When ‘Hurt Hawks’ by Robinson Jeffers was published in 1928 it made quite an impact. The poem explores themes of nature, and humanity’s place in it, as well as suffering and freedom. All of these play out around the story of an injured hawk that captures a speaker’s attention.
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Summary of Hurt Hawks
The poem takes the reader through the fate of an injured hawk that, unable to fly, cannot sustain itself. The speaker describes how he fed the animal for six weeks trying to help it survive but it was not enough of a life for the bird. To him, it seemed to beg to be released from its pain. Eventually, the speaker gives in and shots the bird, releasing its soul.
You can read the full poem here.
Structure of Hurt Hawks
‘Hurt Hawks’ by Robinson Jeffers is a two stanza poem that is decided into one set of twelve lines and another set of thirteen. These stanzas are labeled with Roman numerals “I” and “II,” separating them into distinct parts. Jeffers does not use a rhyme scheme or a specific metrical pattern in ‘Hurt Hawks’ and the lines tend to vary in length.
Literary Devices in Hurt Hawks
Jeffers makes use of several literary devices in ‘Hurt Hawks’. These include but are not limited to alliteration, personification, and imagery. The latter is one of the most important at work in the poem. It refers to the elements of a poem that engage a reader’s senses. Traditionally, the word “image” is related to visual sights, things that a reader can imagine seeing, but imagery is much more than that. It is something one can sense with their five senses. The last lines of the poem have some of the best examples of how powerful these moments can be.
Personification occurs when a poet imbues a non-human creature or object with human characteristics. It can be seen through many of the descriptions of the hawk’s behavior. The speaker imbues it with many human characteristics that it may or may not be exhibiting.
Alliteration occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same sound. For example “cat” and “coyote” in line four as well as “week” and “waiting” in line five of the first stanza.
Analysis of Hurt Hawks
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
He is strong and pain is worse to the strong, incapacity is worse.
In the first lines of the ‘Hurt Hawks,’ the speaker describes for the reader that there is a bird with a broken wing. The title should have already suggested to the reader that this bird is going to be a hawk. Its wing hangs loosely behind it like a “banner in defeat,” a terrible clear simile that should inspire sympathy for the animal if not empathy. Unfortunately for this bird, without full use of its wings, there is no possibility of it returning to the sky. This means that “famine” is what stretches out before it. The creature is unable to hunt and therefore will surely die within a “few days”.
The bird will last until hunger ends its life. There are no animals that are willing to group against it, it still has full use of its talons. There is a good example of alliteration in the fourth line with the animals “cat” and “coyote”. Death, for this magnificent creature, could not come fast enough. He waits underneath the oak tree, wishing that the “lame feet of salvation” (death) would approach him faster.
At night, the bird dreams of the freedom he used to know but then the “dawn ruins it”. Reality hits him once more and he remembers his state. His strength is only making this new state all the worse. By speaking about the bird so clearly and in such a human way, the poet is encouraging the reader to see the animal with clear and affectionate eyes. He is a creature in need, just as any injured human would be.
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
Beautiful and wild, the hawks, and men that are dying, remember him.
During the day, there are other things to torment him. The “curs,” or stray dogs approach him, hoping for a meal. He has to fend them off with the prospect of his talons.Its only “death the redeemer” that will come to “humble that head”. Death, as a personified force as it often is, is the only thing that will defeat him and he has to wait for it.
The poet speaks of “the wild God of the world”. He gives mercy to some and to others, not so much. The hawk is well aware of this god, unlike humanity. It is only when men are dying, the speaker adds, that this god comes back into their minds.
I’d sooner, except the penalties, kill a man than a hawk;
but the great redtail
Had nothing left but unable misery
The next lines become more personal. The speaker describes how he feels a deep kinship with this animal as if he is closer to it than he is to human beings. He also describes how “we” fed the hawk for six weeks. He would wander away and come back “asking for death”.
Not like a beggar, still eyed with the old
I gave him the lead gift in the twilight.
Before it was quite unsheathed from reality.
The speaker anthropomorphizes the hawk, suggesting that the animal was asking for the speaker to kill it and displaying traits that are only human. He also describes the hawk’s strength again. He might be asking for death, but he isn’t desperate and he refuses to beg.
The speaker eventually shoots the bird, using the euphemism “gave him the lead gift,” to describe the act. In the last lines the poet breaks away from the physical, human world and describes for the reader how the hawk’s spirit soared away from the earth and was “quite unsheathed from reality”. The whole world reacted to its flight and how it transcended the pain of its last weeks of life.