the twa corbies

Other ballads etc. Kynd Kittock Childe Roland

The Twa Corbies

As I was walking all alane,
I heard twa corbies makin a mane;
The tane unto the ither say,
"Whar sall we gang and dine the-day?"

"In ahint yon auld fail dyke,
I wot there lies a new slain knight;
And nane do ken that he lies there,
But his hawk, his hound an his lady fair."

"His hound is tae the huntin gane,
His hawk tae fetch the wild-fowl hame,
His lady's tain anither mate,
So we may mak oor dinner swate."

"Ye'll sit on his white hause-bane,
And I'll pike oot his bonny blue een;
Wi ae lock o his gowden hair
We'll theek oor nest whan it grows bare."

"Mony a one for him makes mane,
But nane sall ken whar he is gane;
Oer his white banes, whan they are bare,
The wind sall blaw for evermair."

For those of you without a knowledge of archaic Scots a translation into standard English.

The Two Crows

As I was walking all alone,
I heard two crows (or ravens) making a moan;
One said to the other,
"Where shall we go and dine today?"

"In behind that old turf wall,
I sense there lies a newly slain knight;
And nobody knows that he lies there,
But his hawk, his hound and his lady fair."

"His hound is to the hunting gone,
His hawk to fetch the wild-fowl home,
His lady's has taken another mate,
So we may make our dinner sweet."

"You will sit on his white neck-bone,
And I'll peck out his pretty blue eyes;
With one lock of his golden hair
We'll thatch our nest when it grows bare."

"Many a one for him is moaning,
But nobody will know where he is gone;
Over his white bones, when they are bare,
The wind will blow for evermore."


I have noticed that many of you accessing this page are looking for an analysis of the poem, so this is what I think about it.

It contrasts markedly with the English variant of similar antiquity "The Three Ravens"where the knight's hounds and hawks protect the dead man's body till it is carried away and buried by his pregnant lover at the sacrifice of her own life, and where such acts are deemed to be desirable ideal behaviour for hounds, hawks and women. I would say the "Twa Corbies" is a poetic interpretation of existential reality while "The Three Ravens" glorifies a romantic cultural ideal, and in particular the new (at the time of the work's creation) fashionable concept of romantic love. This said we should remember that the dour Scottish acceptance of circumstance (as in the proverbial saying "what canna be changed mun be tholed") is itself a cultural ideal which requires considerable cultural conditioning to achieve. A conditioning which still makes it hard for many Scots to show emotion without liberal doses of whisky and sad songs.

To return to the poem, it seems important to me that while grief is being felt, "Mony a one for him makes mane," all concerned, hound, hawk and lady, act primarily in response to their biological imperatives. I think the anonymous author would as I do consider a dog faithfull unto death like the later legendary "Greyfriars Bobby" as being not a very successful dog. The canine imperative of hunting instinct is here being more highly regarded than the canine characteristic of fidelity. Canine altruism and bonding is part of a dog's biological conditioning, it has survival value, but if it continues indefinitely after the death of the pack leader (or the human who has that role) then that is a pathological condition not evidence of nobility. Similarly in the hard realities of life the knight's lady's emotional state is not relevant to her need to insure her own survival. The whole poem could be read as an illustration of the power of the 'selfish gene'.

The poems great artistic success is to make this realism aesthetically beautiful. The fate of the knight, his soft tissue literally recycled back into the fabric of the universe and his skeleton becoming his own monument has a strange attraction, more attractive to me than the grave that costs the knight in the "The Three Ravens" the survival of his progeny. Seven hundred years after the works creation the reader can still identify sympathetically with the characters and situation described. By contrast when I read "The Three Ravens" I can admire the language and composition but when I read the stanzas "She got him up upon her backe, And carried him to earthen lake. She buried him before the prime, She was dead herselfe ere even-song time." I do not think the woman's actions so much admirable as foolish.

Crows, sumi ink painting

Crows, sumi ink painting.