Hurt Hawks

Perhaps it’s cheating to suggest that my two favorite poems in the first 200 pages of Jeffers’ Selected Poetry are “Shine, Perishing Republic” [ a poem I cited much earlier on my blog, certainly one of the best protest poems I’ve ever read] and “Hurt Hawks” because they are both widely anthologized. Considering the other choices, it’s not surprising that they were excerpted.

Of the two, “Shine, Perishing Republic” is by far my favorite, a snap shot of much of my own attitude towards trends in America that I find particularly disturbing, though my “love of man” seems to extend somewhat farther than Jeffers’ love does.

I also find much to admire in:



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.

He stands under the oak-bush and waits
The lame feet of salvation; at night he remembers freedom
And flies in a dream, the dawns ruin it.

He is strong and pain is worse to the strong, incapacity is worse.
The curs of the day come and torment him
At distance, no one but death the redeemer will humble that head,

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

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.


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

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

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

It’s not accidental that many team mascots are birds of prey, because they symbolize a freedom and independence many of us can only dream of, not to mention their place near the top of the food chain, especially important in sports, though perhaps less important in real life.

That said, I’m still a little uncomfortable with the lines “I’d sooner, except the penalties, kill a man than a hawk.” and “You do not know him, you communal people, or you have forgotten him.”

I’ll have to admit that I identify with the first line to a certain extent. I’ve said that I’d be more apt to kill a man than a deer, at least a man who was breaking into my house or one who threatened me. I can’t imagine any circumstances, other than hitting one on the highway, where I’d kill a deer. I’m afraid if I had to do my own personal killing, I’d be limited to eating fish and vegetables. The more bothersome phrase is “except the penalties,” for I can’t imagine wanting to kill a man where there would be penalties.

The other line, the one about “you communal people” is even more bothersome because it would seem to imply that most people aren’t as noble as a hawk because they depend on each other. I suppose that would mean that wolves are inferior to hawks, too, because they run in packs. Or that a Red-Tail Hawk is superior to a crow because crows flock together.

I value my independence as much as anybody I know, sometimes to the point of annoying others that I truly love, but I still recognize the common good as more important than my own personal good.

I’m not the only person who’s ambiguous about this poem. Various opinions on it are offered here.

9 thoughts on “Hurt Hawks”

  1. I love the words “the wild God of the world.” Not a tame God. That way of thinking is what I like so much about Robinson Jeffers. For me, Jeffers speaks of mystery and awe and fierce love. He lives with and writes about his contradictions. He doesn’t fit into any religious tradition. My favorite collection of Jeffers’ poems and poem fragments was published in a book of photographs of Big Sur and titled NOT MAN APART, with a foreward by Loren Eisley, edited by David Brower, published in 1965.

  2. I read “except the penalties” as “except for the penalties.” He’d rather kill a man than a hawk, except that if he killed a man, there would be penalties, whereas he could get away with killing a hawk without penalties. His words imply, to me, that if there were no penalties for killing a man, he would do so over killing a hawk, but that since there are penalties for the murdering of humans, he will not kill the man.

  3. I am trying to find the poem by Robinson Jeffers that contain the words (something like) whittled so fine the antelopes leg.. wolf’s tooth.. hawk’s eye

    Can you help?

  4. Sorry, but I’ve just finished reading over 600 pages of Jeffers, and those words appear several times, particularly hawk’s eye but I couldn’t identify which poem they are all found in.

  5. Thanks, am.

    Turns out that appears on page 563 of the new Selected Poems and I’m only of page 529.

  6. I was in Big Sur in 1970.
    A few years later, after I moved to Cape Canaveral, I purchased “Not Man Apart”, the only Sierra Club book I own. Robinson Jeffers the only poet I’ve enjoyed fully. His poem of the hawk shouts loudly about ethics and individuality.
    I could teach a full college semester on this volume and his verses.

  7. Loren,

    I too find these poems (Shine Perishing Republic & Hurt Hawks) among my own personal favorites of Jeffers, though I also recommend ‘Rock and Hawk’ to anyone.

    As far as the line “you communal people”, I have always read that much differently than the interpretation you offer. Rather than commenting on the nobility of a hawk acting solo versus people acting together, I always found the speaker to be making reference to a trend that many before and after have noted: that in coming together with others, part of the freedom/wildness of the self is lost. This is perhaps most famously touched on in Freud’s ‘Civilization and It’s Discontents’ where the initial joining together of people in a community marks the tragedy of human existence and loss of freedoms. When the speaker of the poem says, “You do not know him [the WILD God of the world], you communal people, or you have forgotten him”, I always read him to be saying, “you do not know/have forgotten your essential nature, your independence, your freedom, your inherent WILD nature”. Here, I interpreted the word ‘wild’ in “the wild God of the world” much as Mary Oliver uses it in her famed line: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

    Though, I think you are wise to note the ‘alone’ vs ‘together’ dynamic that exists here and in much of his writing. It reminds me of Rilke’s ideas on aloneness and love.

    For me, I always read Jeffers as re-interpreting a line of thought that goes back to Freud and beyond: that our nature as a human being, that wild nature, is lost in communal life and that our understanding of the world and the ‘wild God’ that governs it is lost as societies create tamer Gods (i.e. New Testament God of Love/Peace replacing the Old Testament God of Smiting/Rawness).

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