Who saw him die?

Apr 6th, 2008 | By | Category: Personal Columns

The tolling of a single bell has a chilling quality.

In ordination training days the bell toll was from the campanile in the grounds of Trinity College, as the hour appointed for an examination approached and students clustered outside of the examination hall, the deep sound would fill Front Square and strike fear into the hearts of many of those gathered.

In parishes the tolling of a single bell is a sound of grief. A single strike and a lengthy pause before the next as mourners file into church. There is in the sound a sense of finality, a sense of one’s mortality.

The toll of the bell finds strange resonances deep within the memory.

Echoes from childhood are heard at unexpected moments, snatches of verse, half sentences. “I”, said the fly, “with my little eye”, was suddenly spoken out loud this afternoon.

“Where did that come from?” I asked.

“I don’t know”, said Herself.

“I hated that poem”, I said, “hated it”.

Why did school children in the 1960s get taught “Who killed Cock Robin?” It’s of dubious historical origin, little literary merit, and there must have been not a few children who found it disturbing.

“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.”

“Who caught his blood?” “I,” said the fish,
“with my little dish, I caught his blood.”

“Who’ll make the shroud?” “I,” said the beetle,
“with my thread and needle, I’ll make the shroud.”

“Who’ll dig his grave?” “I,” said the owl,
“with my pick and shovel, 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 the clerk?” “I,” said the lark,
“if it’s not in the dark, I’ll be the clerk.”

“Who’ll carry the link?” “I,” said the linnet,
“I’ll fetch it in a minute, I’ll carry the link.”

“Who’ll be chief mourner?” “I,” said the dove,
“I mourn for my love, I’ll be chief mourner.”

“Who’ll carry the coffin?” “I,” said the kite,
“if it’s not through the night, I’ll carry the coffin.”

“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 on a bush, I’ll sing a psalm.”

“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 a-sighing and a-sobbing,
when they heard the bell toll for poor Cock Robin.

Standing at a church door as the hearse draws up and the pall bearers gather, the sound of the bell brings the words once more to mind, “I”, said the bull, because I can pull.” The chilling memories of childhood fear come to mind, before the prayers banish Cock Robin once more.

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  1. I had forgotten that little verse, it is very sombre. Maybe the event you had to preside over bought it all back. I’m glad the prayers banished Cock Robin.

  2. It’s not any particular funeral – I haven’t had a funeral for three weeks – the bell tolling bull comes back each time.

  3. When the words were penned I do not know, but I put it on a level with Grimms fairy tales such as Hansell and Grettel (excuse spelling), I have often wondered why children were taught these not very nice stories and rhymes alongside many other stories of a similar type

  4. One of you earlier posts had brought back the poem:

    As I was going up the stair,
    I saw a man who wasn’t there,
    He wasn’t there again today,
    I wish, I wish he’d go away.

    Now this post has reminded me again. It used to frighten me when I was small. Probably because I couldn’t get my head round it or thought of ghosts. This is one that sends shivers down my spine. I didn’t like ‘Who killed Cock Robin?’ either. I recognised it immediately from the ‘I siad the fly…’ There are lots of not very nice so called nursery rhymes out there. Some were meant to teach children but the lessons have been lost in the mists of time and all that is left are sad or scary rhymes.

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