Arthur Rackham illustration from Some British Ballads, 1919.
Image source: Wikimedia Commons.
Our poetry selections for today, as we move out of Chaucer and into some medieval ballads: “The Twa Corbies” and its English cousin, “The Three Ravens.” Just a little something light and cheerful for a chilly November day. You know, light like sunbleached bones.
The Twa Corbies
As I was walking all alane,
I heard twa corbies makin a mane;
The tane unto the ither say,
“Whar sall we gang and dine the-day?”
“In ahint yon auld fail dyke,
I wot there lies a new slain knight;
And nane do ken that he lies there,
But his hawk, his hound an his lady fair.”
“His hound is tae the huntin gane,
His hawk tae fetch the wild-fowl hame,
His lady’s tain anither mate,
So we may mak oor dinner swate.”
“Ye’ll sit on his white hause-bane,
And I’ll pike oot his bonny blue een;
Wi ae lock o his gowden hair
We’ll theek oor nest whan it grows bare.”
“Mony a one for him makes mane,
But nane sall ken whar he is gane;
Oer his white banes, whan they are bare,
The wind sall blaw for evermair.”
Augustine’s brilliant emphasis on language as a means of passage between our interior selves and the external world, a bandwidth for the expression of desires, introduces a theme which resurfaces again and again, almost uncannily, in the consideration of communication or information technologies. What is striking is not the truism that media of communication provide a link between internal selves and the world around them; what is striking is the anxiety that surrounds that linkage. We find that anxiety even in Augustine’s conclusion, that language acquisition propelled him “into the stormy life of human society.”
Have you seen Letters to Anyone and Everyone by Toon Tellegen? We are just working our way through, and last night we read the letter from the Crow to the sparrow. All the letters are delightful, but so far, this is my favorite.
(Click her name to read her full comment, which includes a quote.)
Pam recalls Those Calculating Crows by Ali Wakefield, a picture book about crows who count, adding:
“It doesn’t get a good review and I remember not really enjoying reading it aloud but my boys liked it and it was worth a look in the library.”
(It’s like that sometimes, isn’t it? Not all books make good read-alouds.)
Su gives props to good old Slow Joe Crow from Fox in Socks;Penny in Vermont reminded me that Tasha Tudor had pet crows who served as models for drawings in several of her books; and Beth of Bookworm Journal gives a shout-out to Kaw, the pet crow of Taran in the Prydain books by Lloyd Alexander.
• Rose has taken a shine to the Handbook of Nature Study. Mind you, this is a book I have lunged for on a regular basis throughout her entire life, but this week after we read about crows in it, it was like she discovered it for the first time. I found out the next morning that she took it to bed with her and stayed up late reading about turtles and chipmunks. All day yesterday, she was reading me interesting tidbits about squirrels. And she pointed out that while it would certainly be handy to have an iPod-sized edition to carry around with us, she “wouldn’t have been able to flip through it and find random bits of interest.” Nor, she added as an afterthought, “curl up in bed with it.” She has a point there.
• Remember when the alligator lizard scared the pants off my husband? Yesterday was my turn. I picked up an old plastic pot from the side yard and saw some sidewalk chalk inside. Reached in for the chalk and the pot started violently shaking in my hand—something under the chalk scrabbling around and around. Yes, I screamed. And dropped the pot. And watched the lizard scurry into the grass. And hollered for the kids to come quick before it disappeared. And pretended to be all calm and cool and nature-mama. And lost a year off my life, I’m sure.
• Lark Rise to Candleford update: We’re a little behind. I didn’t much care for the Harvest Festival episode, the one with the plot about the constable and Pearl (not to give too much away). Didn’t buy it. But—I think this was the same episode—I loved the scene in which Alf respectfully, ruefully tells Robert Timmins why he wants to be a farmer. Loved the warm gleam in Robert’s eye as he recognized a fellow craftsman’s passion for his work, the work he is meant to be doing. But then, I just plain love the character of Robert Timmins, period. Possibly because he is a lot like my husband. Blunt, outspoken, humorous, tender, mercurial, passionate about his craft and his family. Yeah. I know that guy.
