At first glance, you might wonder what this poem is doing in the 'conflict' section of the anthology--in fact, you might wonder about that at second glance as well. It might be suspected that the compilers of the anthology have not read Ted Hughes's 1970 interview when he commented on the poem:
'The poem of mine usually cited for violence is the one about the Hawk Roosting, this drowsy hawk sitting in a wood and talking to itself. That bird is accused of being a fascist...the symbol of some horrible genocidal dictator. Actually what I had in mind was that in this hawk Nature was thinking. Simply Nature. ..." (from The Cambridge Companion to Ted Hughes By Terry Giffor, p.30).
What Hughes points out here is that the apparent viciousness of the hawk has in it a kind of innocence that is quite removed from the ways in which mankind approaches violence. the hawk is no more in conflict with the animals that he hunts than he is with the tree he roosts in--he simply does what he was created to do, and in this sense is not something that is good or evil, even if, as Hughes admits later in the same interview"he sounds like Hitler's familiar spirit". The point is, as he says when discussing his poem 'Thrushes', (which also deals with birds killing) that these animals who kill are innocent: "Their energy affirms the divine law that created them as they are" (p.31). The poem seems to be longing for a moral clarity that relies on the simplicity of knowing who we are and why we do what we do. As opposed to the soldier in 'Bayonet Charge' who pauses precisely because he does not know or remember why he is fighting, the hawk has 'no falsifying dream' of patriotism to rationalise its violence. For those of you who have never seen a hawk catch its prey, here is a clip of a goshawk pursuing and killing a pigeon, which you might find helpful in understanding Ted Hughes and his response to the bird. (this always reminds me of those wildlife commentaries where you can feel either sorry for the pigeon or the hawk depending on how it is filmed--here the commentary suggests that the hawk is desperate for a meal, if that makes you feel any better).
The poem is framed as six stanzas of four lines each, with the end-thyme in ll 3-4 of the first stanza (feet/eat) the only clear end-rhyme in the poem. It is a kind of loose free verse, and suggests a stream-of-consciousness style, the hawk's thoughts eavesdropped upon by the poet. There are a lot of end-stopped lines, which give the impression that the hawk is coming out with a series of simple but definitive layered statements, each of which adds something to the picture of the hawk's mind; something accentuated by the often monosyllabic language and the strong verbs: 'I sit...I hold...fly...I kill... I began..I am'.
Although the hawk represents Nature (with a capital N--the personified force of life rather than just the idea of natural things), there is also a strong sense of personal identity in the poem, with the use of the first person personal pronouns: 'I..my....me....mine helping to structure the poem and hold it together with a constant reminder of the voice of the hawk, and its arrogant, unthinking selfishness (selfishness is the wrong word, because it implies the possibility of unselfishness--the hawk is just being what it is). If you actually count the uses of the personal pronouns in the poem there are an amazing number-- 21 in 24 lines, and if you look at their frequency in each stanza there seems to be a kind of acceleration of their use towards the climactic line 16: 'my manners are tearing off heads': In stanza 1 there are three: 'I...my...my', in stanza 2, there are two: 'me...my', in stanza 3, five: 'My..my..my..I..my', in stanza 4, five: 'I..I..mine..my..my', in stanza 5, two: 'my...my' and in stanza 6 four: 'me..I..my..I'. This use of pronouns makes the poem seem to focus sharply on the hawk and on its interests all the way through--we see the world through its eyes, and although they may provide a distorted mirror, they also make perfect sense.
The poem presents the hawk as apparently passive in the first stanza, 'eyes closed', and so not a threat. The second line suggests how it is not dreaming as people do (how people do dream of things--and how people follow dreams--is something other poems in 'conflict' explore), with the suggested pun on 'inaction' (in-action) making it appear as thought the hawk has two modes of existing--in action or not in action--and doesn't waste time debating between the two. Between the two deadly ends of the hawk described metonymically as 'hooked head....hooked feet' there is nothing other than simple hunger. Hughes speculates that the hawk may only 'rehearse perfect kills and eat' in its dreams, in other words that its dreams are simply an extension of its waking life and not an enlargement of it.
The hawk seems to have a sense of pleasure and joy, of entitlement in its life, suggested by the exclamation mark at the end of line 5. Its sense of power is reminiscent of the ways in which Hughes describes other animals in his poetry--like pike 'stunned by their own grandeur' or thrushes with 'bullet and automatic purpose'. Here, though, the world seems arranged to please the hawk, centred around it, the language here is almost that of the estate agent: 'convenience...advantage...inspection', as though the wood has been created simply to be a perfect home for hawks. This semantic field recurs throughout the poem: 'where I please... it is all mine.. my right'
This thought in enlarged on in stanza 3, where the idea that Creation (that is, all created things in evolution, or the act of creation itself) exists only to produce the hawk as it now is. Though of course in one sense it is true that the whole working of creation has resulted in the hawk's present form (and in everything else), the idea that this was its primary purpose seems naively arrogant--as humans here, we might almost smile at the hawk's unthinking mind, focused only on itself, and refusing to speculate on any wider purpose, or wider application. In another sense of creation the hawk does 'hold creation in my foot', as when it kills its prey it holds the prey with its hooked claws. The hawk's sense of ownership of the world is enhanced int he next stanza, when its birds-eye view of the world suggests the power it has. The hawk, not understanding anything of the rotation of the earth (or of the mechanisms of its own flight) is portrayed as seeing itself as having the power to turn the earth beneath it as it flies (the word revolve also having the connotations of thought suggests a thoughtfulness in this observation).
The Hawk's lack of sophisticated thought is presented here as directness: 'there is no sophistry in my body' which translates into violence. The apparent antithesis between 'manners' and 'tearing off heads' actually reminds us of the hawk as an animal (rather than a personified force of nature), as literally the idea of a hawk having 'manners' is absurd--as an animal, its only good behaviour is to be a good animal--in this case a good hawk, which does entail the tearing off of animal heads (and be grateful here that I have not appended a short film to demonstrate).
As Hughes says in 'Thrushes' "With a man it is otherwise. Heroisms on horseback". Nature is brutal, selfish, beautiful and single-minded for him--you could make comparisons to 'Bayonet Charge' where the man is emphatically not single-minded (and his moment of communion with the injured hare seems to suggest he is potentially prey) or 'The Charge of the Light Brigade' which certainly celebrates 'heroism on horseback', the irrationality that goes ahead 'though the soldier knew/ someone had blundered', and is therefore quite the reverse of the hawk's clearly focused mind.