Evening Hawk by Robert Penn Warren – Repeating History


This is an essay I did for class that I thought I could copy-paste here for critiques. Here’s the poem itself first:

From plane of light to plane, wings dipping through
Geometries and orchids that the sunset builds,
Out of the peak’s black angularity of shadow, riding
The last tumultuous avalanche of
Light above pines and the guttural gorge,
The hawk comes.
His wing
Scythes down another day, his motion
Is that of the honed steel-edge, we hear
The crashless fall of stalks of Time.

The head of each stalk is heavy with the gold of our error.

Look! Look! he is climbing the last light
Who knows neither Time nor error, and under
Whose eye, unforgiving, the world, unforgiven, swings
Into shadow.

Long now,
The last thrush is still, the last bat
Now cruises in his sharp hieroglyphics. His wisdom
Is ancient, too, and immense. The star
Is steady, like Plato, over the mountain.

If there were no wind we might, we think, hear
The earth grind on its axis, or history
Drip in darkness like a leaking pipe in the cellar.

21 Jan 2011

Repeating History

In the poem Evening Hawk by Robert Warren, the hawk symbolises the bringer of an end, and is ruthless to the humans that seem to be blinded by greed. Warren incorporates striking diction, imagery, and allusions to show that despite the errors of people throughout history, history continues to be forgotten while death and darkness continually drown the day.

The diction used is quite dark, sharp, and morose; the title sets the stage with “evening,” and hawks are generally seen as sharp birds of prey. The “light” in the first stanza is described as a “tumultuous avalanche,” which may show the turmoil of life that contrasts the peace of death. However, since this is the light of sunset – the last light before night – the author may have been showing the final struggle for life before the darkness inevitably settles in as “the hawk comes.” The hawk does not just close or end another day, he “scythes [it] down” – decapitates it sharply and swiftly, showing that death does not idle. It simply happens, on time, a part of nature. The author describes the “stalks of time” falling, then describes these stalks as “heavy with the gold of our error,” which could mean that the people’s error was to waste “Time” trying to find the “gold” rather than trying to be good and happy; an obsession for wealth often leads to corruption rather than happiness. However, the hawk does not “know” or recognize time or error, and for some reason is “unforgiving.” Perhaps the hawk cannot forgive because he has no reason to forgive, as he does not acknowledge errors or time. In contrast, the earth does have feelings, and it acknowledges that it has gone “un-forgiven” and “swings into shadow” as if in shame and in silence. The earth knows it will die someday, but it also knows it will die only after humanity dies, which could be why it “grind[s] on its axis” the way people grind their teeth in anger or anxiety, possibly showing that the errors of humanity have taken its toll on a feeling earth. Maybe the hawk has become unfeeling because of humanity’s continuous barrage of wrongdoings. Maybe death, whether it be the people’s or the earth’s, could mean the escape and freedom of either.

The allusions in the poem seem to refer to Greek history and mythology. Geometry is credited to a Greek mathematician, and is used here in the first stanza – “geometries”, “angularities” – and they could be referring to the perfection or definiteness of death, since geometry is, at its most basic, logic with only right or wrong outcomes, and with no grey areas open for interpretation. The scythe (or sickle), often representing death and the grim reaper in western folklore, is also shown in the hand of Cronos, the Greek Titan who overthrew his father, Uranus, and ruled during a mythological Golden Age that was peaceful and bountiful. He was worshipped as the harvest deity (thus, the sickle used for harvesting). However, the scythe was also the weapon his mother, Gaia, gave to him in order to kill his father, who had sealed away two of his sons. Later on, when Cronos learnt that one of his own children would overthrow him the way he overthrew his own father, he began to devour them – that is, act cruelly to them the way his father had; not learning from past mistakes. Because of this, his son Zeus was somehow kept alive by his mother, and Zeus overthrew Cronos to save his siblings. The “error” here is that he could not look at the past and learn from other’s mistakes, so in order to keep his “gold”, he repeated those mistakes and was ultimately overthrown by his own doing. Cronos is also known to have controlled Time, which may also be part of this allusion, as the “stalks of Time” are crashing. Interestingly, Plato, a Greek philosopher, is also mentioned but is likened to a “steady…star…over the mountain”, which is a part of the continuous nature. Humanity was always shown to be the fickle part of nature in this poem, always losing and making errors, but here is Plato as a part of the ‘eternal’ nature. Perhaps the author was trying to say that Plato only lives on because humanity remembers the wise man. The author may be trying to tell us that the only way we can bypass death is to live on through memory, because death is undoubtedly inevitable.

The imagery used in the poem was at times random but usually revolved back to nature vs. man. An interesting image is one of the bat “cruis[ing] in his sharp hieroglyphics”. The author may have used “hieroglyphics” because bats only see through static images and interpret them to understand the world. Nevertheless, hieroglyphics is a form of ancient wisdom, and is cryptic, and since it is the bat (i.e. nature) that is going through this, with its own “immense” and “ancient” wisdom, we can see how Warren emphasizes nature’s intelligence in looking to the past to “now cruise” in the future. As opposed to humanity, who let “history drip in darkness like a leaking pipe in a cellar”. The image conjures a negligent and “dark” illustration of humanity regarding its history as unimportant, leaving it in our “cellars”, the recesses of our minds, where damage is continuously being dealt to both the memory of that history and the “cellar” itself – and since the cellar is part of the house, soon the house too will be adversely affected. Warren here may have been trying to say that our obsession to make heavy our stalks of gold before death and darkness came to take us made us careless and uncommitted to a past we could have learnt from, and therefore makes us head towards an obvious downfall, right into the “guttural gorges” of death. The shadows, avalanches, gorges, stars, and mountains live for much longer than humans and can reflect on history over a long period of time. They are still alive at night while parts of humanity die or are asleep, in a temporary death, dreaming to use their unique minds to acquire the gold rather than learn from the past and stop themselves from experiencing the tumult that comes before night, just prior to an evening hawk.


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