The nursery rhyme about Cock Robin may have inaugurated the genre of true crime fiction for children. This little biblio-mystery, which was first run in 2017, shows why curators should always, but always, do their own independent research before and after purchase!.
Cock Robin, the tale of a murder without a motive is one of the most famous English nursery rhymes and its text has been a showcase for many gifted artists. Some very fine watercolors for the illustrations to a John Harris Cock Robin were up for grabs at the Sotheby’s New York December on-line auction of artwork for children’s books. Harris, the successor to the Newbery firm, was a pioneering picture book publisher and the Cock Robin in the celebrated Cabinet of Amusement and Instruction series of the 1820s, is one of the most famous. The drawings in the Sotheby’s sale were not for this edition, but even so I was concerned they would catch more eyes than mine. With a trove of nearly three hundred drawings for Harris children’s books in Cotsen, I was very keen to add them to the collection. Cotsen turned out to be the only bidder, so the six drawings are safe in Firestone, thanks to the generous support of the Friends of the Princeton University Library.
After unpacking them, I went to the vault to reconfirm the attribution and discovered instead that the drawings were “not as described,” which is code in the antiquarian book trade for “wrongly cataloged.” The drawings were too lovely to return (to the right is the one of the pipe-puffing owl tolling the bell), so the only alternative was to cross my fingers and go in search of the book they did illustrate. The mystery was unraveled quickly, thanks to three gems from the collection of Marjorie Moon, author of the Harris bibliography.
The drawings are for an 1808 Harris pamphlet that survives in just four copies: The Tragi-comic History of the Burial of Cock Robin; with the Lamentation of Jenny Wren; the Sparrow’s Apprehension; and the Cuckoo’s Punishment. The title page spread is on the right below and the drawing for the frontispiece on the left. Look closely and you’ll see that the engraver of the frontispiece edited out the blood pooling underneath the robin in the watercolor.
When I started matching up drawings with the passages they represent, it became clear that the Tragi-comic History was faithful in its fashion to both of the traditional nursery rhymes about the robin’s death and its marriage to the wren. Take a second look at the title page spread. The frontispiece depicts the grieving widow Jenny Wren, which is a departure from the death and burial of Cock Rbin where the wrens are the pall bearers and the dove chief mourner as the robin’s “love.” On the other hand, Jenny’s role in the Tragi-comic History is consistent with the title page declaration that the pamphlet is a sequel to the Harris’s 1806 gay two-part retelling of the rhyme about the union of the robin and wren, The Happy Courtship, Merry Marriage and Pic-nic Dinner of Cock Robin and Jenny Wren.
The Tragi-comic History departs from the prequel by the third stanza, when the birds “lug in” the sparrow to be punished for “his sin.” Notice how the owl secures the cord around the sparrow’s neck with a stout staff. (What bird has concealed itself in the hollow tree trunk to the right?) Stanza four reveals that the author of TheTragi-comic History conflated the traditional rhyme of Cock Robin’s death and burial with the Harris retelling of the marriage and, more importantly, devised a water-tight alibi for the sparrow’s crime that exonerates him of accidental manslaughter.
The sparrow pleads for mercy, saying he has been unable to eat since “shooting in defence / Of Jenny Wren, Bob’s wife, / He’d sav’d her innocence, / But robb’d his friend of life.” In order to understand exactly what happened, we have to backtrack to The Happy Courtship, Merry Marriage and Pic-nic Dinner. Here is Robin, sporting a very jaunty plumed hat, walking his blushing bride to church.
The happy couple exchange vows with Parson Rook presiding.
Friends of all species bring dainties to the feast and dog Tray’s offering is a bone with plenty of good meat for the picking.
The cuckoo, that “wicked elf,” disrupts the festivities by trying to tumble the bride.
Still inflamed by “her charms” in The Tragi-Comic History, the cuckoo had the audacity to visit Jenny in the nest and try to “seize a kiss” when he knew her husband was away. Seeing the wren in distress, the sparrow, “aimed at Wantonness,/ But hit Fidelity,” being a bad shot. Now that the birds know the whole story, “on the culprit they fell,/ With talons, wings, and beaks,/ and drubb’d him very well,/ With scratches, slaps, and pecks.” The climax of the poem (and prelude to the robin’s funeral) is the invention of The Tragi-comic History’s author.
A word about the artist is in order. The drawings are attributed to Irish-born Victorian painter William Mulready(1786-1863). In the nineteen teens, he was studying at the Royal Academy and partly support his young family of three children by designing illustrations for the children’s publishers Harris and William Godwin. The drawings for The Tragi-comic History are in the same style as Mulready’s better-known ones for another fanciful poem about partying animals, William Roscoe’s The Butterfly’s Ball and Grasshopper’s Feast (1806).
Back to our story… After the sparrow is pardoned, the swallow delivers to every bird an invitation to the “obsequies of their dear worthy friend.” Unfortunately, only one of the three illustrations for the burial are here: the one of the owl ringing the bell (shown above). The invitation scene and the one of the robin’s body being borne to the grave with the jay, magpie, dove, and pigeon flying over it with the pall are missing.
The grieving widow returns to her “uncheering home” only to find herself subject to the unwelcome attentions of yet another suitor, this time the “vain and smart” Goldfinch all in scarlet and gold (he had been attentive during the wedding). Jenny Wren being no Lydia Bennett, neither his bold uniform nor his “sweet love-tales…could not gain her heart.”