Spoor of Desire: Selected Poems
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Wednesday, August 7, 2013

The Three Ravens

“The Three Ravens” is one of the most well-known ballads in English tradition. The oldest text was published in 1611 in Melismata, Thomas Ravenscroft’s collection that preserved many otherwise ephemeral songs, where it is included in the “Country Pastimes” section next to a version of “Froggy Went A’Courtin’.” [1] The song is doubtless far older, however, and includes patently non-Christian elements. Its age is not its only mystery. One can only guess to what extent Ravenscroft may have, like Burns and Grimm, altered his informant’s text. The haunting charm the poem elicits in listeners and readers is in part due to a calculated semantic indeterminacy.

There were three rauens sat on a tree,
downe a downe, hay downe, hay downe,
There were three rauens sat on a tree,
with a downe,
There were three rauens sat on a tree,
They were as blacke as they might be.
With a downe, derrie, derrie, derrie, downe, downe.

The one of them said to his mate,
Where shall we our breakfast take?

Downe in yonder greene field,
There lies a Knight slain under his shield,

His hounds they lie downe at his feete,
So well they can their Master keepe,

His Hawkes they flie so eagerly,
There's no fowle dare him come nie

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

She lift up his bloudy head,
And kist his wounds that were so red,

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

She buried him before the prime,
She was dead her self ere euen-song time.

God send euery gentleman,
Such haukes, such hounds, and such a Leman.

The ravens loom darkly over the opening scene. Though crows and ravens have acquired various associations, they belong most commonly and intimately to the battlefield and to death. The opening words of the Iliad evoke the horror of human suffering through the birds that feed on corpses. The Hindu Shani whose vehicle is a raven is younger brother of Yama, god of death. The birds are a momento mori, reminding all of a common end in dissolution, yet in this song they are unable to eat the flesh of the fallen knight. His hounds and hawks act as protective spirits, guarding his body until it can be safely removed [2] by the principal agent of his salvation, the faithful, pregnant doe. A good deal of discussion has centered on whether the doe, hounds, and hawks are pre-Christian deities, enchanted humans, or simply symbolic representation of a man’s lover and friends or underlings, but the question is immaterial. The poem is a poignant wish-fulfillment which presents ideals of love and devotion, suggesting that these ideals may ameliorate or even – as in Christian readings – transfigure the hard facts of mortality with which the scene opened. The closing lines imply both the desirability of such a victory over death and its uncertainty. Within the brief compass of the aesthetic text, the order of nature, the necessary linkage of death with life, of being eaten with eating, is suspended. The diner’s pleasure and satisfaction require the prey’s fear and horror, but within the poem the reader, in a simple instance of sympathetic magic, can feel, like the knight, exempted from death’s horrors, particularly if the song is done to a fetching melody.

Scott, in his Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border, reprints “The Three Ravens” noting as “a singular circumstance, that it should coincide so very nearly” with a song he had collected in his own day called “The Twa Corbies.” He describes it as, not a “copy,” but a “counterpart” of the older song.

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 nae body 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 bonny 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 whare he is gane:
“O'er his white banes, when they are bare,
“The wind sall blaw for evermair.”

“The Twa Corbies” clearly plays on the expectations created by “The Three Ravens.” The knight’s allies – hound, hawk, and lover – have abandoned his body, allowing access for the birds to enjoy a “dinner sweet.” While his life may be over, they are busy with their own domestic arrangements, and anticipate ornamenting their nest with his blond hair. Whereas the knight in the earlier poem was laid to rest in a reassuring ceremony, this one will lie alone, unknown, the wind whistling through his skeleton.

This cynical, ironic puncturing of the sweet solace delivered in the “Ravens” version suggests an entirely harsh and materialistic world with no saving grace whatsoever. The mention of “hause bane,” a survival in dialect of the Old English banhus, evokes that earlier era’s stern stoicism in facing straight-on the all-but-unendurable facts of life. As Bryhtnoth says in the "Battle of Maldon," “Resolve be the firmer, heart more ardent, and spirit stronger, as our strength fails!” Here it is fortitude and a wry acceptance that redeems the human in the face of the ultimate certainty of defeat.

Such a reversal is, however, by no means the only possible variation spawned by the song. In 1930 in Avery County, North Carolina Mellinger Edward Henry recorded Mary Franklin singing “The Three Black Crows.” [3]

There were three crows sat on a tree, Old Billy McGaw McGee!
There were three crows sat on a tree,
Old Billy McGaw McGee!
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!”
And they all flapped their wings and cried,
“Caw! Caw! Caw!”
“What shall we have for bread to eat?” Old Billy McGaw McGee!
“On yonders hill there lies a horse.”
Old Billy McGaw McGee!
“We'll perch ourselves on his backbone,
And pick his eyes out one by one;"
And they all clapped their wings and cried,
“Caw! Caw! Caw!”
And they all clapped their wings and cried,
“Caw! Caw! Caw!”

In this song the motif has become burlesque. [4] Though the birds still perch on the bones and pick out the eyes, the knight and his aides are absent. With their repeated caws and their manic wing-flapping, they seem slightly absurd. If the scene is still somewhat macabre, it is in the ridiculous manner of Addams or Gorey, more Bride of Frankenstein than the original. Mockery and laughter and averting the gaze from the more painful eventualities here provide relief from life’s pain. Considered in connection to the two earlier texts, the knight might be thought to be more powerfully present by being unmentioned, as though a human casualty would be too painful an image to evoke. In a sense, the knight’s disappearance is the most potent sign of how disturbing a specter he is. The silly nonsense song may bear the heaviest emotional freight. Is there not something chilling about that final “caw”?

All these songs in their different ways testify to the human yearning for a peace all-but-unattainable in this world. Each with a distinctive tone and theme represents an aesthetic strategy to salve the psychic sores while providing entertainment to beguile the hour. Each employs the same conventional representation of the tragedy of mortality: a knight cut down in his prime, lying exposed and helpless in the first two, and conspicuously missing in the third.

1. “Three Blind Mice” may also owe its survival to its inclusion in this section of Ravenscroft’s book.

2. Similar to, for instance, the torngak of the Greenland Inuit.

3. Later published in Henry’s Folk Songs of the Southern Highlands.

4. Albert B. Friedman in his The Viking Book of Folk Ballads of the English-Speaking World attributes this song to the minstrel stage, but gives no details.

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