• I scored 167 points on a single word—corncrib—in Words With Friends. (Scrabble-like app for the iPod Touch.) I’m just saying. EVERYWHERE I POSSIBLY CAN.
• The crows are discarding their empty peanut shells in our birdbath. Ingrates.
• I may actually have to start a whole blog category here for crows. What’s geekier: that or bragging about a Scrabble word score?
OK, I am really enchanted by these crows. We had such fun today, watching them at work on a nest in the top of an enormous tree just the other side of our back fence. Our house backs up to an elementary school (I know, ironic) and in the schoolyard quite near the fence is a very large widespread Moreton Bay fig tree. (I think that’s what it is.) One crow went back and forth to the tippy-top carrying twigs, while another perched in a supervisory manner in a nearby eucalyptus.
At intervals we’d see four crows wheeling about between the fig and another clump of very tall eucalyptus trees on the other side of the school. Perhaps there is another nest over there.
They ate up the peanuts we left them—when we weren’t looking. When I was looking, they only made low swoops over the table, eyeing the nuts and uttering baleful remarks to the wind.
In the evening I saw one of the crows inspecting our driveway, stepping deliberately up its length beside the minivan. Probably he knows it is a reliable source of crushed goldfish crackers.
It was a quite interesting day, though we were stuck at home with the remnants of fevers-and-sniffles. A man came to investigate the scrabblings in our attic; he found two dead rats (horrors) and earned Beanie’s forever-friendship by letting the kids look at one. It was repulsive, she told me. I should think so. Rose now says she wants to pursue a career in pest control so she can see more “fascinating dead things.” There is a moral here somewhere, having to do with what happens when you strew the house with poetry and music and art, I’m sure. Apparently our mental diet has been low in fascinating dead things.
Plenty of fascinating live things in my flower garden: I did a lot of pruning today, and the middle kids had a grand time stripping leaves off the long canes of cape honeysuckle and then swishing them over one another’s heads and being indignant about how they almost knocked each other’s heads off. Swoosh! Like crows swooping low over the peanuts. I left the butterfly bush lopsided because just when I was poised for the final series of whacks, I realized there was a nice little bower behind the honeysuckle and the butterfly bush, if I stopped where I was. So now there’s a comical view from the patio, and a Secret Hideout in the back. They are stocking it with plenty of canes for knocking off each other’s heads.
Things people read today: Jane finished Don’t Know Much About Geography and began the History volume; Rose finished Tuck Everlasting and said she wasn’t sure how she felt about it but wasn’t ready to talk about it yet (I get that, especially with that book); Beanie began The Saturdays; and I finished Charles and Emma, which I greatly enjoyed. Darwin’s personality was not at all as I had envisioned it—I think I’ve imagined him more as a curmudgeonly, uninterruptible sort, very much like the grandfather in Calpurnia Tate. But it seems he was quite a teddy bear of a father, deeply affectionate with his children, so reluctant to spoil their fun by making them stop jumping on the furniture that he’d turn and leave the room rather than tell them to cut it out. And completely adoring of his wife, Emma, respecting her candor and insight even on the very serious questions for which they had quite different answers.
I loved this bit about Charles’s reaction to a wedding present—it begins with a quote from one of his letters:
“My good old friend Herbert sent me a very nice little note, with a massive silver weapon, which he called a Forficula (the Latin for an earwig) and which I thought was to catch hold of soles and flounders.” But Erasmus, who knew these things, told him it was for asparagus.
I’m poking around the stacks now, trying to fix upon which of a dozen promising tomes to read next. I’m craving a really absorbing piece of fiction, something I can fall into. There are a good many likely prospects in previous TBR posts on this blog: I still haven’t made time for I Capture the Castle, which so many of you have enthusiastically suggested, and I STILL haven’t gotten to The Elegance of the Hedgehog, nor The Thirteenth Tale, nor the second Mysterious Benedict Society book, nor In This House of Brede…not to mention this whole list of requests from my kids…plus you’ve got me all fired up to read those Patrick O’Brian books you were talking up in the comments the other day. And Girl of the Limberlost, which I did download to my iPod after your fervent recommendations.
