European robin

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The redbreast oft, at evening hours,
Shall kindly lend his little aid,
With hoary moss, and gathered flowers,
To deck the ground where thou art laid.
—William Collins
The sober brownness of thy breast!
—Delle W. Norton
Art thou the bird whom Man loves best,
The pious bird with the scarlet breast,
Our little English Robin;
The bird that comes about our doors
When autumn winds are sobbing?
William Wordsworth

The European robin (Erithacus rubecula), known simply as the robin or robin redbreast in Great Britain and Ireland, is a small insectivorous passerine bird that belongs to the chat subfamily of the Old World flycatcher family. It is found across Europe, east to Western Siberia and south to North Africa; it is sedentary in most of its range except the far north.

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  • “Ah, wretched me!” he loudly cried,
      “What is it I have done?
    O, would to the Powers above I’d dyed
      When thus I left her alone:
    Come, come, you gentle redbreast now,
      And prepare for us a tomb,
      Whilst unto cruel death I bow,
      And sing like a swan my doom.”
    • The West Country Damosel’s Complaint (1680)
    • The lover who has deserted the damsel in question, and caused her death thereby, weeps over her dead body and resolves to die with her.
  • Come, gentle death, and end my grief;
    Ye pretty birds ring forth my knell;
    Let robin redbreast be the chief
    To bury me, and so farewell.
  • No burial this pretty pair
    From any man receives,
    Till robin redbreast, piously,
    Did cover them with leaves.
  • The robin and the wren
    Are God’s cock and hen;
    The martin and the swallow
    Are God’s mate and marrow.
    • Anonymous, from a Cheshire Glossary, quoted in Robert Fletcher, "Myths of the Robin Redbreast in Early English Poetry", The American Anthropologist, vol. 2, no. 2 (April 1889), p. 100, Another form is:
      The robin and the wren
      Are God Almighty’s cock and hen:
      Him that harries their nest
      Never shall his soul have rest.
  • The tune is solemn, as if set
      To fit some doleful ditty;
    In lamentation for the Queen
      To move all hearts to pity.
    * * *
    I call it he, not she, because
      It sings and cocks its tail;
    Which that no female robin doth,
      I'll hold a pot of ale.
    * * *
    Some say this bird an angel is;
      If so, we hope ’tis good.
    But why an angel? Why, forsooth
      They say he takes no food.
    But that the robin lives by meat
      Is true without dispute;
    For tho’ none ever saw him eat,
      Enough have seen him mute.
    And that sometimes undecently,
      Upon the statue-royal,
    Which made some call him Jacobite,
      Or otherwise illoyal.
    * * *
    The robin may have lost his mate,
      So hath King William his;
    And that he well may match again
      Our hearty prayer is.
    • Anonymous, "A New Song, upon the Robin-red-breast's attending Queen Mary's Hearse in Westminster Abby", in Pills to Purge Melancholy, vol. 1 (3rd ed., 1707), p. 94
    • After the death of Queen Mary, the wife of William of Orange, then William III of England, in 1694, a robin took up his abode upon the "hearse", or monument, of the Queen in Westminster Abbey.
  • It was on the day when Lord Jesus felt his pain upon the bitter cross of wood that a small and tender bird, which had hovered awhile around, drew nigh, about the seventh hour, and nestled upon the wreath of Syrian thorns. And when the gentle creature of the air beheld those cruel spikes, the thirty and three, which pierced that bleeding brow, she was moved with compassion and the piety of birds; and she sought to turn aside, if but one of those thorns, with her fluttering wings and her lifted feet! It was in vain! She did but rend her own soft breast, until blood flowed over her feathers from the wound! Then said a voice from among the angels: ‘Thou hast done well, sweet daughter of the boughs! Yea, and I bring thee tidings of reward: Henceforth, from this very hour, and because of this deed of thine, it shall be that, in many a land, thy race and kind shall bear upon their bosoms the hue and banner of thy faithful blood; and the children of every house shall yearn with a natural love towards the birds of the ruddy breast, and shall greet their presence, in its season, with a voice of thanksgiving!’
    • Anonymous, in Notes and Queries, vol. 6, no. 154 (9 October 1852), p. 344
    • A superstition current in Brittany is that as Christ was on his way to Calvary, bending under the weight of his cross, a robin plucked out a thorn from the crown which pressed upon the patient sufferer’s brow, and the blood, which spurted out, dyed the breast of the bird a scarlet hue, and ever since that time the robins have had red breasts, and have been the friends of man. The same story is met with in Wales. This is the version of the legend as given by a Welsh clergyman.


