‘The Redbreast’ by Charlotte Richardson is a seven stanza poem that is separated into sets of four lines or quatrains. These quatrains follow a consistent rhyming pattern of abab cdcd efef, and so on. The regulated nature of this poem helps in the development of a sing-song like rhythm which carries the reader from the first to last stanza.
Summary of The Redbreast
The poem begins with the speaker setting the scene with a description of the terrible weather that has blown down from the north. It is incredibly cold and a small bird, a robin redbreast, has appeared at her doorstep. It is seeking out a place of refuge until winter is over.
The speaker invites the bird into her home but soon discovers that was a mistake. The bird is spotted by an “envious cat” and killed.
The poem concludes with the narrator mourning the death of the bird and contemplating the unfair, unbalanced nature of life.
Analysis of The Redbreast
Cold blew the freezing northern blast,
And winter sternly frowned;
The flaky snow fell thick and fast,
And clad the fields around.
The poem begins with the speaker creating an in-depth depiction of what the weather surrounding her home is like. The very first word of this piece is “Cold.” This one word is a great representative of what the general setting is going to be like. As well as an introduction to the force against which the animals of the forest, particularly the robin redbreast, are made to contend with.
The speaker continues with her description of the forest by stating that it is not just the air that is cold. There is a “freezing northern blast” which is storming through this section of the world. The coldest air has come down from the north and brought with it a “stern” winter. While this depiction of the woods is a bit foreboding, it is hard to deny the romantic qualities of the scene, especially those espoused in the next two lines.
There is a layer of snow on the ground, and more, described as “flaky,” falling “thick and fast.” It has covered, or “clad,” all of the fields around the speaker. It is easy to imagine this vast land of whiteness which stretches out as far as one can see. It would be both beautiful and intimidating.
Forced by the storm’s relentless power,
Emboldened by despair,
A shivering redbreast sought my door,
Some friendly warmth to share.
In the second stanza, the speaker introduces the main character of her poem, the “redbreast.” As mentioned above, this is a reference to the common European or American robin. It is known for the orangey-red patch of feathers on its chest. The entire narrative of this piece revolves around the predicament of this bird during the winter and what the speaker tries to do to help it.
She states that the bird has been, “Forced by the storm,” and “Emboldened by despair” to seek the “friendly warmth” of the speaker’s home. It has made its way to the only source of real heat it could find.
‘Welcome, sweet bird!’ I fondly cried,
‘No danger need’st thou fear,
Secure with me thou may’st abide,
Till warmer suns appear.
It is at this point in the poem that the speaker places herself squarely within the narrative. She speaks to the bird on her doorstep saying, “‘Welcome.’” She wants to make sure that the bird knows, the best that it can, that it is welcome in her home.
She continues on to say that it can stay “Secure” with her until the “warmer suns appear.” The speaker is inviting the redbreast into her home until the cold winter is over.
‘And when mild spring comes smiling on,
And bids the fields look gay,
Thou, with thy sweet, thy grateful song,
My kindness shalt repay.’
In the fourth quatrain, the speaker continues to direct her speech to the bird. She wants to further describe the situation and make clear to the redbreast that she understands why he needs a place of safety.
She states that he can stay with her until the much warmer “spring comes smiling on.” It will be at this time that “the fields look gay.” Once more will there be blooming flowers covering all the areas that are now full of snow.
The last two lines make clear to the reader why it is that she is acting so kindly. She wants to pay the redbreast back for all of its “sweet” and “grateful song.” She feels a debt of gratitude to the bird.
Mistaken thought! — But how shall I
The mournful truth display?
An envious cat, with jealous eye,
Had marked him as her prey.
At this point in the poem, the narrative takes a turn. What seemed to be a peaceful and pleasant scene gets darker. The speaker’s tone becomes mournful as she exclaims, “Mistaken thought!”
She knows at this point that her invitation to the bird was a mistake. It never should have been invited into the house and now she is struggling to tell the “mournful truth” of what happened.
The truth is that “An envious cat” saw the robin at the speaker’s doorstep and “marked him as her prey.” It is unclear whether or not this was the speaker’s cat or one which was trapped outside just as the robin was. It is most likely the later as she is described as “envious.”
Remorseless wretch! — her cruel jaws
Soon sealed her victim’s doom,
While I in silence mourn his loss,
And weep o’er robin’s tomb.
The poem begins to conclude in the sixth stanza. It is here that the speaker describes the death of the robin. The “Remorseless wretch” of a cat caught the robin in “her cruel jaws” and “sealed” the bird’s fate.
In the second half of the poem, the narrator speaks of her mourning for the bird’s loss and how she “weep[s]” over the “robin’s tomb.” While it is not explicitly stated, it is obvious that this narrator was so moved by the death of the bird that she took the time to bury the bird and erect a tomb over its grave.
So, oft in life’s uneven way,
Some stroke may intervene;
Sweep all our fancied joys away,
And change the flattering scene.
In the final stanza of ‘The Redbreast’, the speaker contemplates the death of the redbreast and how it is a perfect representation of “life’s uneven way.” There is no reason why one animal lives and another dies, the speaker thinks. All of life and death is unfair and unbalanced. At any moment a “stroke may intervene” and change one’s fate.
The randomness of life can carry all of one’s “fancied joys away” and change one’s life from one of “flatter[y]” and good joy, to one of death and despair.