Pan-culturally, birds symbolize freedom, strength, and peace—associations often evident in the verse of male poets. Leonard Lutwack writes,
Birds are used more frequently in poetry than in any other genre because they can be incorporated more easily in the minute imagery that makes up the basic stuff of poetry than in the broader elements of plot and character upon which drama and fiction depend. (Rowlett 640)
Birds’ frequent use and easy incorporation can be attributed to their widespread and affirmative symbolic meaning. The “stuff of poetry” is commonly assumed to be that which is beautiful and evocative of emotional engagement, a vague category which encompasses everything from the confessional to the narrative. However, in their respective poems “The Shrike” and “The Ambition Bird,” Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton refute the notion of free, peaceful birds—theirs are vindictive creatures, confined to discontentment and in no way promoting the ideas of lofty elevation that are inherent to Hopkins’s “The Windhover,” Hughes’s “The Hawk in the Rain,” and Jeffers’s “Hurt Hawks.” Common to both Plath and Sexton are a fractured family dynamic, displeasure with female societal expectations, and struggles with mental illnesses—all of which contribute to their marginalization. These aspects converge in the form of birds, which assume for Plath and Sexton a new jealous, violent, and caged symbolism.
Published in 1956, Sylvia Plath’s “The Shrike” encapsulates the gendered dichotomy imposed upon women that confines them to self-sacrificial lives, in which many dedicate themselves to their families, the upkeep of their homes, and the pleasure of their husbands. Such responsibilities warrant the sacrifice of one’s own pursuits, be they aspirations for higher education, a job outside the home, or the simple respect already afforded to men. Plath’s resentment toward her societal expectations as a woman is evident in her journals; she affirms, “I want to write because I have the urge to excel in one medium of translation and expression of life. I can’t be satisfied with the colossal job of merely living” (218). The “colossal job” to which she refers is a vague yet torturous amalgamation of her life’s suffering, some of which is attributed to her childhood trauma, some to her mental illness and marriage, and some to her dejection at the thought of succumbing to housewife duties. Evidence of a violent and vengeful reaction to these duties and the vocational immobility that they offer is found in “The Shrike.” Plath sheds her petticoats for the feathers of the vindictive speaker, conflated with the image and behavior of a shrike. It is important to note the dichotomy between the shrike’s appearance and its ethology—it is most notably “a songbird with a brutal hooked bill and sadistic tendencies, the great grey shrike is gruesomely adept at skewering its prey on thorns” (Lester 62). The fact that it is a songbird with, as Simon Lester puts it, “a powerful hooked bill and violent, carnivorous tendencies” mirrors the paradoxical image of the enraged speaker—she, who may be in appearance demure, subservient, and dainty, harbors an immense bloodlust for her husband, who sleeps beside her peacefully (Lester 62).
