The poem “Hawk Roosting” deals with the character of a hawk, a bird of prey, which is resting on a tree. The poem contains the first-person narrator (I, my, me, mine), and it represents the thoughts, in a kind of internal monologue, through the mind of the hawk. The poem conveys to 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, – and which is similar to human character and life-force.
Summary / Paraphrase
I sit on the top of the wood. My eyes are closed. I am in inaction, having no false dream, between my hooked head and hooked feet (position of sleeping). Or I am in sleep rehearsing perfect kills and feeding myself. There is much convenience on the high tree. The air is pleasant and there is enough sunlight. Air and sunlight are advantageous to me. From the top of the trees I can observe the earth. I catch hold of the bark with my feet. It took the whole of creation to produce my foot and each of my feathers. Now I hold creation in my foot. Or I fly up, and revolve it all slowly. I kill where I please because it is all mine. There is no sophistry (falsehood) in my body. My manners are tearing off heads (cutting the heads off). It is simply allotment of death-the dealing out of death (his existence flourishes upon “the bones of the living”). One path of my flight is direct through the bones of the living. No arguments can be given or accepted against my right. The sun is behind me. Nothing has changed since I began (since my origin). My eye has permitted no change. I am going to keep things like this.
The poem “Hawk Roosting” leaves us with a slight sense of bewilderment, in the sense that it presents us with something not immediately and completely coherent, something different from anything we have me before. The tiel guides us a little at first. ‘Hawk Roosting’ – hawk, a bird of prey, we thingk: ‘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 otherwise engaged.
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. We are reminded by the poem that the hawk always gives an impression of being a fierce, cruel, arrogant creature.
In the background of our mind now arise all the animal fables we have come across in our lives 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. But, in this poem, 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 writer’s imagination, are passing through its mind. This is not just an ‘animal poem’. We rather get an 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 the hawk is offered as a symbol. The writer abstains from ever stating what the bird stands for, for nowhere has the writer stated his intention openly. He has affixed 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 the significance gradually grows as we read the poem over thoughtfully, until it becomes something of a certainty by the final line.
Along with the development of the poem, we see that its language is also remarkable. 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 though 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 which thinks and the feet which act. If anything takes place at all, 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, hesitation 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 soldier 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 to ‘fly up’, he goes on to think, the whole world seems to revolve according to his own movements.
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’ and his habits go no further than 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.
On a careful reading, our minds easily make the transition from bird life to human life, upon which the poem depends, and which unlocks its symbolism. While we 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 our, 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 change’: no evolution of institutions, no reforms, no improvement, no challenge to his authority. The final line of the poem proclaims, without any doubt, his satisfaction with the status quo, with the existing system, and his determination to ‘keep things like this’.
Themes and Meanings
Many terms and expressions make the expressions only humanly significant rather than plausibly spoken of a real or mythical bird. For instance, the hawk’s “feet are locked upon the rough bark” suggesting that his status is firm, and he must needs not fear any overthrow. And when he says that there can be “no arguments to assert my rights”, we see the unmistakably human terms signifying that the poem’s subject is absolutely human. If we are critical at this point, we see that he is saying that there can be no argument not to “oppose” his rights but to “assert” them! How vainly conceited; he is surely a king who thinks of himself of a God, a divinely and naturally justified tyrant, a ruler who rules not because he is wanted or respected, but one who says that even if he is wrong, “still I must rule”.
‘Hawk Roosting’ is a poem in which ‘meaning’ and ‘technique’ are 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 metre, 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. 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.
Forms and Devices
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 help 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 up the poem have 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.” Such expressions also expresses its colossal, self-centered impertinence; and the process of following up the two layers of meaning again prevents us from rushing through the poem in a superficial way.
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 a subtle and yet a most powerful poem. The apparent simplicity and the actual complexity is a characteristic feature of modern poems like this.