Wednesday, December 16, 2015


As a child growing up in this country, one of the first birds that one is likely to encounter is the robin.  Perhaps this is why I retain a particular fondness for them.  Call me sentimental, but I think of the successive generations of robins I have shared the World with as lifelong companions:  wordless, but not unspoken.

As we enter another winter together, I worry about them.  How will they fare in the cold and the wind and the gloom?  But there they are in the garden, flitting about in the trees and bushes, hopping along the paths, going about the business of being robins.

                 A Robin

Ghost-grey the fall of night,
        Ice-bound the lane,
Lone in the dying light
        Flits he again;
Lurking where shadows steal,
Perched in his coat of blood,
Man's homestead at his heel,
        Death-still the wood.

Odd restless child; it's dark;
        All wings are flown
But this one wizard's -- hark!
        Stone clapped on stone!
Changeling and solitary,
Secret and sharp and small,
Flits he from tree to tree,
        Calling on all.

Walter de la Mare, The Fleeting and Other Poems (1933).

Dudley Holland, "Winter Morning" (1945)

De la Mare was writing in England, so his robin is a European robin, not an American robin -- a flycatcher, not a thrush.  But I like to think that the two share certain affinities:  a charming stolidity, staying power, and a cheerful stoicism.

And they both have their songs and notes.  Different songs and notes, of course, but perhaps the underlying message is the same.  "Synonyms for joy."

                 The Robin

Poor bird!  I do not envy thee;
Pleas'd in the gentle melody
     Of thy own song.
Let crabbed winter silence all
The winged choir; he never shall
     Chain up thy tongue:
          Poor innocent!
When I would please my self, I look on thee;
And guess some sparks of that felicity,
          That self-content.

When the bleak face of winter spreads
The earth, and violates the meads
     Of all their pride;
When sapless trees and flowers are fled,
Back to their causes, and lie dead
     To all beside:
          I see thee set,
Bidding defiance to the bitter air,
Upon a wither'd spray; by cold made bare,
          And drooping yet.

There, full in notes, to ravish all
My earth, I wonder what to call
     My dullness; when
I hear thee, pretty creature, bring
Thy better odes of praise, and sing,
     To puzzle men:
          Poor pious elf!
I am instructed by thy harmony,
To sing the time's uncertainty,
          Safe in my self.

Poor Redbreast, carol out thy lay,
And teach us mortals what to say.
     Here cease the choir
Of ayerie choristers; no more
Mingle your notes; but catch a store
     From her sweet lyre;
          You are but weak,
Mere summer chanters; you have neither wing
Nor voice, in winter.  Pretty Redbreast, sing,
          What I would speak.

George Daniel (1616-1657), "Ode XXIII," in Alexander Grosart (editor), The Poems of George Daniel, Volume II (1878) (spelling modernized).

"That self-content."  Call me an anthropomorphizer, a practitioner of the Pathetic Fallacy, but "self-content" is one of the traits that I admire in the robin.  "A robin with no Christian name ran through/The Robin-Anthem which was all it knew."  "All it knew"?  Yes, perhaps.  But:  "I am instructed by thy harmony . . . teach us mortals what to say."

Beryl Sinclair, "Winter, Regent's Park" (1941)

When I was young, we were taught to look for "the first robin of spring." But it has always seemed to me that quite a few of them stick around through the winter.  Their red-orange breasts are a welcome sight amidst the dark days, and add to the gaiety should snow arrive.  (Although I suppose that a snowfall is not necessarily a cause for celebration in the Robin-World!)  Thus, I think of robins not just as harbingers of spring, but as year-long reminders of the constancy and continuity of the World that surrounds us, a World that calls for our attention in even its humblest manifestations.


Clouded with snow
     The bleak winds blow,
And shrill on leafless bough
The robin with its burning breast
     Alone sings now.

     The rayless sun,
     Day's journey done,
Sheds its last ebbing light
On fields in leagues of beauty spread
     Unearthly white.

     Thick draws the dark,
     And spark by spark,
The frost-fires kindle, and soon
Over that sea of frozen foam
     Floats the white moon.

Walter de la Mare, The Listeners and Other Poems (1912).

Frederick Mitchell, "Greig Close in Winter" (1955)

Poets rhapsodize about nightingales and skylarks.  There are those among us who search the woods for cardinals, orioles, bluebirds, and others of bright plumage.  But the commonplace, quotidian robin deserves its own paean.  Please note that I do not use "commonplace" or "quotidian" in a pejorative sense.  After all, both words apply to each and every one of us, although we may like to believe otherwise.

We need to often remind ourselves of this:


To believe you are magnificent.  And gradually to discover that you are not magnificent.  Enough labor for one human life.

