Walt Whitman

The Dalliance of the Eagles by Walt Whitman

Whitman’s ‘The Dalliance of the Eagles’ depicts a fierce yet amorous scene of the birds of prey, briefly consummating in the open sky and then parting in their own ways. This poem was not received favorably due to its explicit depiction of sexuality.

Walt Whitman’s ‘The Dalliance of the Eagles’ was first published in November 1880 in the magazine Cope’s Tobacco Plant. Later it was included in the 1881 version of Leaves of Grass in Book XX “By the Roadside.” Leaves of Grass celebrates the philosophy of life and humanity and appreciates nature and the roles played by different living beings.

Whitman was born on May 31st, 1819, in West Hills, New York, in a working-class family. He is recognized as one of the most influential and innovative poets of America. Whitman’s poetry reflects his deeply rooted beliefs in democratic principles and his experimentation with the language. Some of his best-known poems include When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d(an elegy for Abraham Lincoln written just after his assassination), O Captain! My Captain!,’ etc. You can read the full poem below:

The Dalliance of the Eagles
Walt Whitman

Skirting the river road, (my forenoon walk, my rest,)
Skyward in air a sudden muffled sound, the dalliance of the eagles,
The rushing amorous contact high in space together,
The clinching interlocking claws, a living, fierce, gyrating wheel,
Four beating wings, two beaks, a swirling mass tight grappling,
In tumbling turning clustering loops, straight downward falling,
Till o'er the river pois'd, the twain yet one, a moment's lull,
A motionless still balance in the air, then parting, talons loosing,
Upward again on slow-firm pinions slanting, their separate diverse flight,
She hers, he his, pursuing.
The Dalliance of the Eagles by Walt Whitman


Summary

‘The Dalliance of the Eagles’ by Walt Whitman is about the mating of two eagles who were intensely passionate and intertwined into each other in the sky.

The eagles were making love when the poet went for his usual afternoon walk. Their claws were entangled, their bodies beat against each other. They were inseparable like a perfect mold. It seems as if there is a single entity with four wings, two beaks, and one body. The mating of the eagles created a muffled sound so loud that it caught the speaker’s attention. After a moment’s respite, the eagles glided downwards to the river, disengaging themselves. Later, they followed their separate individual paths. This poem is an allegory for temporary human relationships based on physicality. Whitman envisions this theme with the help of the eagles, representing two individuals making love without any emotional attachment.

Meaning

Whitman’s ‘The Dalliance of the Eagles’ is about two eagles, intimately making love with each other, right up in the open sky. The speaker of the poem picturesquely captures each moment of their intimacy. The fierce nature of their lovemaking displays the physical passion burning in their hearts. It even got them hurt. However, they kept on until they were finished. Ironically, they went their separate ways after a moment of respite. They did not display any feelings towards each other after it was over. In this way, Whitman hints at the irony in human relationships.

Structure

The poem ‘The Dalliance of the Eagles’ runs into ten lines without any specific rhyme scheme. It is written in free-verse and composed of a combination of anapestic and iambic feet. Besides, It is a sort of symphonic poem, having a single continuous movement that illustrates the content. Moreover, the rhythm of the poem is cascading.

Whitman uses his poetic genius to demonstrate the lovemaking between the two eagles. He creates a picture of continuous movement through his selective use of present participles. The ten lines of the poem have close to fifteen participles.

The text is rich in adjectives, which precisely depicts the picture that was in front of the speaker’s eyes while he was strolling near the river in the afternoon. The narrative of the two eagles is told from the first-person point of view, providing major details about the happenings.

Literary Devices

Whitman’s ‘The Dalliance of the Eagles’ showcases the following literary devices:

  • Alliteration: It is the occurrence of the same letter or sound at the beginning of the closely placed words. In this poem, it can be found in  “river road,” “tumbling turning,” “hers, he his,” etc.
  • Metaphor: It is an implicit reference to a certain idea or a thing to show similarity. For example, Whitman uses the phrase “a living, fierce, gyrating wheel” to denote the union of the two eagles. They form a “gyrating wheel” in the sky by clinching their claws and flying in a circular motion.
  • Personification: This device denotes human qualities to animals, objects, or abstract ideas. For instance, in these lines, the eagles are personified as human beings, “She hers, he his, pursuing.”
  • Allegory: Thus poem can be interpreted to disclose a hidden meaning. It is about two eagles coming together and then going their different ways in a literal sense. But on a deeper level, the two eagles symbolize physical love devoid of emotional attachment.


Detailed Analysis

Lines 1-3

Skirting the river road, (my forenoon walk, my rest,)

Skyward in air a sudden muffled sound, the dalliance of the eagles,

The rushing amorous contact high in space together,

Walt Whitman’s poem ‘The Dalliance of the Eagles’ begins with a simple scene. The speaker talks about one of his daily routine things. He states what he observed one fine day when he went for his afternoon walk. While “skirting the river road,” he looked up into the sky by hearing “a sudden muffled sound.” The dallying eagles made this sound. The speaker was thrilled by the sound of the union of the two eagles in the sky.

