The Hawk in the Rain (1957) is Ted Hughes’s first, and widely acclaimed, book of poetry. The title poem sets the stage for what is to follow. His poems are replete with animal imagery and mythological reference. Through nature themes of violence, competition, war*, and struggle dominate the book.
In ancient Celtic mythology, the hawk was an omen carrying messages from beyond. It meant beware and be aware. A circling hawk foretold both victory and death.
Here the soaring hawk lends hope to a beleaguered ploughman, only to both be crushed by the forces of nature. The elements are more powerful than man and beast.
The Hawk in the Rain
I drown in the drumming ploughland, I drag up
Heel after heel from the swallowing of the earth’s mouth,
From clay that clutches my each step to the ankle
With the habit of the dogged grave, but the hawk
Effortlessly at height hangs his still eye.
His wings hold all creation in a weightless quiet,
Steady as a hallucination in the streaming air.
While banging wind kills these stubborn hedges,
Thumbs my eyes, throws my breath, tackles my heart,
And rain hacks my head to the bone, the hawk hangs,
The diamond point of will that polestars
The sea drowner’s endurance: And I,
Bloodily grabbed dazed last-moment-counting
Morsel in the earth’s mouth, strain to the master-
Fulcrum of violence where the hawk hangs still.
That maybe in his own time meets the weather
Coming the wrong way, suffers the air, hurled upside-down,
Fall from his eye, the ponderous shires crash on him,
The horizon trap him; the round angelic eye
Smashed, mix his heart’s blood with the mire of the land.
In his second poem, the animals at a zoo are institutionalized to life in a cage. They could represent most of society itself. The crowd is mesmerized by a fierce jaguar uncaged in spirit. Hughes may consider himself to be the jaguar who “over the cage floor the horizons come.” For him indeed they tragically would.
The apes yawn and adore their fleas in the sun.
The parrots shriek as if they were on fire, or strut
Like cheap tarts to attract the stroller with the nut.
Fatigued with indolence, tiger and lion
Lie still as the sun. The boa-constrictor’s coil
Is a fossil. Cage after cage seems empty, or
Stinks of sleepers from the breathing straw.
It might be painted on a nursery wall.
But who runs like the rest past these arrives
At a cage where the crowd stands, stares, mesmerized,
As a child at a dream, at a jaguar hurrying enraged
Through prison darkness after the drills of his eyes
On a short fierce fuse. Not in boredom—
The eye satisfied to be blind in fire,
By the bang of blood in the brain deaf the ear—
He spins from the bars, but there’s no cage to him
More than to the visionary his cell:
His stride is wildernesses of freedom:
The world rolls under the long thrust of his heel.
Over the cage floor the horizons come.
*Hughes was affected profoundly in his youth by World War I. His father was one of 17 in a regiment of 1,000 who survived the Turkish massacre at the Battle of Gallipoli.
NOTE: Among other poets, Hughes was inspired by Yeats. The Horror of Yeats and Hughes is a comparative analysis between “The Hawk in the Rain” and “The Second Coming,” which Yeats wrote in the aftermath of World War I.