You know the way you can hear a hawk's cry echo down to you as it flies overhead? It's almost as if it's working by sonar, measuring distances with its cry. That's how this poem sounds. The long lines unfurl, each new phrase adding new dimensions of meaning and music.
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
And pain a few days: cat nor coyote
Will shorten the week of waiting for death, there is game without talons. (1-5)
In other places in the poem, the somber, measured tone starts and stops:
You do not know him, you communal people, or you have forgotten him;
Intemperate and savage, the hawk remembers him;
Beautiful and wild, the hawks, and men that are dying, remember him. (15-17)
The punctuation duplicates a kind of shuddering, a stop and start progression. Likewise there's a mix of high and low diction and of sharp consonants and smoother vowels in lines 1-2. Life isn't all sunshine and buttercups. There are battered hawks dying out there, people.
Without the S on this title, you might think the two sections of the poem both relate to the same hurt hawk. That S, plus the specific times mentioned, helps a brother along. This title works like a label, making it easier to get right into the description immediately. The poet is all about accessibility and directness.
The alliteration in the title pairs the two monosyllabic words together in a tight bundle, so they almost become a new idea, the hurt inseparable from the hawk. Somehow it also makes it easier to see these "hurt hawks" both literally and symbolically, that is they are actually hurt birds, but they also will be used to discuss something elemental about what it is to be wounded or unable.
You get the feeling that this poem is set roughly between the wilds and human civilization, where someone walking about town might discover an injured animal, but close enough to the wide open spaces where that animal once roamed free. That fits the topic perfectly: the poem is the intersection of human and animal. And although there are mentions of flight or sky, this poem—like the two injured hawks—is very much earthbound. One hawk lurks under an oak-bush (6). The other wanders "the foreland hill" (23) near a "flooded river" (27).
The time span differs from section to section. In the first, we hear that it's been a week. In the second stanza, the speaker says that he's been tending to the hurt hawk for six weeks before he admits defeat and mercifully kills the bird. It's interesting to see that in both sections, the speaker specifies the duration of each bird's suffering. By that, he also implies the duration of the speaker's own involvement with each bird. He's feeling it with them.
The speaker reveals deep feeling, a mixture of respect and concern for nature that never slips into that corny sentimentality you might come to expect from your garden-variety tree hugger. He is a cool customer. In fact, we bet he wouldn't be offended by any comparisons to a hawk, as long as you don't make fun of his beady eyes. He's got that kind of self-assurance verging on arrogance. When he sneers at "you communal people" (15) you know he's not talking about himself. He sees himself as an adamant outsider. A lone wolf… or hawk as it were.
In the first line of the second stanza, the speaker enters the poem with a personal announcement, "I'd sooner, except the penalties, kill a man than a hawk" (18). This is someone who is law-abiding, but solidly on the side of the natural world. You might call him a predecessor to an eco- activist. He's that kind of radical.
Then, in line 22, he says, "We had fed him for six weeks, I gave him freedom." Here he sounds like a caring family man, one who has tried to nurse this creature back from his injury, while also allowing the animal its freedom. While tending the animal, he has the utmost respect, which he demonstrates in the final act, by finally shooting the hurt hawk.
Although you can get the gist of this poem upon first read, you have to fly up about the trees to see it for all it is. The bird parts, yeah, they're right there. But when Jeffers brings up things like the wild God of the world, you need two good wings to see what he means.
It takes one to know one. Hawks are certainly Jeffers' totem animals. They embody his ferocity, singularity, his vision, his coolness. Birds of prey, and hawks in particular, are everywhere in Jeffers poems. A word search of "hawk" in his selected poems comes up with 118 hits. The dude's borderline obsessed.
The qualities he sees in these birds are his own: strong, arrogant, with "intrepid readiness, the terrible eyes" (12), "intemperate and savage" (16). Maybe most important to this poet, who coined the phrase "Inhumanism" to describe his philosophy, is his feeling that these animals have a closer connection to divinity. They remember "the wild God of the world," unlike the "communal people" (15). This is Jeffers in all of his rugged independence—a veritable hawk himself.
Don't be so all human-o-centric. This poem encapsulates Jeffers' pantheistic belief that humans are not the center of the universe, as much they might think and act like it. They're just a part of the web, and not even close to the most impressive, compared to some regal animals, like hawks.
Inhumanism, he said in his preface to The Double Axe, his career-killing volume of anti-war poems, is "a shifting of emphasis and significance from man to not-man; the rejection of human solipsism and recognition of the transhuman magnificence. […] It neutralizes fanaticism and wild hopes; but it provides magnificence for the religious instinct, and satisfies our need to admire greatness and rejoice in beauty" (source).
You might think that Jeffers was describing the same hawk if he hadn't added that essential S and broken the poem into two (unequal) parts. Each part focuses on a different occasion, but they're both very related.
Here's the thing. It's hard to know what a poet's intention is just by reading a poem. Maybe Jeffers wrote two poems about hurt hawks at different times and one day was looking through his files and said, "hey, these two poems would work great together." If that's the case, then the two parts can help you realize this sort of thing isn't a one off. Here's a guy who makes a practice of studying the animals around him. They make him think.
The lines are unrhymed and mostly in free verse, and are of varying lengths. It makes sense that the content of these lines is about sky and limits, both of these creatures' mobility and, finally, their lives. The lines alternate, long and short, making you think of duration and abrupt ends.
Taking a (wide) page from Walt Whitman's book, Jeffers is famous for the long line that sometimes has to wrap around to fit. Such long lines are offset by shorter bits, which break up the look of the poem, but also call attention to some of its key ideas:
No more to use the sky forever but live with famine
And pain a few days: cat nor coyote
Will shorten the week of waiting for death, there is game without talons. (3-5)
You know how time seems to fly when you're having fun, and drag when you're at the dentist? It's all based upon perspective. What may be a short time for a cat or coyote might seem like eternity to a hurt hawk.
Jeffers' earlier verse was in strict meter and rhyme, but he felt that was conventional and later was totally embarrassed by his earlier work, to the point where he wanted to drown the early poems. But you still can hear iambic echoes here and there in this poem:
I'd sooner, except the penalties, kill a man than a hawk; (Line 18)
The classic meter of this line makes it oh so quotable. There's something about the old classic forms that makes whatever you say all the more elegant. It's like the saying that the phone book read in French sounds romantic. Almost anything given meter will seem, well, more poetic. It adds authority to any declaration, and this line definitely stands out among the rest
The combination of free verse and more controlled meter could remind readers of the range and limits of the hawk's own freedom. In any case, the variety certainly keeps things lively.
Yeah, we know: the title of the poem is about hawks, the poem is all about hawks—how can they also be symbols? Doesn't that go right against everything that Jeffers believed, that the world itself was itself, not how people imagined it? But hey, nobody said that poetry was going to be without contradictions.
Just so you know, this poem is actually about hurt birds. So sue a poet for letting thoughts about them bring him to other bigger ideas about dying or God. Jeffers is a self-avowed pantheist, remember (source). Everything is connected. More than anything else, this hawk seems like a kind of role model for the speaker himself. He'd like to have that same ferocity in the face of pain and imminent death.
There's no way around it. Our bodies are just a bunch of stuff. Normally, when you're feeling fine and nothing hurts, you can forget about the matter of your matter. But just whack your thumb with a hammer, and suddenly you're all too aware of this nub of flesh that knocks against everything.
When Jeffers does use figurative language, it's to show how different a live, healthy being is from a hurt one. He does this by objectifying various parts of that body. Check it out:
No birds. No bees. Just hawks.