Saturday, 31 October 2015

Devils and Miracles - Crows, Ravens, Jackdaws and Rooks in Poetry

With over one hundred and twenty species worldwide, the corvids (Corvidae) are a diverse family of bird, whose presence in poetry is nearly as old as poetry is self. Although the family includes such gently coloured birds as nuthatches and jays, these are birds I would look into at a later date, and whose literary impact is quite different to that of most corvids - the crows, ravens, jackdaws and rooks , which we recognize for their black feathers, sharp or often bulbous looking beaks, and croaking, doomy song. Given their prominence in churchyards, or as winter woodland birds haunting leafless trees or frosty forest floors on cold, dark mornings, it is unsurprising that - from their role in Celtic folklore as harbingers of war, to the ghoulish tales and poetry of Edgar Allen Poe - the corvids are a family almost always tainted with the imagery of danger.

Get thee back into the tempest and the Night's Plutonian shore!
Leave no black plume as a token of that lie thy soul hath spoken!
Leave my loneliness unbroken! - quit the bust above my door!
Take thy beak from out my heart, and take thy form from off my door!'
(Edgar Allen Poe, The Raven, 1845).


Of all corvids, surely the most familiar and frequently seen are crows - the Corvus genus - and these feature in Classical poetry thanks to Ovid's Metamorphosis.

Like the raven (Corvus corax), the unlucky crow crops up repeatedly in an observational capacity, noticing various liaisons by particular gods and betraying these to their unsuspecting other halves - and almost invariably suffering from the wounded pride of the latter. Crows and ravens are shunned and degraded, or abused for sexual pleasure - or in the case of the female crow, described by the poet as initially being white, who reveals the secrets of Coronis to her lover Phoebus. But on learning of his lover's infidelity, the sun-god aims his anger at the crow, shooting him with an arrow through the heart. The crow was carrying a son at the time of her death, which the remorseful Phoebus bids Chiron, the centaur, to raise. The bird is born black - a foretaste of the new identity of all of his descendants. I will turn again to the crow shortly, but it is interesting that in the myth above, it is the raven who, although embodying its image as a harbinger of misfortune, warns the crow from its risky intention of inciting Phoebus in his anger. It is an example of the raven as a kind of veteran messenger, trying to dissuade or enlighten others on reflection of its own experience and hard-learned lessons. It is also worth noting that the crow refuses to take heed - and suffers consequentially. In mythology, those who follow the raven's advice often reap the benefits. Those who shun the bird's entreaties tend to live (or die) to regret it.

Although in North American mythology the raven often features as a liberating creature bringing light to the world (though at times also as a Loki-type character who excels in trickery and self-interest), and in Germanic, Scandinavian, Siberian and Asian myths the bird is revered for leading victorious armies in overcoming foes, or in guarding the deceased (hence the American term "Jim Crow", a name which would later take on distasteful associations of racial prejudice), the animal's appearances in poetry have not reflected it so heroically. An exhaustive assessment of ravens in mythology is far beyond the scope of my intentions here and surely food for future thought, but in general its significance is negative or deathly, or serves as a cautionary tale. In Native Canadian folklore, the raven's destiny comes close to mirroring that of Icarus in Greek mythology: having delivered sunlight to the world, the corvid flies too close to its fiery warmth and its snow-white feathers are forever charred. In another Greek myth, Phoebus penalizes the raven for a different crime - that of disobedience: ordering the bird to pluck out the eyes of his rival Ischys, the god - incensed by its refusal - inflicts the same punishment as above, a story that was also supposed in Ancient times to account for the raven's sable plumage. What is especially interesting about this account is that in Greek mythology, the raven is said to have plucked out the eyes of anyone insulting its father, suggesting that the bird was considered a child of the gods (or at least of one god in particular), and that s/he was prepared to risk its wrath by refusing to enact its orders.

The raven's revenge might be said to have been documented in the anonymous Scottish folk ballad, Twa Corbies, first anthologized by Thomas Ravenscroft in 1611 but known to have originated earlier.

An unnamed narrator chances upon two ravens ("corbies") and has the dubious pleasure of "hearing" them speak:

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?'

The second corbie's answer implies a withering mockery of misguided vanity - in a passage some have interpreted as a cynical response to contemporary human hierarchies and social systems, the supposed sanctity of marriage and Man's relationship with animals:

'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 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.

