Hurt Hawks/Broken Herons
—The Dark Vision of Robinson Jeffers Continues to Challenge Us
By Dr. Lorin Swinehart
It was a cold but sunny afternoon in February of my fifteenth year when I found the injured heron. I had been wading up the small stream that trickled across my grandfather’s pasture, when I caught the first glimpse of the noble bird, threshing about, its toes torn to shreds by the jaws of a carelessly laid leg-hold trap, a shattered wing bone stabbing from the bloody pulp of flesh and feathers.
I could not free the bird, and it had nothing left but agony and slow death by starvation or in the maw of some predator. At 15, I had no options. I ended the animal’s suffering by turning a nearby dead limb into a weapon of death. I am tormented even now, so many decades later, by the memory.
Years later, as a college student, I encountered the poetry of Robinson Jeffers. His “Hurt Hawks” has become a classic, detailing an experience not unlike my own with the heron, a red tailed hawk with a broken wing. When Jeffers speaks of the great bird’s jagged wing protruding from the clotted shoulder, I can relate. When he speaks of administering the “lead gift”, I can relate to that too.
Jeffers appears as a bluff, hearty outdoorsman, preferring solitude to society. Many critics regard him as angry, negative, and even bitter. Unlike Robert Frost, he may be no one’s favorite poet. I perceive him, though, as a man who, like Mark Twain, finds himself consumed with anguish by the knowledge of human cruelty and destructiveness. Twain escaped into humor. Scratch a humorist, he tells us, and you find a sad man.
Early in his career, Jeffers sequestered himself at Tor House, a cottage constructed with his own hands from native stone atop a bluff overlooking the Pacific near Carmel. From there, he fired his literary barbs at a population blinded and deafened by its obsession with trivia and tedium. His view of mankind is not a flattering one. Neither is it one easily dismissed.
His poem “Original Sin” speaks of “The man-brained and man-handed ground ape, physically the most repulsive of all hot-blooded animals,” and depicts a tribe of stone-age hunters hooting and dancing with joy as a great mammoth is slowly cooked alive in a fiery pit. This, Jeffers assures us, is the true image of man, cruel, greedy, lacking in empathy or imagination. Jeffers says, “I would rather be a worm in a wild apple than a son of man.”
His detractors accuse him of misanthropy, even of nihilism because of his assertion that he would sooner kill a man than a hawk. I suspect that, rather, he views the hawk as a harmless victim when compared to man’s world-eating passions. I am brought up short, though, when he says:
“We are what we are, and we might remember
Not to hate any person; for all are vicious;
And not be astonished at any evil, for all are deserve.”
This takes the concept of Original Sin to new heights or new depths. Do slaves, Holocaust victims, prisoners of the Gulag, women and children sold into sexual bondage deserve their fate simply because they are human?
In “Shine, Perishing Republic”, he warns his two young sons, “Keep your distance from the thickening center,” and, “…be in nothing so moderate as in love of man, a clever servant, insufferable master.”
His condemnation appears to be directed at civilization rather than at individual human victims of cruelty and injustice.
Jeffers argues that there is no hope for human improvement or redemption. A better world can only be realized once man and all his works vanish. When he finds a stretch of his pristine Big Sur coast violated by a housing project, he takes comfort in the realization, that, given time, humans will perish. The earth itself will die as its sun consumes itself, leaving behind a cold indifferent vacuum.
Like a camelhair-clad Old Testament prophet, he characterizes civilization as a disease, warning that ours, like its predecessors, will collapse, leaving our women selling themselves to the grinning usurper for nylons and bits of chocolate. He finds satisfaction in the knowledge that, “When the cities lie at the monster’s feet there are left the mountains.” Jeffers challenges us to question our presuppositions regarding the nature of man, his position in the universe, and, as Einstein asked, whether or not that universe is a friendly place.
A few years ago, near my winter refuge along the Carolina coast, a reward was posted for the apprehension of individuals who had broken the wings of numerous brown pelicans, abandoning them to slow, painful death. I remembered my broken heron upon that faraway day when I had no options, and I thought of our ancestors dancing around the tortured mammoth, people who possessed options but perhaps no conscience. Maybe Jeffers is right about us. But, then, there are those among us whose hearts are so rent by the suffering of pelicans that they posted the reward.