In his youth, Hughes was an avid hunter and outdoorsman, and although that tempered as he got older, his fascination with animals never waned. He wrote, “My interest in animals began when I began. My memory goes back pretty clearly to my third year and by then I had so many of the toy lead animals you could buy in shops that they went right around our flat-topped fore place fender nose to tail”. Known alternatively as the poet of the ‘will to live’ and ‘terror’s ambassador’, Ted Hughes’ animal imagery remains some of the most contested literary works in the canon. You can read Ted Hughes’ poem, ‘Hawk in the Rain’, by purchasing the book it was published in, The Hawk in the Rain. You can read more of Ted Hughes’ poetry here.
Analysis of Hawk in the Rain
The practice of hawking is taking a trained hawk out to capture prey. In his poem, ‘Hawk in the Rain’, the hawk is the hunted being, and the hunter, following it, happens to witness a cruel act of nature: the wind buffets the noble hawk down to the ground, where it smashes into the earth and dies.
One of Ted Hughes‘ primary ideals was the superiority of animals over man because of their inability to understand death and thus they do not fear death; they are free from inhibitions, focused on life, and innocent of corruption, thus acting as agents for the immoralities and impurities of mankind. In ‘Hawk in the Rain’, the graceful hawk is contrasted against the lumbering weight of the hunter – notice the different words used to signify movement for the hunter (‘drag up’, ‘clutches my each step’) and the hawk (‘steady as a hallucination’).
Given the state of England at the time of writing the poem, one can attribute a broader symbolism to the hawk: the noble animal, struggling in a mad world, can be taken in the patriotic worldview of England suffering through the insanities of the world around it, coming out of the storm of the Second World War and into the trauma of the Cold War. Here, the hawk would symbolize Great Britain; the hunter is the unnamed spirit of the world, watching from a distance.
Ben Howard accused him of writing predominantly violent poetry “has often seemed the celebrant, if not the proponent, of violence and destruction”. It was he who gave Hughes the nickname ‘terror’s ambassador’, and he was disgusted with Hughes’ violent imagery, of which there was plenty in his poetry.
Hughes himself claimed that he embellished his verses in order to delve deeper into the imagination and thus find the “genuine self”. The function of poetry is to express something of the “deep complexity that makes us precisely the way we are”, and so his return to the inner self was “a return to the woods”, which became the central theme of his poetry. The violence, thus, was a form of cleansing ritual, a pathway back to the innocent.
In these two stanzas, the violence of the words stands out: it is impossible to read it and not feel, in the edge of your teeth, the violence that Ted Hughes wanted to convey. Even a simple phrase like ‘thumbs my eyes’ shows the violence of nature, which has often been shown in poetry as innocent and undeserving of violence; Hughes’ nature, on the other hand, is a primal force, something that was there before man and will outlive man, and every inch of its power comes through in these stanzas. Nature, as well, is not about destroying its own creations – thus the death of the hawk that is about to occur – which is another quality that lends this poem a chaotic, almost cruel, tone to it.
This idea of nature, however, is not natural; it is nature twisted by humans, nature tortured by humans. Nature is not simple anymore; it has evil from humans, and “nature become the devil. He doesn’t sound like Isis, mother of the gods, which he is. He sounds like Hitler’s familiar spirit.”
The balance in nature in postwar Britain, to Hughes, only existed in nature – “poetry is … the record of how the forces of the Universe trying to redress some balance disturbed by human error.”
Nature provided peace and shelter, but they took advance of that; now, nature is revolting against humans, and nothing can stop it because nature will always be stronger.
With animals, Hughes tried to show the primitiveness of mankind and let them vent their violent nature – in fact, most of the animals he chose are predatory, hunting animals which may be allegorised to humans. Hughes fought in World War II, witnessed precisely what Britain was going through, and comparing humans to hawks made more sense than comparing them to swans; this also helped to show the destruction that occurred during WWII.
The denouement of the poem is the death of the hawk: once noble, it is smashed onto the ground like a child throwing a tantrum – again, by humanizing nature, it allows the reader to come to terms with the idea of a nature that has been twisted by the presence of humanity. Divinity exists in the description of the hawk (’round angelic eye’), even broken as it is.
‘Hawk in the Rain’ was the titular poem in the collection ‘The Hawk in the Rain’, published in 1957, and dedicated to his first wife, Sylvia Plath. It won the Galbraith Prize, and sold to immediate acclaim from critics, and contains most of his animal poems.