The imagery in this poem is centred on the mortally wounded hawk that the poet has been caring for. In the very first line we get a reference to the ‘broken pillar’ of the bird’s wing, which ‘trails like a banner’ (2). This kind of imagery suggests the power, beauty and sheer grandeur of the hawk, like a towering and majestic building, which is now sadly damaged.
However, the wounded creature retains its nobility of bearing. Its look remains ‘terrible’ (12), it never loses its sense of pride and ‘arrogance’ (24), even when it is about to die by the poet’s hand; he shoots it out of mercy. This is presented in a positive light, imaged as ‘a lead gift’ (24) which will finally free the hawk’s untamable spirit from its weakened bodily state.
All these references illustrate the poet’s great admiration for the bird, and for the power and freedom and wildness of nature in general. This appears to contrast with his attitude to human beings:
I’d sooner, except the penalties, kill a man than a hawk (18).
The poet, then, makes the notorious claim that he would prefer to kill a human being than a hawk, if he could escape punishment for doing so. This would appear to display a withering contempt for his fellow-man. However, although highly controversial, the line essentially serves to reflect just how awed the poet is by the sheer magnificence of the bird, and his admiration for nature in general – a common theme of many poets down the centuries.
The poem as a whole carries an implicit criticism of human society – ‘communal people’ (15) - for not being wild and free like the hawk, for remaining unaware of the greater elemental truths to which they are recalled only when they are ‘dying’ (17).