The speaker, described as an “envious bride,” lies ‘twisting curses in the tangled sheet / With taloned fingers;” the visual connotes rage extreme enough to warrant the clenching of the sheet (Plath 26). She is “shaking in her skull’s cage,” chained to her thoughts to the point where she is unable to fall asleep, and by the end of the poem she is waiting for morning, when “her shrike-face / Leans to peck open those locked lids, to eat / Crowns, palace, all / That nightlong stole her male” (26). The gruesome consumption of “her male’s” eyes signifies her tendency to be violent—it is one thing to “wait in rage” and another to “suck out / Last blood-drop of that truant heart.” Plath’s personal life is wrought with instances of violence inflicted upon her husband; Lynda K. Bundtzen writes of Ted Hughes’ destroyed possessions: “all of his work in progress, his play, poems, notebooks, even his precious edition of Shakespeare has been torn into small pieces, some ‘reduced to fluff’” (448). The aftermath of Plath’s anger is described as “a fit of jealous rage, she vandalized Hughes’ work as an act of ‘preemptive revenge,’” and in “The Shrike,” jealousy appears to be a source of the speaker’s discontentment, with words like “envious bride” and “so hungered” (Bundtzen 447). To further extend the metaphor of the shrike and envious hunger, Simon Lester points out the surgical precision with which shrikes prepare their prey for consumption:
It’s morbidly fascinating that, over time, the great grey shrike has perfected its butchery skills to the point where it can remove the poisonous skin of a toad so as to make a meal of a creature that is off the menu to most predators. (Lester 62)
It then makes a macabre sort of sense that the speaker as a shrike is able to “peck open those locked lids”—to peck the flesh from her husband’s closed eyes (Plath 26). “The Shrike” presents a claustrophobic image of being trapped in a “skull’s cage,” evoking mental illness and intrusive thoughts from which one cannot escape. In her journals, Plath writes this of her perception of freedom:
I have found that it is beyond your power ever ever to free me or give me back my soul; you could have a dozen mistresses and a dozen languages and a dozen countries, and I could kick and kick; I would still not be free. (Unabridged Journals 218)
Her assertion that she would still not be free after such an ordeal echoes the restraint inherent to women of the 1950’s, again referencing the demure housewife image to which all women were constantly subjected. To contradict, or perhaps provide an example of, the resentful feelings the speaker of “The Shrike” harbors toward her husband, Plath notes in her journals her desire for a man:
This part of the woman in me, the concrete, present, immediate part, which needs the warmth of her man in bed and her man eating with her and her man thinking and communing with her soul: this part still cries to you: why, why will you not only see me and be with me while there is still this small time before those terrible and infinite years […]. (Unabridged Journals 219)
“This part of the woman in me” suggests that the longing for a male partner is inherent to all women, a statement that derives its meaning from a lifetime of internalized sexism. The notion that there is a part in each woman who “needs” affection from a man excludes woman who are not attracted to men romantically. In the same way that American women have historically been conditioned to aspire to be housewives, they have had the blatantly false dogma of heteronormativity ingrained within them; they are all “shaking in their skull’s cage.” It is also interesting to see a parallel between the speaker and her husband, who lie beside each other, and the sexual dimorphism of shrikes. In shrike species, “[…] the male and female are almost identical […],” visually equalizing them (Lester 62). The proximity of the speaker and her husband as well as their sharing of a bed somewhat equalizes them; they lie in the same position, beneath the same sheets. Their differences rest upon emotional awareness, none of which is felt by the unresponsive sleeping man, but a great degree of which is felt by the speaker. In this context, Plath’s assault on her husband’s things is even more jarring. Bundtzen paraphrases Anne Stevenson, saying, “as in ‘Burning the Letters,’ Plath insists on venting her fury on textual bodies, literalizing poetry as a substitute victim for her husband, whom she would probably like to tear into, reduce to fluff” (Bundtzen 448). The shrike, in the instance of its poem, represents a violent, jealous love, and a pining for an emotional connection with a distant and unresponsive partner. This sentiment is not commonly sustained in male poets’ works; they tend to assign lofty elevation to both passerines and birds of prey—a convergence unique to the shrike.
