Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 473

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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 “progress.” Certainly this feature is present, in a muted way, in “Hurt Hawks.” The poem’s central concern, though, is with the spiritual alienation that the human race has suffered in its quest to detach itself from and master the natural world. Humanity’s lost connection to the wild results in epistemological blindness, an inability to intuitively understand the ground of Being. In so doing, humans cease to comprehend true freedom, life, and death in any profoundly meaningful way. Because the hawk is in nature with all its soul, it has no fear of nonbeing; it instinctively wishes to die rather than live bereft of the exquisite freedom that it once enjoyed. Making the anthropocentric mistake of mourning for a creature that has no need to mourn itself, the poet comes to the realization that the death he has had to confer on the hawk is no occasion for sadness or guilt. The hawk is as comfortable in death as it is in life, whereas human beings seem displaced in either realm. Ultimately then, people are the hurt hawks—predators that aspire to transcend nature but succeed only in compromising themselves by adopting a muddled and egocentric relation to the world. The hawk’s magnificent indifference and beautiful death can at least inspire humans toward greater equanimity.