The Poetry of Robert Penn Warren
“Evening Hawk” Examined: Matters of Time and Thematics
“Evening Hawk” by Robert Penn Warren is, despite its name, not about a hawk. It is about time, the ineffable qualities of that which is past, and the ways in which light and darkness relate with time. And skirting above all of this flies the hawk, a vessel that Warren uses to carry his message throughout the poem.
The poem opens in its first stanza with a description of action. We dive into the beginning by seeing wings “dipping through” from “plane of light to plane” (1). Immediately, the word “plane” conjures up both planes of land as well as planes that fly through the sky. Despite the fact that the word most likely means planes of space/area, the heavy influence of flight and air in the first line already uses the double meaning of the word to influence the reader’s perception to drift towards that of airy flight. “Wings dipping through / geometries and orchids” This first line break occurs immediately after Warren writes of wings dipping through, and in a way, forces our eyes to literally dip through the words to find the next line. After he describes all of these lively actions, he ends the first stanza by writing “the hawk comes.” We see the way the hawk flies, the way its wings dip through the sky, the landscape it resides in, before we know that we are talking about a hawk. And so it begins.
The next stanza opens with the words of the first line in the middle of the page. Immediately, it creates a sense of immediacy, as though the reader is right there, wherever the action is taking place. The words read “His wing / Scythes down another day,” which once again forces the reader’s eyes to follow the motion of the words in the same sort of action as the hawk’s wings are taking. In the last line of the second stanza, a new concept and focus is introduced, similarly to how the hawk was introduced. The idea of time being the focal point emerges, with the words “we hear / the crashless fall of the stalks of Time”. First of all, the fall is described as “crashless” but is introduced as an event not seen, not felt, not tasted, but an event that is heard. This apparent contradiction was one I didn’t immediately catch the first time I read this poem, because it somehow works. It seems believable that we could hear a crashless fall, because the fall of which we are referring to is the fall of Time (which is capitalized throughout the poem, so as to emphasize its importance).
Warren further expands on the concept of time in the next stanza, which is just one line that describes the head of the stalks of time as being “heavy with the gold of our error.” For me, that description immediately made me think of the Greek myth of Midas and his golden touch. Everything he touched turned to gold, which is what the greedy king wanted, until it turned the living, breathing things that he loved to solid gold. He was surrounded by wealth and everything he thought he wanted, but he was utterly alone and isolated.
The fourth stanza begins by jumping into “Look! Look! he is climbing the last light”. Once again, we jump into the action, but now the reader does so in real-time. The exclamation points and present-tense create the sense that the author is asking us to look, right now, as he is writing the poem, as we are reading the poem. He goes on to describe the “last light”, which he begins to describe toward the end of the poem. For the poem itself, this may very well be the literal last light that Warren writes about. He describes the light as being free from Time or error, implying that they go hand-in-hand. He then writes that the eye of the last light is “unforgiving” and that the world, “unforgiven” swings under it into shadow. Now, the relationship between light and shadow are at odds more than ever in this poem, and yet Warren retains the use of flighty words such as “swings” even this far into the poem.
Warren opens with the hawk, and despite the use of flighty and quick, airy language throughout the poem, soon reveals the true subject to be Time, and light, and the world itself. He uses the tense and structure of his words to establish an atmosphere of immediacy and present-time action within his poem, which creates an interesting contrast to the unmoving nature that time is often perceived as having.