Czeslaw Milosz, Road-side Dog (translated by Czeslaw Milosz and Robert Hass) (Farrar, Straus and Giroux 1998).

As I have noted here on more than one occasion, we are all in this together. We each have our offices to perform.  Who among us is the humblest?  Who among us is of importance?  Who knows?  None of us is in a position to render judgment.

                    To Robin Redbreast

Laid out for dead, let thy last kindness be
With leaves and moss-work for to cover me:
And while the wood-nymphs my cold corpse inter,
Sing thou my dirge, sweet-warbling chorister!
For epitaph, in foliage, next write this:
Here, here the tomb of Robin Herrick is.

Robert Herrick, Hesperides (1648).

"Where, when he dies, his tomb may be a bush,/Where harmless robin dwells with gentle thrush."  Not a bad way to spend eternity, communing with robins and thrushes.

John Aldridge, "Winter" (1947)


John Medlin said...

I must say, George Daniel's poem 'The Robin' is a real find. The observations were accurate, the sentiments truthful and the handling of form impressive. Embarrassingly, I do not think I had heard of George Daniel before, and I thought I knew my poetry. I looked him up in the UK's 'Dictionary of National Biography' (a treasure trove) and it blew rather hot and cold about his poetic abilities. It is interesting to note that he lived the classic life of a rural country gentleman of the 17th century - retired, studious, perhaps not so efficient in the management of his estate, but with the benefit of a classical education and so able to turn out a set of verses which would shame the fumblings of so many our lauded contemporary 'poets'. But I must not be pejorative.
I also enjoyed the ever-reliable Walter de la Mare's 'A Robin'. His image for the typical clattering rattle the UK robin makes as a warning, "Stone clapped on stone," was spot-on.
Coincidentally, I have studied the robins in the gardens and woods around my house over the past few years and all the poems you have quoted in this post capture their mannerisms and essence (in so far as we can know the essence of a wild creature) convincingly. Many thanks for this post!

Sam Vega said...

Many thanks for these. The first de la Mare poem in particular - it is quite superb.

I had to look up the American robin. As you say, it is quite a different bird from the "originals" we have here. I have also heard that British robins have a slightly different character from the mainland European ones of the same species. Here, they are almost fearless, and love to approach people digging in gardens and allotments. Often, I have been digging and a robin has taken a worm literally from between the tines of the fork. They also seem to take pleasure from just sitting near to people and having human company in the dark winter afternoons - but I suppose this is to anthropomorphise them a bit too much. Apparently, this characteristic of British robins is due to us being a nation of gardeners, and the birds have been lured in close to food sources. I don't know if there is any truth in this at all, but they are certainly lovable for it.

I hope your winter is providing a suitable setting for your robins. Here (I have recently moved to Cambridge, UK) it is extremely mild and we have yet to have a serious frost. Spring flowers are already appearing.

mary f.ahearn said...

I enjoyed this so - thank you! Just the other day a lady robin or perhaps a juvenile enjoyed a bath in our back yard birdbath. Robins seem to be one of the most enthusiastic of bathers!
From William Blake -

A Robin Redbreast in a Cage
Puts all Heaven in a Rage


RT said...

Yes, Stephen, I also recall the robin as a central symbol of my youth in the northeast. Spring and robins were synonyms. Thanks for the posting, the poems, and the catalyst for memories of times that were (at least in recollections) better and happier.

Bovey Belle said...

The Robin by Thomas Hardy

When up aloft
I fly and fly,
I see in pools
The shining sky,
And a happy bird
Am I, am I!

When I descend
Toward the brink
I stand and look
And stop and drink
And bathe my wings,
And chink, and prink.

When winter frost
Makes earth as steel,
I search and search
But find no meal,
And most unhappy
Then I feel.

But when it lasts,
And snows still fall,
I get to feel
No grief at all
For I turn to a cold, stiff
Feathery ball!

Hardy, ahem, perhaps NOT at his best here, especially as he seems to have amalgamated the soaring flight of a Swallow, with sound of the the Chaffinch's prink, prink (or the Blackbird's, come to that, and I've never seen a Robin drinking . . .), and then kills the poor Robin off completely! A bit tongue in cheek here, Mr Hardy.

I far prefer Walter de la Mare's poems, as Robins are wont to flit from bush to bush (rather than soaring and looking at PONDS!) and I have to say the nosy-parker Robin is always first up (and demanding breakfast with his call) and last to bed, lest he miss anything. My garden ones here were still trilling at dawn and dusk until late November.

I hope Robert Herrick was granted his wish . . .

