Hurt Hawks

Jeffers, Robinson

Primary Category: Literature / Poetry

Genre: Poetry

Annotated by:
Ratzan, Richard M.
  • Date of entry: Apr-17-2015
  • Last revised: Mar-22-2015


"Hurt Hawks" is a narrative poem about a wounded hawk in free verse of 27 lines divided by the poet into two parts. Part I, which is 17 lines long, describes the setting of the poem in third person. Part II is 10 lines long, written in first person, and comprises the resolution of the carefully constructed tension set up in Part I. Some critics feel that Part II is sufficiently different in style and focus that it was originally an altogether separate poem (see below). Succinct yet lyrical, elegaic yet harsh, Hurt Hawks is, like the hawk that is the center of the poem, fiercely and unrelentingly an advocate of the natural - as opposed to the civilized - world. Hawks held a special place in Jeffers' heart, whether it be this poem or the longer "Cawdor," "Give Your Heart to the Hawks" (the name of a 1933 collection of his poetry), or "Hawk Tower," the edifice that he built for his family in 1920 on Carmel Point in California.

Part I sets the stage for the action in Part II, an Ecce Homo stage where the Homo is an injured hawk living in and around the poet—who makes clear, however, that the hawk is not a prisoner, either in the poet's eyes or its own. The poem opens with:

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:

Midway through Part II, Jeffers notes that

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.

This poem is arguably not only Jeffers' most famous poem but often the only one still taught, when Jeffers is taught at all, in undergraduate courses. One reason for the inclusion of this poem in the curriculum is the famous first line of Part II, "I'd sooner, except the penalties, kill a man than a hawk." Aside from its popularity and this rather striking sentiment, the poem has proved a fertile source of discussion amongst critics for other reasons. First is the striking shift in voice from Part I to Part II, leading some to state that this poem was welded together from two distinct poems. Secondly, the plural "Hawks" in the title is mysterious and unclear since there is only one hawk mentioned in the poem—or is there? One interpretation of the plural is that in fact Jeffers and his family harbored two hawks and only the second was killed. Tim Hunt feels the second injured hawk in the poem refers to the saddened, or emotionally hurt hawk, i.e., the poet of Part II.


This poem will prove a rich mine of material for students of literature and medicine, especially vis-à-vis ethics, given its frank discussion and description of euthanasia, loosely framed about a raptor signifying, for Jeffers, the world of Nature.

In this poem Jeffers goes to great lengths to distinguish between the animal - read "natural" - and civilized worlds. Animals were very important to Jeffers as noble representatives of the natural world we live in, as opposed to the world of socialized humans. In this vein, Jeffers ends Part I with, "You do not know him, you communal people, or you have forgotten him" and asks his readers to commune with the bird qua natural animal, not a human who is a member of "you communal people." As such, communal people have forgotten "him", where "him" has variously been interpreted by readers to mean the hawk or the hawk's god of the natural world ("the wild God of the world" two lines earlier) or, despite the lower case of the "h" in "him", our human notion of God.

In Part II, the mortally injured hawk of the first part now approaches its, and the poem's, end. Indeed, the first line of Part II, "I'd sooner, except the penalties, kill a man than a hawk," sets the stage for the act of euthanasia, "the lead gift in the twilight", that the poet enacts a few lines later. With a marvelous syntactic, verbal and metaphoric finish (including the imagery of sexual climax: "flooded river", "rising", "unsheathed"), Jeffers finishes the poem with a spiritual denouement:

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.  

This association of death and sex bears comparison to Letters to a Stranger by James.  Jeffers's depiction of the release of the hawk's soul, or spirit, at the moment of death is reminiscent of the passage describing a similar phenomenon in man in Nina Siegal's The Anatomy Lesson (pp 122-123).

By comparing a man to this injured hawk, Jeffers seems to have taken Rousseau's construct of the noble savage one remove farther, leaving man—civilized or savage, injured or whole—out of the equation altogether. Elevating the moral status of the hawk allows Jeffers to include the hawk in what is customarily an ethical discussion of euthanasia reserved for humans. Readers will find, therefore, a poem that invites comparison with other works in this database, e.g., "Dax's Case", "Whose Life Is It Anyway?"  and "Lethal Dose." It also ushers in the discussion of honoring the wish to die of a sentient living being who does not wish to live disabled, like Dax above, or "David," the eponymous subject of Birney's poem. Lastly, is there an ethical difference between the euthanasia of an animal and that of a human, noble or otherwise, injured/sick or otherwise, wishing death or otherwise? This question is becoming increasingly relevant to a world in which not only the personhood but the ethical status of animals as well insist we consider such conundrums as legitimate subjects worthy of discussion.

Primary Source

The Selected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers


Random House

Place Published



First, 1937

Page Count