Tuesday 11 December 2018

Fearless robin a caring bird of courage

Blake: A robin redbreast in a cage/Puts all heaven in a rage
Blake: A robin redbreast in a cage/Puts all heaven in a rage

Joe Kennedy

A robin I feel I know well looked my way when I walked out the front door into the sharp winter sunshine.

Its presence was unexpected as its territory encompasses most of an old garden, partially wild, at the rear of the house. The occasional blackbird, at berry-scoffing time, might bounce around the front where traffic swirls, or a grey squirrel (once) or pedestrian-defying magpies will optimistically search for food.

I turned to look at my robin. It faced me unflinchingly as if to check if I carried an implement to break the ground and turn up a worm. Of course I uttered a few words of greeting, as in past encounters. I have always felt some response might be possible. We are comfortable acquaintances.

"What are you doing out here?" I asked. It gave a quizzical look, I thought, then hopped away, securing extended territory by patrol.

Wrens, finches, blue tits and dunnocks keep the seed stations busily manned in the rear garden. The redbreast may be head honcho of an old bird table but I don't think it's interested in nyjer seed - absolute favourite of goldfinches.

The robin and the wren are "God Almighty's cock and hen". In The Happy Courtship, Merry Marriage and Pic Nic Dinner of Cock Robin and Jenny Wren (1806), Robin goes to Jenny's window at break of day to sing a roundelay promising her she "shall dine on cherry pie and drink nice currant wine". He will "dress her like a goldfinch", he says. When Jenny falls ill he arrives with "sops of wine" and she promises him: "You shall be mine." But when she recovers she tells poor Robin she loves him not!

He is furious. "Robin he got angry and hopped upon a twig/Saying out with you, fie upon you/Bold-faced jig."

There was time when small songbirds, linnets, finches -sparrows, even - were caged for man's amusement. Larger birds such as starlings and corvids were trained to mimic the human and animal sounds of rural kitchen life. Robins did not escape. This upset William Blake who saw the world in a grain of sand and heaven in a wild flower. He cried out for the tiny bird with the red splash on its breast: "A robin redbreast in a cage/Puts all heaven in a rage."

Robin appears to have been associated with finality since the bird's protective fluttering at Calvary when a splash of blood marked its distinction for evermore. The dramatist John Webster in The White Devil (1608) saw the "Redbreast and the wren/Since o'er shady groves they hover/ And with leaves and flowers they cover/The friendless bodies of unburied men." And Michael Drayton in The Owl (1604) wrote: "Covering with moss the dead's unclosed eye the little redbreast teacheth charity."

Perhaps the best known appearance of the bird is in the traditional English children's tale, Babes in the Wood, where the little boy and girl, left to die in the woods of Norfolk, are covered with leaves by robin redbreast. The 16th-century saga Who Killed Cock Robin? - with answers from fly, fish, owl, beetle, rook, lark etc - is reckoned to be a complex political commentary on the fall of Walpole's government.

My robin, like all his kin, will defend its territory to the end, a courageous little bird who, folklore has it, pulled thorns from Christ's brow and fearlessly protects its nest of eggs as blue as the heavens above.

Sunday Independent

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