  • Said the Prior: 'God will help us
      In this hour of bitter loss.'
    Then, one spied a Robin Redbreast
      Sitting on a wayside cross.
    Doubtless came the bird in answer
      To the words the Prior did speak,
    For a heavy wheat-ear dangled
      From the Robin's polished beak.
    Then the brothers, as he dropped it,
      Picked it up and careful sowed,
    And abundantly in autumn
      Reaped the harvest where they strewed.
    * * * * *
    Therefore, Christian, small beginnings
      Pass not by with lip of scorn;
    God may prosper them, as prospered
      Robin Redbreast's ear of corn.
  • A little robin sitting on a tree
    In doleful notes bewailed her tragedy.


  • The woodman’s robin startles coy,
      Nor longer to his elbow comes,
    To peck, with hunger’s eager joy,
      ’Mong mossy stulps the littered crumbs.
    * * *
    And oft Dame stops her buzzing wheel
      To hear the robin’s note once more,
    Who tootles while he pecks his meal
      From sweetbrier hips beside the door.
    • John Clare, "February" (wr. c. 1835), in Poems, Chiefly from Manuscript (1920)
  • The redbreast oft, at evening hours,
      Shall kindly lend his little aid,
    With hoary moss, and gathered flowers,
      To deck the ground where thou art laid.
    • William Collins, "Dirge in Cymbeline", An Epistle Addrest to Sir Thomas Hanmer, 2nd ed. (1744)
  • Thus I would waste, thus end my careless days,
    And robin redbreasts, whom men praise
    For pious birds, should, when I die,
    Make both my monument and elegy.


  • They that cheer up a prisoner but with their sight are robin redbreasts that bring straws in their bills to cover a dead man in extremity!
    • Thomas Dekker, Villanies discovered by lanthorn and candlelight (1616)
  • Hail, Bishop Valentine! whose day this is;
    All the air is thy diocese,
    And all the chirping choristers
    And other birds are thy parishioners;
    Thou marriest every year
    The lyric lark, and the grave, whispering dove;
    The sparrow that neglects his life for love,
    The household bird with [the] red stomacher.
    • John Donne, "Epithalamion on the Lady Elizabeth and Count Palatine Being Married on St. Valentine's Day", ll. 1–8
  • Covering with moss the dead’s unclosed eye,
    The little redbreast teacheth charitie.


  • Did you ever see two such little robin ruddocks
    Laden with breeches?
    • Richard Edwardes, Damon and Pythias (1562), in Old Plays, I (1830), p. 219
    • Ruddock is a dialectal name for the redbreast. It is derived from the Anglo-Saxon rud, or red, from which we get ruddy and similar derivatives.




  • Or as the red breast byrds,
      Whome prettie merlynes hold,
    Ful fast in foote, by winter’s night
      To fende themselves from colde.
    Though afterwards the hauke
      For pitie let them scape,
    Yet al that day they fede in feare,
      And doubt a second rape.
    And in the nexter night,
      Ful many times do crie,
    Remembering yet the ruthful plight
    Wherein they late did lye.
  • There scattered oft, the earliest of the year,
    By hands unseen, are showers of violets found;
    The redbreast loves to build and warble there,
    And little footsteps lightly print the ground.
    • Thomas Gray, Elegy in a Country Churchyard
    • Gray omitted this beautiful verse from the first edition of his famous elegy, and it was restored by a later editor of his works. The original of the last two lines is to be found in the Greek Anthology, and the translation of it by Wakefield is suggestive:
      Nor print the feathered warbler in the Spring
      His little footsteps lightly on my grave.


  • Laid out for dead, let thy last kindnesse be
    With leaves and moss-worke for to cover me;
    And while the wood-nimphs my cold corse inter,
    Sing thou my dirge, sweet-warbling chorister!
    For epitaph, in foliage, next write this
    Here, here, the tomb of Robin Herrick is.
  • When I departed am, ring thou my knell,
    Thou pittifull and pretty Philomel;
    And when I’m laid out for a corse, then be
    Thou sexton, redbreast, for to cover me.
  • Sweet Amarillis, by a spring’s
    Soft and soule-melting murmurings
    Slept; and thus sleeping, thither flew
    A robin redbreast, who at view,
    Not seeing her at all to stir,
    Brought leaves and mosse to cover her;
    But while he, perking, there did prie
    About the arch of either eye,
    The lid began to let out day,
    At which poore robin flew away;
    And seeing her not dead, but all disleaved,
    He chirpt for joy to see himself deceived.
    • Robert Herrick, "Upon Mrs. Elizabeth Wheeler, under the name of Amaryllis"
  •     Oh, remember this,
    He that does good deeds here waits at a table
    Where angels are his fellow-servitors.
    I am no robin redbreast to bring straws
    To cover such a corse.
    • Thomas Heywood, The Wonder of a Kingdom (1636), iii, 1
    • A man returns to his native place half naked and in dire distress and poverty. He asks aid of his wealthy but unfeeling brother, Torenti.
  •     Now Cador’s corse he viewed,
    With hoary moss and faded leaves bestrewed;
    In days of old not yet did we invade
    The harmless tenants of the woodland shade.
    The crimson-breasted warbler o’er the slain,
    While frequent rose his melancholy strain,
    With pious care, ’twas all he could, supplied
    The funeral rites by ruthless man denied.
    • Richard Hole, Arthur; or, the Northern Enchantment (1789), VII
    • The discovery in the woods of the dead body of Cador.
  • Bearing His cross, while Christ passed forth forlorn,
    His God-like forehead by the mock crown torn,
    A little bird took from that crown one thorn.
    To soothe the dear Redeemer's throbbing head,
    That bird did what she could; His blood, 'tis said,
    Down dropping, dyed her tender bosom red.
    Since then no wanton boy disturbs her nest;
    Weasel nor wild cat will her young molest;
    All sacred deem the bird of ruddy breast.
    • "The Redbreast: A Bréton Legend", quoted, but author unknown, in Notes and Queries, 4th series, iv (6 November 1869), p. 390, claimed by John Hoskyns-Abrahall, at p. 507












  • On fair Britannia's isle, bright bird,
    A legend strange is told of thee.—
    'Tis said thy blithesome song was hushed
    While Christ toiled up Mount Calvary,
    Bowed 'neath the sins of all mankind;
    And humbled to the very dust
    By the vile cross, while viler men
    Mocked with a crown of thorns the Just.
    Pierced by our sorrows, and weighed down
    By our transgressions,—faint and weak,
    Crushed by an angry Judge's frown,
    And agonies no word can speak,—
    'Twas then, dear bird, the legend says
    That thou, from out His crown, didst tear
    The thorns, to lighten the distress,
    And ease the pain that he must bear,
    While pendant from thy tiny beak
    The gory points thy bosom pressed,
    And crimsoned with thy Saviour's blood
    The sober brownness of thy breast!
    Since which proud hour for thee and thine.
    As an especial sign of grace
    God pours like sacramental wine
    Red signs of favor o'er thy race!




  • The robin redbreast till of late had rest,
    And children sacred held a martin’s nest.
  • For ever from his threshold fly,
    Who, void of honour, once shall try,
    With base inhospitable breast,
    To bar the freedom of his guest.
    O, rather seek the peasant’s shed,
    For he will give thee wasted bread,
    And fear some new calamity
    Should any there spread snares for thee.
    • J. H. Pott, "To the Robin", st. 3, in Poems (1779), p. 26






  •         With fairest flowers
    Whilst summer lasts and I live here, Fidele,
    I'll sweeten thy sad grave: thou shalt not lack
    The flower that's like thy face, pale primrose, nor
    The azured harebell, like thy veins, no, nor
    The leaf of eglantine, whom not to slander,
    Out-sweeten'd not thy breath: 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.
    • William Shakespeare, Cymbeline, Act IV, scene 2
    • Arviragus weeping over the supposed dead body of Fidele, the disguised Imogen.
  •   Then the Redbreast
      His tunes redrest
    And sayde now wyll I holde
      With the churche, for there
      Out of the ayre
    I kepe me from the colde.
    Te per orbem terrarum
      In usum Sarum;
    He sange cum gloria,
      Sancta was nexte;
    And then the holye text
      Confitebur ecclesia.
    • John Skelton, A proper new boke of the Armoury of Birds (c. 1556)
    • Skelton represents a robin as performing a part of the mass.
  • The flecked pie to chatter
    Of this dolorous matter.
    And robyn redbreast
    He shall be the preest,
    The requiem masse to synge,
    Softly warbelynge,
    With helpe of the red sparrow
    And the chattrynge swallow
    This herse for to halow.
    • John Skelton, Phillip Sparrow (c. 1545)
    • The function of the priest is assigned to the redbreast, that of gossip, or reporter, to the magpie—the flecked or spotted pie.
  • I found a robin’s nest within our shed,
    And in the barn a wren has young ones bred.
    • George Smith, Six Pastorals (London, 1770)
  • On her (the nightingale) waites Robin in his redde livorie, who sits as a crowner on the murthred man; and seeing his body naked plays the sorrie tailour to make him a mossy rayment.


