Basic Poetics – Ballads (Twa Corbies)

Twa Corbies” – illustration by Arthur Rackham (1867-1939) from Some British Ballads, 1918

AG: (We’ll) zap on (next) to “The Three Ravens” (on page 88) and the “Two Corbies” [Two Crows], (page 89 – 87, 88), and.. “The Three Ravens” are three ravens sitting on a tree, giving a commentary on what’s going on in the human world, and there’s a.. “Down in yonder mid green field/ There lies a knight slain under his shield”, and the.. what happens there is that, a doe (a doe, symbolically is a paramour, a woman) takes care of him, and so there’s a funny happy ending there, but in the “Twa Corbies”, (it’s) a lot more stark, and more interesting, one of.. one of the.. the archetypal ballads. [Allen begins reading] – “As I was walking all alane/I heard twa corbies making a mane/The tane unto the t’other say/,”Where sail we gang and dine today?”/”In behint yon fall dyke/ I wot there lies a new slain knight…”…”‘Mony a one for him makes mane/But nane sail ken where he is gane/ O’er his white banes when they are bare/The wind sail blaw for evermair.” – (That’s really bleak! – That’s really bleak and great. That’s one of the desolate.. just pure beauty, a sort of stark staring-mad imagery – because, you know, beyond human, but, absolutely real) – “Over his white banes when they are bare/The wind shall blow for evermair.”. The first time I read that in high school I was really repelled.. the idea.. the ravens were bad guys or somethin’, but, on the other hand, they’re just doing their job. But, the poet is here, “just doing his job” too, which is really interesting – whoever made this up was really “doing his job”, in the sense of acknowledging “the bonny blue een”, and as fit subject, fit object, to be plucked out by the ravens, (the “corbies”, the crows.. (the) ravens). His neck-bone (“white hause-bain”), his “bonny blue een” (and) his “gowden hair” (golden hair) – and, actually, it’s a pretty erotic image of the knight’s corpse – you’ve got a white-necked body, bonny blue eyes, and golden hair. And then, the corbies come for the beauty, come up to eat the beauty, and leave white bones bare for the wind to blow on evermore (“evermair”).

I guess (Edgar Allan Poe) must have got his “Raven” from that, come to think of it – “Quoth the Raven “Nevermore”). That must have been behind Poe’s Raven, I never realized that.

How many had read this before? How many were not familiar with it? How many were not familiar with it? – Raise your hand if you weren’t – [show of hands] – Because it’s really an amazing image to put into your ear and into your soul – implacable, no.. neither fear nor hope, no mercy, no forgiveness, no idealization, just straightforward bare bones with the wind blowing through them. It’s like T.S.Eliot (in) the twentieth-cenury. You couldn’t get it any better and more pure, in a way, because there’s no sentimentality, it’s just really straightforward, not so inhuman as implacable (which is what’s good about ballads, occasionally, is that the.. because they’re dealing with finality, and sometimes because they’re anonymous, and because they’re dealing with kind of archetypal phrasings like “bare bones”, “milk-white steeds”, “bonny blue eyes”, almost corny, archetypal repeated images, they get down to, like life-and-death, finally, and to a non-sentimental version of life and death (which you get sometimes later in (W.B.) Yeats too, actually)

– What was it? – a poem, “cold and passionless as the dawn” – Yeats wanted to write a poem, “as cold and passionless as the dawn”. [Editorial note – The line is from Yeats’ poem. “The Fisherman“, published in Poetry magazine, February 1916] – And those last two lines – “O’er his white banes when they are bare/The wind sail blaw for evermair.”, it does sound like that, that..what? – [Allen quotes from another of Yeats’ poems, “The Delphic Oracle Upon Plotinus”] “Behold that great Plotinus swim/ Buffeted by such seas/ Bland Rhadamanthus beckons him..” – (Rhadamanthus was the judge of Hell) – that’s a poem by Yeats and he’s getting at that sort of implacability -“bland Rhadamanthus beckons him” – the judge of the dead, the judge in Hell – “bland Rhadamanthus beckons him” – “bland ” – Plotinus? – (like, an idealistic philosopher, swimming in great material seas, where “Salt blood blocks his eyes” (and the judge in Hell (is saying) ,”Come on with your idealism!)

I’d say, (a) mood, that very few poets get to, that’s so pure. (Ezra) Pound has it occasionally there’s a little Greek-titled poem – “Be in me as the eternal moods/ of the bleak wind (are)” – “Be in me as the eternal moods/ of the bleak wind (are)” – “sunless cliffs”, “the shadowy flowers of Orcus/Remember thee” – a little fragmentary poem, we’ll run into it later on (I think it’s in this book, actually.. I think he’s just trying to get the… where is Pound here?.. (Allen searches in the book] (all) Greek, it’s a poem with a little Greek title… [Allen continues to searches, unsuccessfully, for the poem]… Well, maybe it’s not in here then..probably not in here..I’ll bring it in next time, beginning, “Be in me as the eternal moods/ of the bleak wind (are)”, and then he goes on with a similar image of “sunless cliffs” and the “shadowy flowers” of Hell, and the “shadowy flowers” of Hades, (Orcus). So, “The Twa Corbies” was what that was.

[Audio for the above can be heard here, beginning at approximately thirty-two-and-a-half minutes in, and continuing until approximately forty-one minutes in]

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