All the sweeter, one assumes, for this acknowledgement of the fragility of life - for here is the raven, that maligned, symbolic bird, so mercilessly pilloried and persecuted in Classical verse, revealing how Man's supposed companions have deserted him, and how his newly dead form lies ready for the picking:

'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 one for him makes mane,
But nane sall ken where he is gane;
Oer his white banes, when they we bare,
The wind sall blaw for evermair.'

Indeed, the raven's love of flesh and devouring of the dead prefigures its relevance in poetry as a penchant of demise. In 1899, the Scottish writer and illustrator Jane (Jemima) Blackburn produced her Crows of Shakespeare, featuring her vivid, Pre-Raphealite-like paintings of the birds. Shakespeare employed the raven more than any other bird throughout his known writings, but perhaps most unsurprising of all the book's quotations are these from Macbeth - firstly from before Macbeth's ascension, when he metaphorises the bird in a foretelling of the act that may bring it about:

The raven himself is hoarse
That croaks the fatal entrance of Duncan
Under my battlements

while later, he observes:

Light thickens; and the crow
Makes wing to the rooky wood:
Good things of day begin to droop and drowse;
While night's black agents to their preys do rouse.

In Hamlet, during the performance of the fictional drama The Murder of Gonzago, we find a grotesque evocation when Hamlet, eager to assess the effects of imitated killing on the uncle he suspects of fratricide, harasses the actors to hasten to the murderous conclusion of the play:

Begin, murderer. Pox, leave
thy damnable faces, and begin! Come, the croaking raven doth
bellow for revenge.

In Dickens' Barnaby Rudge, it is a raven that sits atop the shoulder of the central character, a plot device that directly inspired Edgar Allen Poe's The Raven.

Poe's poem is one of the greatest in the language, and I do not propose to dissect at length the uniquely chilling, terrible, magnificent and even at times quite humorous elements that combine to imprint it's subject on the popular imagination, every bit as vividly as such modern-day nocturnal fantasy heroes and villains as Batman or Darth Vader. But foremost in the poem's allure is surely the deathly blend of emotional longing with the acutely described darkness of the bird, captured in Poe's typically addictive rhythm:

Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there wondering, fearing,

Doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before;

But the silence was unbroken, and the stillness gave no token,

And the only word there spoken was the whispered word, "Lenore?"
This I whispered, and an echo murmured back the word, "Lenore!"
Merely this and nothing more.


Once the narrator's midnight ponderings, in the bleak December, have been disturbed by the tapping of his unwelcome guest at the chamber door. Once he has opened it to reveal the visitor's identity, we are at first introduced to a stately Raven of the saintly days of yore. The regent evocation this ignites, however, is speedily diminished:

Then this ebony bird beguiling my sad fancy into smiling,

By the grave and stern decorum of the countenance it wore,

"Though thy crest be shorn and shaven, thou," I said, "art sure no craven,

Ghastly grim and ancient Raven wandering from the Nightly shore

Tell me what thy lordly name is on the Night’s Plutonian shore!"

Quoth the Raven "Nevermore."

If the raven is portrayed in poetry as a dark or dangerous creature, its cousin the jackdaw (Corvus monedula) has fared quite differently. Though very similar in appearance to ravens, these slightly awkward looking birds seem to wobble along on woodland floors, too clumsy to look sinister, too slow and gentle to be anything but friendly - or at least this has been the general style of its poetic interpretation. Consider, for example, Richard Harris Barham's unusual, early 19th Century, poem The Jackdaw of Rheims, in which the eponymous avian manages to slip into an ecclesiastical court and, in a setting not dissimilar to The Flight of the Bumblebee, completely disrupts the official goings-on - subverting hierarchies in the process.

From the very onset, Barham the poet makes his humorous intentions clear, with the opening line explaining almost exasperatedly:

THE JACKDAW sat on the Cardinal’s chair!

The capitals, and the exclamation mark, provide a sense of pompous outrage, whose impact is only heightened by the descent into farce:


In and out

Through the motley rout,

That little Jackdaw kept hopping about;

Here and there

Like a dog in a fair,

Over comfits and cates,

And dishes and plates,

Cowl and cope, and rochet and pall,

Mitre and crosier! he hopp’d upon all!

