This week while reading Alan Llwyd’s poems I noticed (as a avid animal enthusiast) that many of his works were animal related. Specifically I was struck by the first poem in the anthology, “The Hawk Above Felindre,” which I found to be extraordinarily beautiful. I am constantly evaluating the role animals play in literature and while reading this poem I was interested in Llwyd’s choice to portray the hawk as an all-powerful and all seeing creature. Llwyd writes:
Wheeling and wheeling above the woods
the hawk spinning in the invisible
whirlpool of his flight in the thin
on a cold morning:
the rhythmic movements of the hawk’s
dance, round and around,
on the line of his own horizons:
the day stock-still, and his fire-dance
one with the dance of all the planets,
one with the dance of the universe.
Every timorous heart beneath his wide
hovering, underneath his spirallings,
fills with terror and thumps through the silk
of the thin bosom. The world billows
within his wingspan:
animals, creatures and man
whirling about in his eyes,
in the vast vacancy that is the cleft
of his eyes, every living soul
held fast by the dance’s motion.
He turns overhead on his axle,
his flight-path around his own
equator: he is the ripple in the middle
of the lake, that spreads
in waves around
the dint of a skipped stone.
The circle widens, widens as he hangs
on wings of fire,
and as he spirals he cuts an enormous
hole in the cosmos,
opens a hole through God’s creation,
and through the gap our civilization collapses,
falls through to its death.
It is clear that Llwyd’s hawk is not just any bird but holds more significant meaning as an omniscient presence in its landscape. Its view from the sky places all “animals, creatures and man” in the hawk’s control giving it enough power to cut a hole through God’s creations with its spiraling dance. This overwhelming presence made me consider whether hawks have specific significance in Wales. I did some research and found that in fact Wales is known for its birds, both on its extensive coastline and throughout the interior of the region. Among the most famous of these birds is the Red Kite (a type of hawk), which is considered by many to be the Welsh national bird. Although Red Kites once bred throughout Britain, they became extinct in England and Scotland by the end of the 18th century after being hunted by farmers who saw them as a threat to expanding agriculture. However, the birds continued to survive in Wales and became iconic due to their beauty and their distinctive and elaborate areal displays.
While Llwyd makes no mention of a specific type of hawk in his poem, he makes continual references to the bird’s “rhythmic movements,” and its “fire dance” which is “one with the dance of all the planets,/ one with the dance of the universe.” The poem is also set in Felindre which is a Welsh town surrounded by countryside and woods, the perfect habitat for the Red Kite. I am therefore concluding, both due to textual evidence and for the sake of my argument, that Llwyd’s hawk is in fact a Red Kite and thus the Welsh national bird.
After reaching this conclusion I now see the poem in a slightly different light. The hawk is a symbol of Welsh identity, an icon of a natural beauty that the rest of Britain did not manage to preserve. In this sense I now see Llwyd’s poem as not only a tribute to a majestic animal, but I believe he is identifying the bird as a protector of the land. For centuries the hawk has been circling the Welsh skies, witnessing hundreds of years of repetition and change. The bird represents the survival of a national identity, an identity that holds significance for all in its sight.
The last two lines of the poem, however, are still causing me some difficulty. Llwyd concludes by describing how civilization collapses to its death into the hole formed by the hawk’s spiraling dance. One could interpret this image as a statement surrounding the strength of national identity. It is possible that Llwyd is suggesting that the survival of a civilization is inherently dependent on nationalism. Conversely it can be seen as illustrating the dangers of nationalist identities and emphasizing the manner in which nationalism has repeatedly led to destruction.
I would love to hear what others think!
Also if you are interested in birds BBC has some great videos including this one: