Tracing the Trope: Ministering Robins

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In the last post we read two of Robert Herrick’s poems about Robin Redbreast; in them the robin is entreated to cover Herrick’s corpse with leaves as a humble form of burial. I find this idea of robins ministering to the dead fascinating. Such a tender image—being cared for when all human aid is beyond you; when all help of any kind is beyond you, except the last kindness of a decent burial. And the idea that a bird might do that for you, slowly placing leaf upon leaf upon your body, building you a shroud of protection under which you might sink into your rest. Striking and strange.

It’s an evocative image for me; but as it turns out, Herrick didn’t create it. As I started to research the image I found a veritable flock of ministering robins at work from the late 16th century onwards, with the same image used by authors as diverse as Shakespeare, John Webster, Drayton and more. This was by no means exhaustive research; I have not yet attempted to trace the image back further than 1595. If anyone knows of more instances of the covering robins, please send them on to me!

The first instance I found was the direct precursor to the much-retold tale of the “Babes in the Wood.” It began as an anonymous broadside ballad published in 1595 by London printer Thomas Millington (a relation, perhaps?), with the ungainly title “The Norfolk gent, his will and Testament and howe he Commytted the keepinge of his Children to his own brother whoe delte most wickedly with them and howe God plagued him for it.” Which pretty much sums up the plot. The children are left abandoned in the woods and, unable to take care of themselves, they die. And then:

No burial these pretty babes
Of any man receives,
Till Robin-redbreast painfully
Did cover them with leaves.

It seems likely that this image is a popular folk-belief suddenly introduced into literature; for although the ballad was extremely popular, remaining in print and sung as a folk-song for centuries (Addison wrote of his admiration for it in issue number 85 of The Spectator), I don’t think it’s likely to be the single source for the instances of the image that recur later. And recur they do.

Michael Drayton’s satirical beast fable “The Owle” (1604) says:

Covering with Mosse the dead's unclosed eye:
The little Red-breast teacheth charytie.

Now take Shakespeare, in a scene from Cymbeline (Act IV, sc. 1), written circa 1611. Imogen’s (aka Fidele’s) slumber is taken for death, and so Arviragus declares:

the ruddock would,
With charitable bill,--O bill, sore-shaming
Those rich-left heirs that let their fathers lie
Without a monument!--bring thee all this;
Yea, and furr'd moss besides, when flowers are none,
To winter-ground thy corse.

And here is John Webster in The White Devil (1612):

Call for the robin-redbreast, and the wren,
    Since o’er shady groves they hover,
    And with leaves and flowers do cover
The friendless bodies of unburied men.

Several other early 17th-century instances are noted in Percy’s Reliques of Ancient English Poetry in the section on “The Children in the Wood.” And Herrick himself has one more poem for us, this time a humorous take on a well-meaning robin's misunderstanding.

 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. p. 49

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. p. 49

Upon Mrs. Elizabeth Wheeler, Under the Name of Amarillis.
          Robert Herrick (1591–1674). From Hesperides, 1648.

Sweet Amarillis, by a Spring's
Soft and soule-melting murmurings,
Slept; and thus sleeping, thither flew
A Robin-Red brest; who at view,
Not seeing her at all to stir,
Brought leaves and mosse to cover her:
But while he, perking, there did prie                                        perching/pry
About the Arch of either eye;
The lid began to let out day;
At which poore Robin flew amay:                                            away
And seeing her not dead, but all disleav'd;
He chirpt for joy, to see himself disceav'd.                              deceived

[Modern spelling here.]

Wouldn’t you love to know how an image that so moved the poets of a particular era was born? This is just one of the things I love about poetry; that you can see images and ideas at work in poets’ minds, and watch how they morph through time and place. I promise I’ll keep digging, and we’ll see what turns up!


Lead image is from The Babes in the Woods, New York: McLoughlin Bros., 1888. p. 12.