Hurt Hawks by Robinson Jeffers: Summary and Analysis

Hurt Hawks is one of the best known poems of Robinson Jeffers which is divided into two parts, each standing for a complete poem, yet closely related. He has used powerful imagery and his tone in this poem is nihilistic. Through the medium of the hawk, Robinson Jeffers makes the commentary upon the human race.

Robinson Jeffers (1887-1962)

Taking the analogy of the hawk, he condemns the communal tendency of the people, and the impact of communal thought can be better observed through the story of the hurt hawk.

In the surface reading we can find the hurt hawk in the deplorable situation. It is strong, but by some reason it is wounded. We are not exactly told the reasons behind his injuries. The focus of the poem does not lie in the cause of injuries, but in the effects of injuries in life. The hawk dreams of flying in the sky. But flight has been limited to the dreams only. It cannot come back to the earlier life, therefore it repeatedly begs for the death. Redemption is given to those who deserve it. Since god refuses to give him mercy, the speaker kindly gives him death.

Jeffers celebrates the strength and power inherited in the wildlife. He makes a contrast between the communal people and the simplicity of the wild bird hawk. He claims that the communal people have forgotten the ‘wild God of the world’. In the name of communalism, we have created so many demarcations between and among us. In the name of religion, culture, tradition, and many others, we have been hurting each other. We are so arrogant that even death will refuse us. We are like the hurt hawk who are begging for death, but not getting it in the due time. We have lost essential humanity and kindness, therefore, God does not want to kill us in the name of liberation and humanity.  

There are two hurt hawks in the poem. Part one is fairly detached description of the hurt hawk who is fractured and severely wounded, asking for death under an oak bush. In part two, the bird is given food, shelter and freedom, and finally the gift of ultimate release from his bondage. The poet tells us that he tried to liberate the bird, but no one can give freedom to another creature. As the bird returns asking for death, he fulfilled hawk’s desired wish, he shot him dead. The speaker, later, feels anguish, guilt and awe after killing the hurt hawk. In this sense, the speaker of the poem, who is grieving on the death of the hawk and his act of killing, is another hurt hawk of the poem.

"I'd sooner, except the penalties, kill a man than a hawk" is the beginning line of part two which has collected different attentions of the critics. Some critics are of the opinion that this line is the proof of Robinson’s negative attitude and his philosophy of nihilism towards the mankind. Yet some others are of the view that this statement supports his love and advocacy towards wildlife and nature.

Hurt Hawks is implicitly dialectical poem where two opposing ideas clash. The speaker at first looks at the hurt hawk and tries to save it by feeding it for six weeks, but it was of no use. He decides not to kill the bird and let it go free, but it returns and begs for death. And the speaker kills it. The speaker wants to save the beauty of nature and wild life, but is compelled to kill it for the sake of its liberation from the pain. The speaker’s desperate hesitancy to kill the hawk is contrasted by the inevitability of the act.

The speaker praises the strength and the nobility of the Hawk in the poem. The fierce and kingly powerful Hawk, a bird of prey, is now wounded and waiting for the death. It knows its fate. But, it does not make any sense of regret and overemotional activity. It still holds its own grace and mercifully asking for death. In this term, the poet compares the highly praiseworthy quality of the hawk with the fault of the human beings to face the death bravely. These lines support the view:

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.

The dying hawk is shown higher in position than the people living in the community. He curses the people for being arrogant, self-indulgent and savage. He opines that the mankind have forgotten the wild god and nature because of their self-centeredness. He focuses that even the hawk is wild and fierce, it is beautiful and it remembers god for the salvation. Man has probably become blind to the fact that one day they too have to face death as like the hawk. When they know they are going to die, they display a coward and shameful act of fear. They cannot face death as the ultimate return to the nature as the hawk did in the poem. He criticizes mankind for not being free and wild as the hawk instead remaining communal throughout the whole life.

This poem is rich in imagery and symbols. In the very beginning of the poem we see ‘broken pillars’ of the wings and ‘trails like a banner in defeat’, these imagery suggest once the powerful and beautiful hawk with the majestic attitude, now is in the deplorable condition. The bird’s pitiable condition is further focused with the imagery 'No more to use the sky forever but live with famine / And pain a few days'. Though the hawk is shown as the defeated one in the poem, its power and ferocity is still maintained: 'cat nor coyote / Will shorten the week of waiting for death, there is game without / talons'. The hawk has been a symbol of strength to face the death as powerfully as one can.