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“Poor Robin” & Blake’s “The Blossom”

In one of his notes on “The Cool World of Samuel Taylor Coleridge” (The Wordsworth Circle, 5 [Winter 1974], 61) P. M. Zall quotes part of a bawdy ballad recollected by Francis Place, “the radical tailor of Charing Cross”:

One night as I came from the play
I met a fair maid by the way
She had rosy cheeks and a dimpled chin
And a hole to put poor Robin in.

A bed and blanket have I got [“I have got” in Zall’s source]
A dish a Kettle and a pot
Besides a charming pretty thing
A hole to put poor Robin in.

Though the context in which the ballad is quoted in part in Professor Zall’s source (Place, Autobiography, ed. Mary Thale [Cambridge: Univ. Press, 1972], p. 58n.) does not make clear the precise date of the ballad, the evidence provided by the editor tends to confirm Zall’s suggestion: “about 1780.” Place, who was born in 1771, is quoted as saying that he listened to such songs at a social gathering “when a boy of 10 years of age.” Certainly it is clear that the song was very popular, since Place says of it and others (p. 58n.), “There is not one of them that I have not myself heard sung in the streets.”

This popular song of the London streets is of especial interest in that it may shed some light on a long-standing problem of interpretation involving Blake’s “The Blossom,” one of his Songs of Innocence (1789):

Merry Merry Sparrow
Under leaves so green
A happy Blossom
Sees you swift as arrow
Seek your cradle narrow
Near my Bosom.

Pretty Pretty Robin
Under leaves so green
A happy Blossom
Hears you sobbing sobbing
Pretty Pretty Robin
Near my Bosom.

A popular reading of the poem is that of Joseph H. Wicksteed (Blake’s Innocence and Experience [London: Dent, 1928], p. 126): “The birds are the male element as seen by the maiden. They represent the whole range of the lover’s love, from the winged thought to the accomplished act.” Geoffrey Keynes (Songs of Innocence and of Experience [London: Hart-Davis, 1967], pl. 11 commentary) supports Wicksteed’s interpretation: “The sparrow ‘swift as arrow’ is a phallic symbol seeking satisfaction in the blossom of the maiden’s bosom. The robin sobs perhaps with the happiness of experience.” Similarly, D. G. Gillham (Blake’s Contrary States [Cambridge: Univ. Press, 1966], pp. 164-65) sees the subject of the poem as being sexual intercourse. “The blossom, herself, despite her tenderness,” Gillham says, “is rather disengaged, and tends to be aware of the male sexual organ almost as a sort of pet.” E. D. Hirsch, Jr., however, comments on “The Blossom” (Innocence and Experience: An Introduction to Blake [New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1964], p. 181) as follows: “This is the most difficult poem in the Songs of Innocence. The only full-dress explication I know of is by Wicksteed, whose theory that the poem symbolizes love and sexual intercourse I cannot accept.” And W. H. Stevenson rather stiffly says (The Poems of William Blake, ed. Stevenson [London: Longman, 1971], p. 64): “The extreme simplicity of this poem has puzzled interpreters, who have had to delve deep for its symbolism. It is more than doubtful that B. would embody such symbolism so deeply in a book planned for children. . . .”

The suggestion that the ballad recalled by Francis Place is a part of the context within which “The Blossom” was created, if not an actual source for it, should shock no one familiar with the scatology and robust satire of An Island in the Moon, in the manuscript of which appear the “Nurse’s Song,” “The Little Boy Lost,” and “Holy Thursday” of the later Songs of Innocence. The facts that in the London street song recollected by Place the penis is called Robin and that Blake could reasonably have been expected to know the song and begin page 43 | back to top to have assumed that his audience was aware of it are, I believe, evidence in support of Wicksteed’s reading of “The Blossom.” Other less significant supporting details are the repetition of the word “pretty,” the substitution of “blossom” for “rosy cheeks and dimpled chin,” and the fact that “poor” Robin becomes the “sobbing” Robin of Blake’s poem. Finally, the OED records a use of the phrase “merry-bout” in the Newgate Calendar of 1780 as slang for “an act of sexual intercourse.” Hence the appropriateness of Blake’s “merry, merry sparrow.”

If this widely known street song was in fact in Blake’s mind when he composed “The Blossom” and in the minds of Blake’s readers as well, perhaps the poem is more complex and ironic than Stevenson is prepared to admit, even if it was destined to appear “in a book planned for children.”

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