HAWK ROOSTING SUMMARY
A CLOSE READING OF THE HUGHES’ HAWK ROOSTING (H.L.B.MOODY)
Our first reading of this poem again leaves us with a slight sense of bewilderment, in that it present us with something not immediately and completely coherent, something different from anything. The title guides us a little at first. ‘Hawk Roosting’-hawk, a bird of prey, we think: ‘roosting’ (related to ‘resting’): the taking up of a position on a tree or other high object by a bird during the night, or when not other wise engaged. As we read the poem through, perhaps several times, we notice the series of short abrupt statements of which it is composed, and we see also that they all involve forms of the first person’ (I, my, me, mine). If our imagination is reasonably flexible, it does not takes us long to see that the words of the poem represent the thoughts, in a kind of internal monologue, which the writer supposes to be running through the mind of the hawk. Whether our knowledge of hawks is based on our personal observations, on pictures in books, on captive specimens in zoos, or from examples seen in films or television programmes, we are reminded by the poem that the hawk always gives an impression us an unmistakable picture of the hawk through a few characteristic details-hooked head…….hooked feet’, but it goes further than this and gives us a vivid impression of the spirit, or character of the hawk-of the particular manifestation of the life-force that is seen in it. In the background of our mind now arise all the animal fables we have come across in our lives (they occur in the traditional literature of every culture in the world), in which animals are given individual characters, are able to speak like human beings, and which are often used to convey some kind of moral lesson. In this poem, we observe, no inverted commas, or speech marks’ are used, and there is no narrative introduction-indeed not even a ‘story’ of any kind. Our attention is concentrated on the hawk itself, characteristically perched on the highest tree in the wood, or forest; and we are asked to follow a sequence of thoughts and opinions which, according to the water’s imagination, are passing through its mind.
Is this just an ‘animal poem’ of e kind that would appear in an anthology under the uue of BIRDS AND BEASTS?’ Quite quickly, I think, we get impression that there is more to the poem than that. As we begin to investigate the development, and to glimpse the intention, we begin to see that here too, as in other traditional animal fables, there is an underlying meaning. The poem certainly begins with the perceptive presentation of just a ‘hawk roosting’, but it goes much beyond that, and we soon understand that, as has happened to so many birds in literature (cocks, hens, geese, swallows, ostriches, frigatebirds, albatrosses, weavers, and nightingales), the hawk is offered as a symbol. But of what?
Nowhere has the writer stated his intention openly’ certainly he affixes no obvious moral or proverb, from which we can grasp his intention without the need for any real thought. He has obviously been writing for fairly sophisticated readers, and I think the significance gradually grows as we read the poem over thoughtfully, until it becomes something of a certainly by the final line.
From the very first line we have an impression of the economical, sparing nature of the language used:
I sit in the top of the wood, my eyes closed
This is followed bluntly by the single word Inaction
which starkly, without the aid of a completed sentence, tells us of the absolute immobility of the hawk, as through deeply involved in inward thoughts. Then we follow the hawk’s reflection that, although it is motionless, it is certainly not ‘dreaming’: no fantasies, visions, speculations or ideals occur in its mind to interrupt the complete coordination between its ‘hooked head’ and its ‘hooked feet’ between the brain whunks and the feet which act. If anything takes place, it is the ‘rehearsal’, the mental repetition of ‘perfect kills’, This suggests, rather gloatingly, the swift sudden, unerring way in which a hawk will swoop down on its prey and carry it off to eat on its lofty perch. The hawk’s pride seems to expand in the second stanza: it is obviously pleased with itself, unafflicted by doubts, hesitations or fears, and expresses itself in an almost arrogant way. The high trees (on which it depends) seem to be there for its own, exclusive convenience, the air, with its supporting buoyancy, on which it rides and soars, the warmth and light of the sun, similarly seem to exist solely for its ‘advantage’. The whole earth spread out below, as the hawk flies or sits on his lofty perch, seems to him to be offering itself submissively for ‘inspection’, as a slave or soldiers might submit to inspection by his master or commander. His hooked feet, which are tightly ‘locked’ upon the branch, seem in his thoughts to signify the complete power, the absolute power, he feels over the whole Creation-as he understands it. And in his mind arises the idea that the whole Creation, the whole universe, with its long painstaking process of evolution, has had no other purpose than to produce him that he is the final culmination, or triumph, of the whole of existence. Now that Creation has evolved him, he in his turn has asserted his power, and assumed control of the processes which have produced him. The passing attention given to the details-‘my foot, my each feather’-conveys the vivid intensity with which the hawk seems conscious of every single element in its make up.
