Study Guide

Hurt Hawks

Hurt Hawks Summary

As the title promises, this poem's about two hurt birds—one per section. The first describes a hawk with a majorly messed up wing, who's waiting under a bush for his death. Nothing's going to save this guy. The speaker watches and thinks about the hawk's nature and his knowledge and kinship with a wild god.

Though he says he won't, the speaker does in fact kill the hawk. It's a mercy killing. He's tried to save the hawk for six weeks, but it's no use. When he gives this hurt hawk the "lead gift in the twilight," the speaker witnesses the bird's spirit rising up in a "fierce rush."

  • Stanza 1

    Line 1

    The broken pillar of the wing jags from the clotted shoulder,

    • This bird's got a busted wing. We got the heads up from the title that we'd be dealing with a hurt hawk, and here it is.
    • But look how it's described. "The broken pillar" is a metaphor that makes you think of architectural ruins, something crafted out of marble, maybe. Is that the bone?
    • With the word "jags" we can see the bone jutting out from the flesh. Ouch.
    • "Clotted" makes you think of blood clots. So now we see the bone jutting out of a blood clotted shoulder. Yuck.
    • This is not exactly the most beautiful of images. But hey, it certainly sets a mood.
    • And all of these sharp consonant sounds (broken, jags, clotted)? They totally add to the violence of the injury; you can just feel the sharp edges in this scene.

    Line 2

    The wing trails like a banner in defeat, 

    • Now we can see the wing in greater detail. It's just hanging loosely off the hawk, barely even attached.
    • Jeffers drops a simile on us with that whole banner business. This image might be doing double duty here. Not only does it show how ruined the wing is, but it also might show us the color—white, like a flag of surrender.
    • What's a hawk without his wings? Out of luck, for sure. This poem is not exactly of the uplifting variety. At least so far.

    Lines 3-4

    No more to use the sky forever but live with famine
    And pain a few days: […]

    • This bird will never fly again. Shmoopers, you know what that means: he'll never eat again either. His life last days are only pain. His proverbial goose is cooked.
    • Although most of this poem is written in free verse, these lines are more classically iambic (No more to use the sky forever). The rhythm adds heaviness and seriousness to this bird's doom.

    Lines 4-5

    […] cat nor coyote
    Will shorten the week of waiting for death, there is game without talons. 

    • There are plenty of animals roaming around looking for food, but this guy isn't an easy meal. Neither cat nor coyote (check out that alliteration) wants its face scratched off by those razor sharp talons. He may not be able to fly, but this hurt hawk still can kick some serious butt.
    • Would shortening the week be better? Is that implied? Is the bird wishing the cat or coyote would put him out of one week's misery? Is the speaker? It's a definite (if depressing) possibility.

    Lines 6-7

    He stands under the oak-bush and waits
    The lame feet of salvation; […]

    • So there he is, our hawk, waiting under the oak-bush. He's waiting for death, which is described, oddly enough, as "the lame feet of salvation." Say what?
    • We know his feet aren't lame, though his wing is. The word alone stands (pardon the pun) as a reminder. So what could be meant by "the lame feet of salvation"? Maybe it means that whatever might be coming to save him from his suffering is slowed down, as if lame. It doesn't happen fast enough for him. He wishes death (and therefore salvation) would hurry on up.

    Lines 7-8

    […] at night he remembers freedom
    And flies in a dream, the dawns ruin it.

    • While sleeping, the hurt hawk is free to fly in his dreams. But when he wakes up, he smells the coffee. He's not going anywhere.
    • For a hawk, flight equals freedom and survival. It's in his blood. If he's injured, like this one, flying is not an option.
    • And that's very bad news. Sure, he can fly all he wants in his dreams, but dawn will always come and wake him back to reality. Bummer, dude.

    Line 9

    He is strong and pain is worse to the strong, incapacity is worse. 

    • The bigger they are, the harder they fall. At least, that's what they say, right? Because this bird has been so high and mighty, his current, injured state is all the more painful. He was once able to do just about anything. And now he's stuck on the ground, just waiting for death.
    • It's hard not to think that the speaker is describing more than just a bird here. Doesn't it sound like he could be talking about human beings, too? You know the type: the folks who experience massive success and then crash and burn? Their failure seems all the more painful because of that massive success.