Like the gallivanting gapes of some Benny Hill comedy, the scene flaps and crashes from one palaver to the next - until the incorrigible jackdaw has thrust himself into the very face of power:

With a saucy air,

He perch’d on the chair

Where, in state, the great Lord Cardinal sat,

In the great Lord Cardinal’s great red hat;

And he peer’d in the face

Of his Lordship’s Grace,

With a satisfied look, as if he would say,

"We two are the greatest folks here to-day!"

The reactions of his Lordship's next-in-line are predictably sensationalist:


And the priests, with awe,

As such freaks they saw,

Said, "The Devil must be in that little Jackdaw!"

So here, again, we see the corvid relegated (or elevated) to the status of the devilish - though clearly far less seriously than in poetry concerning his less comedic cousins. Indeed, the unlikely tale takes another twist into the realms of silliness, when it emerges that the Cardinal's ring has now gone missing in the furore:

They turn up the dishes,they turn up the plates,

They take up the poker and poke out the grates,

They turn up the rugs,

They examine the mugs:

But no!no such thing;

They can’t find THE RING!

It does not require a detective to work out who the godly gathering will hold to blame for the ring's disappearance:

The Cardinal rose with a dignified look,

He call’d for his candle, his bell, and his book:

In holy anger, and pious grief,

He solemnly curs’d that rascally thief!

There follows a rampant reel of cursing, in which the flustered prelate appears to damn the jackdaw amid every conceivable activity -

He curs’d him at board, he curs’d him in bed,

From the sole of his foot to the crown of his head!

He curs’d him in sleeping, that every night

He should dream of the devil, and wake in a fright;

He curs’d him in eating, he curs’d him in drinking,

He curs’d him in coughing, in sneezing, in winking;

He curs’d him in sitting, in standing, in lying;

He curs’d him in walking, in riding, in flying;

He curs’d him in living, he curs’d him in dying!

But, just as we are presented with this priceless image of the Cardinal - lamenting the mischief-making bird even as he breathes his last - comes the poem's hammer blow - illuminating the ground-breaking truth made apparent by the jackdaw's knavery:

Never was heard such a terrible curse!

But what gave rise To no little surprise,

Nobody seem’d one penny the worse!

Barham has employed the thieving jackdaw in relation to church politics much the way that Burns made us of the fly in response to Scottish social class - prompting author George Sala to pen a satirical report of a royal wedding, from the point of view of an observing jackdaw. The responses of contemporary religious authorities to Barham's poem, though, might be easily imagined!


A writer less likely to invoke the clergy's chagrin was William Cowper - poet, evangelical Christian, rector, and composer of fifteen hymns in The Church Hymn Book 1872. The originator of the phrase "God moves in mysterious ways," Cowper was a celebrated translator of Classical verse - a talent he put to great use also in translating the Latin verse of his former schoolmaster Vincent Bourne - whose poetry was often playful and animated, not least in his treatment of the jackdaw.

Bourne's poem, in which the jackdaw nips this time not into the lap of an angry Cardinal, but the convenient nest of a steeple, nonetheless reflects the same philosophical territory as that of Richard Harris Barham, but underscored in a gentler manner:

There is a bird who, by his coat
And by the hoarseness of his note,

Might be supposed a crow;
A great frequenter of the church,
Where, bishop-like, he finds a perch,
And dormitory too.

Above the steeple shines a plate,
That turns and turns, to indicate
From what point blows the weather.
Look up -- your brains begin to swim,
'Tis in the clouds -- that pleases him,
He chooses it the rather.

Fond of the speculative height,
Thither he wings his airy flight,
And thence securely sees
The bustle and the rareeshow,

That occupy mankind below,
Secure and at his ease.

You think, no doubt, he sits and muses
On future broken bones and bruises,
If he should chance to fall.
No; not a single thought like that
Employs his philosophic pate,
Or troubles it at all.

He sees that this great roundabout,
The world, with all its motley rout,
Church, army, physic, law,
Its customs and its businesses,
Is no concern at all of his,
And says -- what says he? -- Caw.

Thrice happy bird! I too have seen
Much of the vanities of men;
And, sick of having seen 'em,
Would cheerfully these limbs resign
For such a pair of wings as thine
And such a head between 'em.