If he chooses of ‘fly up’, he goes on to think, the whole world seems to revolve; according to his own movements. (Those who have travelled in an aeroplane will remember the illusion of the earth appearing to tip up or down, or to swing round, as the pilots operate the controls, and there is no sense that it is the observer in flight who is changing his position). As he flies along, he remembers how he looks for a chance to kill wherever he sees a suitable opportunity; and this, in his self-centred mind, makes him feel like a tyrant with unrestricted power over his subjects, who can act as he pleases without permission, remorse or pity ‘because it is all mine’. His nature is entirely physical and natural; in his body, he thinks, there is ‘no sophistry’, no discussion no deliberation, no ‘dispute of what is fit and not’, no questioning of the truth or the justice of any action. His manners’ (‘manners’ of course, are habits and customs generally observed by whole communities, and usually imply refinement, ‘civilization’, consideration for other people)-his habits go no further tan the ruthless ‘tearing off heads’, the ‘allotment’-the dealing out of death. His existence flourishes upon ‘the bones of the living’. His ‘right’-to do as he pleases-is not based on any argument, or any form of legality, which could be discussed and therefore perhaps challenged-it is absolute:, ‘L’etat c’est moi’ (The State is myself) in the words of Louis XIV, le roi soleil, ‘the sun king’, the absolute monarch of pre-revolutionary France in the early eighteenth century.
At some point, will by now have made the transition from bird life to human life, upon which the poem depends, and which unlocks its symbolism. While we shall continue to recognize that each of the statements or sentiments attributed to the hawk do match its physical, hawk-like qualities, the real topic of the poem has broadened out, and what we are considering is the extension of the hawk into human affairs, whether in history or in the contemporary world. We find we are thinking about the phenomenon of powerful, ruthless, deadly physical force, unsupported by any kind of legality or morality, and devoid of any mercy, humanity, or humility. Of such power the hawk is a perfect symbol-and we recall how many of the mighty rulers, the great tyrants of history, have adopted birds of prey (the eagle, the falcon) or beasts of prey (the lion, the leopard, the wolf) as their personal emblems.
As we read through to the end of the poem, each additional detail confirms this interpretation. The sun is ‘behind’ the hawk, both literally as he searches the earth for prey, and also in his mind “Symbolically, in the sense. that the sun, the great source and preserver of life, helps to maintain and guarantee his power. His eye, severe, unflinching-the imperious all-seeing eye of the bird of prey-‘permits’, as he supposes, –
no no change’: no evolution of institutions, no reforms, no improvement, challenge to his authority. The final line of the poem proclaims, with any doubt, his satisfaction with the status quo, with the existing system, and his determination to keep things like this’. There is no need for us to mention names, but anyone acquainted with world affairs can thinks of any number of people (whether Kings, Presidents, Dictators, or Prime Ministers) whose attitude to their subjects and their communities is neatly and sharply condemned in this poem. Perhaps 100, on a smaller scale, every lesser human community will provide examples of the same autocratic tendency.
There is, however, still more to this poem, and at a deeper level it is condemning more than individual tyrants. Certain allusions and references justify us in assuming and that the ultimate aim of the poet’s attack is Man himself; and that the hawk is typical of at least some tendencies of the human race as a whole. We know with what pride we like to think of Man, homo sapiens, as the highest creature in the scale of evolution : our deepest myths and legends express this, for example, the Biblical story of creation reserving Man for the sixth day; and indeed there is little doubt that all the facts of history and of science support this view. And as time goes on, the view seems to become more and more plausible; as technological powers, eliminating a disease here, synthesizing a new form of life there; restoring fertility to deserts, throwing his satellites out ever deeper into space, there is a great tendency for men to adopt the view that they do in fact ‘hold Creation’ in their grasp. To many thoughtful people, howeversome with a religious point of view, some with a purely humanistic philosophy-this seems a thoroughly misguided and conceited, let alone a blasphemous, view. The ancient Greeks in their tragedies made frequent use of the idea of the chastisement of ‘hubris’, the disaster and punishment which befell men of excessive pride. Certainly a more sober look around the world with its problems of cynicism, superstition, intolerance, war, racial strife, mental disease, suicide and trivial aimless living should be a salutary check to any human being inclined to be too pleased with the progress of the human race; and he may realize that far more difficult problems confront the human race
than can be solved by the ‘manners’ of the hawk, determined merely ‘to keep things like this’.
