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Hilaire Belloc’s “Cautionary Tales for Children”

matildagoreyIt has recently come to my attention that, as a child, I may not have been exposed to the normal sort of things one expects at that age. Instead of watching cartoons, I’d beg my parents to let me see new nature programs on the Discovery Channel. I knew Chaplin before Carrey, watched more Fred and Ginger musicals than Disney movies, and had a strange fascination with Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher” before I even understood all the words.

My mother is the kind of person who loves to memorize and recite poems, and introduced me to one of my most memorable childhood pleasures: cautionary poems by Hilaire Belloc. If you’re unfamiliar with Belloc’s work (if you were brought up outside the British Isles or after the early 1900’s, for example), then you’re in for a treat. A well-known author in his time, Belloc wrote numerous essays and historical texts, but I remember him for his fantastic, morally superior (and often vindictive) children’s poems. (Illustrated by–who else–Edward Gorey.) With titles like “Rebecca, Who Slammed Doors For Fun And Perished Miserably”, Belloc’s poems are irresistible. They’ve delighted me for years, and they’ll probably delight you too. Even better, you can find out now! (Recordings courtesy of the wonderful Librivox.org.)

JIM, Who ran away from his Nurse, and was eaten by a Lion.

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HENRY KING, Who chewed bits of string, and was early cut off in Dreadful agonies.

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MATILDA, Who told Lies and was Burned to Death

    (text only)

    FRANKLIN HYDE, Who caroused in the Dirt and was corrected by His Uncle

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GODOLPHIN HORNE, Who was cursed with the Sin of Pride, and, Became a Boot-black

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ALGERNON, Who played with a Loaded Gun, and, on missing his Sister, was reprimanded by his Father.

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HILDEBRAND, Who was frightened by a Passing Motor, and was brought to reason.

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LORD LUNDY, Who was too Freely Moved to Tears, and thereby ruined his Political Career.

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LORD LUNDY (Second Canto)

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REBECCA, Who Slammed Doors For Fun And Perished Miserably

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GEORGE, Who played with a Dangerous Toy, and suffered a Catastrophe of considerable Dimensions.

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CHARLES AUGUSTUS FORTESCUE, Who Always Did what was Right, and so Accumulated an Immense Fortune

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This collection may seem pretty violent for children’s poems. However, though certainly vindictive (”Matilda, Who told Lies and was Burned to Death”), they aren’t especially shocking, given historical storytelling traditions. The idea that children must be protected from anything unsavory or violent, even in stories, seems to be a fairly recent development. Kids are being taught through stories like “Curious George” rather than “Bluebeard”.  (Even Beatrix Potter’s Peter Rabbit stories are less watered down than most modern children’s literature. It’s pretty clearly stated that Farmer McGregor is going to bake the protagonist into a pie and eat him. In another story, a ‘bad rabbit’ steals and, as a consequence, has his tail and whiskers shot off by a hunter. And let’s not forget Owl trying to skin annoying Squirrel Nutkin alive.) I’m a big fan of these poems for any age.

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