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.

16 comments on “Hilaire-ious”

  1. Liz Thompson says:

    I remember a poem (verse? Ode? Rhyme?) from my school days which started
    Young Ethelred was only three
    Or thereabouts, when he
    Began to show in diverse ways
    The early stages of the craze
    For collecting the particulars
    Of motor bikes and motor cars.
    He started with a little book
    To enter numbers, which he took…
    At this point, memory gives out, but I have a feeling he too came to a sad end.

  2. Cornelia Appleyard says:

    Matilda, Disobedience, and The Walrus and the Carpenter were the ones I could recite.
    Tennyson perhaps wasn’t thought suitable for little girls. My mum said her school attempted to teach them The Lady of Shallot, but ‘The curse is come upon me,’ produced so much hilarity that they gave up.

  3. Peter Dixon says:

    Always remember Tom Lehrer Poisoning Pigeons in the Park

  4. Laura Humphrey says:

    sorry to lower the tone, but I clicked on this and that photo popped up and my first thought was,, WOW that’s Alvin Stardust’s grandad

  5. Ian Luck says:

    Another classic in this line has to be ‘The Lion And Albert’, so famously immortalised by Stanley Holloway. A line of which I use to this day to inform incoming workers that nothing of interest has occurred during my shift:
    “No wrecks, and nobody drowning.’ As I work at a dock site, it fits perfectly.

  6. Helen Martin says:

    No, no, it’s Albert and the Lion. When the zoo keeper suggests that Mr. and Mrs. Ramsbottom should live to have other sons to their name Mrs. R replies, “What! Raise sons to feed ruddy lions? Not me. I always liked Battle of Hastings with ‘Arold sitting there with ‘is eye full of arrow, ‘igh on the ‘illtop – on is ‘orse – with ‘is ‘awk on is ‘and.” I get a bit confused there and if you can deal with that lot and NOT put an H in front of arrow, you’re a better man than I am (remember that bit of Kipling?) There was also Sam, Pick up Tha’ Musket where the bang was so loud that swine’erds could hear it in Kent and the ramrod flies off. The death toll if I remember correctly ended up with three lambs and a shepherd. There was also The Return of Albert: or Albert Comes Back and Three Ha’pence a Foot which told about Noah trying to buy curly maple to line his bunk but not able to get the price below (the title). (Oh, help, my mind is full of this now. I used to do these at the drop of a hat or even without.)

    Do people there say “in my/your/this neck of the woods?

  7. Brian says:

    Helen, I think Ian is correct. The Lion and Albert is quite a well known piece by Marriott Edgar.

    Although as I remember it from school so long ago, the word used was “drownded” with that particular spelling.

    And “this neck of the woods” is still very common in my neck of the woods.

  8. snowy says:

    HB fell somewhat out of favour when his patriotic pieces written for home consumption found their way to troops in the trenches. He became a frequent target for those of satirical bent.

    Proof That We Are Winning The War
    by Belary Helloc

    In this article I wish to show plainly that under existing conditions, everything points to a speedy disintegration of the enemy. We will take first of all the effect of war on the male population of Germany.

    Firstly, let us take as our figures, 12,000,000 as the total fighting population of Germany. Of these 8,000,000 are killed or being killed, hence we have 4,000,000 remaining. Of these 1,000,000 are non-combatants, being in the navy.

    Of the 3,000,000 remaining, we can write off 2,500,000 as temperamentally unsuitable for fighting, owing to obesity and other ailments engendered by a gross mode of living. This leaves us 500,000 as the full strength. Of these 497,250 are known to be suffering from incurable diseases. This leaves us 2,750. Of these 2,150 are on the eastern front, and of the remaining 600, 584 are generals and staff.

    Thus we find that there are 16 men on the western front. This number, I maintain, is not enough to give them even a fair chance of resisting four more big pushes, and hence the collapse of the western campaign.

    [Originally published in ‘The Wipers Times’].

  9. Brian Evans says:

    Laura, and I thought it actually was Alvin Stardust.

