Hurt Hawks

Perhaps the most iconic Jeffers poem, the origin of the title “the wild God of the world,” and a brilliant, boldly naive lyric-narrative—or two. It also stands out among Jeffers poems for having been explained by the author.

I love the line that opens the second part:

I’d sooner, except the penalties, kill a man than a hawk; … (SP 165)

Brutal honesty. Brutal sincerity. That’s Jeffers at his best.

This two-part poem, Jeffers reported, was conceived as two separate poems about two separate birds; one imaginary and one from the poet’s actual experience. The second part of the poem was reported to be inspired by a real hawk of that the poet and his twin sons cared for. What’s more, in a letter to his editor, Jeffers reported having shot the hawk, just as is indicated in the poem. The hawk is said to have been buried in the Tor House courtyard. [1][2]

Though the two hawks are distinct, yet they have much in common. Jeffers even describes them in similar terms. Of the first he says, “the wing trails like a banner in defeat,” then of the second he says, “the wing that trailed under his talons when he moved.”

These twin hawks were not the first hurt hawks in Jeffers’ repertoire. They were contemporaneous to the caged eagle in Cawdor and preceded by the crucified hawk in the Prelude to The Women at Point Sur (WAPS) and the hanged hawks in the main body of the long narrative poem (1927).

He is strong and pain is worse to the strong

The anthropomorphism (pathetic fallacy) in this poem is striking, and more than a little puzzling. Can it truly be said that pain and incapacity are worse to the strong? I suppose the point is that the hawk has become so familiar with might that he cannot easily bear weakness, but does this accurately depict the likely mind state of a wounded hawk? Later in his career, Jeffers would focus more on the pain intrinsic to human consciousness, which yours truly finds more on-target. It may very well be that men of power suffer more from incapacity, but that is more likely an artifact of human consciousness than of power in nature.

The “great redtail” mentioned in the second part matches the mighty and majestic character of the forces depicted in the poem. Only an eagle might be more apropos, though a falcon might be more fitting for the phrase “the fierce rush: the night-herons by the flooded river cried fear at its rising” near the end of the poem, as red-tailed hawks are not inclined to hunt birds, except for the young, the sick, and the wounded.

A marsh hawk (a northern harrier) might have been more fitting for the low bushland of Carmel Point, as unforested, low-lying areas don’t provide many perches for buteos (buzzards) such as the redtail. A marsh hawk, however, would not have matched the majestic theme of the poem.

The poet’s son Garth, who was fond of animals (and birds in particular)—even before his father established himself as the hawk poet, and who personally fed the bird field mice that he and his brother captured, is reported to have said that the actual hawk that the family cared for was indeed a harrier (a hunter of field mice). [3]

All this considered, I prefer not to take this poem very literally, biographically, or even biologically. Better to suspend disbelief while reading—or better yet reciting—this beauty, and take the poet’s expression of the bird’s mind as a subjective expression of the poet’s awe of the bird. Think of William Blake’s Tiger, for instance. This transcendent depiction of the mind of the raptor is also exhibited in Cawdor, published in the same volume.

. Taking Jeffers’ use of the pathetic fallacy here as an expression of his profound reverence and deep sadness regarding the bird, it may be seen as Jeffers’ most sincerely sentimental poem.

The term pathetic fallacy is somewhat misleading though not inaccurate. It describes a behavior that is indeed a misrepresentation of reality and thus a fallacy, but it is also a human characteristic. It’s something that we do, and we’re not about to stop; therefore it is perfectly appropriate to use it when communicating with the human mind; especially the subconscious human mind.

A poet who commits the pathetic fallacy is simply speaking a human language of anthropomorphism. What makes a poem’s anthropomorphisms effective or ineffective is difficult if not impossible to delineate. The analysis thereof is bound to be highly subjective. One rule of thumb might state that novelty or abnormality in anthropomorphism is good because it gives a sense that the association is fresh from the subconscious intellect (or an uninhibited conscious intellect) and not merely obtained from cultural habits and stereotypes. Novelty alone is not enough, of course. The association must hit home. It must speak to the reader in some way.

Though Robinson Jeffers strove to valorize the inhuman, anthropomorphism is common in his poetry. This is acceptable inasmuch as he wrote for humans. Whether he has used anthropomorphism badly or well must be addressed on a case-by-case basis.

Some other noteworthy examples of anthropomorphism in the poetry of Robinson Jeffers are Gray Weather, The House-Dog’s Grave, Oh Lovely Rock, and Distant Rainfall.

Another hurt hawk, in the form of a man, can be found in the narrative Thurso’s Landing.

@2006 Oxford University Press. Limited preview provided by Google Books.

Hurt Hawks has been included in the following anthologies:

  • The Oxford Book of American Poetry, 2006; ed. David Lehman
  • The Norton Anthology of Poetry, 5th Edition, 2005; eds. Ferguson, Salter, & Stalworthy
  • Twentieth-Century American Poetry, 2003; eds. Gioia, Mason, & Schoerke
  • The Wild God of the World: An Anthology of Robinson Jeffers, 2003; ed. Albert Gelpi
  • The Norton Anthology of Modern and Contemporary Poetry, Third Edition, 2003; eds. Ramazani, Ellman, & O’Clair
  • The Selected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers, Stanford, 2001; ed. Tim Hunt
  • The Norton Anthology of Poetry, 4th Edition, 1996; eds. Ferguson, Salter, & Stalworthy
  • The Columbia Anthology of American Poetry, 1995; ed. Jay Parini
  • The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry, Second Edition, 1988; eds. Ellman & O’Clair
  • The New Oxford Book of American Verse, 1976; ed. Richard Ellman
  • The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry, 1973; eds. Ellman & O’Clair
  • Robinson Jeffers: Selected Poems, Vintage Books, 1965
  • The Oxford Book of American Verse, 1950; ed. F.O. Matthiessen

1. The Women at Point Sur and Other Poems, ed. Tim Hunt, 1977, page 216–17.
2. Ridgeway, The Selected Letters of Robinson Jeffers: 1897–1962, p. 107
3. Tor House Docent Handbook (looking for a better source).