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Voices of the Headland

Robinson Jeffers and the Bird of Prey

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Alan J. Malnar

Voices of the Headland: Robinson Jeffers and the Bird of Prey explores the image of the raptor in the poetry of Robinson Jeffers. Emanating from the continent’s end of the American West, Jeffers’ poetic eagles, hawks, falcons, vultures, and other birds of prey symbolize the compelling presence and voice of nature, a pantheistic universe of beauty and splendor, death and destruction. It is the perilous bird of prey which calls forth the very essence and life-force of Jeffers himself, winging its way through his expansive body of narrative and lyrical verse, a poetry fundamentally anti-social in its vision and primitive in its basic, instinctual surge. Voices of the Headland examines this distinctive imagery from many critical viewpoints.

 

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Chapter 5. A Natural History of Hawks

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· 5 ·

A NATURAL HISTORY OF HAWKS

The bird of prey is an evolutionary wonder of the animal kingdom, conceivably nature’s quintessential killing machine. Everything about its physiology and anatomy, advanced over countless generations through natural selection, contributes to its success as an organism residing at the top of the food chain. Its bones, beak, legs, feet and talons; its muscles and tendons, feathers and visual sense organs; its digestive system, size, weight and other elements of its makeup all serve a functional purpose, nothing flawed—nothing superfluous. No wonder Jeffers loved these creatures.1 He truly admired them for “all the stoicism and stored-up fury that [is] in their blood” (CL 3: 900). In fact, countless generations of people, no less than Jeffers, have been fascinated by their remarkable visual acuity and their mean “indomitable eyes” (CP 1: 414).

The deep-set eyes of a bird of prey—noticeably large in proportion to the size of its head—possess the keenest visual acuity of all living organisms. These optical sense organs are unusually large in relation to the bird’s head, allowing for increased light inflow and larger image reception. They contain double foveae with an extremely high concentration of photo-receptor cells in the retina which helps process long distance movement with laser-like precision. Thus, to have “eyes like a hawk” is not an empty compliment.2 ← 59 | 60 →

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