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September 07, 2005

Oh, My Friends, Be Warned By Me . . . Hilaire Belloc's Selected Cautionary Verse

Posted by Lincoln Allison

Selected Cautionary Verses
by Hilaire Belloc
originally published 1940
Pp. 185. Puffin Books, 1950
Cautionary Verses has been re-issued, with illustrations by Quentin Blake, by Jonathan Cape (2004)

In the 1980s one of the minor substantial pleasures of my life was to return home from work, choose something to sip and then to declaim comic verse to such of my sons as I could assemble. The frequency of my performance of this duty/pleasure went up markedly when I was instructed that the family had reached its target size. Now or never: concentrates the mind. Sometimes the audience was swelled by guest faces, intrigued and a little intimidated by the unfamiliar ritual of declamation, though I was much pleased when a woman stopped me in the street and told me how much her son was looking forward to coming round and having the experience again.

Roald Dahl featured prominently, of course, and A. A. Milne. Tennyson, Wordsworth, Southey and Sir Henry Newbolt made occasional appearances. Burns was not a success: Daddy's Scottish voice and those dialect words were just too weird, taken together. The Great McGonagle is excellent for declaiming to a group of inebriated adults, but the ironies are lost on children who can't see what is so funny about a railway disaster which took place on:

. . the last Sabbath day of 1879,
Which will be remembered for a very long time.
The second favourite was Marriott Edgar, a much less well known name, but he did write "The Lion and Albert" which was mainly famous as a recording by Stanley Holloway (who himself wrote "Old Sam" about the dropping and picking up of a musket). The Edgar-Holloway combination produced many narrative verses, mainly rather repetitive sequels, but there are also some good ones on episodes from English history which acted out well.

The winner, though, by a small but clear margin, was the French-born former Liberal MP for Salford with his Cautionary Verses, originally a satire on Victorian morality tales, but long outlasting both the original genre and the author's 150 or so other works.

I can barely pass a window without recalling John Vavassour De Quentin Jones WHO LOST A FORTUNE BY THROWING STONES:

Like many of the upper class,
He liked the sound of breaking glass.
While the story of Matilda WHO TOLD LIES, AND WAS BURNED TO DEATH seems relevant to a wide variety of socio-economic circumstances, especially the part where London's Noble Fire-Brigade has been falsely summoned. Despite the lack of any fire, they:
. . took peculiar pains to souse
The pictures up and down the House
Until Matilda's Aunt succeeded
In showing them they were not needed
And even then she had to pay
To get the Men to go away!
The last two lines always come to mind whenever redundancy payments and "golden handshakes" are mentioned.

Beneath the apparently cheerful scepticism of the verses lies an immensely complicated man. Hilaire Belloc was the son of a French father and an English mother whose house was ransacked in by the Prussian army at the time of his birth in 1870. His life was lived almost entirely in England. He was President of the Oxford Union and awarded a first class degree, but bitterly disappointed by his failure to win a Fellowship at All Souls. His period in parliament led to a disillusionment with party politics and it is easy to see that an eccentric orator with the nickname "Old Thunder" would not get on well with party discipline. His views in the second half of his life were distinctly authoritarian, sometimes crypto-fascist, but never remotely sympathetic to Nazism. He was such a close associate of G.K.Chesterton that Shaw referred to them by the composite name "Chesterbelloc" and he knew most prominent figures in the Edwardian intelligentsia.

There was much sadness in Belloc's life. His father died when he was two (though his mother lived to be 96) and his two sons died in war. He was an invalid and inactive for the last eleven years of his life, from 1942 to 1953. There was also much controversy. Belloc was an ostentatiously devout Roman Catholic. Although his upbringing and style were entirely English, he volunteered to do his French army service, which he did not complete. He loved Sussex and wine; he disliked Germans, Jews, industrial capitalism and the English class system. One of his better known "serious" statements was that "Europe is the faith and the faith is Europe". One might argue that his ideal world would have been a united Europe, catholic and Christian Democrat (though fairly light on the democracy part), but this argument must be undermined by the thought that his arrogance, eccentricity and Englishness would have actually rebelled against such a state.