    Lines 10-11

    The curs of the day come and torment him
    At distance, […]

    • The hawk can't fly off, so now he's got to death with the fact that mongrel dogs are lurking around, threatening him. But hey, the hawk's still got those talons, so like the cats and coyotes (with the same C sound), the curs know to steer clear for now.
    • In the word "curs" you can hear "curse," which reminds us of the fatal injury this poor hawk has suffered.

    Lines 11-12

    […] no one but death the redeemer will humble that head,
    The intrepid readiness, the terrible eyes. 

    • Nobody can take the hawk but death. He's that macho. Even injured, this guy is fierce and fearless—curs be darned. One look at his eyes, and you can see he's not going to roll over. He's pretty frightening, even like this.
    • Notice the assonance and alliteration here. All those short E sounds (death, head, intrepid, readiness, terrible), combined with the H sounds in "humble head" really add to the rhythm of the line.

    Lines 13-14

    The wild God of the world is sometimes merciful to those
    That ask mercy, not often to the arrogant. 

    • You're not going to find this speaker on a pew on Sunday. He worships at the church of the hurt hawk. There might be one civilized god who appears to people in their Sunday best, but this wild God of the world exists in nature.
    • Catchy name, isn't it? Catchy enough to become the name of a collection of Jeffers poems, we'd say
    • But like the god of church sermons, this one's more forgiving to those who ask for mercy. He might just give you an easy death, if you asked nicely.
    • But our hawk is more honeybadger than Dudley Do-Right. This hawk is above all that mercy business. He's totally arrogant (so much for that humble business from line 11).
    • This hawk won't be humbled until his dying moment. The irony is that had been more humble—had he asked for mercy—he might have had an easier/quicker exit.

    Lines 15-17

    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. 

    • Is he talking to you? This is the first time the speaker addresses a "you" and it's not very flattering, is it? The speaker says you've forgotten the wild god. Harsh, dude.
    • As a fierce individualist, this speaker's scorn for the sheep-like group that "you" apparently belong to is front and center.
    • When he says, "intemperate and savage," he's referring to the hawk, but he's also describing this wild God. Lines in poetry can read backwards and forwards, like now. This hawk is kind of like an avatar of this wild god.
    • Maybe he's saying that the communal people, so accustomed to living in a group, have lost their nature, have forgotten their wildness—and the awesomeness that goes with.
    • "Beautiful and wild" is another phrase that attaches to the god, the hawks, and the dying men. You can tell by those commas: "him; beautiful and wild, the hawks, and the men that are dying." The three belong to the beautiful and wild club.
    • The cadence or rhythm of this section sounds almost like a sermon, with its repeated phrasing about forgetting and remembering. You know the speaker is saying what he really thinks and feels to be true.
    • This section ends here. We don't see the very end of this hurt hawk's life, but we know it's coming, asked for, or not.
  • Stanza 2

    Lines 18-20

    I'd sooner, except the penalties, kill a man than a hawk; but the great redtail
    Had nothing left but unable misery
    From the bones too shattered for mending, the wing that trailed under his talons when he moved. 

    • Well this is new. The speaker, coming to us loud and clear, says that it would be easier for him to kill one of his own species than a hawk. In other words, he feels greater kinship with the hawk than his fellow humans. That's quite a statement.
    • The only thing that stops him is the law, which punishes murderers but thinks nothing of bird-killers. To him, that's probably one cruel irony.
    • News flash: we're not the center of the universe. With this line, the speaker challenges the whole human superiority complex almost all people have. Why's it so easy for us to kill birds, anyways?
    • Okay, so he doesn't want to kill the hawk. But here comes the "but." Wait for it. The great redtail's wing is so messed up, his life is just pain and misery. (Great phrase, "unable misery," sums up the pain of disability.) There's no hope. You know the speaker's going to have to do the deed, even if he thinks whacking a hawk is bad.
    • Take a look at those long lines. Line 20 is so long it trails under, messing up the neatness of the poem. The awkwardness might just be deliberate. The lines extend so far, you can almost feel the pressure gravity exerts on them, which just adds to the weight of the hawk's injury.

