Thursday, March 2, 2017

The Robins of Spring

In early 1862, George Driver was serving on board the Highlander as a supply officer and doing his part for the Union cause, making his father enormously proud. The George Driver Family Papers include Stephen Driver's letter to his son dated March 2nd, which weaves together discussions of the Civil War and descriptions of home. Stephen looked to connect with George through mundane things like looking at the same new moon and listening to familiar birds singing. In a brief aside, Stephen notes that he "Saw the first Robin" and includes a small pen-and-ink sketch to document the moment. The buoyant excitement of seeing a robin and anticipating the coming spring bridged the divide between home and the front lines.

Examples of how the common robin engenders delight can be found throughout the Clements Library's collections. Their connection to impending (and long-awaited) spring elevates the bird as a joyful symbol. Unsurprisingly, tune books and sheet music reference robins as beloved harbingers of the new season and welcome musical accompanists.

The Clements Library's well-loved copy of the 1856 songbook The Robin Red Breast features a faded illustration of a Robin on its front cover. The book's namesake song invites the robin to "come in the morning - come ear-ly, and sing, For dear-ly I love you, sweet warbler of spring."

Even from a more scientifically inclined perspective, robins signify spring and our eagerness for the return of warmth, seasonal flora, and song. Alexander Wilson's American Ornithology, one of the seminal nineteenth-century works on North American birds, describes the robin as "one of our earliest songsters; even in March, while snow yet dapples the fields, and flocks of them are dispersed about, some few will mount a post or stake of the fence, and make short and frequent attempts at their song." Wilson acknowledges that the robin's tune is not the most beautiful, but he "makes up in zeal what he wants in talent; so that the notes of the Robin, in spring, are universally known, and as universally beloved. They are as it were the prelude to the grand concert, that is about to burst upon us from woods, fields and thickets, whitened with blossoms, and breathing fragrance."

Plate 2 from Alexander Wilson's American Ornithology; or, The Natural History of the Birds of the United States. Drawn by Alexander Wilson, engraved and colored by A. Lawson, (Philadelphia, 1829). Graphics Division: Prints F.2

While spring has not yet sprung in Ann Arbor, Michigan, we're eagerly looking for the robins and hoping for warmer days to come. Until then, we'll enjoy the birds and songs that we can find in our collections. As another tune in The Robin Red Breast proclaims, "Spring is com-ing! Spring is com-ing! With its dews and balm-y breeze. O, the birds with mu-sic greeting, Then will pour a welcome strain, And the heart, with rap-ture beat-ing, E-cho back the song a-gain."

Jayne Ptolemy
Reading Room Supervisor and Manuscripts Curatorial Assistant