Tuesday, April 08, 2008

The Twa Corbies and the Three Ravens

Lisa, of Eudaemonia, recently urged us to celebrate National Poetry Month, so I thought I'd write about the poems--really ballads--that got me hoooked on poetry. The poems can be gruesome and sometimes chilling, but then I was a pereadolescent boy when I discovered them. The first uses a more archaic language--corbies for ravens, fail for turf, wot and ken for know, and hause for neck. But I suspect the second is older--pre Christian despite the Christian time references. In both poems, ravens are discussing a potential meal--a slain knight. In "The Twa Corbies," the knight's hounds, hawk, and lady abandon him, while in "The Three Ravens," they are loyal--in the lady's case, chillingly loyal.

I suspect the archaic language as well as the subject matter attracted me. But they are also fine poems:

The Twa Corbies

AS I was walking all alane
I heard twa corbies making a mane;
The tane unto the t'other say,
"Where sall we gang and dine to-day?"

"—In behint yon auld fail dyke,
I wot there lies a new-slain knight;
And naebody kens that he lies there,
But his hawk, his hound, and lady fair.

"His hound is to the hunting gane,
His hawk to fetch the wild-fowl hame,
His lady's ta'en another mate,
So we may mak our dinner sweet.

"Ye'll sit on his white hause-bane,
And I'll pike out his bonnie blue een;
Wi' ae lock o' his gowden hair
We'll theek our nest when it grows bare

"Mony a one for him makes mane,
But nane sall ken where he is gane;
O'er his white banes, when they are bare,
The wind sall blaw for evermair."

The Three Ravens

THERE were three ra'ens sat on a tree,
Downe a downe, hay down, hay downe
There were three ra'ens sat on a tree,
With a downe

There were three ra'ens sat on a tree,
They were as blacke as they might be.
With a downe derrie, derrie, derrie, downe, downe.

Said one of them unto his mate,
“Where shall we our breakefast take?”

“Downe in yonder greene field,
There lies a knight slain under his shield.

“His hounds they lie downe at his feete,
So well do they their master keepe.

“His haukes they flie so eagerly,
There’s no fowle that dare come nie.”

Downe there comes a fallow doe,
As great with yong as she might goe.

She lifted up his bloudy hed,
And kist his wounds that were so red.

She got him up him upon her backe,
And carried him to earthen lake.

She buried him before the prime,
She was dead herselfe ere even-song time.

God grant to every gentleman,
Such haukes, such hounds, and such a leman.

Leman means lover or sweetheart. Several versions of these ballads can be heard on YouTube.
Check out The Twa Corbies by An Drasda, and The Three Ravens by Andreas Scholl.

Major ballads such as these inspire parodies, such as this American version:

There were three crows sat on a tree.
Billy McGee, McGaw!
There were three crows sat on a tree,
Billy McGee, McGaw!
There were three crows sat on a tree,
And they were black as a crow could be.
And they all flapped their wings and cried,
Caw! Caw! Caw!
And they all flapped their wings and cried,
Billy McGee McGaw!

Their meal is a dead horse, rather than a knight. Unfortunately, I couldn't find the song on YouTube. There's also the Scottish "Three Craws Sat Upon a Wa'," which can be found on YouTube, but only as sung by small children.


Peter said...

This fleshes out for me a comment you left on my site about a year ago describing the kind of poetry that got you started. Impressive stuff! I'd have to point to A.A. Milne as my hook.

Lisa said...

Well these are simply gruesome Steve! I can definitely see the draw for a boy :)

I just got back into town tonight and see you have a new chapter up -- I will be reading it soon!

Great post -- I have never been able to slog through anything written in archaic English. Kudos to you!

SzélsőFa said...

I will return to read Chapter 15 Steve, but right now, I have too much work on me...'ll be back soon!

Julie at Virtual Nexus said...

Steve, I haven't read the twa corbies
since O levels. Good to see it again.
We drank in all this with our mother's milk, of course....

Charles Gramlich said...

I well remember the "Twa corbies" and I've always liked it. I have it in a collection somewhere at home but thanks for reprinting it and refreshing my memory.

steve said...

Peter--I grew up with A.A. Milne as well, though I remember the stories more than the poetry. I'm afraid my favorite character was Eeyore--was it an early sign of problems with depression?

Lisa--Looking forward to your comments. The novel has taken an unexpected turn into magical realism--unexpect because I've never been able to slog through that kind of fiction.

I have the romantic's infatuation with the past. Whether it's riding the Capitol Limited (my Slow Train) over some of the first rail lines in America or reading lines like "O quhar can I get guid sailor to sail this schip of mine?" I can't resist.

Szelsofa--Glad you'll be back.

Julie--While I knew about O levels and A levels before, a lot of Americans were first introduced to the idea by Harry Potter's O.W.L.'s. Most American kids don't learn such poems. (Of course, most American kids don't get their mother's milk, either.) I learned them not in school, but because my dad taught college English and used them as examples of how the English language changed.

