Here’s a great Scottish ballad which came into my head today.
For the benefit of readers: corbies are crows; tane means one of them; fail is turf; wot means know; swate is sweet; hause-bane is neck bone; theek means thatch;
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.”
For sheer unmitigated focus on one aspect of the human condition, this takes some beating. The corpse has been a knight, that is, a person of status in late medieval society. He has been a nobleman not a peasant; he has possessed a house and a household with the ordinary marks of wealth- a hawk and hound for hunting and fair lady for a wife or paramour. His feudal superior, Lord or King has called for his service in battle. He would have considered himself a person of substance, and most people would have shared his opinion.
Now he has been killed, his corpse is concealed and fresh. The stanza about him being forgotten by his animals and wife is not realistic. They have not already moved on, but they will. Their neglect has been brought forward to make it the more shocking. The corpse can therefore be despoiled by the crows – and other creatures -until it becomes a skeleton that whistles in the wind.
Has there been any significance in the life of this creature? Only that it has eventually been useful to a couple of crows. Of course, you can say he meant something to his parents, his friends, his wife, but the ballad tells us, not all that much. As Hamlet asks, “What to me is this quintessence of dust?”
We want to protest against this verdict: what about Buddha, Confucius, Jesus and Muhammad? Think of the golden hair in the crows’ nest.
What about Alexander, Caesar,Genghis Khan, Napoleon. Think of the bonny blue een.
What about Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Beethoven and Einstein? Think of the white banes.
Sir Walter Raleigh, yes him of the cloak placed on the puddle, wrote on this topic:
O ELOQUENT, just, and mighty Death! whom none could advise, thou hast persuaded; what none hath dared, thou hast done; and whom all the world hath flattered, thou only hast cast out of the world and despised; thou hast drawn together all the far-stretched greatness, all the pride, cruelty, and ambition of man, and covered it all over with these two narrow words, Hic jacet! (Here lies..)
I don’t have some profound conclusion, I just say, in the face of this fact, let’s stay humble. We’re not that important, except maybe to God.