Analysis of the Poem "Hawk Roosting" by Ted Hughes
Ted Hughes and Hawk Roosting
Hawk Roosting is a poem that puts the reader into the imagined mind of a hawk about to rest up for the day. It's a monologue of a raptor given the powers of human thinking, thus personified.
It is a typical Ted Hughes animal poem, being unsentimental and unromantic. The poet concentrates on the dominance of the hawk as it sits in the wood reflecting on its raison d'etre, what it is and what it does.
Being at the top of the food chain this bird's instinct is to hunt down quarry; it lives by the deaths of other creatures; it kills in order to survive. It has no enemies except perhaps for humans so it does not fear life as other creatures further down the chain fear it.
Inspired by the rawness of the natural world, the speaker does not shy from explicit description. Some lines in the poem cause controversy because of their direct depiction of the hawk's instinctive behaviour.
Some commentators have remarked on the violence within. Ted Hughes had this to say:
'The poem of mine usually cited for violence is Hawk Roosting, this drowsy hawk sitting in a wood and talking to itself. That bird is accused of being a fascist, the symbol of some horrible genocidal dictator. Actually what I had in mind was that in this hawk Nature was thinking. Simply Nature.'
- So there is this tension set up in the poem between what is instinctive, what can be observed in the natural world by anyone, and the mindset of the hawk itself, given human characteristics. Objective versus subjective. Biological versus political.
Ted Hughes first published Hawk Roosting in 1960 in the book Lupercal and it has been a popular poem since that time, appearing in many anthologies and on many school and college curricula.
I sit in the top of the wood, my eyes closed.
Inaction, no falsifying dream
Between my hooked head and hooked feet:
Or in sleep rehearse perfect kills and eat.
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.
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.
There is no sophistry in my body:
My manners are tearing off heads -
The allotment of death.
For the one path of my flight is direct
Through the bones of the living.
No arguments assert my right:
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.
Analysis of Hawk Roosting - Stanza by Stanza
Hawk Roosting is a poem that creates a special tension between the natural world and the human world, one that Ted Hughes explored a great deal in his animal poems.
- This particular work relies on personification - the bird is speaking to itself, like a human - describing violent scenes, claiming domination, which means that the reader has to wrestle with ideas that go beyond the animal kingdom and into the realm of the human and associated psychological and political issues.
Some critics see in the ruthless behaviour of the hawk for instance, a despot or dictator, a figure that cares only about power, a symbol of the fascist. Ted Hughes never intended this to be the case but the way the poem is worded, detailing explicit violence and arrogant god-like thoughts, the reader can't help but entertain the idea.
The hawk, roosting in the top of a tree in a wood, is given a voice that is human and the ensuing monologue is an attempt to get right into the soul of the raptor and understand just what hawk essence is.
Using single sentences, lots of end stops (full stops), some enjambment and repetition, the stanzas are tightly controlled but given a sense of freedom by lack of rhyme and plodding beats.
The first line is pure innocence. Here is the hawk settling down for a night's sleep at roosting time. The position he holds is secure - at the top of the wood, overseeing all. One thing for certain, this hawk has a mind of its own. It can think, like a human.
The second line gets the reader thinking too. That long four syllable word falsifying has repercussions. At this early stage there is no context for this word, which means to mislead, but it points toward comparison with humans, who are prone to misleading one another. This bird is pure raptor, can't be anything else.
Enjambment leads to line three and the repeated hooked just to emphasise that this hawk is physically impressive and sharp. And those hooked features might be called into action if the hawk falls asleep. Subconscious perfection of future hunts and kills.
This hawk has it all worked out, from tree to earth, his physicality suits. Being high up means that there is an overview, a natural domination. The air's buoyancy (upward force) and warmth are there to be taken advantage of. Even the earth is facing the right way so close inspection comes as a given.
Focus on the feet again as they close tight around the bark on the tree. Note the first lines of five of the stanzas are complete within themselves. End stopped. This means certainty and gives immediate control.
