Monday, 9 March 2009

The Funerary Role of the Corvid in English Culture

Few of you will remember (youngsters that you are) the invaluable sacrifice made by corvids in the two centuries or so preceding the last. Few will have considered the thick satisfaction of their yolkless harming; absolving yourselves with that bready smear of indifference we have won, and boast, and cling to proudly like a shielding pelt. Few of you observe the common crow and think of what it, or rather what it’s forefathers, did for us – gave up for us – humbly and without flinching.

Much is made, and accepted, of the view that the death of Prince Albert marked the conception of modern mourning. We are ready to believe that the deceptive theatre of internment, the blackish gloss of jet, wore on to our common funeral rites only through the Queen’s depressive bereavement. Yet no real account is given for the many such funerals that precede that; of quite how ritual black mourning garbs were in the century before. The black-bordered letter, though prominently espoused throughout the 1860s in the practical rulebooks of epistolary correspondence, may be traced back as early as the 1720s, if not before. The black-plumed dray; kept locks of hair; Millais’ digging nuns in The Vale of Rest – all find prominent antecedents in the generation before them.

And central to this is the role of the crow. Often we will have marvelled at the chattering of young magpies in our flues; or looked upon the wan, pale eye of the jackdaw as it lays asphyxiated in the hearth. This daily event, sooty and sad, reminds us no doubt of seeing drowned Nordic fishermen in our childhood; brought ashore in their glossy, dark oilskins and lain out for identification beneath the harbour master’s clock – as if anyone could – and remembering how pale, how very nearly white their irises were. How innocent, in their oxygen-empty plum-bruised faces, those glassy marbles stood. We share this common heritage of grief. When MacNeice asks “is this why people have children? / To try and catch up with the ghosts of their own discoveries [?]” we might wonder upon the jackdaw, dead in the grate, whether we seek in it’s pale eyes some solace from those men we try to blot out – black out – upon the quayside.

Whether this is the origin of the association or not, it is hard to ignore the sacrifice. Crows have long since donated feathers to funereal wreaths; tattered drays with mourning; exposed our loss in dour millinery and feathered bunting – and if there is indeed an explosion in the burial industry in the nineteenth century, then the spark came not from the Queen, but from Coalbrookdale, and the inescapable union between the bird and chimney-pot. The chessboard rook is less a castle than a terracotta vent.

The middle-class nineteenth century townhouse, had both places for nesting, and first-floor balconies bedecked with drooling wrought iron – the practice for which was to dress such ornament in sable plumage to mark the passing of a family member in the house. The essayist Charles Caleb Colton records in the Gentleman’s Review of 1811 the sight of seeing “the whole of Fitzrovia festooned with the sable wings of birds” strung from the houses’ balconies; winding carrion lineaments of grief from windowed sill to weeping railing – all to mark the passing of the third Duke of Grafton, the former prime minister. It is said that Edith Fricker, the wife of the poet Robert Southey, was interred upon a mattress of drowsy choughs – chloroformed for the duration of the service – but which began to awaken, and flutter desperately, and peck for escape as the coffin was lowered into the ground.

It is by this simple, innocent sacrifice that we learn the crow’s humility. We may learn from it how it readily gave its life for our decadent weeping; how from busty raven to ample rook, we might follow its example and give of ourselves, unquestioningly, to the self-indulgence of others. No cry for attention is to be ignored; no feather, valued above the attentiveness to others. By corvids we are to flatter, and accept.