Laura Jacobs | The Bird Catcher | Annotations


The Death and Burial of Cock Robin is a very old nursery rhyme that has come down through the centuries in many versions, each of which has its charms. For instance, in this version the Chief Mourner is a dove, who mourns for her love; but in another version it is a swan, who answers like a character in a Kingsley Amis novel: "Who'll be chief mourner?" / "I" said the swan, / "I'm sorry he's gone. / "I'll be chief mourner." The poem is simple, like a grade-school pageant, and yet powerful in the way it conjures a natural world in which the death of one touches all.

The Death and Burial of Cock Robin

Here lies Cock Robin dead and cold:
His end this book will soon unfold!

"Who killed Cock Robin?"
"I" said the sparrow,
"With my bow and arrow,
I killed Cock Robin."

"Who saw him die?"
"I" said the fly,
"With my little eye,
I saw him die."

"And who caught his blood?"
"I" said the fish,
"With my little dish.
I caught his blood."

"Who'll make his shroud?"
"I" said the beetle,
"With my thread and needle
I'll make his shroud."

"Who'll bear the torch?"
"I" said the linnet,
"Will come in a minute.
I'll bear the torch."

"Who'll be the clerk?"
"I" said the lark,
"I'll say Amen in the dark.
I'll be the clerk."

"Who'll dig his grave?"
"I" said the owl,
"With my spade and trowel
I'll dig his grave."

"Who'll be the parson?"
"I" said the rook,
"With my little book,
I'll be the parson."

"Who'll be chief mourner?"
"I" said the dove,
"I mourn for my love,
I'll be chief mourner."

"Who'll bear the pall?"
"We," said the wren,
Both the cock and the hen,
"We'll bear the pall."

"Who'll sing a psalm?"
"I" said the thrush,
As she sat in a bush,
"I'll sing a psalm."

"Who'll carry his coffin?"
"I" said the kite,
"If it be in the night,
I'll carry his coffin."

"Who'll toll the bell?"
"I" said the bull,
"Because I can pull.
I'll toll the bell."

All the birds of the air
Fell to sighing and sobbing,
When they heard the bell toll
For poor Cock Robin.

     — Anonymous



In chapter 17, Margret thinks of this line from William Shakespeare's Hamlet, and for many years I have wondered about its meaning. It comes near the end of the play, in Act V, when Horatio is counseling Hamlet, who is preparing for a sword fight with Laertes. Horatio does not want Hamlet to fight. But Hamlet is strangely disengaged. He responds to Horatio with a bit of word play that is something between a riddle and a philosophy:

Horatio: If your mind dislike any thing, obey it; I will forestall their repair hither, and say you are not fit.

Hamlet: Not a whit, we defy augury; there's a special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, 'tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come: the readiness is all. Since no man has aught of what he leaves, what is't to leave betimes? Let be.


"Betimes" is archaic English for "early." Hamlet seems to be saying one cannot worry about when death will come, for man — though so "like an angel" — falls just as the sparrow does. Instead we must achieve "readiness" — in other words, we must accept mortality. In this short poetic flight, Hamlet seems to answer his questioningly existential soliloquy of Act III, "To be or not to be." He has found his answer: "Let be."