The jackdaw's literary presence might be said to mirror that of his cousins in a somewhat more down-to-earth way - for while the crow is chosen to guard the dead in Hellish myths, the jackdaw's role is rather more prosaic: Pliny has him gobble grasshoper eggs, and thus win the thumbs-up of farmers; while in European folklore the crow reveals unpalatable truths and distorts the destinies of gods, the jackdaw is easily bribed from eating crops; throughout poetry, the raven is fabled as an omen of death, yet the jackdaw is said by Ovid to signify the likelihood of rain - seemingly the perfect bird, then, for English poetry.

Now that the loveable jackdaw has alerted us to the presence of rain, I will turn to a poem in which that very substance forms the basis of a poem about corvids - not this time a jackdaw, but a Corvus frugilegus - the rook.


Sylvia Plath's Black Rook in Rainy Weather:


On a stiff twig up there

A wet black rook

Arranging and rearranging its feathers in the rain.

Right from the start we are in the moment, as the haiku-like opening places the animal as somehow both tangible, and beyond reach. I will look in more detail at Black Rook in Rainy Weather shortly, but what always strikes me in the poem is an ever-present vitality - the neighbouring of words like miracle, fire and incandescent - even the "sound" of the rainfall plashing and almost stabbing down ("wet black rook") - hum with life. Much colder is the vision of the corvid in the poetry of Plath's husband.

Corvids were significant in the work of Ted Hughes. Crow: From The Life and Songs of The Crow is one of the poet's bleakest works. Published in 1970, after the decade which saw the suicides of Hughes' first wife, and lover, and the death of his four-year-old daughter, the collection frames the bird in settings much in keeping with its time-honoured representations, but brings it into a brutal, real-world focus, as God bled, but with man's blood.

Many centuries earlier, in what might almost be a kind of mythical prefiguring of Hughes' use of the crow in measuring human guilt, Chaucer would revisit the white-to-black, adulterous theme of Ovid's Metamorphosis and other myths, in The Canterbury Tales - though in his rendition, the raven is a crow, and can hardly be painted as an innocent party, and Phoebus serves the messenger with a similar but more complex fate: incensed at his companion's betrayal, when the bird splashes details of the god's illicit love affair, Phoebus' first act is not to blame the bird, but his wife - whom he promptly murders. Stricken with remorse, he turns his anger not against himself, but against the crow - who having been turned black is condemned to speak forever in a croaking voice.

Hughes' imagery, though, is ugly and at times Apocalyptic, amid the mutual "disgust" of God and Man, it is the crow flying the black flag of himself which nails heaven and earth together, but only in so far as the joint of the two dimensions becomes gangrenous and stank - A horror beyond redemption.

If Hughes' grim poem reflects the crow's mythological morbidity, Sylvia Plath's poem, as we have seen, Black Rook in Rainy Weather is a quintessentially innocent bird, simply Arranging and rearranging its feathers in the rain. While Hughes was apt to see - or re-impose - his own violent visions onto nature, perhaps rationalizing a once suppressed habit, resumed after the death of Plath, for trapping, shooting and otherwise killing wild animals by means of an all-encompassing idea of nature as "red in tooth and claw", Plath's poetry is more chaotic, more rooted in emotion, less structured and without the sense of purposive anthropomorphism present in her husband's. Though relaying the neat image of the bird ordering its black feathers, she is keen to establish that I do not expect miracle / Or an accident. Plainly disavowing all suggestion of Creationist or spiritual design - this poet sees the heavenly and miraculous in earthly, everyday things: the light on a chair on in a kitchen, an incandescence in the most obtuse of objects. The sight of such a bird, though, still grants a brief respite from fear of absolute neutrality as, in departure from its usual employment as a token of impending doom, the rook is suggestive of good luck: it is like-affirming, "stubborn" and reminds her that

Miracles occur

If you care to call those spasmodic

Tricks of radiance miracles

From their shadowy emergence in the annals of Classical poetry as harbingers of death, as doomy portents and persecuted victims of Man's egotistical insecurities, to their plucky and mischevous turning of the tables and satirical significance, to the mindful and naturalistic observations of these mysterious black voyagers, in which their appearance is mystical and reassuring, and in which they occupy a Biblical prominence - but for good, rather than for ill - the corvids have traversed the spectrum of associations, revelations, damnations, and redemption - and our poetry has been all the richer for the influence of these unique, acutely beautiful birds.

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