Books My Mother Gave Me: Selected Cautionary Verses (HIlaire Belloc) Review

Published October 14, 2013 by ElisaChristy

Hilaire Belloc is, I believe, the master of goriness for children. While poems with names such as ‘Matilda Who Told Lies and Was Burned to Death’ may seem slightly too macabre for children, as I was read these as a child, I can assure you they are not. In fact to borrow a quote from Terry Pratchett:

“[Children] on the whole, are quite keen on blood provided it’s being shed by the deserving. That is those who deserve to shed blood.”

The poems are extremely quotable and recognizable even just from the title, which are sort of like quotes in of themselves such as:

“Henry King who chewed little pieces of string and was early cut off in dreadful agonies.”

It is almost impossible, on hearing the title to start quoting the rest of the poem if you know it, as they flow into each other. They are not just titles they are introductions.

The poems read as sort of fables telling children what not to do, such as don’t tell lies or you’ll end up being burnt alive, but I don’t remember ever being scared by the poems, as they are written in such a way that they appeal to children and even though they are extremely macabre, children and adults can both relish them.

“Always keep a hold of nurse for fear of finding something worse.”

As each poem has a moral at the end, such as the one above, I don’t know how well they work as actual moral poems telling children not to do things. Though I loved the darkness of the poems as a child, I don’t think I ever actually listened to the morals – I wandered off constantly and not once got eaten by a lion as Jim does in “Jim who ran away from his nurse and got eaten by a lion” – the poems didn’t frighten me as they were things that happened to the poem children, not to me.

“‘Breakfast, dinner, lunch and tea are all the human frame requires…’ With that the wretched child expires.”

It seems as if Hilaire Belloc really did not like the children in his stories, Henry King, which ends with the quote above is only made a good quote by the use of the word ‘Wretched’. Without it, it would be a sad quote and depressing. But with it, from Belloc’s point of view, we can understand that the world is somehow better off without someone who chews little pieces of string, plus it makes it so much more quotable, as it fits with the rhythm of the rest of the poem.

The same is done with ‘Matilda: Who Told Lies and Was Burned to Death.’ – which is also the only one I can quote in its entirety – which ends with the quote:

“And therefore when her aunt returned, Matilda, and the house, were burned.”

Again, somehow, the ordering of the quote makes it seem as if the house burning down is worse than the death of Matilda, as Matilda was merely a girl who lied, but now her aunt is homeless because of the lies Matilda told.

Belloc seems to understand the minds of children and not really expect them to actually listen to his morals as in ‘Rebecca who slammed doors for fun and perished miserably’ there is the line:

[The children] inly swore they never more would slam the door. As often they had done before.”

That is, they will still slam doors, just not as often, they haven’t completely learned from the dark story of Rebecca.

The poems are macabre, but they stay on the right side of dark, never really stepping over into creepy. And the rhymes in the poems are wonderful, quotable rhymes whether you are a child or not.

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