Babes in the Woods
By Volunteer Docent Robin Hazard Ray
The expression “babes in the woods” is used today to describe people who get in over their heads in situations they do not fully understand. But originally Babes in the Woods was a folktale, then a ballad, then a stock script for pantomimes (English theatricals done for the kiddies at Christmastime), as familiar to people of the nineteenth century as Sleeping Beauty or Cinderella. As we shall see, it had resonance for several notable people buried at or affiliated with Mount Auburn.
In the folktale, two small children are led, either accidentally or deliberately, into a wood, where they become lost and eventually die of exposure, clinging to one another in death. The robins of the wood take pity on them and cover their bodies with strawberry leaves. It is Hansel and Gretel without the gingerbread house, or Snow White for the junior set, sans Prince Charming’s reviving kiss. Either way, it is easy to see why grown-ups in recent decades have decided not to retell this gruesome story to their children at bedtime. In most modern renditions, including a bizarre Disney version from 1932, the tale has a happier ending than starvation and death.
But in the nineteenth and earlier centuries, when child mortality was an everyday fact of life, the story of the Babes in the Woods had terrific poignancy. American sculptor Thomas Crawford (1814–1857), who made the splendid Amos Binney Monument at Mount Auburn (recently restored at 1391 Heath Path, pictured right), carved the “Babes in the Woods” in Carrara marble in 1850, showing the children in their last embrace as a kindly robin watches over them. One copy of this group is in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of New York, and another was recently acquired by Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, with the intention of marking Crawford’s resting place there.
Poet James Russell Lowell (1819–1891), Lot 323 Fountain Avenue (monument pictured left), drew on the tale when writing “The First Snowfall,” a heartbreaking memorial to his infant daughter Blanche, who died in 1847 at just 15 months of age. The poem reads in part:
I stood and watched by the window
The noiseless work of the sky,
And the sudden flurries of snow-birds,
Like brown leaves whirling by.
I thought of a mound in sweet Auburn
Where a little headstone stood;
How the flakes were folding it gently,
As did robins the babes in the wood.
Lowell and his wife, poet Marie White Lowell (1821–1853), would lose two more infants—Rose in 1850 and Walter in 1852—before Marie herself died in 1853. Only their daughter Mabel, to whom “The First Snowfall” was addressed, outlived her father.
Another Mount Auburn resident, the celebrated author and journalist Kate Field (1838–1897), Lot 2651 Acorn Path (monuments to Field and her dear friend Lilian Whiting pictured left), made a more light-hearted allusion to the tale. An ardent advocate of women’s rights, Field stirred many controversies in her day, memorably by asserting that women had the right to “go anywhere, and do anything.” She was a frequent visitor to the Adirondacks in the 1860s and 1870s, shocking the public by fishing, hunting, and camping with female companions. One male critic advised Field to take four coffins along on her camping trip to accommodate her and her three women friends. (She declined to do so.)
In asserting the right of women to experience nature as men did, she referenced the folktale: “To be a babe in the woods watched over by a human robin redbreast, is as near an approach to Eden before the fall as comes within the ken of woman.”