  • The Redbreast, sacred to the household gods,
    Wisely regardful of the embroiling sky,
    In joyless fields and thorny thickets leaves
    His shivering mates, and pays to trusted Man
    His annual visit. Half afraid, he first
    Against the window beats; then, brisk, alights
    On the warm hearth; then hopping o’er the floor,
    Eyes all the smiling family askance,
    And pecks, and starts, and wonders where he is—
    Till, more familiar grown, the table-crumbs
    Attract his slender feet.






  • Robin Redbreast with his notes
    Singing aloft in the quire,
    Warneth to get you frieze coats,
    For winter then draweth near.
    • William Wager, The longer thou livest the more fool thou art (c. 1500)
    • A traditional habit of the robin, which doubtless has added to the sacredness of character attributed to him, is that of selecting a church for his winter home, making the organ or quire his abiding place.
  • 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.
    Call unto his funeral dole
    The ant, the field-mouse, and the mole,
    To rear him hillocks that shall keep him warm
    And (when gay tombs are robbed) sustain no harm;
    But keep the wolf far thence, that’s foe to men,
    For with his nails he’ll dig them up again.
    • John Webster, The White Devil (1612), Act V, scene 4, Cornelia’s Dirge
    • Cornelia, who has gone distracted over the murder of her son, tells her attendants that her grandmother, when she heard the bell toll, was wont to sing this dirge to her lute.
  • "Nay!" said the grandmother; "have you not heard,
      My poor, bad boy! of the fiery pit,
    And how, drop by drop, this merciful bird
      Carries the water that quenches it?
    "He brings cool dew in his little bill,
      And lets it fall on the souls of sin
    You can see the mark on his red breast still
      Of fires that scorch as he drops it in.
    "My poor Bron rhuddyn! my breast-burned bird,
      Singing so sweetly from limb to limb,
    Very dear to the heart of Our Lord
      Is he who pities the lost like Him!"
    "Amen!" I said to the beautiful myth;
      "Sing, bird of God, in my heart as well:
    Each good thought is a drop wherewith
      To cool and lessen the fires of hell.
    • John Greenleaf Whittier, "The Robin", sts. 2–5, in The Atlantic (June 1871)
    • Among the many legends relating to the robin there are some which account for the distinctive orange color of his breast. William H. Lecky, in his History of European Morals, quotes this one: "The redbreast, according to one popular legend, was commissioned by the Deity to carry a drop of water to the souls of unbaptized infants in hell, and its breast was singed in piercing the flames." Another legend represents him as carrying dew in his beak to the lost souls in hell, and burning his breast in this pious work; and still another describes him as engaged in quenching the fires of the burning pit by the same process and with the same result. Whittier has embodied these latter myths in his poem, The Robin. The old Welshwoman reproves her grandson for throwing stones at the robin.
  • Art thou the bird whom Man loves best,
    The pious bird with the scarlet breast,
      Our little English Robin;
    The bird that comes about our doors
    When autumn winds are sobbing?
    Art thou the Peter of Norway boors?
      Their Thomas in Finland,
      And Russia far inland?
    The bird, whom by some name or other
    All men who know thee call their brother?
    • William Wordsworth, "The Redbreast Chasing the Butterfly" (1802)
    • The poet Wordsworth, a close observer of nature, has many allusions to the robin.
  • Stay, little cheerful Robin! stay,
    And at my casement sing,
      Though it should prove a farewell lay
      And this our parting spring.
    * * * * *
    Then, little Bird, this boon confer,
      Come, and my requiem sing,
    Nor fail to be the harbinger
      Of everlasting spring.

Nursery rhymes

Iona and Peter Opie, The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes (1973) [1951], p. 129
  • Who killed Cock Robin?
    I, said the Sparrow,
    with my bow and arrow,
    I killed Cock Robin.
  • Cock Robin got up early
      At the break of day,
    And went to Jenny's window
      To sing a roundelay.
    He sang Cock Robin's love
      To little Jenny Wren,
    And when he got unto the end
      Then he began again.
    • Anonymous, "Cock Robin's marriage to Jenny Wren" (1806)

See also

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