Looking in detail at one of Ted Hughes’ most famous poems … The Hawk in the Rain – Ted Hughes (from The Hawk in the Rain 1957)
A line-by-line progressive commentary …
Hawk and Rain are the two operative words in the title.
I drown in the drumming ploughland, I drag up
I can imagine Ted Hughes walking along the edge of a ploughed field in Yorkshire on a rain filled day. The nature of the rain is clearly stated by the two alliterative words drown and drumming. It is heavy – enough to drown and persistent and dominating as the continual sound of a drum. There is no tin roof sound, but we don’t know what noise is being made against the clothing Ted might be wearing. There is a nice pause after I drag up, enjambment text, text which must flow on to the next line … to be continued … as the rain continues. It gives us time to absorb the on-going background to the poem.
Heel after heel from the swallowing of the earth's mouth,
We now have a picture of movement, of difficulty in walking and the earth becomes a mouth swallowing, what it is exactly swallowing besides water is not known at this stage.
From clay that clutches my each step to the ankle
With the habit of the dogged grave, but the hawk
It is now quite clear that the sodden ground is engulfing Ted. The alliterative clutching clay gives personification to the earth. If you say these two words it has a sticky feel and my each has an awkward construct.
Ted now extends his thoughts to the grave and the ground that will inevitably conquer him. The earth has this habit of taking or absorbing people. But the hawk … again we have enjambment text which must continue, this time to the text of the second stanza.
Effortlessly at height hangs his still eye.
His wings hold all creation in a weightless quiet,
Eye and height define the hawk. In great contrast to Ted who has been focusing on the ground. The hawk has the entire world below him and moreover it is effortless for him to hover in adverse conditions. His eye is still in contrast to the wind and rain.
Steady as a hallucination in the streaming air.
While banging wind kills these stubborn hedges,
We do not know what has drawn Ted to look at the sky but in doing so we sense a degree of envy for the Hawk while the wind destroys below. By choosing hallucination Ted wonders whether this is real and whether the hawk can resist nature in this way.
Thumbs my eyes, throws my breath, tackles my heart,
And rain hacks my head to the bone, the hawk hangs,
Emphasis is given to what is happening at Ted’s level, the wind and the rain taking on the dimension of a murderer, and then he returns his vision to the hawk. We must wait after hangs to go to the next line.
The diamond point of will that polestars
The sea drowner's endurance: And I,
The ability of the hawk to withstand the weather is emphasised by taking the diamond shape confronting the wind and that diamonds are used for cutting. Polestars is a wonderful choice of word it gives eye to the sky and the polestar is a guide and safety symbol. It is used as a verb giving action to the scene. The weather is such that anyone caught at sea is likely to have a most unpleasant time. Then returning to Ted’s predicament, the stanza ends with another pause. It is though the background rain continually interrupts.
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
The stanza splits in two again between the hawk and Ted. Ted is about to be devoured akin to the hawk devouring a morsel from the ground. The key word in this stanza is master fulcrum. Fulcrum – the support, or point of rest, on which a lever turns in moving a body.
In the last line consideration is given to the mortality of the hawk and a question is started with a pause at the end of the stanza.
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 time the hawk will be caught by nature and meet the same fate and the earth will conquer. The ponderous shires crash on him. This bottom-up expression gives strength to the power of the earth to greet the fate of the hawk. Note how this links to the wrong way in the first line.
The angelic eye shows the beauty of the hawk and gives religious tones as of the falling of an angel – even the most perfect of creatures will meet the fate of all – a cry on the nature of nature from one who had so great an affinity with natural world.
Going back to the first line and the first words … I drown in the drumming. This could be translated to life and time. And time is mentioned later in the poem when the hawk meets his downfall – in his own time meets the weather. A negative thought that we are all drowning or dying but drumming does have that repetitive nature like the ticking of a clock. Indeed, we will all be caught by nature and from nature return. There seems to be an emphasis on violence in nature, so again a negativity in the poem. But of course, there is beauty in nature even if the vase is shattered one way or another.
So, ending on a positive, it is good to appreciate beauty and have an angelic view of life. And a case of going back to whence we came giving thanks for existence.
Today the weathering of life has taken on a new dimension as we come to terms with our treatment of the environment and how nature adjusts. Rains and storms have certainly been a feature in recent months across eastern Australia.