We can say therefore that this poem, by presenting a grimly horrifying picture of insensitive and arrogant power, makes an urgent plea for the preservation of civilized values in human affairs.
‘Hawk Roosting’ is a poem in which ‘meaning’ and ‘technique’ and so closely interwoven that they can hardly be separated, and many of the more usual matters for commentary and ‘appreciation’ hardly seem to arise. If we search the poem for more formal, recognizable aspects of technique, we observe that it has no regular meter, no rhyming pattern (apart from ‘feet’/ ‘eat); few unusual words suggesting a resourceful vocabulary: no ingenious simile or metaphors. Yet the poem certainly gives us a great impression of compactness, organization and force. How is this achieved?
The poem has an irregular line-by-line structure: the lines are of unequal length, with no regular stresses apart from those given by the normal speech stresses, but each one seems to contain a significant new slab of meaning to add to what has gone before, and the mental effort needed to assimilate each line to what has gone before gives the poem a slow, weighty movement. The grouping of four lines at a time into a very plain stanza form again contributes to the steady, measured growth of the ideas of the poem, and one may sense a remorseless rhythmic effect in the poem as a whole, which is the dramatic counterpart of the
heavy, resistant mind of the hawk, and of what the hawk symbolizes.
The choice of words is also interesting. While no single word or expression is unusual or far-fetched, the poem is not easy’ to read : it just cannot be read quickly or lightly. Partly this is because the writer seems deliberately to have avoided any of the usual ‘word-grease’, the familiar collocations, the quickly recognized word groups which helps us smoothly to enter into a situation (e.g. Ladies and Gentlemen!, Once upon a time! This is the story of …….). Every single word needs careful evaluation in its context, just as much by a native English speaker as by a second-language student. It is also due to the fact that so many of the expressions from which the writer has built have the poem up
a strong ironic element in them, i.e. they invite us to interpret them at two levels of significance. The apparently simple, colloquial phrases which aptly fit the rather unsophisticated mind of the hawk.
..the convenience of the high trees!
………..of advantage to me..……….
..it is all mine
…the sun is behind me
..I am going to keep things like this
also expresses its colossal, self-centred impertinence; and the process of following up the two layers of meaning again prevents us from rushing-through the poem in a superficial way.
Just imagine how much would be missed by a reader who did not respond to the ironical double meaning of the poem : it would seem a rather rough, ugly, ineffective piece of writing. In fact, this seems to be one of the subtlest, and yet most powerful pomes of the century. (Adapted from A.L.B. Moody’s Literary Appreciation)
TEXT OF THE POEM SUBSTANCE OF THE POEM
The entire poem is narrated in the first person and hence it is looked upon from the hawk’s perspective. Talking to himself on the branch of a tree, the hawk considers himself to be at the centre of this universe. He thinks that he hold the key to the whole mystery. The hawk is completely free from false ideas, dreams, illusions and arguments which distract and refrain human beings from their singleminded pursuit of goals or objective. Everything in the world of Nature is favourable to the Hawk’s position on the topmost bough of the tree the congenial high trees, buoyant air, beams of the sun and the earth’s upward movement facing the sky. His feet are held tightly on the rough bark of the tree. The hawk feels that he is at the central position of the whole creation because creation has taken full care to create or nurture his body and limbs such as feet and feathers. He is at liberty to moan or wander at his own will because there is none to
hinder or obstruct his movement. He is the embodiment of authority and domination. He can fly to and fro; he can’kill what he likes and where he likes. Because everything is under his supervision or tutelage. His body is flexible and he is careless. He asserts that nothing in the world has changed since his creation because he does not permit anything to undergo and transformation. In a nutshell, the hawk regards. himself independent, autonomous, all-power and all-pervasive. In these respects, he compares himself to God.
ANNOTATIONS, WORD-MEANINGS, EXPLANATION
Hawk-a bird of prey, a rapacious bird; a bird that kills other birds and animals. Roosting-resting; taking rest or shelter. The Hawk is sheltering on the branch or bough of the tree. I-refers to the hawk. The entire poem has been described or told in the first person narrative technique. That is why, everything has been viewed from the hawk’s point of view. Top of the wood-the topmost twig or branch of the tree. Inaction-passivity, indifference, lack of action. Falsifying-illusory, false, baseless etc. Hooked head-tight head. Rehearse-practice, exercise once again. .