In the summer of 1879, Gerard Manley Hopkins proclaimed that he felt “The Windhover” was his greatest work (Hollis 434). Similar to shrikes, windhovers—known as common kestrels in contemporary terms—are small carnivorous birds. But kestrels hold for themselves the title of raptor, and their methods for dispatching prey require the use of their tomial teeth—slight projections from the upper beak that fit snugly around prey items’ neck vertebrae. Hilda Hollis suggests that “Hopkins admires a powerful bird of prey in the octave, and yet in the second tercet he seems to valorize a humble life of suffering” regarding the two halves of the poem (434). Hollis then argues for the existence of two birds, one that is the kestrel and one that is its prey, but more pertinent to the religious implications of Hopkins’ personal life is the comparison she draws between the kestrel and Christ. As a Jesuit priest, Hopkins dedicated many of his works to God, who often was his poetry’s subject. Hollis also recognizes her dependency on the biographical fallacy and presents stances in opposition to her own. She writes,
Responding to critics who similarly identify the falcon with Christ, Donoghue makes a point that should not be ignored: The falcon can easily be accepted as a conventionally adequate post-Romantic symbol of Energy, but I see no reason why we should side-step the obvious fact that it is Energy at its most destructive, most vicious. To accept the windhover without sheer blasphemy as a symbol of Christ one would have to ignore the plain fact that the bird is a bird of prey, that when it dives it does so not just for the sheer ‘ecstasy’ of animal activity. (Hollis 434)
Donoghue’s attention to the windhover as a bird of prey and nothing else is an important distinction when compared with the nature of poetry to assign value and meaning to nature where innately there is none. However, the windhover assumes a symbolic connection to beauty, freedom, and in some arguments Christ, because Hopkins has appropriated its cultural symbolism. “The Windhover” characterizes the kestrel as birds are traditionally characterized— with connections to peace and freedom—and Hopkins does not paint the bird in a vengeful, vindictive light, despite its carnivorous diet. This is not to say that Hopkins had no reason to portray the kestrel as violent or confined as “The Shrike” portrays its titular bird; Hopkins suffered from the suppression of his sexuality, the revelation of which would have been dangerous in Victorian society. Judging from his six Terrible Sonnets, one can infer that Hopkins was immensely tormented, with enough spiritual and emotional confinement to inspire a poem about a vengeful bird. However, he has chosen to write about the kestrel, an “image of a strong Christ descending to earth to save humanity and an image that demands strength from the poet to lead a life of suffering” (Hollis 434). The positive representation of the windhover may also be attributed to the nature of male confessional poetry, if “The Windhover” can be considered confessional due to the correlation between the bird and Christ. Sandra M. Gilbert highlights the binary between male and female confessional poets, saying this of men: “The male confessional poet, in other words, even while romantically exploring his own psyche, observes himself as a representative specimen with a sort of scientific exactitude” (Gilbert 445). She suggests that even when men are steeped in self-retrospect, they dam the emotional flood as to preserve the standards of male poets, who must be strong and commanding just as women must be weak and submissive. In this consideration, women have more freedom to express emotion because emotional expression is expected of them. Hollis notes two readings of “The Windhover,” one in which acknowledges the possible existence of a prey bird within the poem: “In one reading, the heart is stirred with admiration for strength, while in the other reading the heart is stirred with pity” (Hollis 438). This statement can also be applied to readings of “The Windhover” and “The Shrike,” though in addition to pity the latter may also evince horror.
Ted Hughes’s poems are rife with the intergenerational war trauma Hughes inherited from his father. Jeffrey Meyers examines the legacy of war so prevalent in Hughes’ works: “his father’s war stories were so vivid, his psychological wound so palpable that Hughes felt he himself had witnessed the apocalyptic carnage” (Meyers 30). He also bluntly notes that “Hughes’s first connection with animals came from killing them, and his doomed soldiers have the feral primitivism of his hunting and hunted beasts” (Meyers 30). An avid hunter, Hughes was privy to the secret world of the natural food chain, and as a tertiary predator he participated. His appreciation for the natural hunger which drives all animals is known in his poems, especially those called inhuman, and those with themes revolving around the deaths of animals. “The Hawk in the Rain” contains a hawk whose “wings hold all creation in a weightless quiet, / Steady as a hallucination in the streaming air”—a divine elevation similar to that of the windhover in Hopkins’ poem, and very different from the morbid and destructive force of “The Shrike” (Hughes). The speaker must “strain towards the master- / Fulcrum of violence where the hawk hangs still,” and this “fulcrum of violence” seems to refer to the unpredictable cruelty of living wild, realized in the next stanza:
That maybe in his own time meets the weather
Coming from the wrong way, suffers the air, hurled upside down,
Fall from his eye, the ponderous shires crash on him,
The horizon traps him; the round angelic eye
Smashed, mix his heart’s blood with the mire of the land.
