Gunn’s poem makes use of a prolonged metaphor, comparing a hawk and its tamer to two lovers. The poem, comprised of four stanzas, has an ABACCB rhyme scheme and is written in non-uniform iambic trimeter. The poem describes a hawk’s growing love for its tamer, and thus its growing obedience and compliance; we are immediately presented with a tension between the hawk’s desire for absolute freedom, and its will to please its tamer. The poem moves in a straightforward manner, with each stanza expanding the hawk’s thoughts. Thom Gunn was a homosexual, and so the reader can infer that Gunn’s persona (the hawk) is addressing another man (the tamer). The poem’s taut structure and the short lines suggest the hawk’s lack of liberty and freedom, and indeed the title ‘Tamer and Hawk’ instantly indicates the inequality of the relationship.
The first stanza introduces the feelings of the persona, and its somewhat bewildered state; he is confused as to why he is so eager to impress his lover, and Gunn writes: “I thought I was so tough.” He obviously doesn’t like the idea of obedience, but still wants to please his lover. The hawk loves to do as his tamer desires, and Gunn writes that the hawk “Cannot be quick enough / To fly for you.” We immediately get the impression that Gunn’s persona is under some disillusion and that he has become a somewhat heteronomous being, doing only what his lover asks. This is supported by Gunn’s words: “I go / At your commands.” The hawk, in liking or even loving its tamer, has already begun to lose its freedom as a wild bird; thus the tension is expanded. Gunn’s employment of the words “gentled at your hands” suggests that the lover has the power to ‘tame’ Gunn’s persona, and implies that he is becoming less and less wild. The contrast between the words “tough” and “gentled” serves to show that the hawk’s nature is being compromised by the relationship. Gunn uses very little punctuation in the first stanza (only one comma and one full-stop), and this cadence represents the dwindling autonomy that Gunn’s persona still has. Finally, Gunn ends the stanza with “commands”, and this simply insinuates the ominous dominance that the tamer has over the hawk.
The second stanza serves to support the first, and indeed Gunn’s persona is now seen as a slave-like figure, describing himself as “no longer free”. Gunn uses symbolism here, and the use of the words “flight above” and “no longer free” introduce a paradox, because one of the connotations of flight is freedom. The juxtaposition of the two words “longer” and “free” suggest the hawk’s desire, or indeed longing, to be a free bird. The two words “seeled” (blinding of birds) and “hooded” both suggest captivity and their harshness imply that he is being kept cruelly or against his will. Gunn has used the word “seeled”, not only because it suggests captivity, but because the seeling of birds was seen as extremely cruel. Moreover, the word “seeled” encourages the reader to think of Gunn’s persona being sealed off and isolated. The phrase “I am blind to other birds” suggests that the persona is so infatuated by his lover that he finds it hard to think of other men, and indeed this is quite an ominous idea. It suggests that his thoughts are eternally occupied by his lover, a possibly dangerous scenario. Gunn also uses word play when he refers to his lover’s “habit” hooding his persona; a habit is also a large, hooded cloak worn by monks. One of the ideas associated with monks is seclusion and lack of freedom, and so this promotes the ideas of the poem. Gunn’s use of more punctuation in the second stanza implies that the persona is becoming less and less free, and that he is becoming more and more of a captive.
In the third stanza, the author for the first time uses the imagery of the bird flying, perhaps to suggest that the persona’s freedom is simply a thing of the past. Gunn writes: “As formerly, I wheel / I hover and I twist,” all of which indicate liberty. In fact, the word “twist” often suggests escape, and the reader therefore imagines Gunn’s persona struggling for freedom. Gunn’s use of the polysyllabic word “possessive” stands out in the middle of the fourth line, and it serves to emphasise that Gunn’s persona is now simply a possession of his lover. The phrase “But only want to feel” does however suggest that Gunn’s persona is deeply in love with his lover, and it implies that he is so in love that he will do anything for him – thus he is a “possession”. The words “catcher” and “caught” again suggest captivity, and imply that Gunn’s persona is only concerned with his lover, and is intent on pleasing him. Punctuation has steadily increased, decreasing the cadence of the lines and thus suggesting the persona’s decreasing freedom.
In the fourth stanza, Gunn’s persona says: “You but half-civilise,” which suggests that the hawk is still half wild, and therefore still violent and dangerous. Again, this is an ominous idea. The persona is presented as a monomaniac (“having only eyes / for you”), again making Gunn’s persona seem more and more menacing. The last three lines support this:
“…I fear to lose,
I lose to keep, and choose
Tamer as prey.”
Because Gunn’s persona has been tamed in such a way that he only has eyes for his lover, and it is his lover that occupies all of his thoughts, he is so afraid of losing him. And so, just as Othello kills Desdemona (his wife), Gunn’s persona chooses to “lose” (kill) his lover in order “to keep” him; he thinks that if he kills him, their love will be eternal and immutable. He thinks that, rather than losing his lover in another way, death will not necessarily bring an end to their love.
The metaphor of the tamer and the hawk is extremely effective; the theme of the poem is the danger of love, and so the metaphor of a hawk, a wild and dangerous predator, is particularly appropriate. It allows Gunn to paint a picture of love as a steady loss of freedom and independence, just as the tamed hawk steadily loses its violent and wild nature. Moreover, the practices of tamers are seen as particularly cruel and so the ideas of one-sided dominance and authority are apparent; Gunn is able to represent the cruelty and governance of inequitable love very easily. The metaphor also lends itself to the idea of dependence; the hawk starts to grow dependent on its tamer (“only want to feel”), just as a lover might grow more and more dependent, a precarious scenario.
The poem was certainly intended to be a love poem, but Gunn suggests that love accompanies a number of dark connotations; Gunn implies that being in love is similar to being “seeled” by your partner, and being, in many ways, trapped. This is supported by Gunn’s phrase “I go / at your commands.” This poem expresses many of the views seen in Larkin’s poem ‘Self’s the Man’; Larkin writes: “He has no time at all.” Both Larkin and Gunn suggest that love (or indeed marriage) takes away one’s freedom and independence, much like when a hawk is being trained. Not only does Gunn’s poem, like Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, show the inevitable claustrophobia of passionate love, but it also shows the dangers inherent in such a one-sided relationship of dominance. Gunn seems keen to emphasize the perils of such an impassioned and wild love between two people, and his poem suggests that it often has a bad result. It also reflects the famous line of the final stanza of Oscar Wilde’s ‘The Ballad of Reading Gaol’: “And all men kill the thing they love…” Both Gunn and Wilde suggest that men will kill their lovers either by leaving them, or indeed by loving them too much.
The tension of containment is gradually increased throughout ‘Tamer and Hawk’, and this is achieved by Gunn’s language and use of punctuation. Although the poem suggests that love is like slavery, the overriding message is one of danger. Gunn is telling the reader that impassioned love can be very risky, and that when someone becomes so consumed and obsessed by their lover, it seems better to kill them than to lose them by some other means. In death, love never ends whereas in life, it may. In striving to retain their lover, men will often lose them.