eagle falling like a thunderbolt.  If the poem was called “The Falcon” it would make more sense to me as I can easily picture a Peregrine Falcon falling like a thunderbolt. Despite this seeming inaccuracy the imagery of the poem is what stays with me and what makes the short six lines so poetic.  Whatever you call it the poem is one for the ages.

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Written by Corey
Corey is a New Yorker who lived most of his life in upstate New York but has lived in Queens since 2008. He's only been birding since 2005 but has garnered a respectable life list by birding whenever he wasn't working as a union representative or spending time with his family. He lives in Forest Hills with Daisy and Desmond Shearwater. His bird photographs have appeared on the Today Show, in Birding, Living Bird Magazine, Bird Watcher's Digest, and many other fine publications. He is also the author of the American Birding Association Field Guide to the Birds of New York.