Hughes included ‘Hawk Roosting’ in his second book of poetry called Lupercal, which was published in 1960. Hughes was met with almost instant acclaim in 1957 after his first book of poetry, ‘The Hawk in the Rain’, was published; it catapulted Hughes into the spotlight. Hughes was born in England in 1930; he received his formal education at Cambridge, and he even served in the Royal Air Force. Hughes married American poet Sylvia Plath in 1956. Hughes and Plath had two children, but the majority of their marriage was rocky and unstable. Plath ended her life in 1963. Hughes served as Poet Laureate from 1984 until his death of cancer in 1998. Birthday Letters, the last book of poetry published before his death, explored the complex relationship he shared with Plath.
‘Hawk Roosting’ is written as a dramatic monologue and is told from the point of view of a hawk. The hawk details all the things in nature that are available to him. He perches in the tall trees, sleeping and looking for his prey. He believes all that is around him exists for him and only him. He revels in his predatory nature, fearing nothing and staking his claim on everything. He sees himself as almost god-like; all that is around him is the way it is because he deems it to be that way.
You can read ‘Hawk Roosting’ here.
Analysis of Hawk Roosting
The hawk serves as the speaker of this poem; his tone is confident and almost haughty at times, although his belief in his superiority appears to be more steeped in honesty than it does in false bravado. The hawk continuously uses the pronoun “I” throughout the course of the work. Another interesting fact to note about the poem is that Hughes has written it entirely in the present tense, which adds to the sense that the hawk has always been, and will always be, at the top of the food chain.
I sit in the top of the wood, my eyes closed.
Or in sleep rehearse perfect kills and eat.
In the first stanza, the hawk seems to be deep in meditation. He does not feel threatened by anything in the wild, and therefore, he can easily close his eyes and not worry about his surroundings. He is perched in a tree where he can easily look down on the forest he inhabits. Hughes uses interesting diction in this stanza in order to create imagery. He writes, “Between my hooked head and hooked feet…” which emphasizes the dangerous and sharp beak and claws of the bird. In line four, the hawk tells the reader that he is able to perform the perfect kill even in his sleep.
The convenience of the high trees!
And the earth’s face upward for my inspection.
In the second stanza, the hawk conveys to his reader how easy and convenient his life is. Everything in nature, it seems, has been made for the sake of his pleasure and ease. In line five, the hawk seems to be marveling at how much nature has given him; he is so emphatic that he even uses an exclamation point to convey his feelings. The trees are high for him; the air is buoyant, making it easy for him to glide; the sun’s ray gives him warmth. He claims that all of these aspects of nature make his life more convenient. Hughes also creates a parallel between up and down. All is below the hawk; the earth sits below him so that he can inspect it from his perch. This dichotomy reflects the superiority of the hawk.
My feet are locked upon the rough bark.
Now I hold Creation in my foot
In this stanza, the hawk is announcing his perfection to his reader. Again, he draws attention to his sharp claws, locked into the tree limb as he perches. He explains that it took Creation—probably capitalized here in order to represent God—everything He possessed in order to produce just one of the hawk’s feet, and each and every feather on his body. This stanza gives an image of a higher power hard at work, slaving over how to create such a great and powerful being. Now, the hawk proclaims, he, himself, is God, more powerful than any being on both Earth and in Heaven.
Or fly up, and revolve it all slowly –
My manners are tearing off heads –
The hawk is essentially saying that he can do whatever he pleases. He can fly slowly through the air, taking in all of the sights beneath him. He can kill wherever he pleases because all of the world belongs to him. There is no need to lie or pretend otherwise because the hawk can prove his power by tearing off the heads of his victims.
The fourth stanza does not end neatly; again, Hughes carries the thoughts of the hawk into the fifth stanza.
The allotment of death.
No arguments assert my right:
The hawk is so god-like in this stanza that he says he chooses who lives and dies. The one flight he makes is the one he takes to kill his prey. There are no arguments necessary because he is all-powerful.
The sun is behind me.
I am going to keep things like this.
The sixth and final stanza closes ‘Hawk Roosting’ in an absolute way. The hawk claims that the world has not changed since he was created. Since then, it has been perfect and permanent. He says it has not changed because he has not allowed it to do so.
Particularly in Ted Hughes’ earlier poetry, he liked to use nature to symbolize the plight of man. In ‘Hawk Roosting’, one can easily compare the hawk to a human, unarguably the most powerful and resourceful being on the planet.