The hawk is dashed to the ground, his “angelic eye” destroyed. “Angelic” here is another divine modifier used to elevate the hawk, to present it as a spiritual symbol of high attainment. Yet even if animals do accrue symbolisms in various cultures, they are still animals, prone to sudden and dramatic death. Hughes, with his hunting background, understands the limitations of even magnificent creatures like hawks. Still, he assigns meaning to the hawk, as Hopkins assigns it to the windhover and Plath to the shrike, because that is the job of poets—to witness phenomena and derive from it meaning or a state of being. Hughes still took it upon himself to combine “the instinct to kill of fierce birds and animals with the killing of men in war, and then contrasted the natural world of gentler animals with the murder of men in battle,” not present in “The hawk in the Rain” but present in his other works (Meyers 31). In his essay, Meyers conflates animals hunting for survival with war, saying, “at war with themselves and with men, these animals have, like predators tearing out the entrails of their prey, a primeval instinct to kill. His characteristic hawk surveys the world between ‘hooked head and hooked feet’ […] (Meyers 30). Depending on one’s definition of “war,” Meyer’s assumption that animals are capable of it can be misleading, as animals lack the geo-political circumstances and commanders-in-chief which spur war. But Meyers is right to draw attention to the aloof sharpness with which Hughes characterizes his hawks. It is a human thing to anthropomorphize animals, and Hughes reveals some of his humanity normally hidden behind an “inhuman” approach to poetry in a letter to Anne Stevenson in Bitter Fame:
When Sylvia’s destruction of my papers etc. has been described, it is said “this could never be forgotten or forgiven,” or words to that effect . . . . The truth is that I didn’t hold that action against [Sylvia]—then or at any other time. I was rather shattered by it, and saw it was a crazy thing for her to have done. But perhaps I have something missing. She never did anything that I held against her.” (Bundtzen 448)
The hawk in “The Hawk in the Rain” can be, like most of Hughes’s works, attributed to his experience with his father’s war stories. War is historically associated with masculinity, as men were deemed fit for fighting; women were considered too fragile. In this context, the hawk adopts a masculine symbolism, free and vulnerable to the dangers of nature as are men at war.
Robinson Jeffers’s “Hurt Hawks” is also a bird-focused narrative in which the hawk succumbs to its wounds. Even as the hawk is dying—the wing has a compound fracture, and “trails like a banner in defeat”—it is strong and commanding of respect. No predator will end its suffering, as “there is game without talons,” though it is bold to assume a coyote will pass up a hawk unable to fly (Jeffers). The hawk is anthropomorphized, as though he “remembers freedom / And flies in a dream,” and this want for freedom humanizes the hawk, making it a sympathetic character much like the likeness of Christ in Hopkins’ depiction of the windhover. Jordan L. Greene, in “Violence, Violation, and the Limits of Ethics in Robinson Jeffers’s ‘Hurt Hawks’” draws attention to the somber tone of the poem, and how it contradicts the stoic hawk prepared to die. He writes, “the speaker’s somber yet unsentimental portrayal of the hawk’s circumstance— broken, bloody, lame, yet deﬁant—reveals the hawk’s ﬁerce pride; yet he is not one of “the arrogant”—the notion of a hawk having pride is a personification on the part of Jeffers as he sculpts the hawk into an admirable beast capable of garnering compassion (Green 14). “The arrogant comes from the lines, “The wild God of the world is sometimes merciful to those
/ That ask mercy, not often to the arrogant,” which, like “The Windhover” and “The Hawk in the Rain,” introduces faith-oriented elements that serve to elevate the bird’s symbolic meaning. So elevated is its meaning that Green points out, “it represents everything that the human should embrace […]” and when the poem’s speaker puts the hawk out of its misery, he adds, “the killing redeems neither hawk nor speaker nor reader. It is simply the grim act of an ashamed man” (Green 16). The proud, unafraid hawk confronts death with neither self-pity nor remorse; in contrast, Plath’s shrike embodies remorse and is a source of violence. In Hughes’ case, he is not socially chained to a position of powerlessness as is Plath. These differences are present within their poems’ birds, and represent a larger dichotomy sustained throughout several examples of male and female confessional poetry.
