Eagle, eagle over you mountains,  by S.Tchernichovsky; commentary by R. Alter

Saul Tchernichovsky (1875-1943) is generally acknowledged to be the most important poet after Bialik in the generation of Hebrew writers who first became active in the Odessa of the 1890s. Among the poets of this so-called Renaissance Generation, Tchernichovsky is perhaps the only true renaissance figure: a man of immense vitality with a voracious hunger for life. Physician, naturalist, linguist, translator, he significantly broadened the scope of Hebrew vocabulary and of its verse forms in his attempt as poet to embrace the external world in all its minute particularity.

Tchernichovsky's work generally conveys a sense of being at home in a natural world, despite the physical uprootings and difficulties experienced by the man himself.

The "eagle" (ayit) of the title, a word popularly confused in Hebrew with "vulture," is a far more ominous bird than its English counterpart. It is the "bird of prey" in Genesis[1] that swoops down on the sacrifice in the moment of Abraham's midnight covenant with God. The opening repetition of "Eagle" vividly recalls the first line of Blake's "The Tiger," a poem Tchernichovsky undoubtedly knew. His poem, like Blake's, tensely invokes a wild creature of fearful symmetry. The feminine "you" whom the speaker addresses is the Land (15). The mountains over which the eagle circles are the bare stony Judean hills.

(1) Eagle! eagle over your mountains, an eagle is flying over your mountains!
(2) Slow and light — it seems as if for a moment — it is merely floating,
(3) Floating, sailing in a sea of blue, alert to the song of delight in the heart
(4) Of the heavens — of the sky, circling mutely in searing light.
(5) Eagle! eagle over the mountains, an eagle is flying over your mountains!
(6) Straight of body, heavy-pinioned, black of feather and broad of wing;
(7) Soaring taut — arrow from a bow — an eagle makes the rings of its (sweeping) circles;
(8) Tracking from above the signs of its prey in meadow and in rock-crevice.
(10) Soaring, gliding-gliding, and with wondrous touch did not move a wing.
(11) For an instant — it froze, then — he barest movement [lit. movement-no-movement] in its wings,
(12) The slightest tremble suddenly — and it rises toward the cloud.
(13 ) Eagle! eagle over your mountains, an eagle is flying over your mountains!
(14) Slow and light — it seems as if for a moment — it is merely floating…
(15) [O] Land (earth) [an] eagle [is] over your mountains — over you face, a massing of shadow,
(16) From the giant wings passes, caresses the mountains of God.

Eagle soaring over mountain
(Hebrew verse)

The first line of the poem, repeated as musical theme at the beginning of each stanza, is one of the most impressive lines of modern Hebrew poetry for its fusion of image and sonality. The impact of the stress pattern, the skillful variation of masculine and feminine arrest of the breath groups the many monosyllabic verbs and adjectives propel the poem with force and grace. One cannot read the Hebrew without being aware of the repetitions of lines, words, consonants, and vowels which produce the effect on incantation.

The double nature of the poem's sound chant-like regularity of rhythm and reiterated harshnessechoes the speaker's contradictory sense of what the eagle is. In the first stanza, the eagle appears as a thing of breathtaking beauty, the beauty of pure effortless power, beyond all limit or restraint. But the last word of the stanza "searing," introduces the idea of pain and possible destructiveness. This idea becomes prominent in the next stanza when we see the eagle's lovely movement as the flight of an arrow, when we are reminded that the circling eagle is circling in for the kill. Yet the speaker's awed admiration in no way diminishes: the third stanza is a study in the beauty of perfect movement, with no hint that the movement is one that brings violent death. The verb tenses shift briefly from present to past (10-11) as the eagle descends from its timeless world to earth and then soars up again, while the verse rhythm adroitly imitates glide, poised stillness, the swift flight.

The final stanza closes the circle of incantation, adding a cry of warning to the Land. But even in the ominous image of the eagle's shadow, with which the poem concludes, there is something curiously attractive; the shadow "caresses" the mountains of God. The speaker has been confronted with a vision of primal power in (or above) nature; his feelings about it are ambivalent.

In any case, the language of the last two lines clearly suggests the mythic dimension of the poem. "Hasrat" (15), a word which occurs only once in the Bible,[2]describes the clouds "thick" with water that the Creator massed around Himself in darkness. The "gathering of shadow," then, together with the substitution of "giant" for "eagle," indicates that "mountains of God" is not just an epithet for the hills of Judea, but that it retains the cosmic force of its original biblical usage in which it is paired with the great abyss": "Thy righteousness is like the great mountains; thy judgments are the great abyss…"[3]


[1] Genesis 15:11 [back]
[2] 2 Samuel 22:12 [back]
[3] Psalms 36:6 [back]
From: Stanley Burnshaw, T. Carmi and Ezra Spicehandler, editors, The Modern Hebrew Poem Itself, revised edition. First published by Harvard University Press (Cambridge, Massachusetts) in 1989, pp. 44-45. By special permission of Stanley Burnshaw.

BIRDS Table of Contents



Subscribe to the JHOM mailing list for updates.

Contact us

Tell a friend