Herrick’s Robin

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“Julia and her dead robin,” the lugubrious poem covered in my last Fruit of the Plume post, made me think about Robert Herrick. Anyone familiar with his work will think instantly of the incredibly sensual odes to his muse, Julia—she of the liquefying clothes.  But he wrote about another “bird” as well—good robin redbreast.

Robin has been a diminutive for Robert in the UK for hundreds of years; and so the name was passed on to the beloved bird, which was originally called a ruddock, from the Old English word for the rusty-red color of its breast. Would men called Robin think of the bird when they thought of their own names, or identify with any of the bird’s famous character traits (to be discussed in the next post)? Herrick signed himself “Robin” in letters to his uncle, so we know that he too went by that nickname. And as I’m about to discuss, he certainly felt a kinship with the bird.

 From  Hesperides , London: Printed for John Williams, and Francis Eglesfield, and are to be sold at the Crown and Marygold in Saint Pauls Church-Yard, 1648. C1r.

From Hesperides, London: Printed for John Williams, and Francis Eglesfield, and are to be sold at the Crown and Marygold in Saint Pauls Church-Yard, 1648. C1r.

To Robin Red-brest.
      Robert Herrick (1591–1674). From Hesperides, 1648.

Laid out for dead, let thy last kindnesse be
With leaves and mosse-work for to cover me:
And while the Wood-nimphs my cold corps inter,
Sing thou my Dirge, sweet-warbling Chorister!
For Epitaph, in Foliage, next write this:
     Here, here the Tomb of Robin Herrick is!

(Find a version with modernized spelling (boring!) at Bartleby.)

As we can see, Herrick signs himself Robin in this poem. Here the robin is his namesake, and he its. And as the writer of his epitaph, the bird will become the keeper of the poet’s memory. The phrase “let thy last kindnesse be” suggests that the robin has been kind before; an old friend to the poet, perhaps. After all, wouldn’t you want someone who knows and cares about you to write your epitaph? Of course, though Herrick asks the robin to “write” his epitaph, it is only writ in foliage, perhaps the same foliage the bird covered his body with. Not written in stone, or even on paper. Though “moss-work” suggests something finely wrought, the epitaph will not last the ages, nor even be legible to those who can’t read the medium it’s written in; it’s as transitory as life itself. Is it more powerful for this? More plaintive, certainly.

A second poem, entitled “To the Nightingale, and Robin Red-brest,” repeats the plea for the bird to perform its kind offices.

 Ibid., p. 126.

Ibid., p. 126.

To the Nightingale, and Robin-Red-brest.
       Robert Herrick (1591–1674). From Hesperides, 1648.

When I departed am, ring thou my knell,
Thou pittifull, and pretty Philomel:
And when I'm laid out for a Corse; then be
Thou Sexton (Red-brest) for to cover me.

The poems underscore the difference between dying and being laid out: the nightingale sings the death knell (the tolling of a bell to mark someone’s passing), but the robin sings the funeral dirge, the lament for the dead. The poems also suggest an emotive difference between placing a body in the earth and covering it over. As in the first poem, the wood-nymphs may be the ones to inter the poet, but it will be the robin who tenderly covers his body, finally laying him to rest. Notably, no human is there to provide the usual funeral rites for the poet; his is the humblest of burials. There is no one to show him any "last kindness," but the birds who fulfill his last request.

Ultimately the poet and the bird share more than just a name. The robin is friend, witness, chorister, sexton, scribe, mourner, amanuensis, perhaps even psychopomp. But Herrick did not originate the idea of robins covering the bodies of the deceased. Many of you have probably heard of “The Babes in the Wood,” as I had, without knowing the details of the story, nor how old it is. But this traditional ballad, with versions in print decades before Herrick published his poems, features robins covering the bodies of the two dead children that lay in the woods. I’ll explore more of this traditional image, and see if we can trace it back any further, in the next post. Until then!


Lead image depicts a page from Birds Britannica, by Mark Cocker and Richard Mabey.