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John Greenleaf Whittier (1807–1892). The Poetical Works in Four Volumes. 1892.

Narrative and Legendary Poems

How the Robin Came

An Algonquin Legend

HAPPY young friends, sit by me,

Under May’s blown apple-tree,

While these home-birds in and out

Through the blossoms flit about.

Hear a story, strange and old,

By the wild red Indians told,

How the robin came to be:

Once a great chief left his son,—

Well-beloved, his only one,—

When the boy was well-nigh grown,

In the trial-lodge alone.

Left for tortures long and slow

Youths like him must undergo,

Who their pride of manhood test,

Lacking water, food, and rest.

Seven days the fast he kept,

Seven nights he never slept.

Then the young boy, wrung with pain,

Weak from nature’s overstrain,

Faltering, moaned a low complaint:

“Spare me, father, for I faint!”

But the chieftain, haughty-eyed,

Hid his pity in his pride.

“You shall be a hunter good,

Knowing never lack of food;

You shall be a warrior great,

Wise as fox and strong as bear;

Many scalps your belt shall wear,

If with patient heart you wait

Bravely till your task is done.

Better you should starving die

Than that boy and squaw should cry

Shame upon your father’s son!”

When next morn the sun’s first rays

Glistened on the hemlock sprays,

Straight that lodge the old chief sought,

And boiled samp and moose meat brought.

“Rise and eat, my son!” he said.

Lo, he found the poor boy dead!

As with grief his grave they made,

And his bow beside him laid,

Pipe, and knife, and wampum-braid,

On the lodge-top overhead,

Preening smooth its breast of red

And the brown coat that it wore,

Sat a bird, unknown before.

And as if with human tongue,

“Mourn me not,” it said, or sung;

“I, a bird, am still your son,

Happier than if hunter fleet,

Or a brave, before your feet

Laying scalps in battle won.

Friend of man, my song shall cheer

Lodge and corn-land; hovering near,

To each wigwam I shall bring

Tidings of the coming spring;

Every child my voice shall know

In the moon of melting snow,

When the maple’s red bud swells,

And the wind-flower lifts its bells.

As their fond companion

Men shall henceforth own your son,

And my song shall testify

That of human kin am I.”

Thus the Indian legend saith

How, at first, the robin came

With a sweeter life from death,

Bird for boy, and still the same.

If my young friends doubt that this

Is the robin’s genesis,

Not in vain is still the myth

If a truth be found therewith:

Unto gentleness belong

Gifts unknown to pride and wrong;

Happier far than hate is praise,—

He who sings than he who slays.