So, the other day I was rereading the first chapter of Robert E. Howard’s "People of the Black Circle" and I hit this line:
"Again that far, weirdly dreeing cry, from realms immeasurable."
That word, "dreeing." Obviously, the gerund form of "dree." But what was "dree"? What did it mean?
Actually, I had a pretty good idea, since years ago I'd had a discussion about it online with a self-proclaimed “world's biggest REH fan” whom I'll just call "Bart". Bart was convinced that they had found the meaning of the word. Bart hadn't encountered "dree" in PotBC. In fact, it really doesn't appear that Bart ever read much of Howard's prose at all, just Bob’s poetry. Bart derived their knowledge of the existence of the word "dree" from the Howard poem, "No Man's Land."
No Man's Land
I heard the shells that flashed and crashed, I heard the bullets’ dree
When from the gory, writhing muck, a face looked up at me.
A German face, the face of one that I had seen before,
A lad I knew in San Ferez before we went to war.
Bart then proceeded to quickly copy & paste--as Bart was wont to do--this online etymology and definition of "dree":
"to suffer, bear, endure," Old English dreogan "to work, suffer, endure" (see drudge (v.)). Phrase dree one's weird "abide one's fate or destiny" is from 14c.
I might also add that “dree” in the sense above is basically only used in Scots dialect and (occasionally) northern England, not south of the Wall. A common Scottish phrase often used in 19th century English literature—always in reference by or to Scots-- was “dree my weird”, i.e., “suffer/bear/endure my fate.”
Bart's interpretation of the "dree" line in "No Man's Land" was that the bullets somehow "endured" or "abided". As politely as I could, I tried to point out that such a reading of that line did severe and malicious harm to all known rules of the English language. That, or REH was just randomly writing sheer gibberish. Did the narrator of the poem "hear" the bullets "enduring"? "Abiding"? "Suffering"? How was that possible? What were the bullets "bearing"? The burdens of high velocity? High-caliber-ness, perhaps?
When one digs a bit deeper grammatically, it becomes, possibly, even more nonsensical if the Bart definition of the word is taken as final.
"I heard the bullets’ dree"
In that line, "dree" is something that the bullets (plural) possess or is a quality inherent to them. The dree “belongs” to the bullets.That is what the apostrophe indicates and that is how standard English works. How can "endurance", "abiding" or "suffering" inhere to a mass of bullets? A mass that is, presumably, in motion? How could the poem's narrator "hear" such a thing, even if it somehow existed?
I pointed this out to Bart. Bart responded by saying, basically, that the online source was always right. Nice genetic fallacy ya got there. It'd be a shame if somebody was to shoot it full o' holes with some basic common sense.
I asked, "What about this REH poem?"
Now from the hollow moaning of the sea,
The dreary birds against the sunset fly,
And drifting down the sad wind's ghostly dree
A breath of music echoes with a sigh.
I asked Bart if a "breath of music" drifted down the wind's "ghostly suffering" or "ghostly endurance" or "ghostly abiding". I was told that such things made "poetic sense". I said that all three instances would make much more sense if we simply threw out the "official" definition and pursued the idea that "dree" meant something like "wail" or "keen" (as in "keening") or "skirl" even "whistle," at least by Howard's personal definition.
I said that we needed to get to the bottom of this. Bart quickly asked, "What do you mean by 'we'?" Somewhat nonplussed, I replied, "As in 'you and I'. Perhaps other REH fans as well." Bart then informed me that they didn't want to discuss it any further. I'm pretty sure Bart was paranoid...of something.
After that strange exchange, I got distracted by other things. Eventually, a couple of years later, I stumbled on this line in Talbot Mundy's novel, Queen Cleopatra:
"The very soul of Rome seemed riven by the grief that—swaying, wailing, ululating—dreed its dirge in final salutation of the mighty dead."
It seems to me Mundy’s sentence may be the text that inspired the quote above from “The People of the Black Circle.”
That set me to searching Mundy's other texts. Below is the poem that starts off the first chapter of Guns of the Gods:
Out of the Ashes
The wail of the women sold as slaves
Lest Troy breed sons again
Dreed o'er a desert of nameless graves
In both cases, it's pretty obvious that "dreed" is approximately synonymous with "wailed."
From there, I followed a hunch and googled Sax Rohmer. Sure enough, I found this instance in The Brood of the Witch-Queen:
"...and her silvern voice had something of the tone of those Egyptian pipes whose dree fills the nights upon the Upper Nile—the seductive music of remote and splendid wickedness."
I also found this poem in The Return of Dr. Fu-Manchu:
Far from all brother-men, in the weird of the fen,
With God's creatures I bide, 'mid the birds that I ken;
Where the winds ever dree, where the hymn of the sea
Brings a message of peace from the ocean to me.
Since I was on a roll, I decided to give William Hope Hodgson a try. Here's what I found in Chapter 16 of The Night Land:
"... and there to be also a constant sound, as of a little whistling dree wind that did be in all that Country of Quiet;"
What we have here is three men, all born in England--two of them of Irish descent--all of them born within the same general region and all of them born within an eight-year span. All of them used the term "dree" in quite similar ways. They did not use it in accordance with Bart's "official" definition.
Now, I know that REH almost certainly didn't read Hodgson. I'm tossing Hodgson in there as just another example of an author from that era using "dree" in that fashion. On the other hand, it is very possible that Howard read at least one, if not all, of the Mundy and Rohmer examples cited above. He owned at least a couple of the books in question.
I've never seen "dree" used this way in American Southern or Southwestern dialects, so the most likely source appears to be the two authors from southeastern England. So far, this is all I've got in regard to solving the mystery. I will, however, state without hesitation that REH meant "dree" in roughly the same way as Rohmer and Mundy and absolutely did not use it in accordance with the Scots/Northern English dialectical term.
Let common sense reign.