Thomas Ravenscroft

The Three Ravens (English Folk Ballad)

‘The Three Ravens’ is an English ballad. It contains a conversation between three hungry ravens who are seeking out a meal. 

This English folk song has unknown origins. It was published in 1611 by Thomas Ravenscroft in Melismata but is likely older than that. Since then, musicians have recorded updated versions of the folksong. The poem concludes with a clear message: every person should hope to be as lucky as the knight in the piece. God blessed him with hounds, hawks, and a loyal woman, who cared for his body after death.

The Three Ravens
Published by Thomas Ravenscroft

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 Three Ravens poem


Summary

‘The Three Ravens’ describes a conversation between three ravens in regard to a knight the three want to make their next meal.

This well-known English ballad contains a conversation between three birds, ravens about eating. One speaks about a recently killed knight, but they discover that hawks and hounds protect the body. Then, a doe comes to the body, an image that has been interpreted as representing the knight’s pregnant lover. She kisses his wounds and buries him. The ravens end the poem without a meal.

Structure and Form 

‘The Three Ravens’ is a ballad. It should be noted that this song can be written and performed in multiple ways. Often, the lines are divided into sets of two or four, sometimes with a longer first stanza. Usually, the couplets, if used, contain perfect rhymes. For example, “mate” and “take” and “field” and “shield.” Readers will also note the speaker’s use of repetition in the first lines. 

There are a few words within the lines of ‘The Three Ravens’ that may be unfamiliar to readers. They include “leman,” meaning mistress or lover, and “Nie” meaning “night.” The word “ravens” is spelled “rauens” throughout this poem as well. These are examples of archaic language, words, and spellings that have fallen out of common use. But, once their definitions are made clear, it should be fairly easy to understand what the song is about.

Literary Devices 

Throughout this piece, the writer makes use of several literary devices. For example: 

  • Alliteration: can be seen when the poet repeats the same consonant sound at the beginning of multiple words. For example: “slain” and “shield” in the second couplet and “His Hawkes” in the fourth couplet. 
  • Anaphora: occurs when the writer repeats the same word or words at the beginning of lines. Fore example, “She” at the end of the poem starts four lines. 
  • Imagery: occurs when the poet uses particularly effective descriptions. For example: “She lift up his bloudy head, / And kist his wounds that were so red.” 
  • Personification: seen through the conversation between the ravens. The speaker gives them the ability to speak to one another and share their thoughts about what they’re going to eat. 


Detailed Analysis 

Stanza One 

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.

In the first lines, the speaker describes the three ravens in a tree. The first stanza also contains examples of repetition and alliteration. This is seen through the use of “hay down” multiple lines as well as the line “There were three ravens sat on a tree.” Usually, this stanza contains seven lines. 

The speaker describes the ravens in clear language. They are as “blacke as they might be.” Readers may notice the use of archaic spellings, such as “blacke” and “rauens” in these first lines. The best way to approach this is to ignore “extra” letters and proceed with reading the words as they are used today.

The song-like qualities of the piece come through in the last line of this stanza with the use of “a downe, derrie, derrie, derrie, downe, down.

Stanzas Two and Three

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,

The next lines contain the ravens’ conversation about what they’re going to eat for breakfast. They’re scavengers and are therefore only going to consider prey that’s already dead. One recommends a knight that has been recently slain in a green field. The fact that there’s a knight in this song places back in the Medieval period of English literature. It also makes the song feel, especially to modern readers, more fantastical. It’s taking place somewhere and with characters that are unfamiliar.

There is a good example of sibilance in the third stanza with “slain” and “shield.” This occurs when the writer repeats an “s” sound multiple times. It is similar to alliteration, which is also used several times in this song.

The poem also maintains its song-like feeling in these lines through the use of perfect rhymes at the end of every line. For example, “mate” and “take” and “field” and “shield.”

Stanzas Four and Five 

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

Rather than having the easy meal they were hoping for, the ravens discover that the knight is protected by his hounds and his “Hawkes.” In their loyalty, these two groups protect their dead master ensuring that no one, including the ravens, can interfere with his body. They make sure that “no fowle dare” comes near him. 

The loyalty of these two groups of animals is one of the most interesting and moving parts of the song. Readers might ask themselves what it was about this knight that inspired such loyalty?

Also of interest, is the songwriter’s use of personification in these lines. They describe the hawks as flying “eagerly”. They are moving with passion and purpose, knowing that if they leave, their master might be left open for scavengers like the ravens to prey on his body.

Stanzas Six and Seven 

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,

The next lines add that a “fallow Doe” came to his side, “as great with yong as she might goe.” These lines are a description of the knight’s lover or mistress. She’s pregnant and soon to give birth. She kisses his red wounds, clearly distressed about his death. She is yet another reason why the ravens can’t feed on the man’s corpse. 

These lines are a great example of juxtaposition. The ravens are dark birds, those that need death in order to survive and are fended off by the presence of love. The “fallow Doe,” or young pregnant woman, is a clear image of light and love. She, as well as the hawks and hounds, are a result of God’s love for the knight. “Kist’ is another archaic word that’s used in this section of the poem. It should be read like the contemporary word “kissed.”

Stanzas Eight, Nine, and Ten 

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.

In the final couplets, the speaker notes how the woman carried him “to earthen lake” and buried him, ensuring that nothing could get to the body and that he could go to his grave intact. 

The last two lines of the poem are easiest to remember. They suggest that everyone would be lucky if God could send them: “Such haukes, such hounds, and such a Leman.” These three loyal groups ensure that the man is protected, even in death. They love him to the end. 

There is a wonderful metaphor in this section as well, seen through the speaker’s description of the grave as an “earthen lake.” This is a beautiful turn of phrase, one that is evocative of the vastness of the earth, as well as the darkness it contains.

FAQs 

What is the tone of ‘The Three Ravens?’ 

The tone is descriptive and direct. The speaker describes the words of the ravens as well as the events taking place on the ground. It’s not until the final lines that it’s very clear the speaker is on the side of the knight, his hounds, hawks, and lover. 

What is the purpose of ‘The Three Ravens?’

The purpose is to describe how important love and loyalty are at the end of a man’s life. The hawks, hounds, and his lover all come to his side and protect him, whether they know it or not, from the ravens. 

What is the theme of ‘The Three Ravens?’

The main theme at work in this poem is that of loyalty. This, mixed with love, help convey the ways that good and light triumph over evil or darkness. The ravens, although not necessarily evil, are a dark image, one that needs death to survive.

What is a traditional folk ballad?

They are folksongs that tell stories. This includes animal fables, jokes, legends, fairy tales, and more. Often, there are magical elements in these stories, such as talking animals (and magic itself). 


Similar Poetry 

Readers who enjoyed ‘The Three Ravens’ should also consider reading some related songs and poems. For example: 

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Emma Baldwin Poetry Expert
About
Emma graduated from East Carolina University with a BA in English, minor in Creative Writing, BFA in Fine Art, and BA in Art Histories. Literature is one of her greatest passions which she pursues through analyzing poetry on Poem Analysis.
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