The theme of mastery continues, this time introducing the idea of the whole of Creation being within the grasp of this extremely dominant figure.
- Lines 10 - 12 are a focal point in the poem for they suggest that Creation itself was involved in the making of this hawk and that now, the roles are reversed so to speak. It's the hawk that is holding Creation, becoming the master of all.
- The question has to be asked: Is this the Creation of a Creator or the Creation of Evolution, where the fittest only survive?
Analysis of Hawk Roosting - Stanza by Stanza
The perspective changes as the hawk continues its monologue, which is not a dream as we know it, but a live commentary.
Now the hawk is flying, watching the earth revolve as it makes its way up and up in readiness for a kill. That all important four letter word that first popped up in the opening stanza is here again - kill - I kill - that act which is so common and normal in the predator's world yet is so shocking and hard to handle in the human world.
This is killing with impunity. The hawk has to hunt, it knows no other way and in the poem this fact is expressed with a certain coldness. The language is spare yet full of arrogance and fierceness. Everything belongs to the hawk when it is up in the air and ready to kill; there is no deception, no going back. Heads are torn off. Simple.
The hawk deals out appropriate deaths, that is the purpose of the unwavering path when it is about to strike 'through the bones', a rather terrifying yet effective phrase.
There are no doubts or questions or debate or opinion one way or the other. Fact is fact; it's the whole thing. Nothing can get in the way of the hawk's instinctive actions. It kills without malice; the bird world's permissions are non-existent; environmental guidelines do not apply.
All a hawk needs is the sun. Right now the sun is setting. In the mind of the hawk nothing has changed, nothing ever will change. As long as the hawk has an eye, the all-seeing eye, its will to remain the same shall persist.
This last stanza sums up the hawk's attitude to life and death. In one sense it is a pure ego that is speaking - undiluted, pure, true to itself.
Having given the hawk a human voice Ted Hughes brings the raptor into the world of homo sapiens, that most developed of animals, the most sophisticated, able to consciously decide between the moral and the immoral.
In some ways the hawk becomes a mirror - reading this poem does make the reader think about life and death, power, morals, the relationship humans should have or want with, the natural world.
What force compels the hawk? Evolution? A Creator? How does the personification change the way we think about this raptor, master of its own world, top predator?
Further Analysis of Hawk Roosting
Hawk Roosting is a free verse poem of 6 stanzas, all quatrains. There is no set rhyme scheme and the metre (meter in American English) varies from line to line. On the page it appears formal, tight, restrained - perhaps reflecting the balanced control of the hawk.
Syntax is the way clauses, punctuation, grammar and sentences are put together and in this poem it is quite orthodox. There are no strange eccentricities, no odd line breaks or grammatical quirks.
It gets the business of building a poem done, just as the hawk gets the business of living done - through ruthless control and efficiency.
Note the way many lines are end stopped, again reinforcing the idea of strictness and straightforward action.
Repetition and particular use of vocabulary help underline this poem's powerful message. For example, in the first stanza the word hooked appears twice, so giving the feel of practicality and savage function. Raptors have incredibly sharp beaks (bills) and claws (talons) that absolutely get the job done.
And also in the fourth line the phrase perfect kills and eat give the reader further food for thought with regards to what this bird is all about. The verb to kill occurs again in stanza four.
The idea that the hawk is invincible and made for one purpose gradually strengthens. Here is a bird in complete control, holding even Creation in its foot, pleasing itself as to whether to kill or not.
- Note the build up of related words: hooked/locked/rough/kill/tearing off/death/bones which suggest physicality, and the contrasting abstract phrases: no falsifying dream/in sleep rehearse/no sophistry/through the bones/No arguments assert.
- This creates another set of tensions based upon the duality of the physical world the hawk inhabits and the mental construct imagined by the poet.
The use of words such as falsifying and sophistry (deception) help sharpen the distinction between the purely animal and the human.
Norton Anthology, Norton, 2005
The Poetry Handbook, John Lennard, OUP,2005
© 2018 Andrew Spacey