For Belloc is very susceptible to the accusation that he is primarily a poseur. I recall with some incredulity a passage in his best-known travel book, The Path to Rome (1902), in which he appears to be claiming that he can tell whether wine was made by catholics or not by drinking it. In 2003 a dryly scathing attack on Belloc appeared in The Tablet written by Fr. Ian Boyd, President of the Chesterton Institute for Faith and Culture. One of the accusations was that Belloc (unlike Chesterton), given that he was a highly intelligent man who claimed to go to mass every day, showed a remarkable lack of interest in religious doctrine, blithely remarking that if the Mother Church instructed him that the communion wafer turned into an elephant, then he would be quite happy to believe that. This sounds more like a wind-up for fellow intellectuals than a serious interest in religion and seems to go with a rapidly waning enthusiasm for French national service. There is some evidence, also, that not all of his famous walks (including the one to Rome) were actually walked.

There are intriguing questions about all the great successful children's writers concerning how one should relate their appeal to what is, in most cases, considerable achievement in other fields and dissident views on many matters. I think there is a general pattern: it is that such writers dislike industry, "modernity", capitalism and the "hurly burly of everyday life" ( as Jonathan Miller's Beyond the Fringe vicar has it, in imitation of Dean Inge) and offer us something more "spiritual", usually either religion or rural nostalgia or both. This is true even when they happen to be Governor of the Bank of England as Kenneth Grahame was, though I have never gone through Tarka the Otter or Salar the Salmon to see if you can tell whether Henry Williamson was a Nazi. (There are no doubts if you read his adult novels.)

For example, there is the question of Belloc's "anti-semitism". On one hand we have the figure of Rebecca (Offendort) WHO SLAMMED DOORS FOR FUN AND PERISHED MISERABLY. Rebecca is specifically Jewish and it is a bust of Abraham which kills her. But I can't see anything anti Jewish in the verse and this character might as well have been made Jewish on grounds of inclusiveness. Am I missing a trick about the significance of slamming doors? It is true, though, that the illustrations by B. T. B. and Nicholas Bentley are in the "eternal Jew" tradition and might even be subject to prosecution now. On the other hand, Belloc, as a supporter of the "Great Universal Church" clearly believed in human spiritual equality. Not only did he reject the kind of racialism which was endemic in his generation in England, but he satirised effectively the kind of racial textbooks which were still hanging around schools in my childhood:

The most degraded of them all
Mediterranean we call.
His hair is crisp, and even curls,
And he is saucy with the girls.
There are clear references, naturally, to the follies and miseries of unbelievers and in "The Microbe" an interesting comparison of what is required to believe in God and to believe in germs. In the "Peers" verses the aristocracy and the hereditary principle come in for some stick, but in "The Garden Party" it is the poor old middle classes who catch it:
The People in Between
Looked underdone and harassed,
And out of place and mean,
And horribly embarrassed.
Which may only show that a cheap shot and a good rhyme are irresistible. In the end one must allow that though Belloc the man, the politician and the "serious" writer is very interesting, it is Belloc the composer of verse who is the success and that the verse has an anarchic life and direction of its own. For instance, the one thing he never was was a conservative (let alone a Conservative). But what a wonderfully conservative sentiment concludes Jim WHO RAN AWAY FROM HIS NURSE, AND WAS EATEN BY A LION:
And always keep a-hold of Nurse
For fear of finding something worse.
I suppose, if you must look for meanings, then Nurse is the Great Universal Church. But for me a row of little faces, shouting this wonderful sentiment, comes to mind. As does the face of Mrs Thatcher!

Lincoln Allison has recently retired as Reader in Politics, University of Warwick. His previous Retrospective Reviews can be read here.

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