“The Ambition Bird” holds for Anne Sexton an association with confinement and a fixation with death. “I would like a simple life / yet all night I am laying / poems away in a long box” evokes restlessness and insomnia—not unlike Plath’s shrike, “twisting curses in the tangled sheet / With taloned fingers” (Sexton 299). The speakers of both poems are discontent with some aspect of their current lives and yearn for quietness; the speaker of “The Ambition Bird” longs for simplicity, the speaker of “The Shrike” is envious of her husband’s peaceful sleep. Sexton refers to an “immortality box,” her “lay-away plan,” her “coffin”—obscure phrases evoking an idea of death with “coffin” and afterlife with “immortality” (Sexton 299). Sexton lists a series of wants on behalf of the ambition bird, some of which are horrific: “He wants to light a kitchen match / and immolate himself,” while others draw on domesticity: “He wants to take bread and wine /and bring forth a man happily floating in the Caribbean” (300). This list of wants is assumed by the speaker: “He wants, I want,” which then bleeds into the obscure and self-referential final stanza: “I must get a new bird / and a new immortality box. / There is folly enough inside this one.” Why the speaker feels they “must get a new bird and a new immortality box” is answered by an explanation of having enough folly inside the current “immortality box;” yet neither the immortality box nor the ambition bird is clearly defined. There is a connection between “folly” and the title of the collection in which “The Ambition Bird” is published, The Book of Folly, and folly in itself denotes foolishness. In a letter sent to Julie Joselyn in February of 1971, in which she briefly discusses The Book of Folly, Sexton writes that she has been put on Mellaril and was disappointed with her doctor’s orders to keep out of the sun. She also writes, “Yes, for me death is always very close” (Sexton 376). An aside provided in Anne Sexton: A Self-Portrait in Letters notes that in June of 1972, Sexton commiserates with Lois Ames on their shared experience with “impotence in the face of pain, hospital authoritarianism, and carelessness;” these feelings may lend themselves to the symbolism behind “ambition bird,” who, like the speaker, wants many different things, but is prevented from attaining them by folly (Galassi 378).
Connecting the speaker of “The Ambition Bird” to Sexton, Sexton’s impotence may be conflated with her use of “folly,” as foolishness is applicable to feeling frustratingly helpless and vulnerable, especially when “hospital authoritarianism” is responsible for such feelings. Considering her grueling recovery from a hip fracture, Sexton may feel foolish, immobile and at the mercy of apathetic hospital staff. The bird in “The Ambition Bird” evokes these sentiments of vulnerability and the desire for a “simple life.” It is also an image of fragility and is likened to suicide by immolation and being “dropped from a high place like Tallahatchie Bridge” (Sexton 300). Like Plath, Sexton abhorred her society-imposed duties, writing in her journal in 1958, “I realize, with guilt, that I am a woman, that it should be the children, or my husband, or my home—not my writing,” that is the center of her life (Middlebrook 63). Internalized sexism is evident in her admitting that her housekeeping “should be” a priority. The ambition bird has no assigned speciation, and there is too little to go by to deduce its species, whereas in “The Shrike,” the species is from the family Laniidae; in “The Windhover” the species is easily narrowed down to a select few falcons and kestrels; “The Hawk in the Rain” at least derives its bird from the family Accipitridae; and “Hurt Hawks” directly mentions red-tailed hawks. “The Ambition Bird” notes “dark wings,” but that does not distinguish ostriches from bald eagles from starlings; however, Sexton does not need to name the bird, for she characterizes it extensively through its association with confinement in a “long box” and suicide. “The Shrike” benefits from the subtext of shrikes, their small stature and carnivorous appetites, and the poem would not so successfully convey its thematic rage were the bird not named.