I suppose I might get more reading done if there weren’t so many interesting things happening in my backyard.
“The crow when he sings is nothing short of a clown; he ruffles his feathers, stretches his neck, like a cat with a fish bone in her throat, and with a most tremendous effort delivers a series of hen-like squawks.”
This quote, attributed simply to a “Mr. Mathews” in the Anna Comstock Handbook of Nature Study, elicited a chorus of giggles from my flock this afternoon, when we encountered it during an hour spent informing ourselves about crows. Beanie, the nine-year-old, especially enjoyed it, and I heard her repeating it to herself shortly afterward.
This morning all our plans for the day went up in…not smoke, but mercury. Half the children have fevers and sniffles; some are worse than others. We canceled Shakespeare Club, much to the regret of the teenager and her mother (sob—we were to begin rehearsing scenes from The Scottish Play today), and although the older girls aren’t sick, we thought it best to forego their piano classes as well, lest we pass these unpleasant germs around.
Late in the morning, Rose and I spied a trio of crows quarreling on the phone wires out front. As we watched, it became evident they were fighting for a particularly choice perch on the fixture jutting out from the top of a pole. One bird claimed the spot, and the other two took turns wheeling and diving at him. He wouldn’t budge. They had us in stitches. Rose said it was like Saturday mornings on our sofa, when the children wrestle over the remote control.
We are often amused by the crows who haunt our yard, so we decided to find out more about them. Comstock was, as usual, more than helpful. (But if ever, ever, ever a book begged to be converted to a digital format, it is that unwieldy three-inch-thick behemoth!)
“The crow is probably the most intelligent of all our native birds,” she writes. “It is quick to learn and clever in action, as many a farmer will testify who has tried to keep it out of corn fields with various devices, the harmless character of which the crow soon understood perfectly….”
The kids enjoyed Comstock’s descriptions of tame crows, especially the story of one bird who “was fond of playing marbles with a little boy of the family. The boy would shoot a marble into a hole and then Billy, the crow, would take a marble in his beak and drop it into the hole. The bird seemed to understand the game and was highly indignant if the boy played out of turn and made shots twice in succession.”
Of course now we all want a crow for a pet.
After Anna Comstock, we had to see what the internet could tell us about crows. There was Robert Frost, of course, feeling cheered (as were we!) by the antics of a crow—
The way a crow
Shook down on me
The dust of snow
From a hemlock tree
Has given my heart
A change of mood
And saved some part
Of a day I had rued.
And Van Gogh’s Wheat Field with Crows.
Comstock had told us that when a flock of crows (excuse me, a murder of them), descend upon a field, one of them always stands sentinel. Rose thinks the crow in the left foreground is probably this bunch’s sentinel.
A tame crow seems to have caught Picasso’s interest, too—
Woman with a Crow, Pablo Picasso.
When you’re talking about crows, Aesop comes to mind. We recalled the fables of the Crow and the Pitcher, and the one about the Fox and the Crow with the bit of cheese.
Crow poetry makes me think of the Scottish ballad, “The Twa Corbies”—rather a grisly tale, but gripping! Here’s a YouTube clip of the poem being read (not sung) aloud in Scots. There’s an English translation below the “more info” link. We also listened to this version sung by The Corries—still grisly, but quite lovely.
We put some peanuts on our patio table and were almost immediately rewarded with a comedy routine performed by three curious crows—the same lads from this morning?—who were terribly intrigued by these Delicious-Smelling Objects left Unattended on the Flat Thing—intrigued but too suspicious to do more than cock their heads and eye them warily from the back of a chair. Then up they’d wheel and careen around the yard, swooping low over the table but never Getting Too Close.
Rose is keeping a count on the peanuts to see if the crows get brave when we aren’t looking.