    In another life when, I did “turns” I used to do “Albert and the Lion”. The line is “There were no wrecks, and nobody drownded , in fact nothing to laugh at, at all” Writer Marriott Edgar co-wrote the scripts for Will Hay’s best films, including “Oh! Mr Porter” Oddly, one of the stars was also a Marriott- Moore Marriott

  10. Cornelia Appleyard says:

    My favourite lines are

    Now Pa, ‘oo ‘ad seen this occurrence,
    And not knowin’ what to do next,
    Said, “Mother, yon lion’s et Albert!”
    An’ Mother said “Ee, I am vexed.”

  11. Liz Thompson says:

    I think I prefer Three A’pence a foot to the Albert poems, but ‘ No wrecks and nobody drownded, Fac’ nothin’ to laff at at all’ is still said by all in the family at regular and appropriate intervals. We have ‘In our neck of the woods’ too, but ‘hereabouts’ is more common.
    We use ‘on ‘is ‘orse with ‘is ‘awk in ‘is ‘and’ too. And ‘ I think it’ll brighten up yet’ from the final line of ThreeA’pence a foot, a useful phrase for northern England.
    Thank you Theophylact for the link! I have now bookmarked the damn thing so I don’t lose it again.
    An aunt and uncle introduced me to the Tom Lehrer opus when I was still at school, probably soon after the records were released. They also had a Peter Sellars record with Balham, Gateway to the South, and Auntie Rotter.
    I went twice to see the musical show of Tom Lehrer’s songs in the West End in, I think, the 80s. My brother worked in theatre at the time, and could get free and last minute tickets.

  12. Helen Martin says:

    It’s the dramatic pause between Bal-ham and Gateway that always gets me. We have a book somewhere here with all the Marriott Edgar poems. They are wonderful, as are the Tom Lehrer poems. Can anyone sing the Table of the Elements?

  13. Andrew Holme says:

    Alvin Stardust’s son is currently headteacher at my old school in Reigate.

  14. Ian Luck says:

    Helen – In a book I have at home, It’s ‘The Lion And Albert, which, to my way of thinking, hasn’t got the euphony of ‘Albert And The Lion’.

  15. Wayne Mook says:

    He’ll always be Shane Fenton to me. ‘5 foot 2, Eyes of Blue’, did you know he’s a moody guy? Although to his mum he was a Bernard.

    I still remember the green X code with David Prowse & Alvin, Alvin looked really creepy. That big ring and pointing, and saying ‘…and remember I won’t be there when you cross the road.’

    I think Belloc is a slave to tradition, I blame that wolf Aesop.

    Thinking of some of the comic monologues of Robb Wilton, Les Dawson even Tom O’Connor (my uncle (a guitarist & electrician so very useful.) worked the Northern Working Men’s Clubs, O’Connor was about the only comic who didn’t resort to blue material and he still had the audience in the palm of his hand.)

    The 3 ha’pence a foot and a ride on me ark, I heard Mike Harding (he’s posh he pronounces the H.) doing it {…’till last dry land was at Blackpool and that was on top of the tower.}. On his single The Rochdale Cowboy the B-side was better – The Strangeways Hotel [which no longer exists, they renamed it HMP Manchester; Well it worked for Windscale]. Harding also reworked ‘Oh dear what can the matter be?’ about a council estate out in the wilds, Hattersley. It’s near Glossop and Hadfield, Glossop is the higher falutin;’ place, in Hadfield they drag their knuckles on the ground, in Glossop they have little boxes with wheels to put them in. Sorry if your from either place, I just couldn’t resist it.

    Neck of the woods is still in use, or so ‘our kid’ reckons.

    You asked for a modern cruel rhyme so here goes.

    Fernley feared missing out so googled everyday
    While googling maps his missed the traffic coming the other way
    But the flattening traffic didn’t miss him in anyway.

    I’ll get my smartphone, this t’internet malarkey doin’ me bonce in.


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