Birds, in adhering to traditional and pan-cultural symbolism, which include precedents established by Biblical allusions and pagan myths of the East and West, represent freedom, peace, and fragility. Even birds of prey connote fragility, as understood from the dying hawks of “The Hawk in the Rain” and “Hurt Hawks,” but they also command respect and exude pride in these poems and others. The kestrel in “The Windhover” is “daylight’s dauphin”—the prince and inheritor of light, which is a vivid and noble title to hold. These depictions contrast greatly with the birds of Plath and Sexton. “The Shrike” presents a vindictive bird demure and tiny by appearance, but within it harbors a jealous lust for its mate’s blood. The shrike is confined to its “skull’s cage,” shaking with rage. “The Ambition Bird” elicits associations with suicide, helplessness, and being confined to a coffin. With their violent, negative implementations of birds in poetry, Plath and Sexton deviate from the traditional iconography attached to birds. Based on their common personal experiences with restriction, jealousy, and confinement conjured by their societal expectations as women, their mental illnesses, and their penchants for impulsivity, their presentations of birds as negative symbols can be attributed to their marginalization as mentally ill women. On confessional poets, Sandra Gilbert remarks,
While the male poet, even at his most wretched and alienated, can at least solace himself with his open or secret creativity, his mythmaking power, the female poet must come to terms with the fact that as a female she is that which is mythologized, the incarnation of otherness (to use de Beauvoir’s terminology) and hence the object of anthologies full of male metaphors. (Gilbert 448)
Gilbert insists that, even as they are suffering, men have the privilege to write poetry that creates a standard, while women operate within those standards and are constantly judged for them. This statement suffices as an explanation for why Hopkins, who experienced internalized-homophobia, and Hughes, who experienced intergenerational war trauma, chose to appropriate birds as noble and dignified symbols in their poetry, and why Plath and Sexton—confined to male standards both inside and outside the world of poetry—depict birds as creatures viciously enraged by their confinement. Gilbert asserts that the female poet, “even when she is not consciously confessional like Plath or Sexton, writes in the hope of discovering or defining a self, a certainty, a tradition”—in terms of birds, this female-discovered tradition encapsulates the effects of centuries of misogyny (Gilbert 446). Birds have accrued for themselves a post-modernist and feministic symbolism; Plath’s and Sexton’s bird poems have proposed a new species—the ambition shrike—which alights on rage, is caged by impotence, and feeds on folly.
Bundtzen, Lynda K. “Poetic Arson and Sylvia Plath’s ‘Burning the Letters.’” Contemporary Literature, vol. 39, no. 3, 1998, pp. 434–451.
Gilbert, Sandra M. “‘My Name Is Darkness’: The Poetry of Self-Definition.” Contemporary Literature, vol. 18, no. 4, 1977, pp. 443–457.
Green, Jordan L. “Violence, Violation, and the Limits of Ethics in Robinson Jeffers’ ‘Hurt Hawks.’” Rocky Mountain Review, vol. 63, no. 1, 2009, p. 3.
Hollis, Hilda. “Another Bird? Counterpoint in ‘The Windhover.’” Victorian Poetry, vol. 40, no. 4, 2002, pp. 433–443.
Lester, Simon. “Face to Face with the Butcher Bird.” Country Life, 2018, pp. 62-63.
Meyers, Jeffrey. “Ted Hughes: War Poet.” Antioch Review, vol. 71, no. 1, 2013, pp. 30–39.
Middlebrook, Diane Wood. Anne Sexton: A Biography, Houghton Mifflin, 1991.
Plath, Sylvia. The Collected Poems Sylvia Plath, edited by Ted Hughes, HarperPerennial, 1981.
—. The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath, edited by Karen V. Kukil, Anchor Books, 2000.
Sexton, Anne. The Complete Poems Anne Sexton, Mariner Books, 1999.
—. Anne Sexton a Self-Portrait in Letters, edited by Jonathan Galassi, Mariner Books, 2004.