The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 505

Because of its stark, powerful imagery and arguably misanthropic, even nihilistic, overtones, “Hurt Hawks” is probably Robinson Jeffers’s most renowned and frequently anthologized poem. It consists of two numbered parts, of seventeen and fifteen uneven lines, respectively. These two parts are essentially two separate, though closely related, poems. Read in dialectical fashion—as thesis and antithesis—they produce a meaning far greater than the sum.

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In part 1 the poet presents, in an objective and distanced way, a red-tail hawk with a hopelessly shattered wing that trails the bird “like a banner in defeat.” The hawk will never fly again, will never hunt nor taste the freedom and power that are its birthright. It awaits the “salvation” of death with what appears to be “intrepid readiness.” Empathizing deeply with the wounded hawk, the poet notes that Nature, the “wild God of the world,” is sometimes merciful to its creatures but “not often to the arrogant”—by whom he doubtlessly means human beings, the “communal people” who do not know or have forgotten that wild God in humanity’s comfortable alienation from Nature. The hawk, “beautiful and wild,” remembers God, as do “men that are dying,” because they are leaving civilization’s cloister and returning, alone, to the natural world that spawned them.

Part 2 begins with one of the most provocative statements in all of modern poetry: “I’d sooner, except the penalties, kill a man than a hawk.” One could argue, as Jeffers later did, that there is “no misanthropy involved, but only a comparison” meant to underscore the poet’s intense love for the hawk. Be that as it may, such harsh rhetoric is meant to shock the reader into becoming conscious of the habituated anthropocentrism that marks human beings’ relation to the natural world. As Jeffers asserts in “Carmel Point,” “We must uncenter our minds from ourselves;/ We must unhumanize our views a little, and become/ confident/ As the rock and ocean that we were made from.” Declaring hawks more valuable than people is one way to “unhumanize” and subvert modernity’s dominant paradigm, which tends to presume human superiority over all other living things.

The statement also dramatizes the poet’s extreme reluctance to kill the hopelessly injured raptor. After feeding the bird for six weeks the poet can no longer evade the fact that the hawk’s wing is “too shattered for mending.” He gives it its freedom so that nature can take its course. The hawk wanders “over the foreland hill” but returns in the evening, “asking for death.” The poet finally obliges with “the lead gift in the twilight.” The poem’s great irony inheres in the fact that the act of killing is, in this instance, the ultimate sign of reverence. In death the ferocious hawk’s body becomes a relaxed mass of “owl-downy, soft feminine feathers,” but its spirit—the spirit of life that animates the universe—soars upward in a “fierce rush” that frightens the night-herons “at its rising/ Before it was quite unsheathed from reality.”

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 393

In the first part of “Hurt Hawks” Jeffers forges a series of pointed contrasts between strength and freedom and their opposites: infirmity and limitation. Formerly indomitable and free “to use the sky forever,” the wounded hawk must passively await its fate on the ground. While delineating the unique tragedy of a noble, entirely self-sufficient creature brought low, Jeffers is equally avid to emphasize that the bird was meant to inhabit a world utterly alien to humans. Banished from that free and wild world, the hawk nonetheless “remembers” its freedom and its God. Even in its diminished state the hawk remains fierce; it retains its essentially “intemperate and savage” nature. Its “terrible eyes” manifest no self-pity.

Having established the tragic magnificence of the hawk without resorting to sentimentality or bathos, Jeffers concludes part 1 by positing a related contrast, between nature and humanity. The poet castigates his brethren for their alienation from nature, an estrangement that is tantamount to an inability to deal with death. Conversely, only “men that are dying” remember the “wild God of the world.”

Part 2 of the poem introduces other kinds of oppositions and antimonies. In marked contrast to the hawk’s undivided nature, the poet’s heart is fractured by sorrow, hesitation, and ambivalence. His desperate reluctance to shoot the hawk is opposed by the absolute necessity of the act. In the final lines of the poem this contradiction is resolved on an imagistic level. The hawk falls down dead after it is shot, but its spirit soars back to the sky that is its natural home. Thus, the divergence of spirit and matter in death echoes the cleavage of the poet’s desire and will but resolves his self-division with a triumphal image of departure and liberation.

Tellingly, the poem is titled “Hurt Hawks,” suggesting that the poet is also a kind of hawk, hurt not physically but by grief for the great creature he has to destroy—which makes him a predator, like the bird. Indeed, the distanced, objective tone of part 1 gives over to the more subjective, personal, and agonized tone of part 2 as the poem shifts focus from hawk to man. The plainly bifurcated nature of the poem suggests that the natural world and the human sensibility that seeks to confront that world have become ineluctably alien from each other. Perhaps they will always remain so.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 128

Brophy, Robert J. Robinson Jeffers: Myth, Ritual, and Symbol in His Narrative Poems. Reprint. Hamden, Conn.: Archon Books, 1976.

Brophy, Robert J., ed. The Robinson Jeffers Newsletter: A Jubilee Gathering, 1962-1988. Los Angeles: Occidental College, 1988.

Everson, William. The Excesses of God: Robinson Jeffers as a Religious Figure. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1988.

Karman, James. Robinson Jeffers: Poet of California. Brownsville, Oreg.: Story Line Press, 1995.

Nolte, William H. Rock and Hawk: Robinson Jeffers and the Romantic Agony. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1978.

Thesing, William B. Robinson Jeffers and a Galaxy of Writers. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1995.

Vardamis, Alex A. The Critical Reputation of Robinson Jeffers: A Bibliographical Study. Hamden, Conn.: Archon Books, 1972.

Zaller, Robert. The Cliffs of Solitude: A Reading of Robinson Jeffers. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1983.

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Themes