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Who Killed Cock Robin

An illustration from my Great Aunt's nursery rhyme book belonging to her son, Ainsley.

An illustration from my Great Aunt's nursery rhyme book belonging to her son, Ainsley.

Who Killed Cock Robin is a Much Loved Nursery Rhyme

As a child I used to visit my Great Aunt and Uncle and I loved read the sad tale of Cock Robin in the ancient Nursery Rhyme book that they had bought for their little son. Sadly, he died at the age of four from diphtheria - my Aunt and Uncle didn't believe in immunization. Perhaps this makes the whole ritual even more poignant.

Despite, or even because of the sadness, I loved to read 'Who Killed Cock Robin". I loved the way all the birds and animals came together to mark the passing of Cock Robin and hold his funeral and I loved the 'sighing and he sobbing' of the birds of the air in the last verse.

This tale has fallen from favor now, probably because of it's frank treatment of death, but I wonder if it's time for a revival. What do you think?

Artist unknown Copyright Expired

A Modern Version of Cock Robin - A sanitised version of the story

Aimed at PreSchool-Grade 4 this modern version of the nursery rhyme sanitizes it by staging the story as a play with children dressed as the characters and at the end all the children happily doff their costumes.

From my Great Aunt's Nursery Rhyme Book - I loved reading this as a child

Artist unknown Public Domain Image Copyright Expired

Artist unknown Public Domain Image Copyright Expired

Who Killed Cock Robin - The full version of the poem

Did You Read This Nursery Rhyme as a Child? - Does it bring back memories from your childhood?

When I searched for 'Who Killed Cock Robin' books for children they don't seem to be very plentiful, but I can only surmise that the gloomy, funereal theme is the reason for publishers not being keen to market the rhyme.

I wonder what you think. Did you love the poem as a child, as I did? Did it make you weep with sadness for Cock Robin (much as Lassie films did)? Did you love the beauty of the language, the 'sighing and the sobbing' of the 'birds of the air'?

Vote below to see if this rhyme should be brought back to popularity:

The History of Who Killed Cock Robin

The first record of this rhyme is in Tommy Thumb's Pretty Song Book, published around 1744, but only the first four verses were included. The full version wasn't printed until c. 1770. (Opie and P. Opie, The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes) There is an alternate ending which may have been added later and in that version the sparrow is hanged . Oh dear - a grim theme made even grimmer.

Although the first records of the poem date back to the 18th century, it may be that it's much older. In a 15th-century stained glass window at Buckland Rectory in Gloucestershire, England a robin appears with an arrow through it's breast and around 1508 we know of a story written by and the rhyme is similar to a story titled "Phyllyp Sparowe" was written by John Skelton.

It has been said that the rhyme of 'owl' with 'shovel', points to middle English pronunciation.

The story is also international and is told in many countries around the world.

Who is Cock Robin? - We don't know the meaning behind the poem

Although we don't know the meaning behind the rhyme, there are several hypotheses and here are just some of them.

  1. It's something to do with Robin Hood (but only because they have the same name)
  2. The rhyme was used as a parody of the fall of Robert Walpole's government in 1742 (Robin is a diminutive form of the name Robert. The first printing was around this time.
  3. It might relate to a mythological event; the death of the god Balder from Norse mythology or perhaps the ritual sacrifice of a king or other leader.
  4. It's about the death of William Rufus in 1100. He was killed by an arrow in the New Forest (Hampshire).

Walt Disney Tells the Story of Who Killed Cock Robin so Beautifully - And there's a real Disneyesque twist in the tale

Walt Disney's 1935 video of Who Killed Cock Robin is a real treat. The cartoon opens with Robin serenading his sweetheart (and the sweetheart , Jenny Wren, looks and sounds for all the world like Mae West!) when he's shot by an arrow and falls to the ground landing just outside "The Old Crowbar". Hanging is reintroduced into the story but, true to the nature of Walt Disney, his version of Who Killed Cock Robin' deviates somewhat from the original, the topic of racism is touched on, a question mark is placed over the authority of the courts,a catchy tune is added and there's a great twist to the story at the end which I'm not going to divulge.

Watch it - it's a real treat!

