Give Your Heart has the accessibility of modern, naturalistic prose with a few intervals of poetic imagery and a brief but overbearing sermon from the author on the blessings of a sudden and youthful death. The wording in this poem is less stylized than it had been in Jeffers’ early works, and it is therefore easier to read and understand. It is another of Jeffers’ retellings, this time, of Cain (Lance) and Able (Michael). Significantly longer than Tamar, it is Jeffers’ fourth longest poem—if it can properly be called a poem.
This is, as was common with Jeffers, a tale about human sin, with the initial deadly sins of Cain being jealousy and debauchery, but the greatest sin is guilt. This last, deadliest, and most Judeo-Christian of all sins, the author appears to say through Lance’s wise, caring, and controlling wife Fayne, is an unworthy sin of human consciousness and conscience. Its antidote is, as before, Inhumanism—or so it seems.
Michael Fraser is a fun-loving and amiable person, but Michael seems dangerously close to his brother Lance’s wife, Fayne, and Lance suspects that they are having an affair. At a beach party, Lance lets his jealousy lead him into drunkenness, and in a flash of anger he kills Michael. Guilt consumes him, and he yearns for justice, seeking to turn himself into the authorities, but Fayne—herself not entirely innocent—presses him to keep it to himself. “Oh, give your heart to the hawks for a snack o’ meat, but not to men,” she advises him, sounding like quite the Inhumanist.
As though he hadn’t already devised a mouthpiece in Fayne, Jeffers, for his part, cuts in to argue that Michael’s death is really no tragedy because Michael would inevitably have lived an unhappy life. The argument seems more than a little forced.
Fayne is able to deter her husband from confessing, but she is not able to stop Lance’s guilt, paranoia, and jealousy from devouring him. Jeffers uses a managed burn as a metaphor for the rumors that Lance imagines to be swirling around him. A rabbit is caught by the fire, serving perhaps as a burnt offering “to magic horror away from the house,” or a hint that a hawk may not be far behind.
About his task of managing the fire (and his paranoia), Lance says to his dead brother’s girlfriend, “I must ride around by the oak scrub to see that the fire has checked. I’ve got to be watchful always.” He soon returns and begins to hammer her with probing questions about Michael’s death: “… do people talk much about it? … What lies do they … can’t you speak out?” 1
When the girl hints to Lance that she would do anything for his friendship, he replies with sarcasm, “You faithful women,” recalling his wife’s infidelity, and declares, “I have seen a vision. My eyes are opened I believe.”
Lance then goes out alone, and realizing that he is too afraid of even speaking his dead brother’s name, looks around to make sure no one is around, and speaks out:
I killed Michael. My name is Lance Fraser.
I murdered my brother Michael. I was plastered,
But I caught ‘em at it. I killed my brother Michael.
I’m not afraid to sleep in his room or even
Take over his girl if I choose. I am a dog,
But so are all. 2
The fire marks the outset of a chain of murder and cruelty. Rather than giving his heart to the hawks, Lance strikes out at them. His war on the hawks begins when, amid the fire, he is harried by a phantom old woman, and then sees it is not a phantom but a hawk. He then threatens the hawk:
Go up you devil. / Ask your high places whether they can save you next time. 3
Alone, he stands defiant. He shoots hawks. He hangs them from a fence like trophies. He sets a cooper’s hawk against a gamecock in a death match. Ultimately, apropos to his brother’s murder, he throws himself off a cliff. From the outset and in the end, Fayne’s sage Inhumanist advice does not save her husband from his jealousy and guilt. What does this say about the message of this tale: that the message of Inhumanism is powerless against the self-destructive impulses of the human mind? On the other hand, Fayne may not have been a worthy messenger for Inhumanism, as she never dealt with her husband’s suspicions of her own guilt. This seems to be why he, though conceding to her insistence that he bear his guilt privately, struck violently at her “hawks.” Is this a Freudian lesson in the cost of repressed urges, the urges here being jealousy and guilt? … or a yearning for truth?
This story might be seen to be a little prophetic or at least cautionary, not on the grand stage of world events, but on the personal stage of Jeffers’ marriage, with his aloof hawks and wisdom—and mounting fame—poised against his wife’s irrepressible passion and jealousy.
The land, in this story, seems to be more of a backdrop than a major factor (or even protagonist) as it had been in much of Jeffers’ earlier work.
As in several other works, Jeffers employs ghosts and apparitions in this fable. The first two appear to be tricks of a maddened mind. Toward the end, though, a genuine ghost shows up in the Fraser house, and soon thereafter, Onorio Vasquez, the seer. Finally, at the very end, a shadow appears briefly, which I assume must be Michael’s ghost. Because the ever-rational Fayne is the one that sees him, I suppose we must take him to be non-illusory. This turn toward the supernatural seems to cheapen the story, particularly since it seems to serve little purpose.
Like Thurso’s Landing of the year before, Give Your Heart to the Hawks is located in a place in time that was vanishing as it was written, as Highway One was being constructed at the time. Big Sur had been opened up to easy access from the north in 1932, and the remainder of the project would be completed in 1937, four years after the publication of this poem. At the same time, “Jeffers Country” was growing. Give Your Heart enjoyed the distinction of extending that semi-fictional land south of the town of Big Sur.
The title Give Your Heart to the Hawks has been adopted for a history of the mountain men of the American West by Winfred “Win” Blevins (2005), which in turn served as the source of the feature-length film, the Revenant (2015).
…Oh, give your heart to the hawks for a snack o’ meat, / But not to men.
… I know you are strong enough / To give your heart to the hawks without a cry / And bear it in lonely silence to the end of life.
He was silent, and drew sharp breath and said, “a red-haired one. Ah. / A white one with a red brush. Did you do it with him / Or not?” “Leave that,” she said still; “this choice is now.”
Section VII: The Burn
… I must ride around by the oak-scrub and see that the fire has checked. I’ve got to be watchful always. …
“… I was always / Without companions, and now I’d give anything / To be in your friendship a little.” “Anything?” he said. / “You faithful women. …”
Section X: The Conception
I did violence to you / When I kept you.
John Gould Fletcher, The Dilemma of Robinson Jeffers, Poetry, March 1934
Henry Seidel Canby, North of Hollywood, The Saturday Review of Literature, October 7, 1933