    Line 21

    We had fed him for six weeks, I gave him freedom, 

    • Hard to know who is meant by "we," but you might imagine the speaker's family has nursed this hurt hawk. You know the type of family that always has a couple of injured or baby animals they tend to? That's probably an accurate picture.
    • Six weeks is a long time--long enough to form some serious paternal bonds.
    • Both sections of the poem specify a time span. That and the "s" on "Hurt Hawks" are the only clues that these are two different birds, otherwise you might think the two sections were about two different time periods for the same injured animal.
    • They might have fed him (at a distance, as in the first stanza? You don't want to risk getting slashed by those talons.), but they don't keep the bird indoors. The speaker says, "I gave him freedom," as if hawks could be given such a thing. What he means is that he didn't keep the bird penned or indoors.
    • Listen to the close sounds of "fed him" and "freedom" that give a kind of balance to this line.

    Lines 22-24

    He wandered over the foreland hill and returned in the evening, asking for death,
    Not like a beggar, still eyed with the old
    Implacable arrogance. […]

    • Allowed to roam, this hurt bird goes over hill and dale, unable to actually fly or hunt or do much of anything at all.
    • He comes back by evening.
    • The speaker thinks he's asking to die. Is he? Or is that just a projection of the speaker's own wish? Could he be guilty of anthropomorphizing (giving an animal human traits of motives) the hawk?
    • He asks not like a beggar (humble, low, maybe even a little pathetic), but with eyes still full of "the old implacable arrogance." What's implacable mean again? Basically, this is reference to how tough and uncompromising this guy is. Sure, he's ready for death, but he's not about to beg for it.
    • Nothing is going to calm or soothe him, not nobody, not no how. He may not be his old self in body, but he hasn't lost anything in spirit.

    Lines 24-25

    […] I gave him the lead gift in the twilight. What fell was relaxed,
    Owl-downy, soft feminine feathers; […]

    • They say giving is better than receiving, and in the case of this gift, that is so true. What a euphemism. The truth of this "lead gift" is that the speaker shoots the bird.
    • Twilight just adds a romantic backdrop to the end. To see this as a gift, you have to realize how unbearable this hawk's life had become, not just because of the pain. A fierce creature like this hawk lives to be free and independent, to hunt and do.
    • The speaker prepared you for this, remember? Back in line 19, he said the great redtail "Had nothing left but unable misery." You know he's going to do the mercy killing.
    • After he shoots the animal, he doesn't look away. He's right there, staring at the poor dead bird.
    • And what does he see? The feathers fall down, but look how they're described: "relaxed, owl-downy soft feminine."
    • It seems like in death, the animal can relax and stop being so ferocious. He's totally macho alive. Now he's soft and feminine in death.

    Lines 25-27

    […] but what
    Soared: the fierce rush: the night-herons by the flooded river cried fear at its rising
    Before it was quite unsheathed from reality. 

    • The soft, downy feminine feather might have fallen, but something "soared." But what, exactly? Notice the punctuation, a series of a semi colon, then two colons in quick succession to give this line greater emphasis.
    • Between these halting punctuating marks, short, forceful phrases of single-syllable words describe the sight. This is the poet pulling out all the stops, pardon the pun.
    • What soared is the "fierce rush." It's so fierce that even the night-herons are freaked out. They "cried fear at its rising."
    • There's lots of alliteration and consonance through here (fierce, flooded, fear along with the R sounds of soared, fierce, rush, river, fear, rising, reality), along with the echo of fierce and fear, before, soar. The richness of sound is totally matched by the experience.
    • The whole poem ends in a rushing climax, like you might imagine it would feel like to have your spirit "unsheathed from reality," leaving nothing but that broken body and a few scattered feathers behind.
    • There's even a clever pun. You've got "soared" (26) and then "unsheathed" (27). Released finally, the hawk's spirit is likened to a sword, sharp, honed, manly, and fierce.