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Good evening, poets! Here in the UK, spring is transforming into summer in a glorious flush of green and chorus of birdsong. I appreciate it so much more this year than I used to, having lived abroad for the previous six springtimes. Birdsong has inspired poets throughout the centuries, of course. But to a certain family of birds belongs a special place in the annals of poetic history, which we shall examine for tonight’s Poetics.

Choughs, Church of St Mary The Virgin, Stamfordham. Photo credit: Nick Reeves

The Corvidae

To the corvidae family belong a variety of birds including ravens, rooks, jackdaws, jays, choughs, magpies and of course, the common crow. Though these birds may be a familiar sight all around the world, they are quite remarkable in their unique intelligence: European magpies have been shown to recognise themselves in mirror tests, and rooks and ravens have demonstrated their ability to make tools and solve problems. This intelligence has been noted by poets and writers as long ago as Aesop in the 6th century BC. Consider his fable of The Crow and The Pitcher.

Perhaps because of this human-like intelligence, corvids have long been regarded as magic: as communicators between the human and the spirit world. Their song may not be melodic, but it is ever haunting and powerful! Of course, this is the stuff that poetry is made of. Consider the following examples:

The Three Ravens

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 Twa Corbies (The Two Crows)

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 his 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 ane 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.’

I’ve included both the English version of this ballad (on the left) and the Scottish (on the right). The former text is from 1611, when it was printed in the song book Melismata (though as a folk song, it probably dates back much further than this.) The Scottish version was published in Sir Walter Scott’s Minstrelsy in 1812, though the ballad is earlier, and obviously derived from the English folk song (source: Wikipedia).

Another famous corvid poem is of course Edgar Allen Poe’s The Raven. Then there is the popular British divination rhyme for counting magpies:

One for sorrow,
Two for joy,
Three for a girl,
Four for a boy,
Five for silver,
Six for gold,
Seven for a secret,
Never to be told,
Eight for a wish,
Nine for a kiss
Ten for a bird
You must not miss.

The more superstitious amongst us, familiar with this rhyme, may recognise the sensation of ‘lone magpie panic’ which sends us scanning the skies for a second magpie, having once seen the first!

The Challenge

For this week’s Poetics, I would like you to choose a member of the corvid family, and (taking inspiration from the examples above if you wish) write a poem (or even a song) about it. Those of you who like an extra challenge may choose to populate your poem with a variety of corvidae. Here are the collective nouns for the main corvid types to get you started:

A treachery of ravens
A parliament of rooks
A clattering of jackdaws
A scold of jays
A chattering of choughs
A mischief of magpies
A murder of crows

And here’s George Harrison to play us out:

Once you have written your poem, pop the link in the Mr Linky widget below. Don’t forget to mention dVerse in your post, and link back to this post. And, most importantly, come back to read and comment on the work of others. I’ll see you on the poetry trail…