Music Reviews

Strength, Beauty And Nobility In “Hurt Hawks,” by Robinson Jeffers

The Selected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers

Hurt Hawks

I

The broken pillar of the wing jags from the clotted shoulder,
The wing trails like a banner in defeat, No more to use the sky forever but live with famine
And pain a few days: cat nor coyote
Will shorten the week of waiting for death, there is game without talons. He stands under the oak-bush and waits
The lame feet of salvation; at night he remembers freedom
And flies in a dream, the dawns ruin it. He is strong and pain is worse to the strong, incapacity is worse.
The curs of the day come and torment him
At distance, no one but death the redeemer will humble that head, The intrepid readiness, the terrible eyes.
The wild God of the world is sometimes merciful to those
That ask mercy, not often to the arrogant. You do not know him, you communal people, or you have forgotten him;
Intemperate and savage, the hawk remembers him;
Beautiful and wild, the hawks, and men that are dying, remember him.

II

I’d sooner, except the penalties, kill a man than a hawk;
but the great redtail
Had nothing left but unable misery
From the bone too shattered for mending, the wing that trailed under his talons when he moved.

We had fed him six weeks, I gave him freedom,
He wandered over the foreland hill and returned in the evening, asking for death,
Not like a beggar, still eyed with the old
Implacable arrogance.

I gave him the lead gift in the twilight.
What fell was relaxed, Owl-downy, soft feminine feathers; but what
Soared: the fierce rush: the night-herons by the flooded river cried fear at its rising
Before it was quite unsheathed from reality.


Robinson Jeffers’ “Hurt Hawks” is a poem that celebrates the strength inherent in wild nature. The speaker of the poem contrasts feral simplicity with communal living, going so far as to claim “communal people” (line 15) as divorced from the realm of “[t]he wild God of the world” (line 15). Jeffers makes great use of symbolism in “Hurt Hawks,” utilizing the hawk as a symbol to communicate values of strength and nobility in the face of dogged pusillanimity and civilized self-indulgence.

Jeffers begins “Hurt Hawks” with exemplary use of imagery. The hawk, otherwise known as a bird of prey recognized for its seizure of the open air from which it looks down upon the smaller creatures of terra firma, is instead introduced in this poem to the reader as a fractured, impoverished land dweller with a gruesome injury: “The broken pillar of the wing jags from the clotted shoulder, / The wing trails like a banner in defeat” (ll. 1-2). Such an ominous beginning might lead one to discern that a much darker consequence is yet to come.

Indeed, the somber tone achieved from presenting the image of the broken wing is intensified by the substantial terms used in the speaker’s description of the impairment. Jeffers’ diction, specifically the word pillar, a term used to refer to the hawk’s broken shoulder bone, evinces the strength the speaker ascribes to the hawk, inciting the reader to recall that a pillar, in an architectural sense, denotes what is used to uphold great structures, maintaining their staunchness.

The pillar, by design, is a tool implemented to check the challenges presented by both nature and time, as the wing is designed by nature to keep the hawk alive and commanding in its natural domain—the air. The phrase “banner in defeat” also adds to this somber tone of broken strength implied by the previous line, creating an overall image of something stalwart faced now with a new, threatening reality. As is nodded to in the third line of the poem, a bird of prey without able wings is a bird doomed: “No more to use the sky forever but live with famine / And pain a few days:” (ll. 3-4).

However, despite this desolate introductory image of the hawk, its consummate strength is not weakened; only that of its wing is. The inner ferocity of nature’s design that marks the hawk remains intact.

In fact, even when faced with sure death, grounded in territory unfamiliar to it beyond the occasional ground level swoop of weaker prey, the hawk’s natural strength is reinforced through the recognition of what it symbolizes in the eyes of other animals: “cat nor coyote / Will shorten the week of waiting for death, there is game without / talons” (ll. 4-6).

The speaker also reveals that “[t]he curs of the day come and torment him / At distance” (ll.10-11). What these lines share in sense, and, most importantly, what’s unveiled for the reader, is the hawk’s innate power. Even when crippled by injury, forced to become an anomalous land-animal surrounded by other hungry and physically unimpaired hunters (cat, coyote, curs), the hawk’s sovereignty is still not diminished. Despite their craven taunts, the cat, coyote and curs instantly recognize the hawks power and consequently stay safely at a distance from it.

Jeffers’ speaker, again, through key word choice, compels the reader to see an animal injured in body, yet not without fierce presence, as mongrel dogs will torment only at a distance, and the cat and coyote, with all of their reign in the animal kingdom, still fear the hurt hawk’s talon attack.

The speaker’s admiration of the hawk’s strength and nobility marks the entire poem. By creating for the reader the image of the hawk waiting for the “lame feet of salvation” (line 7) under an oak bush, i.e. asking quietly for death, the speaker calls attention to the hawk’s recognition of its mortal wound. But instead of making some maudlin display of self-concern for the preservation of its life, the hawk admirably accepts its fate, quietly asking for the death earned for truly living. The speaker, recognizing and praising this, as well as finding fault with man for lacking this quality, comments:

The wild God of the world is sometimes merciful to those

That ask mercy, not often to the arrogant.

You do not know him, you communal people, or you have

forgotten him;

Intemperate and savage, the hawk remembers him;

Beautiful and wild, the hawks, and men that are dying, remember

him. (ll. 13-17)

And so the hawk is equated with the speaker’s vision of the “wild God of the world,” and the connection between the two is emphasized again by Jeffers’ diction, as communal carries with it significant meaning in the line.

According to the speaker, as well as the implication derived from the choice of the one adjective used to describe the people, those that have lost sight of the wild God have perhaps done so consequently by losing sight of the natural cycle of life and death. According to the speaker, this blindness occurs from the communal living that leads to self-centeredness, a grossly provincial misstep.

The contrast between the strong, solitary hawk, “He is strong and pain is worse to the strong, incapacity is worse” (line 9) and the communal people with whom is suggested die foolishly, “still eyed with the old / Implacable arrogance” (ll. 23-24) presents a clear picture of the hawk as a symbol one can witness (and perhaps even learn) lessons of strength and nobility from, not to mention the courage to accept one’s death without shameful display in emotive froth.

The hawk’s strength and nobility is further emphasized by the great gift of freedom it ultimately rejects from the speaker for no other reason than the recognition that the time of death has come: “We had fed him six weeks, I gave him freedom, / He wandered over the foreland hill and returned in the evening, / asking for death” (ll. 21-22).

Jeffers’ masterful use of symbolism and imagery in “Hurt Hawk’s” creates a significant impression of natural power, while also prompting the reader to consider what he or she might lose sight of if concerned only with the preservation of life. Combating the distinctively human quality of arrogance with the wild and domineering beauty of the “intemperate and savage” (line 16) hawk, Jeffers conveys the strength of his subject by contrasting it with the less-than-noble attributes of wayward bipeds.

Rock & Hawk: Symbols Of Power And Endurance In The Short Poems Of Robinson Jeffers

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