I’m back! In a trip that was equal parts misery (airport delays, traveling with my mother and sister) and equal parts joy (seeing all of my relatives, seeing parts of the country I never get to see, celebrating life and life passages with my family). But I will be fair and say that it was more happy than not – and even misery has its place; it is wonderful teacher (of what NOT to do).
Anyhow, I’m starting a new chapter in the textbook. I had put it off, because transitioning from my job and getting organised for this trip was too involved for me, or at least my head space, to allow me to think very deeply about the text that was presented before me. Now that I’m between jobs; it’s freed up some RAM (so to speak) and I can have a more productive presentation.
Speaking of “so to speak” this brings me to the new chapter: “Figures of Speech”. It talks about writing figuratively or writing to metaphor instead of describing what is actually before you. For instance, in the last chapter the textbook talked how poetry uses descriptions based purely on observation of the five senses to help to illuminate an emotion or an idea. Like in “Driving to Town Late to Mail A Letter” the poet describes a snowy night: cold, streets deserted, cold iron, swirls of snow. He uses sights and tactile sensations to not only describe what the night physically feels like, but the emotional sensation of the serenity and loneliness that these physical conditions inspire in the poet. But in figurative speech, the poet is taking something wholly unrelated to a real world experience. “I will speak daggers at her,” doesn’t mean that knives will come shooting out of the speaker’s mouth (as opposed to “I will throw daggers at her”), but instead uses the connotation of the word dagger to imply the action or rather the type of speech. Connotation of daggers, sharp, painful, offensive weapon which words can also be, is the true meaning of the word in that sentence. It’s a figure of speech not an actual dagger, whereas the snowy night was an actual snowy night.
I liked the comparison that the textbook used between, “I will speak daggers at her” and “A razor is sharper than an ax.” Daggers and words physically have nothing in common, whereas a razor and an ax are a same class of things (sharp edged blades used to cut something down to size). Stating that a thing, like a dagger, can be used as a type of instead of a physical thing turns it from a physical thing into a figure of speech (or a metaphor).
In this poem, it is unstated what the thing (the Eagle) is being compared to, but it becomes very obvious that Tennyson isn’t talking about an actual eagle. There are no eagles in this poem called the Eagle (there were no eagles harmed in the making of this poem). Instead we have the idea of an eagle: a person who stands above all of the rest of the hubbub, the teaming masses of common folk beneath, “the wrinkled sea beneath him crawls”. He, like an eagle, is regal, and fierce. His head is “ringed with the azure world”, so all of heaven is his halo or perhaps his crown. Perhaps he is Zeus, or Tennyson’s monarch, perhaps he is someone that Tennyson admired more than anyone in his world (we’ve all got those).
The last part of the poem is a bit problematic for me. “And like a thunderbolt he falls.” The book suggests that the person being described is so powerful that he strikes the world below him the way that lightening strikes the ground, but that final verb doesn’t seem to imply that idea. Should not a great poet like Tennyson have chosen the word “strikes”? Or perhaps those below him “feel his mighty blow”. He could pound the earth with his bolt of lightening. But falls is a passive verb (in action, not grammatically). To fall is to allow gravity to take over, it is akin to a plummet, you are not using your own force to reach it. The word conjures up the biblical imagery of angels falling from god’s grace or Adam and Eve falling from Paradise. A thunderbolt strikes the ground with speed and violence, but “he” is falling (though I have noticed that when a bird jumps from a branch they first fall before they flap their wings). So I wonder if this man is still great. Does he strike fear into the hearts of people around him, or has he succumbed to the many strifes that the world throws into our lives? Has he too become common and wrinkled like the ocean below? I suppose it is impossible to know; I suppose it will be impossible to know and shall always be debated. But my reading of the poem is that every god has his day, but nobody lasts forever.
by Lord Alfred Tennyson
He clasps the crag with crooked hands;
Close to the sun in lonely lands,
Ringed with the azure world, he stands.
The wrinkled sea beneath him crawls;
He watches from his mountain walls,
And like a thunderbolt he falls.