Convenience-advantage, congenial position. Buoyancy-that can be easily moved or tossed; flexibility. Ray-beam. Inspectioninvestigation, probe, inquiry etc….
Locked upon-tightened. Rough bark-uneven bark of the tree on which the hawk sits.
Revolve-move about in a circle. Sophistry-apparently true but actually false; illusion, hallucination.
Allotment-distribution. Assert-explain in an emphatic manner.
A CRITICAL COMMENTARY ON HUGHES’S HAWK ROOSTING
The poem which really established Hughes’s reputation and got into all the anthologies was ‘Hawk Roosting?. This poem, we were told, was a brilliant tour de force in entering the consciousness of a hawk. At one level it is certainly that. The whole poem is in the first
person-a hawk’s eye view of the world. The hawk, taking himself to be the exact centre, assumes that tree, air, sun, and earth are there for his convenience; that the purpose of creation has been solely to produce him; that the world revolves at his bidding; that all other creatures exist only as prey; that his eye is stronger than change or death: It took the whole of Creation To produce my foot, my each feather : Now I hold Creation in my foot Or fly up, and revolve it all slowly
The sun is behind me. Nothing has changed since I began. My eye has permitted no change. I am going to keep things like this.
At a deeper level the hawk becomes a spokesman for Nature herself and speaks in accents close to those of Whitman when he permits Nature (without check, with original energy’) to speak through him :
I know I am solid and sound, To me the converging objects of the universe perpetually
I know I am deathless…….. I see that the elementary laws never apologize…….. I exist as I am, that is enough…….. My foothold is tenon’d and mortis’d in granite……….
(‘Song of Myself, 20)
All forces have been steadily employ’d to complete and delight me,
Now on this spot I stand with my robust soul. (Ibid., 44) Nature speaks through Tennyson too, a Nature ‘red in’tooth and claw’, a loveless, careless, ravenous Nature :
She cries ‘A thousand types are gone : I care for nothing, all shall go. Thou makest thine appeal to me :
I bring to life, I bring to death : The sprit does but mean the breath : I know no more’.
Tennyson had built has faith on the assumption that love was Creation’s final law. When Nature undeceived him he could only cry. Are God and Nature then at strife?
In Hughes we find neither the admiration of Whitman nor the anguish of Tennyson. All these animal and nature poems get their characteristic tension from the attempt to fuse into a unified response both admiration and horror. The reconciling sprit might be described as one of awe. This was certainly the spirits in which the ancient Egyptians saw the hawk :
Under the name Hor-which in Egyptian sounds like a word meaning ‘sky’-the Egyptians referred to the falcon which they saw soaring high above their heads, and many thought of the sky as a divine falcon whose two eyes were the sun and the moon. The worshippers of his bird must have been numerous and powerful; for it was carried as a totem on prehistoric standards and from the earliest times was considered the preeminent divine being. The hieroglyph which represents the idea of ‘god’ was a falcon on its perch.
(Larousse Encyclopaedia of Mythology, 21) In other words, a hawk roosting was ‘god’. In his London Magazine interview (January 1971) Hughes said of his hawk :
That bird is accused of being a fascist…….the symbol of some horrible totalitarian genocidal dictator. Actually what I had in mind was that in this hawk Nature is thinking. Simply Nature. It’s not so simple may be because Nature is no longer so simple. I intended some Creator like the Jehovah in job but more feminine. When Christianity kicked the devil out of Job what they actually kicked out was Nature…….and Nature became the devil. He doesn’t sound like Isis, mother of the gods, which he is. He sounds like Hitler’s familiar spirit. There is a line in the poem almost verbatim from job.
Indeed Job’s god is the god of hawks:
Doth the hawk fly by thy wisdom, and stretch her wings toward the south?
Doth the eagle mount up at thy command, and make her nest on high?
She dwelleth and abideth on the rock, upon the crag of. the rock, and the strong place. From thence she seeketh the prey, and her eyes behold afar off,
Her young ones also suck up blood and where the slain are, there is she. (Job: 39: 26-30)
And Job’s God speaks like Hughes’s hawk :
Whatsoever is under the whole heaven is mine.(Job 41: 11) I kill where I please because it is all mine. (‘Hawk Roosting’) That was before Jehovah because the God of Love; before be became Jehovah, for Job called him such primate names as EI, Eloah and Shaddai.
