Thursday, February 11, 2016

Hughes’ The Hawk in the Rain

Perhaps my problem (if it is my problem) is that I don't relate well enough to Hughes.  Take the the first stanza of the title poem of his 1957 volume The Hawk in the Rain.  Hughes dramatizes a walk in the rain by beginning "I drown in the drumming ploughland, I drag up / Heel after heel from the swallowing earth's mouth, / From clay that clutches my each step to the ankle / With the habit of the dogged grave, but the hawk /" 

Having had the experience of trudging through a soggy field like the one Hughes describes, my first thought was "what was he doing out there to begin with"?  If I am hiking and see that sort of muck in my way, I do my best to go around it.  Also, I wear boots appropriate to my hikes -- high-top boots and have never had mud get over the top of them and down to my ankles.  But I could imagine that by accident and not paying attention to where I was going getting into some mud like that, but if I did, I would be quite sure I would never see a hawk flying about in rain Hughes subsequently describes.  Hawks around here (and maybe British hawks are different) don't fly about in the rain at least not very far, and they never "hang" in it.  And then too (giving Hughes a bit more benefit of doubt) a Southern California hawk will typically have but a short time to wait before the rain stops whereas a British hawk may have to get out there in it or go hungry.

Though it is raining, Hughes hawk is unaffected:  "Effortlessly at height hangs his still eye." [not to mention the rest of him]/  His wings hold all creation in a weightless quiet," [I'm sorry but this Atlas of a British hawk is way beyond my hawk experience.]/ Steady as a hallucination in the streaming air. /  [Are Hughes hallucinations steady?  In thinking back I may have had one or two fleeting hallucinations caused if I remember correctly by the shimmering (and not steady) heat of a summer day].   [Also note that the "streaming air" implies as the title tells us that it is raining.  Hawks do indeed seem to hang in dry ordinary air, but I've never seen one do it in a downpour, but perhaps I was too busy rushing back to my Jeep to notice.  Still, I wouldn't think one could manage.]  "While banging wind kiss these stubborn hedges" [Not only is the hawk "hanging" in a heavy rain but he his "hanging" in wind so heavy that it is killing hedges that Hughes describes as "stubborn" but not so stubborn apparently as to avoid death.]

In the third stanza the banging wind branches out:  "Thumbs my eyes, throws my breath, tackles my heart,/ and rain hacks my head to the bone,"  [This very superior wind doesn't daunt the hawk:] "the hawk [still] hangs / The diamond point of will [my hawks are rather easily daunted by weather and their "will" doesn't challenge us as we hike along.  They don't let us get too close before flying off to a tree further away.  They don't take chances if they can help it.] "that polestars / The sea drowner's endurance: and I," ["sea drowner"?  What does that mean?  Rain doesn't drown the sea.  Maybe by stretching our imaginations we can say it was raining so heavily that it was almost drowning us like the sea could, but wouldn't such a dense rain prevent us from seeing a hawk?  Not to mention seeing a hawk hang?]

The fourth stanza continues from "and I," / "Bloodily grabbed" [Hold it!  Was it raining so hard that it broke his skin and made him bloody?  I thought I had been out in heavy rain before, but never anything like this.] dazed last-moment-counting / Morsel in the earth's mouth, [I guess the muck that he is walking in, that is sucking his feet, and dampening his ankles like a "dogged grave" might seem in this rain and wind storm strong enough to make him think his "last-moment" had arrived and that the sucking muck he was walking or standing in was like the "earth's mouth," but does he really count his last moment?  No, he "strain towards the master- / fulcrum of violence where the hawk hangs still / [the only thing that makes sense at his point is that the hawk is imagined, for no real hawk, at least no hawk I've ever seen, would be able, not to mention, willing to "hang still" in such a wind and rain storm.]

This fourth stanza ends with the line "That maybe in his own time meets the weather" [and resumes in the last stanza, stanza five] "Coming the wrong way" [Gosh, if the weather Hughes has been describing isn't "wrong way" weather then British weather must be truly unimaginable -- at least to me], "suffers the air, hurled upside down, / Fall from his eye, the ponderous shires crash on him, / The horizon trap him; the found angelic eye / Smashed, mix his heart's blood with the mire of the land."  [Why after building up this hanging super-hawk to such an extent does he find it necessary to dash him to the ground?  And notice that he isn't just dying of old age hanging about, he is "hurled upside down" and then "Smashed" and mixed with the mire Hughes is trudging through.}

And so the poem ends.  The hawk, though hanging unperturbed in the midst of a furious rain and wind storm gets caught later on by a rain and wind storm "coming the wrong way" [do they really have wrong-way rain and wind storms in Britain?] and smashed to death.    What are we to make of it?  All things, even super-hawks die?  Or the nuance, all things even super-hawks hang in the midst of the world's fury, whatever that fury consists of until the world sends a "wrong-way" storm to confound and kill us?]

We've discussed the nature of hawks and what Hughes might be doing in a the muddy field in the midst of a rain storm, but we haven't discussed whether this is a good poem.  Taking it at face value, I don't believe it is.  It fails at too many levels -- even if we learn as we have that Hughes spent a lot of time around English animals.  But there is another way to take this poem.  Sylvia Plath died in 1963 and I read some place that she and Ted had been together for seven years; so the Hawk in the Rain (published in 1957) might have been written in the early days of their relationship (and if not Sylvia then some previous lover); so lets examine it as Ted being an unrequited lover: In the first stanza he feels as though each step is difficult like walking in a soggy ploughland whereas Sylvia hangs ["his"? would Ted mean the hawk to be Sylvia if he wrote "his"?] hangs effortlessly up high, holding all the power in their relationship -- all creation.  The "weather" of their relationship thumbs his eyes, throws his breath and tackles his heart -- an unrequited lover might fancy these hyperboles.  Meanwhile, he tells us, Sylvia is a "diamond point" polestaring his sea-drowning endurance; that is, he continues to strive toward her.  He is bloody and dazed, walking as though each step is his last.  However, Sylvia should be warned; she may one day be in other circumstances where her world is turned upside down -- where she can no longer hang high but instead falls and is smashed into the very muck that hitherto was beneath her.

The biggest flaw in this interpretation is that Hughes refers to the hawk as being male.  Could something have occurred in their early relationship where he referred to her as assuming male-like dominance?  Or, if Hughes was referring to some previous lover, perhaps he changed "her" to "his" so as not to offend Sylvia.

If my hypothesis is near the truth, does that improve this poem in my eyes?  Perhaps a little.

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