"Hurt Hawks" shows great admiration and sympathy for the hawk as a strong wild creature who never yields even in misery to his baser instincts, will not be drawn to self-pity or dependency on others, will not suffer humiliation even when wounded, but will face pain and death without flinching. Jeffers sees the hawk, "intemperate and savage," as closer in spirit to what he calls "the wild God of the world" than are the "communal people," who band together in fear for self-protection. The speaker of the poem is a hunter with a rifle, who admits quite openly that l’d sooner, except the penalties, kill a man than a hawk," displaying both contempt for man and admiration for a bird of prey. Jeffers's inhumanism in this poem would seem unbearable except that he does not simply condemn man but celebrates natural beauty and wildness, showing a compassion for the hawk that leads him to give it "the lead gift in the twilight," an ironic but fitting death for the proud creature who will never surrender "the old implacable arrogance" and who attains a natural immortality in death, for Jeffers goes beyond naturalism to supernaturalism at the end, portraying the hawk’s soul soaring into the air and causing other birds to cry out at its passing. The ironic inhumanism of Robinson Jeffers is a western attitude, one that sorts well with the rugged wilderness of the California coast and places him as an individual poet at the extreme end of Western civilization.
The portrayal of freedom thus presented a formidable challenge. To capture its elusive and dialectical character, to make it comprehensible not only to his own but to a later time, Jeffers had to find a formulation independent of the vagaries of historical fortune. He did so by juxtaposing man's situational freedom as a moral agent in the world with the unconditioned freedom suggested by certain aspects of natural process. In Jeffers' poetry birds of prey, particularly the hawk and the eagle, came to serve as emblems of such unconditioned freedom. Jeffers did not of course imply that such predators were free in any supervenient sense. Rather, they symbolized the original ontological freedom to which man aspired but could never (as agent) return, thus providing both an imaginative fulfillment and a wry measure of human limitation. "Hurt Hawks," one of Jeffers' most admired poems, ably illustrates the complexities of this interaction. In it the poet, like Michal in "Cawdor," attempts to nurse a crippled hawk:
We had fed him six weeks, I gave him freedom,
He wandered over the foreland hill and returned in the evening,
asking for death,
The inherent falsity of the poet's position is summed up in the presumption of I gave him freedom: as if anyone could "give" freedom and as if -- of all donors and all recipients - a man could give freedom to a hawk. The poet finally understands his obligation and acts upon it. Yet something more is performed than a service, something more accomplished than mere reparation. The "gift" of instantaneous death is not that it is merciful but that it releases, at least in the poet's imagination, the "fierce rush" of the bird's essential freedom, abstracted from condition and circumstance. The recipient of this gift is of course the poet himself, who in this sense is "given" his freedom, or a privileged glimpse of it; but the bond of a true relationship is suggested in the poem's exalted close, the genuineness of an exchange.
Except insofaras the impulse to transcend his own species is uniquely human, Jeffers willingly renounces his kinship with his audience, those "communal people": "I'd sooner, except the penalties, kill a man than a hawk." The line's capacity to shock is intensified by the pun upon "accept," which pulls "Hurt Hawks" even farther beyond the human realm. Jeffers did later offer a disclaimer of sorts, at least according to his wife Una: "'The penalties did not mean only hanging or imprisonment, but also the inner revulsion .... There was no misanthropy involved, but only a comparison.'" This ingenious gloss encourages one to remember D. H. Lawrence's advice about distrusting the artist and trusting the tale. In effect, Jeffers redefines misanthropy to avoid falling under its heading: he loves not man the less but raptors more. Such redefinitions, of course, are a poet's prerogative, but this one trivializes the work that it purports to explain. "Hurt Hawks" undeniably expresses contempt for the reader, in an attempt to kindle a salutary self-loathing. If the reader, as a representative of humanity, is unredeemed, he is not unredeemable. "Communal people" may forget "the wild God of the world," but "men that are dying" do not. By remembering our mortality, which our everyday selves deny, we can become more like the hawks with whom we share it.
Anthologies and the claim "I'd sooner, except the penalties, kill a man than a hawk" have made "Hurt Hawks" one of Jeffers's best known poems. Some have taken the claim as proof of Jeffers's nihilism, others of his passionate advocacy of nature and the wild, and either way, we seem to have here the same sort of doctrinal pronouncement found in the published version of "Sign-Post." But "Hurt Hawks" is, finally, a different sort of poem. Unlike "Sign-Post," it is grounded in a specific situation, and Jeffers chose not to erase his own stake in that situation. It is worth remembering that in "Hurt Hawks" the speaker does kill the hawk with the broken wing in spite of what he claims. In fact part 2 of the poem is largely the speaker's attempt to explain--and come to terms with--having killed the hawk. . . .