In Job we find God still acknowledge as his own the most’ crude and savage powers of nature-behemoth and leviathan. Behemoth is clearly phallic:
Lo now, his strength-is in his loins, and his force is in the navel of his belly. He moveth his taillike a cedar : the sinews of his stones are wrapped together. He is the chief of the ways of God. (job 40:16ff Leviathan represents the unkillable, untameable dragon (libido) of the
Behold, the hope of him is in vain : shall not one be cast down even at the sight of him? (job 41:9)
w Latter the Hebrews to accommodate their God to human morality, handed Nature over to the devil. For in terms of the Christian ethic, or of any sort of human morality, the hawk is evil or mad. An example the poem directly evokes than Hitler is Shakespeare’s Richard of
For the one path of my flight is direct Through the bones of the living Is a paraphrase of Richard’s For many lives stand between me and home.
(3 H. VI. III. Hi 173)
The hawk’s solipsism is also Richard’s :
I am myself alone.
(v. vi. 83)
By attributing to the hawk a consciousness which can express itself in out language and concepts, the poem also invites us, though we envy.the hawk his centrality, his freedom from the falsifying dreams, sophistries and arguments which distract and deflect men, to count the cost of letting such energies loose in a man.
1.* The convenience of the high trees! The air’s buoyancy and the sun’s ray Are of advantage to me;
And the earth’s face upward for my inspection.
These lines have been taken from Ted Hughes’ notable poem, Hawk-Roosting. These lines have been uttered by mother than the hawk himself. In these lines, the hawk wants to express his ego-centric nature by presenting himself to be at the centre of the whole creation. He tells that everything in the universe-the earth, the sky, the rays of the sun and the atmosphere-is propitious to him. The hawk thinks that he can have a clear look at everything under the sun.
These lines are expressed through the consciousness of the hawk and it is the first poem in which Ted Hughes lets an animal speak in the first person.
My feet are locked upon the rough bark. It took the whole of Creation To produce my foot, my each feather.
Now I hold Creation in my foot
Or fly up, and revolve it all slowly
I kill where I please because it is all mine.
These lines constitute a part of Hawk Roosting, an important animal poem by Ted Hughes. These lines have been pronounced by the hawk who is the speaker in the poem.
In these lines, the hawk is speaking in the first person narrative technique and he has presented himself as the acme of all evolution in Nature. The hawk tells that his feet are tightly tied to the uneven bark of the tree on which he is sitting. He has held the key to the mystery of the whole creation. He asserts that the Almightly has taken minutest care to create his foot, his feather and limbs. He thinks that he has the key to unfold the whole mystery of the universe. He can fly up and down at his own desire.
The note or spirit of authority and dominance has been strongly asserted by the hawk. He tells that he is not subordinate and subservient to the whims and caprices of others. Rather he opines that he is the dictator. He is at the helm of all earthly and unearthly affairs. He has the supreme sway or domination over others.
3. There is not sophistry in the body: My manners are tearing off headsThe allotment of death, For the one path my flight is direct Through the bones of the living. No arguments assert my right. These lines have been taken from Ted Hughes’ Hawk-Roosting. These lines have been spoken by the Hawk himself.
In these lines, the hawk has been projected as a ferocious and predatory bird who like Nature is blind to everything else except its own purpose. He is completely free from arguments and sophistries and is solely concerned with the distribution of death. He is reluctant or careless to offer any explanation for his mischievous deed because he thinks that it is weak human beings who impart justification and
plea for anything they accomplish. The hawk has a firm belief in his power and does not bother at all about rationalizing his actions.
In these lines, the hawk represents the suppressed irrational elements in the unconscious mind of man and the evil that Christianity tried to exclude by accepting it as separate entity, apart from being good. It is needless to mention that the bird that Hughes has chosen as a symbol for this Darwinian Nature is the hawk, a fierce and predatory animal.
4. The sun is behind me. Nothing has changed since I began. My eye has permitted no change. I am going to keep things like this.
These lines form the concluding stanza of Ted Hughes Hawk
Roosting. These have been told by the hawk who is the speaker here. Through the first-person narrative of the hawk, the poet here sums up the ruthlessness, ferocity and single-mindedness of Nature which the hawk symbolizes. The hawk points out that he is at the centre of the whole creation. The Sun is just behind him. Nothing has changed ever since he came into existence and he has seen that no change has occurred.
The language of the hawk is very close fascist language and he may stand for fascism and absolutism. But the fact is that Ted Hugnes has taken him as a representative of an irrational or supra-rational force outside human being that governs the whole universe in its own mysterious, ruthless and incomprehensible manner.