The discussion of nonsense poetry and in particular cruel Victorian verse brings us – as noted in the Comments section of yesterday’s blog – to the master, Hilaire Belloc.
The stern-looking Anglo-French historian and writer Hilaire Belloc was also a poet, satirist, soldier and political activist. Among the most versatile English writers of the first quarter of the 20th century, he was a staunch Catholic, a fine essayist and satirist, and paradoxically kind and extremely argumentative.
In 1907 he penned ‘Cautionary Tales For Children’, squarely aimed at terrifying middle-class children into good behavior with gruesome moralistic poems which included ‘Jim: Who ran away from his Nurse, and was eaten by a Lion’, ‘Henry King: Who chewed bits of string, and was early cut off in Dreadful agonies’ and ‘Rebecca: Who Slammed Doors For Fun And Perished Miserably’ (a marble bust fell on her)
The tales have influenced everyone from Edward Gorey to Pink Floyd. My personal favourite was Lord Lundy, Who was too easily Moved to Tears and thereby Ruined his Political Career. Perhaps these nonsense writers were a product of their conservative times. It rather makes one wish for modern-day versions; ‘Darrell, Who Stared at his Phone While Crossing the Road and Was Crushed by a Cement Mixer’.
And of course there was the wonderful ‘Matilda: Who told Lies, and was Burned to Death.’ It seems that this latter poem is the one almost everyone of my age seems able to recite, along with a bit of Tennyson. Let’s have the full version.