Thank you for the useful links, as ever. My brain is ticking over nicely again.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr Medlin: Thank you very much for visiting again, and for your kind words about the post. Yes, Daniel's poem is wonderful, isn't it? As you say, it is fine both overall, and in its particulars. I was delighted when I came across it in Geoffrey Grigson's anthology The Faber Book of Reflective Verse. It also appears in Grierson's 1934 Oxford Book of Seventeenth Century Verse. I particularly like: "I am instructed by thy harmony,/To sing the time's uncertainty,/Safe in my self." Also: "Poor pious elf." I was unfamiliar with George Daniel as well. If you are interested in looking into his poetry further, Grosart's edition (cited in the post) may be found in the Internet Archive.

Thank you for the comment on de la Mare's line "Stone clapped on stone." I wondered about that, and I presumed that it had something to do with the robin's vocalizations. Hence, I did an Internet search for recordings of English robins, but I was not able to find the sound. Your comment clarifies that I was headed in the right direction. I'll search further. As you know, de la Mare is always marvelous at catching the details of the natural world perfectly, and transforming them imaginatively.

Thank you again. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

Stephen Pentz said...

Sam Vega: Thank you very much for the information on the distinctive character of the English robin. They sound charming! I particularly like the association they have with the English love of gardening. Your anecdote about one taking a worm from between the tines is wonderful. I do like the idea of them wanting human company on "dark winter afternoons." As you say, they do sound "lovable."

Yes, the de la Mare poem is lovely, isn't it? As I mentioned in my response to Mr Medlin's comment, de la Mare's poems on the natural world are excellent. As I'm sure you recall, in a memorial poem to his friend Edward Thomas ("Sotto Voce"), he adversely compares his knowledge of bird calls ("my ignorant wonderment") to Thomas's. But I think that his knowledge of the natural world was vast. He is particularly good on birds of all sorts, I think.

We have not yet had any snow scenery as a backdrop for the robins -- just nearly constant wind and rain for the past three weeks, which I'm sure they are not happy about.

As always, thank you very much for visiting, and for your thoughts. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

Stephen Pentz said...

Mary: A chilly time of the year for a robin to take a bath, particularly in your part of the country! That shows how hardy they are. Thank you for the lines from Blake, which fit perfectly here.

Thank you very much for your visits and comments throughout the year. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

Stephen Pentz said...

R. T.: Yes, robins were an important part of childhood for many of us, weren't they? Along with, for me at least, sparrows and blue jays. All of them "commonplace" (in a sense), but all of them, as you suggest, very evocative, and sticking with us through our lives.

Thank you very much for stopping by again, and for sharing your thoughts. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

RT said...

Merry Christmas, Stephen. Remember that the welcome mat is out and the door is always open at Beyond Eastrod.

Stephen Pentz said...

Bovey Belle: Thank you for Hardy's poem. I agree with your comments on it. Coincidentally, I had thought about using it in the post, but I have always found it too sad. And, as you say, it is not one of his best. Nevertheless, I am happy that you shared it, since it will now appear here in any event.

I appreciate your observations on robins -- your point about them being flitters rather than fliers is an excellent one. As to their early morning habits, I've always presumed that the proverbial saying "The early bird gets the worm" was based upon the behavior of robins, but I don't know that for a fact.

As for Herrick's resting place: he lies in the churchyard of St George the Martyr in Dean Prior, Devon. (He served as vicar in Dean Prior for many years.) You can find an image of his grave on the Internet on the "Find a Grave" site. A simple dark stone, laid on the ground, set in a green lawn. I imagine that the robins visit often. Lovely.

As ever, I greatly appreciate hearing from you. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

bruce floyd said...

Emily Dickinson knew her birds, and her flowers. One of her favorite birds, as it is with most of us graced by their presence, is the robin. Dickinson had a genius for concluding her poems. This poem reflects this gift. I don't know how exactly the first two stanzas lead to the remarkable third, but they do, without my quibbling. (Keats's "negative capability"?) How Dickinsonian to say that the robin says most when it is silent.

The Robin is the One
That interrupt the Morn
With hurried—few—express Reports
When March is scarcely on—

The Robin is the One
That overflow the Noon
With her cherubic quantity—
An April but begun—

The Robin is the One
That speechless from her Nest
Submit that Home—and Certainty
And Sanctity, are best

Emily Dickinson

Stephen Pentz said...

R. T.: Thank you for the follow-up thoughts. And thank you for your continuing presence here. I wish you the best in the coming New Year.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr. Floyd: Thank you very much for Dickinson's poem, which is a perfect complement to the other poems. I completely agree with you that the third stanza is "remarkable." "Home -- and Certainty/And Sanctity, are best" is wonderful!

Thank you for all of the poems and thoughts that you have shared throughout the past year, which I greatly appreciate. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!