The word “dalliance” refers to a casual romantic or sexual relationship. By using this term, Whitman wants to signify that he saw two eagles as if they were involved in some kind of casual romantic interaction like humans. He further uses the adjective “amorous” to define and give some idea about their relationship. He confirms the eagles to be amorously making love “high in space,” a metaphorical reference to the sky.

In these lines, the poet not only talks about the eagles’ romantic interactions but also on a deeper level suggesting the meeting of two strangers who are physically and sexually attracted to one another, maybe at first sight. They might not have any feelings for each other.

Lines 4-6

The clinching interlocking claws, a living, fierce, gyrating wheel,

Four beating wings, two beaks, a swirling mass tight grappling,

In tumbling turning clustering loops, straight downward falling,

Whitman uses vivid imagery and epithets to depict the whole scene he saw right in front of his eyes. In these lines, he describes how the eagles made love. Here, “The clinching interlocking claws” denotes the intensity of their sexual urge while they mate high in the sky. It also denotes the level of passion that burns like a flame in their bodies.

The adjectives like “living,” “fierce,” and “gyrating” indicate the way they made love. While being in contact with each other, the eagles swirled around in the sky, creating a “fierce, gyrating wheel.” Their passion was so intense that they became a singular entity having “Four beating wings, two beaks, a swirling mass tight grappling.” It seems like they were no different up in the sky. Rather, they became a single bird with four wings and two beaks. They were deeply intertwined and grappled with each other in passion.

The constant swirling motion of these eagles made a hurl in the sky. Furthermore, the speaker describes how they mate in “tumbling turning clustering loops.” By using visual and kinesthetic imagery, the poet help readers visualize the scene.

Lines 7-10

Till o’er the river pois’d, the twain yet one, a moment’s lull,

A motionless still balance in the air, then parting, talons loosing,

Upward again on slow-firm pinions slanting, their separate diverse flight,

She hers, he his, pursuing.

These lines have a sad undertone. The eagles went their separate ways once they were done with their amorous play. Whitman’s speaker refers to the birds as “twain,” a couple, and says that the two birds were yet one. After losing interest in one another, they tried to unwind themselves. They tried hard to separate till the time they were over the river. The speaker is sad to look at this painful sight of the birds going separate ways after having a moment of deep love and intimacy.

In the next few lines, he describes how these birds went on their separate flight paths. The “gyrating wheel” now becomes “motionless.” Then they loosened their “talons” and began to take their individual “separate diverse flight.” Like the eagles, humans choose their separate paths of life after having an intimate moment, unties themselves from the temporary knot.

Allegorically, this poem is about human relationships without emotional love. Like the eagles, two persons often unite based on each other’s physical appearance or simply out of his sexual urge. They spend time, make love, and then go on their own ways. Such a relationship lasts for a “moment’s lull.” In this way, Whitman reflects on human relationships, physicality, passion, and, most importantly, love.

Historical Context

‘The Dalliance of the Eagles’ was first published in Cope’s Tobacco Plant magazine in 1880. In 1881, it was included in Whitman’s best-known collection, Leaves of Grass. First published in 1855, the collection underwent several revisions to reach its perfection. It deals with a number of themes, including individuality, democracy, and equality. Besides, Whitman was popular as the inventor and innovator of American free verse. Whitman’s poems are open, inclusive, optimistic, and deal with a variety of subjects. His poem ‘The Dalliance of the Eagles’ exemplifies the idea of sexuality. It can be treated as evidence of his homoerotic feelings.

FAQs

What is the poem ‘The Dalliance of the Eagles’ about?

Walt Whitman’s poem ‘The Dalliance of the Eagles’ is about a brief sexual encounter of two eagles. One day while the speaker was out for an afternoon walk, he was quite amazed to look at the scene of two birds fiercely making love in the sky. This poem describes how they made love and what they did after they were done.

When was ‘The Dalliance of the Eagles’ published?

The poem ‘The Dalliance of the Eagles’ was first published in November 1880 in Cope’s Tobacco Plant magazine. It was included in the “By the Roadside” section of the 1881 version of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass.

What type of poem is ‘The Dalliance of the Eagles’?

This poem is written in free-verse. There is no regular rhyme scheme or metrical pattern. Besides, the overall text is written in a continuation. It is told from the perspective of a first-person speaker who is none other than the poet himself.

Which literary devices are used in ‘The Dalliance of the Eagles’?

Whitman makes use of several literary devices in this poem, such as metaphor, alliteration, personification, allegory, etc. One of the important devices that hold the poem together is enjambment. By using this device, the poet shows how the scene went on.


Similar Poems

Readers who enjoyed reading Walt Whitman’s ‘The Dalliance of the Eagles’ may consider exploring the poems listed below.

You can also explore the best-loved poems of Walt Whitman.

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Sudip Das Gupta Poetry Expert
About
A complete expert on poetry, Sudip graduated with a first-class B.A. Honors Degree in English Literature. He has a passion for analyzing poetic works with a particular emphasis on literary devices and scansion.
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