Yeats and Raptors

Yeats poems are full of raptors, full of birds in general, really. There are so many bird moments and bird poems that it’s easy to forget just how much these collections use bird images or symbols.  It can be tough to see if one never had the interest to look into nictitating membranes or how falconers tame hawks, but Yeats is surprisingly accurate in his portrayal of hawks and falconry.

There are many diverse instances where birds are used as huge images or symbols or for an aesthetical impact, like the tundra swan’s mournful locator call, or the swallow’s uncanny agility in the air, or the fierce maternal instinct of the gallinule, or moorhen, or the hypnotically iridescent plumage of the peacock and its freakish scream. However, raptors are almost always mentioned in relation to falconry. Falconry has a great bank of images for Yeats to draw on, especially that of the spinning gyre and the unblinking eye of the sitting hawk. It doesn’t hurt that falconry also puts him in the aristocratic lexicon and the image of privilege can resonate or contrast with other images.

Yeats clearly knows that hunting raptors ride slowly upwards in a spiral, or gyre, pattern, and uses hawks and falcons a few times to conjure his vision of cosmic gyres. In “The Second Coming,” this is a core image. He knows that hawks and eagles moisten their eyes with a transparent nictitating membrane, though he, as most people, would not call it that. He is at least aware that they appear not to blink while they’re awake. As symbols for logic and reason, physiological rigidity does indeed lend them an air of intense dispassion, besides unnerving everyone in the room. Their nictitating membranes are also the foundation of the myth that hawks and eagles can stare unblinkingly into the sun, a myth that appears in “Upon a House Shaken by the Land Agitation.”

Yeats also knows enough about falconry to know which hawks are used by the highest aristocracy in Europe for hunting. It is disappointing that he doesn’t cash in on some incredible puns in their names. Case in point, the gyrfalcon, named for exactly the spiral shape it symbolizes, is the most prized of hunting birds and is the species most likely to be used, say, by the highest aristocracy of Egypt. The falcon in the opening of “The Second Coming” is most likely a gyrfalcon, since a peregrine or a lanner would be too cheap for a prince hunting within sight of the sphinx.

“The Hawk” is a small poem right after “The Fisherman” on page 149 of the Finneran. “Let [the hawk] be hooded or caged / Till the yellow eye has grown mild,” Yeats says, apparently aware that hawks become more and more complacent as they age in a falconer’s care. He also seems aware that young accipiter, or woodland hawks, if indeed this is one, have yellow eyes when they are young. Though he doesn’t explicitly say it, the eye turns red as the hawk becomes fully mature. After this age, accipiter hawks really are quite mild. Some can even be handled without a glove. As Yeats implies in his poem, a pacified hawk has lost a lot of its fierce dignity.

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