The Hawk in the Rain is Ted Hughes’s debut collection of poetry, first published in 1957. I have read various poems in this collection before, such as the title poem and The Thought-Fox, but it was not until I decided to make The Hawk in the Rain the subject of this post that I read the entire collection. Comprising forty poems, The Hawk in the Rain covers themes as wide-ranging as animals, erotic relationships, and war, and constitutes a literary tour de force that leaves one in no doubt of Hughes’s artistry and skill.
The natural world features prominently in the collection, as it does in Hughes’s later work, but what is distinctive in Hughes’s treatment of nature is the equal attention he pays to both the beauty and the power that it exhibits. In The Horses, for example, the speaker describes the magnificent sight of horses standing silently and still in the early morning light. Before the dawn, they are ‘[m]egalith-still’ and ‘[g]rey silent fragments/Of a grey silent world.’ Once the sun begins to rise, they are transformed, ‘steaming and glistening under the flow of light…while all around them/The frost show[s] its fires.’ The beauty and power of the hawk in flight is similarly captured in The Hawk in the Rain, in which the bird ‘[e]ffortlessly at height hangs his still eye’ as everything around him is bombarded by the ‘banging wind’. In spite of the wind’s violence, the hawk’s ‘wings hold all creation in a weightless quiet,/Steady as a hallucination in the streaming air’, a captivating image that gives expression to the majesty of the bird.
Elsewhere in the collection, war takes centre-stage. Six Young Men is a particularly poignant treatment of war, in which Hughes juxtaposes a photograph of six young men ‘trimmed for a Sunday jaunt’ with the ‘contradictory permanent horrors’ of the war in which they were killed. After eight lines describing the men in the photograph, Hughes ends the first verse of the poem by bluntly telling us ‘[s]ix months after this picture they were all dead’, forcefully driving home the wastefulness of war in cutting short so many lives. Nowhere in the poem is this more skilfully encapsulated, however, than in the first half of the fourth stanza: ‘Here see a man’s photograph,/The locket of a smile, turned overnight/Into the hospital of his mangled last/Agony and hours’.
Erotic relationships are also examined in the collection, often in terms of the potentially destructive nature of love and desire. Parlour-Piece is the shortest poem on love and desire, yet provides a tightly constructed vignette of a couple whose love is so powerful that they are afraid to give it quarter (‘With love so like a flood they dared not/Let out a trickle lest the whole crack,/These two sat speechlessly’). In detailing the restraint of the lovers (and cleverly replicating it in the restrained length of the poem), there emerges a connection with some of the poems of the collection in which animals and entrapment feature, such as The Jaguar, with its caged animals, and A Modest Proposal, with the two wolves imagined by the speaker as they hide from a hunter, and we begin to see in this something of the rationale that lies behind the type of poetry Hughes wrote.
It is little wonder that The Hawk in the Rain won the First Publication Award of the Poetry Center of the Young Men’s and Young Women’s Hebrew Association of New York City and met with critical acclaim. Already in this debut collection, Hughes’s poetry is confident and assured, dense with compounds that resist unhindered comprehension (‘hedge-scratched pig-splitting arm’) and masterful in its deployment of the alliterative thud (‘I drown in the drumming ploughland’). Prompting us to make connections between human and animal behaviour and between war and the violence of natural forces, The Hawk in the Rain is the perfect poetry collection to read when night has fallen and a storm is battering the house.