Shauna Roberts said...

Oh, I love those old ballads. I came to know them through playing Renaissance music and then sought out more.

One of my favorites is "The Maid on the Shore" (the version where nothing can calm her mind but walking alone on the shore), and I have a science fiction short story coming out in an anthology next month ("Elessa the Restless" in Barren Worldsfrom Hadley Rille Books) based on that ballad.

I hope to do more stories based on ballads. Many of them have eerie elements that make them well suited for developing into sf or fantasy stories.

steve said...

Shauna--Thank you for visiting. The novel I'm working on for the Dickens Challenge has some Thomas the Rhymer elements to it.

I'm not familiar with The Maid on the Shore--I'll have to check it out.

SzélsőFa said...

I've read the ancient poems and yes, the language was very difficult for me to read, but with your explanations and a little more attention I think I understood them.
It was definitely a challenging read for me :)

steve said...

Szelsofa--I'm sure it was challenging. They have archaic English, a lot of contractions, and the first is in Scots dialect. "Corbie" must come from French--a cousin of the modern French "corbeau."

SzélsőFa said...

It was in Scottish dialect? Wow!
Understanding some of the words was unsuccessful, but with those I managed it was like opening a little box of surprise. A delight that is difficult to obtain. Entertainment.
I like spoken Scottish accent :) - I have heard it spoken by natives and on YouTube as well.

Shauna Roberts said...

Steve, have you given any thought to why those old ballads are often gruesome? "Wind and Rain"/"Two Sisters" is another favorite of mine, and it's just as bad as "Two Corbies" and "Three Ravens." And Mattie Groves gets spitted at the end of "Little Mattie Groves" and in some versions so does his lover.

steve said...

Szelsofa--Most of the Scottish dialect words are just vowel shifts--long a for long o--so you get alane for alone, mane for moan, naebody for nobody, etc. You can still here "tother" in rural parts of the U.S., but not "tane" for one. I think some Scots use "gang" for go even today. Because the Normans conquered England, but not Scotland, the Scots dialect is more Germanic--except for words like corbie.

Shauna--As I recall, in "The Twa Sisters," the older sister drowns the younger one because "it's you being so fair, and I so very grim." There was a version where a miller "made fiddle stings from her long yellow hair" and "made fiddle screws from her long finger bones." Yep, pretty ghoulish.

Some of the ballads were cautionary tales, and some were the equivalent of today's tabloid papers. You probably know "On the Banks of the Ohio." Some are like editorials--"The Bonny Earl of Murray" condemns Huntly for having the Earl killed.

But I know a lot of people were appalled at reading the original Grimm's Fairy Tales after seeing the Disney versions. And I understand the Grimm brothers toned down some of the stories they collected.

Given the amount of violence in today's media, maybe things aren't that different today. We humans have a fascination for the gruesome. I wish we didn't, but we can see it every time we get stuck in traffic because of a "gapers' block."

Tea N. Crumpet said...

Sigh. I love corbies. I'm attached to magpies!

Anonymous said...

What does "Mony a one for him makes mane," mean? I'm having a hard time figuring out what this means. Any help would be nice. Thanks.

steve said...

Anonymous--Many a one for him makes moan, (grieves for him) but none shall know where he is gone.

Shirley Weller said...

Don't know where or when I learned a little song called "Three Crows." Now in my eighth decade, I sing it to my 2 year old grandson, and today decided to Google and see what might come up. Here I am on your blog! And here is the version I learned attending one room school houses in Michigan:

There were three crows sat on a tree
Billy, McGee, McGaw
There were three crows sat on a tree
Billy, McGee, McGaw
There were three crows sat on a tree
And they were black as crows could be

And they all flapped their wings and cried
Caw! Caw! Caw! Caw!
Billy, McGee, McGaw

Said one old crow unto his mate
Billy, McGee, McGaw
Said one old crow unto his mate
Billy, McGee, McGaw
Said one old crow unto his mate
What shall we do for food to eat

And they all flapped their wings and cried
Caw! Caw! Caw! Caw!
Billy, McGee, McGaw

Said one old crow I heard them say
Billy, McGee, McGaw
Said one old crow I heard them say
Billy, McGee, McGaw
Said one old crow I heard them say


And they all flapped their wings and cried
Caw! Caw! Caw! Caw!
Billy, McGee, McGaw

I always took this little song to be a lesson regarding survival; another lesson of many on how to watch nature and learn about life. We used to have a little ditty we said about planting corn: Seven kernels to each thrust into the ground - "One for the fox, one for the crow, two to rot, and three to grow!"

steve on the slow train said...

Shirley--Thanks for commenting. I hadn't heard that version, but it's clever. I also have a two-year-old grandson, but I'm in Indiana and he's in Oregon. But my wife and I have Amtrak reservations to Portland at the end of next month, so I'll be able to sing some songs to him. I Sang a lot of sea shanties to my children when they were young.