Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Christopher and Robin

"Berry Beak" courtesy of Leslie F. Miller

Today is my birthday. I am fifty nine years young, born at Oxford Street Maternity Hospital, Liverpool, on January 10, 1948. This is the same hospital where John Lennon was born eight years earlier, and there is a plaque on the building now which I believe now serves as student housing for the University of Liverpool.

Why the robin at the head of this post? "You might well arsk," as John would have said. Well, it so happens that the same day that I was born, my cousin was born to Jack and Audrey Underwood in the same maternity hospital where my Mum had moi. So they called him. . . ah, yes, you guessed it, after the character in the A. A. Milne stories, oh, Pooh! Happy Birthday, Robin, old chap!

The English robin is quite different to the American robin shown in the above fine photograph by my fellow Baltimorean, Leslie F. Miller. While the Yankee robin, Turdus migratorius (what a name!!!!), is a bigger chappie, a member of the thrush family, the English or, more correctly, the European robin, Latin name Erithacus rubecula, is more sparrow size, and is traditionally associated with Christmas and winter in general.

Homesick English colonists gave the American bird the name "robin" because it reminded them of the robin redbreast they remembered from back home. This from Ernest Thompson Seton, "On the Popular Names of Birds" (1919):

The scientists scolded the colonists fiercely for calling it a "Robin." It was not a "Robin," they maintained, it was a Thrush of the Merula section of the family; and they refused to use, print or sanction any English name for the bird except "Migratory Thrush." After a century of irascible attack, which was received in silent, ponderous apathy, the scientists were beaten. The cause of English triumphed and today actually even the scientific lists give the bird as the "American Robin," by which name it is known to every child in America, and loved because it is known.

My co-editor at Loch Raven Review, Jim Doss, chose a fine photo of the English robin to run on the cover of our Winter issue just out. To read the issue and see the pic, follow the link through the title above to see that rambunctious little songster, Erithacus rubecula, so redolent of Christmas cheer and cold English gardens!

Here is an excerpt from the story My Robin by FRANCES HODGSON BURNETT, author of The Secret Garden. It was published in 1912 and serves as a kind of follow-up to the writer's better known story, written in response to a reader who asked, "Did you own the original of the robin? He could not have been a mere creature of fantasy. I feel sure you owned him."

I was thrilled to the centre of my being. Here was some one who plainly had been intimate with robins–-English robins. I wrote and explained as far as one could in a letter what I am now going to relate in detail.

I did not own the robin–-he owned me–-or perhaps we owned each other.

He was an English robin and he was a person--not a mere bird. An English robin differs greatly from the American one. He is much smaller and quite differently shaped. His body is daintily round and plump, his legs are delicately slender. He is a graceful little patrician with an astonishing allurement of bearing. His eye is large and dark and dewy; he wears a tight little red satin waistcoat on his full round breast and every tilt of his head, every flirt of his wing is instinct with dramatic significance. He is fascinatingly conceited–he burns with curiosity--he is determined to engage in social relations at almost any cost and his raging jealousy of attention paid to less worthy objects than himself drives him at times to efforts to charm and distract which are irresistible. An intimacy with a robin--an English robin--is a liberal education.

This particular one I knew in my rose-garden in Kent. I feel sure he was born there and for a summer at least believed it to be the world. It was a lovesome, mystic place, shut in partly by old red brick walls against which fruit trees were trained and partly by a laurel hedge with a wood behind it. It was my habit to sit and write there under an aged writhen tree, gray with lichen and festooned with roses. The soft silence of it–-the remote aloofness–-were the most perfect ever dreamed of. But let me not be led astray by the garden. . . .

When I returned from the world of winter sports, of mountain snows, of tobogganing and skis I felt as if I had been absent a long time. There had been snow even in Kent and the park and gardens were white. I arrived in the evening. The next morning I threw on my red frieze garden cloak and went down the flagged terrace and the Long Walk through the walled gardens to the beloved place where the rose bushes stood dark and slender and leafless among the whiteness. I went to my own tree and stood under it and called.

"Are you gone," I said in my heart; "are you gone, little Soul? Shall I never see you again?"

After the call I waited–and I had never waited before. The roses were gone and he was not in the rose-world. I called again. The call was sometimes a soft whistle as near a robin sound as I could make it–-sometimes it was a chirp–sometimes it was a quick clear repetition of "Sweet! Sweet! Sweetie"–-which I fancied he liked best. I made one after the other–and then–something scarlet flashed across the lawn, across the rose-walk–over the wall and he was there. He had not forgotten, it had not been too long, he alighted on the snowy brown grass at my feet.

Then I knew he was a little Soul and not only a bird and the real parting which must come in a few weeks' time loomed up before me a strange tragic thing.

. . . . . . .

I do not often allow myself to think of it. It was too final. And there was nothing to be done. I was going thousands of miles across the sea. A little warm thing of scarlet and brown feathers and pulsating trilling throat lives such a brief life. The little soul in its black dew-drop eye–-one knows nothing about it. For myself I sometimes believe strange things. We two were something weirdly near to each other.

At the end I went down to the bare world of roses one soft damp day and stood under the tree and called him for the last time. He did not keep me waiting and he flew to a twig very near my face. I could not write all I said to him. I tried with all my heart to explain and he answered me–-between his listenings–-with the "far away" love note. I talked to him as if he knew all I knew. He put his head on one side and listened so intently that I felt that he understood. I told him that I must go away and that we should not see each other again and I told him why.

"But you must not think when I do not come back it is because I have fogotten you," I said. "Never since I was born have I loved anything as I have loved you–-except my two babies. Never shall I love anything so much again so long as I am in the world. You are a little Soul and I am a little Soul and we shall love each other forever and ever. We won't say Goodbye. We have been too near to each other–-nearer than human beings are. I love you and love you and love you–little Soul."

Then I went out of the rose-garden. I shall never go into it again.

Copyright, 1912.
All rights reserved