‘The Eagle and the Mole’ by Elinor Wylie is a six stanza poem which is separated into sets of four lines, or quatrains. Wylie has chosen to conform the text to a rhyming pattern of abab, alternating as she saw fit from stanza to stanza. Wylie’s writing is noted for short and concise lines. The poet made a conscious decision to write as clearly as possible.
In addition to the rhyme scheme, a reader should take note of the pattern of meter which remains consistent throughout the verses. Wylie has written in a scheme of trochaic trimeter. This means that each line contains three sets of two beats, or iambs. The first of these is stressed and the second unstressed.
‘The Eagle and the Mole’ was first published in October of 1921 in Wylie’s collection Nets to Catch the Wind. It has become one of her most popular pieces and her most anthologized. The use of animal imagery, such as that which exists in ‘The Eagle and the Mole’ , is common throughout Wylie’s work. Similar animal images appear in almost every poem included in Nets to Catch the Wind, some of which are fantastical (unicorns and leviathans).
Summary of The Eagle and the Mole
The poem begins with the speaker describing the life of an eagle. It lives on a rock far from the “reeking herd” of human society. She is presenting this image as a goal for her listener. One should seek peace through solitude and gain strength through independence.
In the following lines, she addresses the possibility that one is unable to rise above life. If this is the case, then one can go underground like a “mole.” There, one can experience the same serenity and safety.
Analysis of The Eagle and the Mole
Avoid the reeking herd,
Shun the polluted flock,
Live like that stoic bird,
The eagle of the rock.
In the first quatrain of ‘The Eagle and the Mole’ the speaker begins by telling her reader that one should “Avoid the reeking herd.” This is a striking opening line that is only emphasized by the next phrase, “Shun the polluted flock.” These are two different ways of saying the same thing. The speaker is promoting a belief that one should not go with the crowd. Rather, one should “live” stoically like a “bird.” She gives the example of an “eagle [on] the rock.”
Wylie word choices in this first stanza say a lot about the tone she brings to the text. Her speaker, who may very well be Wylie herself, feels disdain towards groups, trends, and the act of conforming. This is taken quite far, in that she is able to relate these actions to accepting infections and diseases. One would not go somewhere that “reek[s]” or is “polluted,” therefore one should not join the crowd.
The huddled warmth of crowds
Begets and fosters hate;
He keeps above the clouds
His cliff inviolate.
In the next stanza, the speaker presents the fact that “warmth” of crowds, created by the vast numbers of people, “fosters hate.” While it might on the surface seem like something one would like to seek out, once one becomes a part of the group, it is detrimental.
If the listener was to join in with the popular trends of society, they will be corrupted by it. One will feel worse, act worse, and bring negativity to other relationships and situations.
In the next two lines, the speaker brings a male character into ‘The Eagle and the Mole’. It later becomes clear that “he” refers to the eagle mentioned in the fourth line of the first stanza. The eagle is on “His” rock, “above the clouds” and on “His cliff inviolate.” In this context, “inviolate’ refers to the safety of the position. Nothing and no one can reach him there.
When flocks are folded warm,
And herds to shelter run,
He sails above the storm,
He stares into the sun.
In the third stanza, the speaker emphasizes what it is about the eagle’s place of safety that is so appealing to her. She describes the eagle’s home as being “above the storm” and close to the “sun” while the other animals are forced to run.
When the weather turns bad, or a situation becomes difficult, the eagle is not impacted. He is able to escape while all others, in their “herds” flee to shelter. The fact that the eagle does not need to fear a turn of circumstances speaks to his strength. In a larger, more thematic way, Wylie is speaking of the strength imbued by independence.
If in the eagle’s track
Your sinews cannot leap,
Avoid the lathered pack,
Turn from the steaming sheep.
The fourth stanza addresses the possibility that one is unable to “leap” into an eagle’s life. Perhaps, one is simply incapable of rising above the world they live in. If this is the case, one should still do whatever they can to “Avoid” the “pack.” Everyone should “Turn from the streaming sheep.”
If you would keep your soul
From spotted sight or sound,
Live like the velvet mole:
Go burrow underground.
The fifth stanza explains that there is another option for one seeking an escape. Rather than rising above the world’s societal problems, one can “burrow underground.” Through this action, one becomes like the “velvet mole” which is on the other side of the poet’s narrative. This will keep the listener from being seen or heard by the “herd.”
And there hold intercourse
With roots of trees and stones,
With rivers at their source,
And disembodied bones.
In the final stanza, the speaker concludes her proposal for a way to live by describing the company one would have underground. There, one will come into contact with “roots of trees and stones.”
Additionally, this place would allow one to become closer to both life and death. The speaker traces a path from the “bones” and “the river” to the trees and the ground. Here, one can find peace away from the cluttered nature of a life structured by society.