Three Ravens The There Were Three Ravens Anonymous before 1600

A popular folk ballad first published in 1611 by Thomas Ravencroft, (ca. 1582-1633) in his songbook compilation Melisata, the contents of "The Three Ravens" suggest composition long before that. It follows the standard ballad stanza form with four-line stanzas and a refrain, and it relates a poignant narrative. Three ravens are sitting in a tree. When one asks about breakfast, another reports that while there is a potential meal in the field—the body of a dead knight—the corpse is too heavily guarded by faithful animal retainers (a hawk and a hound). As this tale is being told, a pregnant doe comes up to the knight's body, licks his wounds clean, and then bears away his body for burial. Afterward, she lies next to his grave and dies. The ballad does not return to the ravens; instead, it closes with a "prayer" of sorts, asking God to send to send every man "Such haukes, such hounds, and such a Leman [sweetheart]."

Most critical debates about the ballad have focused on the "fallow doe" in the poem. To assume the figure is literally a deer presents physical problems (how might a doe lift up a man?), ethical concerns (why would a doe assist a hunter?), and moral complexities (why would the doe be a man's sweetheart?). Many scholars suggest that the doe is a supernatural creature, perhaps a wood-wife from Teutonic mythology—a wood fairy that takes human lovers. As a supernatural creature, the fairy could shape-shift into animal form.

other scholars have suggested that the ballad may have had Celtic origins, particularly because of the spelling of the word derrie. In this case, the doe may represent the knight's attendant spirit, a personal animal guide unseen by the individual until death approaches. Ravens serve as a symbol of death, being carrion eaters, but also as a symbol of potential evil forces—black birds that feast on eyes, traditional "windows of the soul." The animal spirits protect and surround the honorable knight, depriving evil of its opportunity to take him. That there are three ravens also finds a parallel in Celtic mythology: the Morrigan, a goddess of death who took the form of a raven, appeared with her sister Fates as a trio and consumed the heads of slain warriors. Scholars also note the connection to the ballad "The Twa Corbies," which is often considered a parody of this one.

further reading

Chatman, Vernon. "The Three Ravens Explicated." Midwest Folklore 13, no. 3 (1963): 177-186.

"TO ADAM, HIS SCRIBE" Geoffrey Chaucer (1385) Geoffrey Chaucer's briefest poem, "To Adam, His Scribe" details the frustrations of a poet who must rely on a careless scribe to copy and transmit his words to the world. Adam, Chaucer's scribe, is accused of "negligence" and "rape" [haste], making many mistakes while copying the manuscripts that Chaucer must later correct. In venting his frustrations, Chaucer wishes "scalle," an itchy, scabby scalp, upon the scribe for making the author constantly "scrape" out Adam's copying and editing errors.

This amusing, seemingly lighthearted epigraph reveals much about the relationships and troubles of publication in the 14th century. Scholars have associated Chaucer's concerns with those of Dante and other contemporaries who feared losing control of their work once it was sent out to the world.

Analysis of this poem has varied, presenting it as a broad complaint that is not directed at any one scribe in particular, or presenting "Adam" as an allusion to the biblical Adam, connecting creation through an author's textual work with God's power to create life. The possibility of "Adam" being one of Chaucer's more authoritative scribes is also of interest, and recent scholarship has focused on identifying the scribe through analysis of historical records and manuscripts.

further reading

Ruud, Jay. "Many a Song and Many a Leccherous Lay": Tradition and Individuality in Chaucer's Lyric Poetry. New York: Garland, 1992.

Catherine A. Perkins

"TO ST MARY MAGDALEN" Henry Constable (early 1590s) Henry Constable wrote two important sonnet sequences. The first, Diana, published in 1592, is a pioneering collection of carnal and romantic love sonnets. By contrast, his 17 Spirituall Sonnettes—not published until 1815—are devotional poems that celebrate an intense relationship with God. The Spirituall Sonnettes were almost certainly written just after Constable converted to Roman Catholicism in 1590 or 1591. The poem beginning with a direct address to the "Sweete Saynt," Mary Magdalen, is one of a number of sonnets in the sequence that are addressed to the saint who, according to popular tradition, had lived an immoral life before turning to Christ.

"To St Mary Magdalen" is an English sonnet, consisting of three quatrains and a rhyming couplet. The first quatrain asserts the speaker's modesty: He converses with St Mary directly and respectfully, suggesting that she, better than he, can account for the superiority of "heavenly love" over any other sort of love. In the second quatrain, the speaker implies that he sees himself as a sort of Mary Magdalen figure. it is imagined that he will behave like a chaste woman: The soft "s" sounds of the fifth line convey the gentleness of his newly meek disposition—"lyke a woman spowse my sowle shalbee," he states. Once base and earthy, the speaker has redeemed himself, as Mary did, because now he too is "enamored" with Christ when he was previously motivated by "lust" and "synfull passions."

In the third quatrain, the speaker looks forward to death. It is anticipated that death will lift the mortal burden of life's "labors" and the liberation of "my spryght"—his soul or spirit. The concluding couplet appropriates language from erotic love poetry but uses it in a profoundly religious manner. As devoted to God as Mary Magdalen was to Jesus, the speaker's spirit will be "clasped in the armes of God" and forever wedded in a "sweete conjunction." As a recusant—a campaigner for England's reversion back to Catholicism—Constable was an outsider in 1590s' England, one whose religion was denigrated and forbidden by law. But in this poem the speaker can anticipate only eternal, heavenly victory for all moral beings who follow the example of saints such as Magdalen: The poem ends with a rousing prediction of "everlasting joye."

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Responses

  • erik
    What is the three ravens poem about?
    5 years ago

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