Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem is a precise conceptual delivery of man and nature as suggested by the usage of symbols: the eagle, crag, sea and sky. The thematic concerns are open to wide interpretation with the ambiguity of the poem that invokes philosophical questioning to the cycle of life undergone by man and how the poet finds it difficult to think of a world excluding humans. Thus, he expresses a contentious opinion provoking the radical debate whether man is above or below nature.
In the first stanza, the poet creates a setting where a lone eagle stands on a crag of a mountain overlooking the sea with the sky surrounding it like a backdrop. The visual imagery is further elaborated with the color ‘azure’ describing the beauty of the sky. The terms ‘lonely lands’ could be referring to the immense stretches of sea and sky. The image is continued in the next line with the metaphor ‘azure world’. This depicts a vast space where the bird could fly free unopposed as we know that the eagle is a powerful creature with sharp vision and strength as a predator.
Through the eyes of this powerful predator, the sea below him is a ‘wrinkled sea’ that ‘crawls beneath him’. The fact that the creature stands on a crag shows how unreachable he is to man. The poet thus creates an image that portrays the eagle as a creation of nature which is also protected by nature. In the line “From his mountain walls’’, ‘walls’ suggest protection for the eagle, which lives in a place almost inaccessible to humans, protected and unreachable in a beautiful azure eyrie of sorts with a massive space like the sky and a large area of sea. The last line, ‘like a thunderbolt he falls’, is an understatement because an eagle does not just fall off a cliff; it would dive to catch its prey or reach a place where his sharp vision caught some attention.
Throughout the poem, however, we see that the poet has attempted to humanize the eagle through use of pronouns ‘he’, ‘him’ and ‘his’. Instead of using ‘claws’ which seems like a more appropriate term to describe a bird, he uses ‘hands’. Similarly, the actions of a bird are also termed differently: ‘stands’ instead of ‘perches’ and ‘falls’ instead of ‘dives’. Thus, the poet could be using the eagle as a symbol of masculinity; a great man powerfully portrayed as possessing very sharp vision and strength. Man is an excellent and clever predator but, a predator nevertheless; with the ability to destroy somebody else’s life. In the setting created by the poet, he is passive till the climax when he dives like a great man who keeps his powers in reserve till the right moment. This man is not just a man but he is transformed into a superhero living at a very high vantage point secure and in control of his own world.
The debate between man and nature and who has the ultimate power to control is discussed with subtlety. The sea, sky, and mountains are all elements of nature while the sea and sky symbolize freedom. Within such limitless freedom, the ‘mountain walls’ other than offering protection also constrain man’s freedom (unlike the bird who could fly above all). The eagle is adapted to flying in any direction but when considering the eagle as a man, he falls off the cliff. Ultimately what controls the man is gravity, which is a force of nature. Tennyson thus places nature above man. Contradicting this viewpoint, another perspective is how the poet creates an imaginary world, but without the ability to exclude humans. Thus, humans are also integral to nature. Then the first argument gets revived when we see how nature in turn controls man who cannot challenge the changes he has to undergo. ‘the wrinkled sea beneath him crawls’, Although ambiguous, it could suggest personification of man and his life cycle, because ‘wrinkled’ suggests old age and ‘crawls’ suggests infancy. Thus, the impending philosophical debate is also then open to the reader whether man is above or below nature.