If I rightly understand the meaning of the phrase, between hawk and buzzard, it is used to express a certain suspense of mind, when the person is in bivio, which may be illustrated by the following instances. Young Fabius was brought up to learning, and graduated at the university. It then became a question with him what branch of business to pursue. The calling which promised the least fatigue, and the most profit, he sought for. Law, physick and divinity, all presented themselves before him. Troubles, as well as profits, seemed to be attached to each of them, and for a considerable time his mind hung in suspense, between hawk and buzzard. He finally made choice of the sacred gown, and, after the usual studies and examinations, was licensed to preach as a candidate. Many places he visited, and many calls he received, but the rewards promised did not meet his wishes. Five hundred dollars per annum was the highest bid that any parish made for him, on which he reasoned thus: “If I accept of this call, I shall never expect to get more, and I think eight hundred dollars is not more than I ought to have, each year, considering my talents, and what expense it has cost to improve them by education; but still, if I do not accept of this call, I am not sure of getting so much in any other parish. On the whole, I am at a loss about my sacred duty: whether the Lord calls me to accept of this call, or has a greater call for me in another parish.” While Fabius was thus reasoning, he stood between hawk and buzzard
All things considered, he accepted the call, and took the charge of the people, over which the Holy Ghost made him overseer, not for filthy lucre, but of a ready mind, and served them several years to good satisfaction: like people, like priest. But lately, an unhappy circumstance has turned up. A very wealthy parish, having a fund of one thousand dollars a year, with other valuable perquisites, has become vacant. Fabius is greatly affected towards the people of that parish, that they should be as sheep without a shepherd, and is constantly praying, hoping and longing that the Lord will make it clear to him, that he must remove among them. The people to whom he now administers, are confident, that if Fabius leaves them, it will be all hawk on their side, but the thousand dollars keep such a buzzing in his ears, that the good soul of Fabius is constantly between hawk-and buzzard; or like the creature, less than a mule, spoken of in the Gospel, tied where two ways meet.
That these instances illustrate the common use of being between hawk and buzzard, it is presumed none will deny. I own myself at a loss about the origin of the proverb, and am rather inclined to believe that it is put to a use somewhat different from its original design In the middle and southern states, there is a bird, which, from its colour and size, is called the Turkey-Buzzard. This bird is carniverous, but radically differs from the hawk, in one particular: while the hawk assails and devours the living, the buzzard feeds alone on what it finds dead. To stand between hawk and buzzard, according to the natures of these flesh eaters, is to stand between a foe that would destroy your life, and another that would devour your body. Viewing the subject in this point of light, it needs no particular instances of illustration. Let the hawk represent death, and the buzzard the grave, and all the living men on earth are between them. Death seeks to destroy their lives, and the grave is waiting to consume their bodies. That men must die, is an article of the universal creed, to which Pagans, Turks, Jews, and Christians, all subscribe. Death is spoken of, in the Scripture, as having a name, but it has neither shape nor substance.
The pains, which, do reduce to death, are great,
But death is nothing but a change of state.
All nations are in the habit, however, of personifying death under some horrid figure, like the grim-faced king of terror, who always stands ready, in an infinitude of forms, to destroy the lives of men – from whose assault neither the king nor the beggar – the wise nor the ignorant – the virtuous nor the vicious, is secure. Upon the dissolution of life, the grave, which is nester satisfied – which never says, “it is enough” – arrests the body, and cries over its prey, “dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.” The thought of this, inspires the following soliloquy. O, my soul! leave the busy scenes – the vain amusements of life, and, like the dove, fly to the rock of safety, and build thy nest by the side of the hole’s mouth. There, and there only, canst thou sing the triumphant song, “O, death where is thy sting! O grave, where is thy victory! Thanks be to God, who giveth me the victory, through our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Miscellaneous Essays, In Prose and Verse.
Elder John Leland
Published sometime since 1810 (precise year unknown)
The Writings Of The Late Elder John Leland
Pages 421 – 422