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The Eagles of Romanticism



In English, German, French, and Russian poetry of 1750 to 1850 the eagle surpasses the nightingale and the lark as a symbol of the poet, the poetic genius, or the creative imagination. They flock so thickly in that period, and were seen so seldom before and after, that they can be taken as definitive of Romanticism. Pindar likened himself to an eagle, but the modern trend gets its main boost, it seems, from Gray, who calls Pindar “the Theban eagle” for the sovereign flight of his odes. This essay surveys dozens of poets in seven languages who adopted the image. Sometimes, notably with Victor Hugo, the image stands for the supreme command of genius; among others it represents the helpless “rapture” of enthusiasm – hence the Ganymede theme. Some poets, particularly women, modestly compare themselves to lesser winged things unable to fly like eagles (recycling Horace’s poem on Pindar the swan); yet others see the poet as an eagle caged, wounded, or ill. All this on the face of it is odd, since eagles, unlike nightingales and larks, are not songbirds; traditionally they are the lords of the avian world, and dangerous predators. But Romantic poets plume themselves as the new sovereigns of the imaginative skies.