Ted Hughes was a poet laureate until his death in 1984 and published a number of poems. Hughes said the poem was not about cruelty – he only tried to reveal the hawks a ‘natural way of thinking’
In this poem,a hawk is imagined as speaking and expressing his own thoughts. The word “roosting” means “resting” or “lost in thought just before falling asleep”. This hawk is comfortably perched in his nest on a high tree, and he is expressing his happy state and his perfect satisfaction with his existence. He says that he is sitting on the top of the wood, with his eyes closed. In his imagination, he thinks of the many birds whom he had killed and eaten, and of the many birds whom he would kill and eat in the future. There is nothing false about this view of his activities, he says, because he actually does this sort of thing. He then thinks of the comfort of his nest which is situated on a high tree around which the air is light and on which the rays of the sun fall to warm him. The whole earth below lies open to his inspection, he further says.
The hawk then thinks of his feet and his feathers and says that the moulding of his feet and the creation of his feathers were no easy matter. Great pains had to be taken to give him the shape which he possesses, particularly his feet and his feathers. And now he is so important that he holds all Creation in his foot, and that he can fly up from his nest and go round all Creation, killing any prey whom he likes to kill because the whole of Creation now belongs to him. There is nothing illusory or deceptive about his shape and his body, he says, and his only concern in life is to kill the birds whom he feels like killing.
His only concern is to cause the death of the birds who attract his notice. He flies directly towards his prey, and pierces, with his beak or his claws, through the very body and bones of the living creature who is his prey. He does not have to argue his case or to assert his authority by means of any arguments.
His authority has to be taken for granted. Finally, the hawk says that the sun is shining behind him, and that nothing has changed since he came into this universe because he never allowed any change to take place. In fact, he would permit no change in the universe even in the future because he would like to keep things as they are.
Critical Appreciation: An Animal Poem
This poem is written in the form of a monologue or a soliloquy. The speaker here is a hawk(which is a bird of prey, attacking smaller birds and eating them to feed himself). The hawk here is to be
imagined as speaking and expressing his ideas about himself and the universe of which he is a denizen.
The hawk speaks with a sense of authority, and with the fullest possible confidence in himself. Indeed, we feel amazed by his egoism and his self-centredness. His egoism is boundless and infinite. This egoism finds expression in the following lines:
(1) I kill where I please because it is all mine.
(2) No arguments assert my right.
(3) Nothing has changed since I began.
(4) My eye has permitted no change.
am going to keep things like this.
The hawk belongs to the animal world; and this poem, therefore, belongs to the category of Hughes’s animal poems. (The word “animal” in this context includes birds).
A poem Depicting Violence and Brutality
Even more striking than the hawk’s egoism and his sense of power, is the imagery of violence and brutality in this poem. The hawk is proud of his power to kill, and here he reminds us of the pike in another poem by Hughes. All the fierceness and the brutality of the hawk have been summed up in a few lines such as the following: “I kill where I please because it is all mine.” The hawk’s whole business in life is “to tear off heads.” His whole concern is to distribute death, and he never wavers in
carrying out this task because he knows only one path, and that is the path leading him directly through the bones of the living creatures. Thus Hawk Roosting is one of those poems which show Hughes’ interest in the violence and the brutality which is the rule, not the exception, in the world of Nature.
Some critics have called this interest in violence and brutality as an obsession, but that is a wrong way of looking at these poems. Violence and brutality are just one of the many themes in the poetry of Hughes and there is nothing morbid or inhuman about Hughes’ interest in this aspect of the universe.
An Amusing Poem Showing Hughes’ Sense of Humour
Hawk Roosting is an amusing poem. Hughes here seems to be ridiculing the hawk’s false sense of power. Indeed we feel greatly amused when we read the egoistical lines in which the hawk speaks of the comfort of his nest on the high trees,” the air’s buoyancy and the sun’s ray,” and of his feet and feathers. “It took the whole of Creation/To produce my foot, my every feather,” says the hawk. And yet it is possible that Hughes is not laughing at the hawk’s sense of power but clarifying it. Hughes may be seriously expressing the hawk’s exultation over his ferocity. In any case, Hughes has here contributed to the bird, hawk a capacity to think and to argue a case even though the hawk’s arguments are fallacious because of his extremely narrow outlook. There may be “no sophistry in his body,” as he says; but there certainly is sophistry in his reasoning.
An Extremely Simple Poem
Hawk Roosting is one of Hughes’s simplest poems. Its thought-content is simple, and its language is simple too. Indeed, this is one poem which offers no difficulties at all even to the uninitiated
reader. The words are simple, and they have simply been arranged. There is no complexity, and no intricacy, in the thought; in the arrangements of the words or the syntax. Thus, there is nothing at all to bewilder or to puzzle us in this poem.
Hughes’s Own Comment on This Poem
Hughes’s own remarks about this poem are very illuminating. He said that this poem had generally been regarded by critics as one dealing with the theme of violence. Hughes said the poem was not about violence and cruelty – he only tried to reveal the hawks a ‘natural way of thinking’
A Most Illuminating Comment By a Critic
Another critic tells us that Hawk Roosting is the most famous and the most anthologized of Hughes’s animal poems; and he gives us an excellent synopsis of it. The poem begins with the hawk defining his nature. The hawk has his eyes closed, but his body is still alive to instinct. He has none of man’s “falsifying dream”, no vision of the world. The hawk is a pure function: food is for consumption, not for thought, in his case:
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 hawk is a complete solipsist. (a believer in the theory that only the self exists or can be known) The world is the world he sees, and the creatures in it exist to assist his survival. He believes
himself to be God’s supreme creation and is himself a God-like arbiter of life and death:
“Now I hold Creation in my foot.”
Hughes has achieved in this poem a remarkable feat of empathy. But the poem is written in his negative, misanthropic vein because the motive behind this poem is not so much to praise the hawk as to denigrate man. with his purely functional purpose-built into his blood and feathers, the hawk is seen in this poem as being vastly superior to man who is unable to accept Nature for what she is and instead strives to tame it by giving it philosophical names. The hawk has none of man’s devitalizing intellectuality, nor man’s slavish obedience to rulers. The hawk says:
There is no sophistry in my body:
My manners are tearing off heads.
(The same antithesis between functional animal and reflective man is made in the poem Thrushes.
The world eats to live, and they live to eat).