Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

For Jeffers the majestic hawk epitomizes nature and embodies nature’s purest form of freedom. Although he does not report how it was injured, given the type of the injury it is not unreasonable to assume that it was caused by a gunshot. Thus, the hawk may be a victim of human “arrogance,” its perfect freedom curtailed by the more limited human freedom to choose violence. Nature’s balance, disrupted by the hawk’s injury, can be recovered only by the administration of another bullet. It is as if humankind has the power only to damage nature or to finish off what it has damaged in order to alleviate misery.

Full of admiration for the hawk, the poet himself feels wounded by the hawk’s plight and further wounded by the duty he must carry out. In the acting of killing the stricken bird, the poet counters his species’ arrogance with an example of compassion that can perhaps be viewed as a gesture of atonement as well. It would be wrong, however, to read the mercy killing in moral terms. In other poems, most notably “Birds and Fishes,” Jeffers takes pains to insist that moral precepts are human inventions that can only be applied to human affairs. Such ideas have no relevance to the processes of nature, which remain brutally alien to us: “Justice and mercy/ Are human dreams, they do not concern the birds nor/ the fish nor eternal God.”

In many of his poems Jeffers condemns ecological degradation and defilement in the name of...

(The entire section is 473 words.)