The Robin And The Wren

: Popular Rhymes And Nursery Tales

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


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


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


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.