I've included some other song versions of Cock Robin too:

Disney Takes Liberties with Who Killed Cock Robin

The song is sung but illustrated with exhibits in a Natural History museum.

The Illustrations for Who Killed Cock Robin

These illustrations are by H. L. Stephens for the Death and Burial of Poor Cock Robin, c. 1865 They are so surreal and precise. Many of the creatures are given the bodies of humans byt insect, animal, fish and bird heads which is very reminiscent of the Surrealist group of painters.

The ending of the poem in this version shows the sparrow hanging for his crime, but this addition. was thought to have been added later.

"While the cruel Cock Sparrow,
The cause of their grief,
Was hung on a gibbet
Next day, like a thief".

H L Stephen's phots clearly show a bull tolling the bell, as does my Aunt's nursery rhyme book, but it could be that it should be a strong-billed bullfinch which is shown in earlier versions. Somehow this fits in more with the scale of the other creatures.

Who is H L Stephens?

Henry Louis Stephens was born in 1824 in Philadelphia and moved to New York around 1859. He was an illustrator, caricaturist and artist. He drew cartoons for the famous magazines of the day, produced book illustrations including some for Mark Twain, and he illustrated stories and children's books.

He died in 1882 in Bayonne, New Jersey.

Death and Burial of Poor Cock Robin, by H. L. Stephens c. 1865

 Project Gutenberg are in the public domain.

Project Gutenberg are in the public domain.

The song sung to illustrations by H. L. Stephens here

H L Stephen's Images Can Be Seen on This Website

Is death and burial too depressing?

Clearly this rhyme has fallen out of favour but is this a good thing? Should children be taught about death as well as life? We know that children will encounter death in real life but should they be exposed to mourning and sadness in stories too?

Is this poem infinitely sad and beautiful or downright gloomy?

Let me know what you think.

Who Really Killed Cock Robin? - This is an ecological mystery

It all begins in the town of Saddleboro where the residents are pleased to say that their town is spotless - so why has their mascot, the Robin, died?

One boy, Tony Isidoro is out to find the truth. Read about how the eco-system of the town is upset - how there are no frogs but a plague of ants. Find out for yourself who really killed Cock Robin.

Where Did I Get My Information? - Links to my sources

Where in the World Are We? - In Limousin, a hidden corner of South West France

I run a B&B a holiday cottage and art holidays in Limousin, France. Contact me for more information on info@lestroischenes.com or look at our site www.lestroischenes.com

this time the song is sung but illustrated with exhibits in a Natural History museum.

Do You Know The Rhyme of Who killed Cock Robin? - I'd love to hear from you

Barbara Walton (author) from France on February 08, 2017:

Still so sad. It's like The Selfish Giant - I simply couldn't read the end because I would just choke up, but I do love the poem. It probably isn't such a good idea to try to shelter children too much; death would have been so much more a part of life in the past. Thanks for leaving a comment.

Frances Metcalfe from The Limousin, France on January 28, 2017:

Another good article Barbara! Children sghould definately know about death. My son encountered the death of his grandfather at 3, so it's best to know nothing's forever. Your Comment...

Barbara Walton (author) from France on September 30, 2014:

I used to read it myself and it still makes me weep when it comes to "all the birds of the air...". Thanks for dropping by Stazjia.

Carol Fisher from Warminster, Wiltshire, UK on September 29, 2014:

I remember this poem well from when I was a child. I can't see any reason for a parent to object to their children hearing or reading it.

Barbara Walton (author) from France on September 17, 2013:

@aesta1: Thanks for taking the time to leave this nice little message aesta1. Pleased that you enjoyed it.

Barbara Walton (author) from France on September 17, 2013:

@jptanabe: Yes, jptanabe, it is very touching.

Mary Norton from Ontario, Canada on September 17, 2013:

Enjoyed the rhyme so much.

Jennifer P Tanabe from Red Hook, NY on September 17, 2013:

Yes, I remember Who killed Cock Robin. I love the way all the creatures get involved in the funeral preparations.

Barbara Walton (author) from France on September 17, 2013:

@grannysage: Thanks for dropping by Grannysage. I do hope that you took a look at the whole rhyme - it's sad but lovely.

grannysage on September 10, 2013:

I've never read the whole poem. It is fascinating to ponder on what it all means.

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