“Hawk Roosting” — Ted Hughes’s Tribute to a Bird of Prey

Ted Hughes was an English poet and children’s writer. Critics often rank him as one of the best poets of his generation, and one of twentieth century’s greatest writers. One of his characteristic abilities was to emphasize on the cunning and savagery of animal life in disjunctive, yet expressive lines, focusing on the realistic rather than sentimental aspects, and combining modernist sensibilities with a satirical strain. Hughes’s career involved the publication of such volumes as Crow (1970), The Ironman (1968) and many others. He deftly employed the usage of animal imagery in his works. He once confessed, “I wanted to capture not just live animals, but the aliveness of animals in their natural state, their wildness – the ‘foxness’ of the fox and the ‘crowness’ of the crow.” His works speak volumes about his interest in the evolutionary chain, the live bodies of animals and the symbolic dimension of each animal and bird.

“Hawk Roosting”, composed in 1960, is an account of the hawk, a fierce bird of prey, which is perched on the highest branch of a tree, with its eyes shut, meditating about its power of destruction, and basking in its conceited arrogance and superiority. As the sole speaker, the hawk is imagined as conveying its own thoughts and desires. His comfortable confidence and unperturbed ease are reflected in his half somnolent, isolated position. The environment, height of the trees, buoyancy of the air, warmth of the sunlight; all seem orchestrated to offer him confidence. The hawk is engrossed in his thoughts of scheming, planning and perfecting his killing techniques; at the same time being alert to his surroundings. It has no illusions or daydreams, and it calmly seems to survey the Earth’s surface. The hawk’s hooked feet are tightly clasped around the rough bark of the tree, as it helps it to stick to the branch and avoid a fall, giving the impression of certainty and control.

The poem reaches a focal point, introducing the idea of the whole of Creation being within the grasp of this extremely dominant creature. The vainglorious bird claims to be the highest in the ladder of Creation, and that the production of his feet and each of his feathers involve the whole power and energy of Creation. Now, the roles are reversed; it is the hawk that is holding Creation, becoming the master of all. Ted Hughes establishes a correspondence between the hawk and the warlike nature of the British, in their imperialistic attitude. There is a clear projection of human attributes to the bird, and it can be said that the poem is an implicit satire on a tyrant that the bird represents, and that the hawk is a symbol of inhumanity.

The hawk appears to be assertive and possessive like a true conqueror. It kills its prey whenever it feels like, assuming a kind of godlike status. It abhors sophistry and kills only by instinct. The poet makes an effective contrast between animal and human motivation as the hawk is undeterred by daydreaming whereas man’s actions are governed by his romantic dreams. The practical pragmatism of the hawk is sharply contrasted with man’s efforts and a sense of authoritative insensitivity characterises its utterances. The bird may be regarded as a symbol of a totalitarian genocidal dictator. His ruthless behaviour has been equated with that of being a fascist, albeit Hughes did not intend to portray it this way, even though this is a pervasive theme in the poem. It is noteworthy that the hawk is characterised by a solipsism. He is depicted as vastly superior to man, and as a godlike arbiter of life and death.

The hawk further asserts its superiority as it flies over the realms of the earth, in readiness for a kill. He kills with impunity; none can question his actions of killing animals brutally, as the only motivation in his life is survival and physical satisfaction. The poem is characterised by a certain coldness, the language is full of arrogance and fierceness. The hawk does not want any change in the world, and seems to be satisfied with the status quo. His world is neat, orderly, efficient and controlled and his poise and serenity is associated with a predatory ferocity. His actions are not sophisticated and he finds purpose in tearing off the heads of other animals. The poem highlights the hawk’s ability to control nature and endorses its primitive vitality to the extent of it being anti human. In an interview to The Guardian, Hughes observed, “My poems are not about violence, but vitality; the vitality of elemental life.”

The last stanza of the poem sums up the hawk’s attitude to life and death. It is pure ego that speaks, undiluted and true to itself. The hawk with its all-seeing eye will ensure that the order of nature does not change. The ruthless and bloodthirsty hawk represents the diabolical energy inherent in the suppressed life of the poet, of modern civilised man and thus this remains a unique poem in its own right.

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