The Robin And The Wren

★ The Robin And The Wren Story  :

The superstitious reverence with which these birds are almost universally regarded takes its origin from a pretty belief that they undertake the delicate office of covering the dead bodies of any of the human race with moss or leaves, if by any means left exposed to the heavens. This opinion is alluded to by Shakespeare and many writers of his time, as by Drayton, for example:

Cov’ring with moss the dead’s unclosed eye, The little red-breast teacheth charitie.

Webster, in his tragedy of Vittoria Corombona, 1612, couples the wren with the robin as coadjutors in this friendly office:

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

Notwithstanding the beautiful passage in Shakespeare to which we have alluded, it is nevertheless undeniable that, even to this day, the ancient belief attached to these birds is perpetuated chiefly by the simple ballad of the Babes in the Wood. Early in the last century, Addison was infatuated with that primitive song. “Admitting,” he says, “there is even a despicable simplicity in the verse, yet because the sentiments appear genuine and unaffected, they are able to move the mind of the most polite reader with inward meltings of humanity and compassion.” Exactly so; but this result arises from the extraordinary influence of early association over the mind, not from the pathos of the ballad itself, which is infinitely inferior to the following beautiful little nursery song I have the pleasure of transcribing into these pages:

My dear, do you know How a long time ago, Two poor little children, Whose names I don’t know, Were stolen away On a fine summer’s day, And left in a wood, As I’ve heard people say.

And when it was night, So sad was their plight, The sun it went down, And the moon gave no light! They sobb’d and they sigh’d, And they bitterly cried, And the poor little things, They laid down and died.

And when they were dead, The robins so red Brought strawberry leaves, And over them spread; And all the day long, They sang them this song,– Poor babes in the wood! Poor babes in the wood! And don’t you remember The babes in the wood?

Adages respecting the robin and the wren, generally including the martin and swallow, are common in all parts of the country. In giving the following, it should be premised it is a popular notion that the wren is the wife of the robin; and Mr. Chambers mentions an extraordinary addition to this belief current in Scotland, that the wren is the paramour of the tom-tit!

The robin red-breast and the wren Are God Almighty’s cock and hen;[39] The martin and the swallow Are the two next birds that follow.

[Footnote 39: The wren was also called our Lady’s hen. See Cotgrave, in v. Berchot.]

The next was obtained from Essex:

A robin and a titter-wren Are God Almighty’s cock and hen; A martin and a swallow Are God Almighty’s shirt and collar!

And the following from Warwickshire:

The robin and the wren Are God Almighty’s cock and hen; The martin and the swallow Are God Almighty’s bow and arrow![40]

[Footnote 40: In Cheshire the last line is, “Are God’s mate and marrow,” marrow being a provincial term for a companion. See Wilbraham’s Chesh. Gloss. p. 105.]

The latter part of this stanza is thus occasionally varied:

The martin and the swallow Are God Almighty’s birds to hollow;

where the word hollow is most probably a corruption of the verb hallow, to keep holy.[41] If this conjecture be correct, it exhibits the antiquity of the rhyme. [Footnote 41: Parker, in his poem of the Nightingale, published in 1632, speaking of swallows, says:

And if in any’s hand she chance to dye, ‘Tis counted ominous, I know not why.]

Nor let it be thought there is any impiety in giving these verses in the form in which they are cherished, for the humble recorders of them dream of no irreverence. On the contrary, the sanctification of these harmless birds is no unpoetical or objectionable fragment of the old popular mythology; and when we reflect that not even a sparrow “is forgotten before God,” can we blame a persuasion which protects more innocent members of the feathered tribes from the intrusion of the wanton destroyer?

It is exceedingly unlucky to molest the nests of any of these birds. This belief is very prevalent, and it was acted upon in a case which came under my observation, where, misfortune having twice followed the destruction of a swallow’s nest, the birds were afterwards freely permitted to enjoy the corner of a portico, where their works were certainly not very ornamental. The following verses were obtained from Essex:

The robin and the red-breast, The robin and the wren; If ye take out o’ their nest, Ye’ll never thrive agen!

The robin and the red-breast, The martin and the swallow; If ye touch one o’ their eggs, Bad luck will surely follow!

The Irish call the wren the king of birds; and they have a story that, when the birds wanted to choose a king, they determined that the one which could fly highest should have the crown. The wren, being small, very cunningly hid itself under the wing of the eagle; and when that bird could fly no higher, the wren slipped from its hiding-place, and easily gained the victory. In Cotgrave’s Dictionarie, 1632, we find the wren called roitelet, and in another dictionary, quoted by Mr. Wright, it is called roi des oiseaux, so it is probable a similar superstition prevailed in France. The ceremony of hunting of the wren on St. Stephen’s day has been so frequently described, that it is not necessary to do more than allude to it, and to mention that Mr. Crofton Croker possesses a proclamation lately issued by the mayor of Cork, forbidding the custom, with the intent “to prevent cruelty to animals,” as the document is headed. This custom was also prevalent in France. An analogous ceremony is still observed in Pembrokeshire on Twelfth-day, where it is customary to carry about a wren, termed the king, inclosed in a box with glass windows, surmounted by a wheel, from which are appended various coloured ribands. It is attended by men and boys, who visit the farm-houses, and sing a song, the following fragments of which are all that have come under my observation:

For we are come here To taste your good cheer, And the king is well dressed In silks of the best.

He is from a cottager’s stall, To a fine gilded hall.

The poor bird often dies under the ceremony, which tradition connects with the death of an ancient British king at the time of the Saxon invasion. The rhyme used in Ireland runs thus:

The wren, the wren, the king of all birds, Was caught St. Stephen’s day in the furze; Although he’s little his family’s great, Then pray, gentlefolks, give him a treat.

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The Young Sentinel

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