Alfred, Lord Tennyson, "The Eagle"

Alfred, Lord Tennyson's "The Eagle" is, as the kids say, "metal."

Alfred, Lord Tennyson, "The Eagle"

Sometimes it is difficult work trying to bring attention to the "best of the web." Sometimes it is unfortunately too easy. An essay will strike you as necessary and timely, precisely because it fills you with dread that some things may not change for the better soon.

Mohammad Ali's "The Scream" features the tagline "Is this the end for Muslims in India?" He gives story after story about people justifying atrocities by creating an atmosphere in which one party can do no right. I hope you will read it. From his essay:

I ask S. what Akhlaq did that he had to be killed. Could he tell me the story from the beginning? After a few moments of silence, he informs me that Akhlaq’s crime was “cow-slaughter.” Akhlaq had killed an animal held holy by Hindus across India. An example had to be made out of him so that other Muslims understand how serious Hindus were—how serious Indians were—about defending the Holy Cow. People had to learn that Akhlaq’s actions were anti-national.

You feel your heart drop into your stomach after you read this. You realize how many people you personally know make arguments about "examples." How we're tempted to say "nationalism uses spectacular violence to its advantage," when the phenomenon is so common that it would be safer to say "people wanting to make examples of others, in general, is a form of nationalism."

I know some will actually try to plead for extrajudicial violence in defense of the sacred, as if the sacred were actually the point or if mob killings were ever necessary. The extreme defenders of symbols debase most symbols so thoroughly that their behavior must be characterized as nihilist. The symbol can't stand for anything other than their violence, and that seems to have been their point, intentional or not.

The extreme defenders of symbols also want to tear down the symbols of others, particularly those that can help build others. There's a passage of Ta-Nehisi Coates in "My President Was Black" I can't shake:

Barack Obama’s victories in 2008 and 2012 were dismissed by some of his critics as merely symbolic for African Americans. But there is nothing “mere” about symbols. The power embedded in the word nigger is also symbolic. Burning crosses do not literally raise the black poverty rate, and the Confederate flag does not directly expand the wealth gap.

I can't shake this because of how many times I was told the arts were useless. That technology was the only thing that mattered. Because of how my education at higher levels, in the liberal arts, preferred to gloss over symbols in order to focus on "what was really said."

The world is burning because it is fighting over symbols without realizing it. Well, some people realize it. Unfortunately, they're the ones accelerating the burning.

Alfred, Lord Tennyson's "The Eagle" is, as the kids say, "metal."

You're reading this in the year 2080, researching early 21st century English vernacular. You ask: "What is 'metal'? What is 'hard'?" The first identifies elements on the periodic table which can be gathered, then sold for drugs. The second is a more general descriptor, often referring to the remaining surfaces on which one can sleep in a flooded, overheated hellscape.

However, in 2021, it was technically possible to describe a poem as "metal," as it "goes hard."

The Eagle
Alfred, Lord Tennyson

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" creates a dramatic poster readily. A cliff rises in one place to a sharp point. There the eagle sits atop, tension visible in his "crooked hands." You can see he wants to swoop down, even though you yourself can't see down. He's surrounded by an "azure world," which seems to stand nobly for one purpose. That purpose is allowing this hunter to demonstrate the full range of his power.

The poster, I imagine, would serve a certain sort of band admirably. Big, anthemic chords, the loud building of anticipation to victorious, glorious moments. Ridiculous and awesome, both at once.


A few details from the poem cultivate an entirely different impression. "He clasps the crag with crooked hands," on its own, pictures an old man climbing. It may not be the most plausible scene, but it can be imagined. Someone sees themselves as having achieved or still trying to achieve. They're "close to the sun," perhaps, but also "lonely."

Sunrise in Palm Beach
Photo by Karl Fredrickson / Unsplash

Tennyson's last three lines complete a complicated, interesting portrait. If you're older and successful, you can see yourself everywhere: "The wrinkled sea beneath him crawls." By this I don't mean that it is impossible for older people to feel excluded. They can very much feel that, in part because their age is their world, including the aspects of the world which are remote to them or frustrate them.

Still, indirect presentation in this case can be thought strange. I tend to think about figures like Katherine Mansfield's "Miss Brill," lonely and delusional. Sitting on a bench, seeing everyone else do everything else in the park, imagining herself in control. The eagle which sounds suspiciously like an ambitious person become old has a certain nobility, whereas poor Miss Brill is made ridiculous.

It may be the case the eagle and the ambitious do not equate. Some want to be like the eagle, but must fall short. I believe this, but such a proposition may not strictly apply to the poem. "He watches from his mountain walls" stresses an advantageous isolation for both eagle and man. From above, alone, one sees more. It's tempting to dismiss this as a superficial parallel, but there's a real wisdom to being higher. The eagle, as others have noted, spots prey and promptly swoops down. "Like a thunderbolt he falls."

The outstanding question: how is being ambitious and aged like this? There are older businessmen relentlessly hunting profit, seeking their youth in prowess, and this seems to indicate something larger. Our feeling of power depends on the image we project to ourselves. I don't think the eagle's descent is necessarily overkill, as it must capture prey swiftly and violently. But I wouldn't be surprised if it did engage in some theatrics. To what degree do we satisfy an animal part of ourselves when we indulge glorious images of ourselves? —That, one might say, is a "metal" question.—