The Hawk, by W.B. Yeats

“CALL down the hawk from the air;
Let him be hooded or caged
Till the yellow eye has grown mild,
For larder and spit are bare,
The old cook enraged,
The scullion gone wild.”

“I will not be clapped in a hood,
Nor a cage, nor alight upon wrist,
Now I have learnt to be proud
Hovering over the wood
In the broken mist
Or tumbling cloud.”

“What tumbling cloud did you cleave,
Yellow-eyed hawk of the mind,
Last evening? that I, who had sat
Dumbfounded before a knave,
Should give to my friend
A pretence of wit.”

You have to notice that the quotation marks indicate a change of speakers in every stanza. In the first, there is an unspecified speaker expressing a wish: call down. Order, trap, domesticate the hawk. Why? Because game that would otherwise be available is being depleted.

What part of the description ‘old cook’ is more important? Usually the substantive is more important than the modifier. In this case, however, the substantive is bound by the circumstances of the poem, and the modifier seems to me to be more free. Because of that, it seems more indicative of the poet’s choice, what he wants to say. Why is the old cook enraged? He is accustomed to having game. Why old? Tradition? Custom? Or is it feebleness as opposed to the strength of the hawk? The hawk is messing with the kitchen, and it is becoming intolerable.

But then we get the hawk’s story. He will not go back, he says. He has learned to be proud. This is not talking about a wild hawk that has to be domesticated, but a domesticated hawk that has reverted. I think that helps us with the adjective ‘old’ above.

Notice how the hawk describes the circumstances of his freedom, again, the adjectives in the concluding lines of the stanza. What kind of mist? What sort of cloud? He rises in circumstances of ruin.

It seems to me that the speaker in the last stanza is the same as the first, but now he is more specified. It is someone who has made a mistake. What kind of a mistake is it? What kind of regret? Why a hawk? Why game?

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