Hey Robin

A note underneath the title indicates that 'the first two lines are old'.  This poem is a good example of Skipsey's practice of taking existing songs or poems and re-writing them - a practice which he learnt early on when he worked in the pits.  He describes this in an interview in the Pall Mall Gazette, given in July 1889:
The elder boys in the pit ... had a habit of ballad singing.  It was seldom that they knew a ballad all through, but they used to sing snatches of ballads and songs at their work...  Their incompleteness dissatisfied me, I wanted them all, and as I could not obtain them, I used to fill them out here and there, and piece the fragments together, and so give them a completeness of my own.  This patching of old ballads was my first effort at verse-making.

The original song is known to us from an early 16th century manuscript book.  The words are often attributed to Sir Thomas Wyatt (1503-42), though in his Reliques, Percy suggests that '

the discerning reader will probably judge it to belong to a more obsolete [i.e. earlier] writer'.  It was introduced by Shakespeare into Twelfth Night (Act 4, Scene 2), sung by the Clown to Malvolio.  This was probably how Skipsey came across it, as he knew all Shakespeare's work intimately.


The song was probably well-known by the time Shakespeare used it.  A version of it was set to music by William Cornish [or Cornyshe] (1465?-1523).  


 Skipsey's poem seems to have started life quite early - in a letter to Thomas Dixon on Jan 22, 1879, he writes that: 
Two of my best songs – “Hey Robin” & “The Lad of Bebside” were written while I was working as a common miner at Pemberton’s Colliery. [this was in the 1850s]
Skipsey seems to have had some difficulty in finishing this poem. His biographer, Robert Spence Watson, describes how verse 2 was originally: 'Is she like a lambkin skipping 'mid her maidens in the hall'. After Spence Watson suggested this image was unrealistic and might lead to ridicule, he changed it to: 'Is she like a finch so merry lilting in her father's hall'. Finally, he altered 'finch' to 'lark'.

Spence Watson also points out that, in Skipsey's Northumbrian pronunciation, 'sobbing' and 'robin' were a perfect rhyme.
Hey Robin, jolly Robin,
Tell me how thy lady doth?
Is she laughing, is she sobbing,
Is she gay, or grave, or both?

Is she like the lark, so merry,
Lilting in her father's hall?
Or the crow with cry a very
Plague to each, a plague to all.
Is she like the violet breathing
Blessings on her native place?
Or the cruel nettle scathing
All who dare approach her grace?

Is she like the dew-drop sparkling
When the morn peeps o'er the land?
Or the cloud above a-darkling,
When a fearful storm's at hand?
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