Part 1, as it happens, was likely first a separate poem (titled "The Hurt Hawk"), written before Jeffers shot the injured hawk; after killing the hawk, he added part 2. This underscores the difference between the two sections. In part 1, the speaker seems secure in his ability to stand aside, observe his material, and pronounce its lessons (it resembles, that is, "Sign-Post" as published). In part 2, the initial claim--significantly it is implicitly a reaction to his having killed the hawk--marks the moment when the pose of distance drops away and initiates the mix of anguish, guilt, and awe that should remind us that there are two hurt "hawks" in this poem--the injured hawk of part 1 and the grieving "hawk," the speaker, of part 2 (part 2, that is, has something of the same confessional impulse of the initial draft of "Sign-Post" though it is clearly much finer work).
The doubleness of "Hurt Hawks"--not its shocking claim--is what has kept, I'd suggest, readers returning to it. The two parts ground each other, and the poem synthesizes the impulses that in "Sign-Post" remained mutually exclusive. It is simultaneously dramatically personal and yet prophetic in the sense that it bears witness to what Jeffers saw as nature's beautiful and terrible energy. And the way these dimensions interact keeps the poem from being either merely confessional or oppressively didactic. To the extent that we continue to read Jeffers as if he were a humanly one-dimensional figure who versified generalized propositions we will tend to miss the crucial difference between a piece like "Sign-Post" and one like "Hurt Hawks." We will also fail to realize that many other Jeffers poems--including a number of the narratives--are, like "Hurt Hawks," similarly and implicitly dialectical. Missing this, we miss much of the drama, resonance, and actual complexity both of the individual poems and of Jeffers's poetic project and career.
Robinson Jeffers’ son kept a wounded hawk as a pet for a few weeks in the 1920s. Jeffers wrote part 1 of this poem as a complete work before he killed the bird, adding part 2 later. It is famous for the line, “I’d sooner, except the penalties, kill a man than a hawk.” Since he did shoot the hawk, Jeffers is either very sorry about what he did or he doesn’t much care for human life.
Part 1 is descriptive and relatively impersonal. There is no first-person verb and no report of the narrator’s relationship to the bird. We are addressed (as “you communal people” who have forgotten “the wild God of the world”). We have access to the hawk’s inner life, knowing what he dreams of and what god he follows. The hawk does not understand us. I think “game without talons” refers to the food that the hawk is offered by his human captors, without his having to hunt it. The bird doesn’t grasp the meaning of the gift or the people’s intentions; he knows the meat by its bare description. “There is game without talons” is free indirect discourse, the hawk’s perspective taking over the narration.
Part 2 introduces the narrator’s voice and relates how he acted, in three steps: “We fed him for six weeks. … I gave him freedom. … I gave him the lead gift. …” Now the relationship between man and bird is central. The man tries to liberate the hawk, but you can’t give freedom to another creature. The bird returns asking for death. The man does what he is asked. At the end, he holds the dead bird, reduced to a soft object.
This poem has been criticized as didactic. In verse, you are supposed to show, not tell–or so the modernists insisted–but this poem makes general points in the voice of Robinson Jeffers. But is the author serious about the views he expresses here? For instance, did the hawk really ask for death? (Does a bird understand the concept of death as applied to itself, and can it know that a human being might put it out of its misery?) Is there actually a wild God that is merciful to the weak but not to the arrogant?
If the answer to any of these questions is negative, the poem starts to look much more complicated. We do not know what the bird thinks, only how it behaves. We have the testimony of the man about what he has seen and done, but we cannot take any of that for granted. The man has imputed ideas to the hawk and become the god of the bird’s small world. He is in complete control of what we know, just as he controls the animal’s life.
I read the poem not as a didactic statement about nature and life, but as as the unreliable report of a narrator who is unsure whether he should have killed his son’s pet hawk. That narrator is not necessarily Robinson Jeffers. We know that the poet really shot a hawk, but he might have done so without much emotion and derived the idea for a fictional story from the event. All we have is the story with its shifting, partial perspectives and ambiguities.