Tuesday 28 January 2014

Francesca's Bookshelf: Motherwell's Minstrelsy - The Twa Corbies

Confined as she is to an oppressive Atelier life, Francesca's imagination roams free. Her collection of rare, antique books of ballads and songs is a source of constant inspiration, and as she browses the dusty pages of the ancient books she sings the old songs, transported to a different place - a different life.

One of her favourite songs is The Twa Corbies. This old Scottish ballad tells of ravens who are discussing their prospective meal of a knight who has been slain on the battlefield. The ballad appears in many of Francesca's collections, and typically for old ballads and songs, each time it appears in a different collection or performance, the words differ.

First, here's Damh The Bard with a modern rendition of the song:

In Minstrelsy Ancient and Modern by William Motherwell, first published in 1827, the ballad uses slightly more archaic language, but it's easy to follow:

There were twa corbies sat on a tree
Large and black as black might be,
And one the other gan say,
Where shall we go and dine to-day?
Shall we go dine by the wild salt sea?
Shall we go dine 'neath the greenwood tree?

As I sat on the deep sea sand,
I waved my wings and bent my beak,
The ship sunk and I heard a shriek;
There they lie, one, two, and three,
I shall dine by the wild salt sea.

Come, I shall show ye a sweeter sight,
A lonesome glen and a new slain knight;
His blood yet on the grass is hot,
His sword half drawn, his shafts unshot,
And no one kens that he lies there,
But his hawk, his hound, and his lady fair.

His hound is to the hunting gane,
His hawk to fetch the wild fowl hame,
His lady's away with another mate,
So we shall make our dinner sweet;
Our dinner's sure, our feasting free,
Come, and dine by the greenwood tree.

Ye shall sit on his white hause-bane,
I will pick out his bonny blue een;
Ye'll take a tress of his yellow hair,
To theak yere nest when it grows bare;
The gowden down on his young chin
Will do to sewe my young ones in.

O cauld and bare will his bed be,
When winter storms sing in the tree;
At his head a turf, at his feet a stone,
He will sleep, nor hear the maiden's moan;
O'er his white bones the birds shall fly,
The wild deer bound and foxes cry.

I mentioned earlier that different versions of this ballad vary, depending on the collection or performance. This is typical for old ballads and songs, but never more so than for this one. In the version by Damh The Bard, and in Motherwell's version, the ravens are able to look forward to a tasty meal of freshly slain knight. However, many versions differ in a fundamental way - the hound lies at the knight's feet, the hawk hovers overhead, warning off any predators and the lady buries him. The ravens sit by and wish they could feast, but cannot. One of the versions given in Minstrelsy Of The Scottish Border by Sir Walter Scott has this version of events, and finishes with the words:

God send euery gentleman,
Such haukes, such houndes, and such a leman.

Images © Tony Benson. All rights reserved