The enduring appeal of the writer Hilaire Belloc’s “Cautionary Tales
for Children
” defies explanation. First published in London, in 1907, with pen-and-ink illustrations by Belloc’s friend Basil Blackwood, they have never been
out of print. According to Belloc, the rhyming verses were “designed for
the admonition of children between the ages of eight and fourteen
years,” but their slyly satiric assaults on upper-class Victorian
society have always appealed primarily to adults. They went right by me
when I heard them for the first time, read aloud, in the summer of 1934,
by my parents’ friend Harry Holmes, who had brought the first American
edition of the book when he came to visit us at our rented house in the
Adirondacks. The occasion and the reader are somewhat dim in my memory—I
was nine at the time—but I recall hearing gales of laughter from the
assembled grownups over the tale of Jim, “Who ran away from his Nurse,
and was eaten by a Lion.” The poem’s closing lines were:

And always keep a-hold of Nurse

For fear of finding something worse.

Belloc had the bad luck to mistake himself for a serious writer. In his
long and frantically busy life, he published more than a hundred and
forty books and pamphlets—histories, biographies, novels, poetry
collections, economic tracts, fervent defenses of the Catholic faith—few
of which were widely read during his lifetime, and almost none of which
are in print today. But, the “Cautionary Tales,” in a collected edition
that includes his earlier “Bad Child’s Book of Beasts” and “More Beasts
for Worse Children,” sails along from one generation to the next, read
by enthralled parents to young children who are often perplexed and
sometimes bored by their verses, but rarely as amused as we hope that they
will be. What my own children mostly remember is how much I enjoyed
reciting them aloud. Belloc’s “Henry King, Who chewed bits of String,
and was early cut off in Dreadful Agonies,” for instance, is short, and
easily delivered whole.

The Chief Defect of Henry King

Was chewing little bits of String.

At last he swallowed some which tied

Itself in ugly Knots inside.

Physicians of the Utmost Fame

Were called at once; but when they came

They answered, as they took their Fees,

“There is no Cure for this Disease.

Henry will very soon be dead.”

His Parents stood about his Bed

Lamenting his Untimely Death,

When Henry, with his Latest Breath,

Cried—“Oh my friends, be warned by me.

That Breakfast, Dinner, Lunch and Tea

Are all the Human Frame requires . . . ”

With that the Wretched Child expires.

Note the concision with which our poet skewers children’s annoying
habits, the practice of medicine, aloof parents (“stood about his Bed”),
and British alimentation. At nine, I didn’t get it. Satire, to children,
is uncool—they much prefer the macabre cruelties of the Brothers Grimm,
where witches are pushed into ovens and Cinderella’s mean sisters (in
the original version) cut off their own toes to get into the golden
slipper. What I remember most clearly about Harry Holmes’s reading of
Belloc is that it was interrupted by Ivan, our highly moral black Lab.
Dinner had been frankfurters roasted on long forks in the vast stone
fireplace—my parents had planned a picnic, but it was raining—and at
some point my Uncle Cotty, a natural humorist from the deep South,
directed our attention to Ivan. The dog was standing stock-still in the
doorway, facing us, an uncooked frank sited so perfectly in his mouth
that it stuck out evenly on both sides. He knew that he’d done wrong,
and his conscience-stricken expression upstaged the reading.

Belloc had five children of his own, whom he doted on when he was at
home, which was seldom. He travelled extensively, served two terms in
Parliament, spent his evenings drinking with friends at clubs and
taverns, and did a backbreaking amount of what he called “hack-work” to
support his family. His light verse, which was often compared favorably
to that of Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear, may have seemed like hack-work
to him; he certainly never imagined it would eclipse his prose writings.
For a man of his mixed background and unique gifts, however, light verse
proved the perfect outlet. Belloc was half French. His British mother
had married a French solicitor named Louis Belloc, and both Hilaire and
his older sister, Marie, spent their first years in the Belloc family
house in La Celle-Saint-Cloud, twelve miles from Paris. Louis Belloc
lost his modest fortune in the stock market, and died when Hilaire was
two. His widow took the children back to London, and Belloc went to
English schools and had five very happy years at Balliol College, in
Oxford, where, according to his classmate E. C. Bentley, “His personal
magnetism, his cascade of ideas, of talk, of fervid oratory, his
exuberant and irreverent humor, his love of bodily activity and
adventure, carried all before them.” Every summer, though, Belloc and
Marie went to stay in La Celle-Saint-Cloud, and he remained a French
citizen all his life, assuming dual nationality after becoming a
naturalized British subject, in 1902.

From Oxford onward, Bellow viewed British life through the double lens
of Gallic irony and Catholic disapproval. His political views embraced
immense contradictions: he was anti-imperialist, but skeptical of
parliamentary democracy; opposed in equal measure to capitalism and
socialism; anti-Semitic, but violently scornful of Hitler. He infuriated
his enemies (H. G. Wells among them) but so charmed his admirers
(Gilbert Chesterton, Max Beerbohm, and George Bernard Shaw, among
others) that they forgave him every excess. “He made his friends laugh
until they ached,” his biographer, A. N. Wilson, writes. “He was
ebulliently well-informed, spontaneously hilarious, mischievous and, at
the same time, tough.” Just the man, in other words, to mock the
crumbling pillars of the British Empire.

Peers of the realm were his chosen victims. Belloc’s Lord Lundy had
every advantage and one major flaw—a tendency to shed tears at the
slightest provocation. His family “shoved him into politics,” where he
sank from one inconsequential Cabinet post to another, shedding copious
tears at every turn, until the Duke, “his aging grand-sire,”

. . . rallied his declining powers,

Summoned the youth to Brackley Towers,

And bitterly addressed him thus—

“Sir! You have disappointed us!

We had intended you to be

The next Prime Minister but three:

The stocks were sold; the Press was squared:

The Middle Class was quite prepared.

But as it is! . . . My language fails!

Go out and govern New South Wales!”

The bad things that happen to Belloc’s bad children don’t teach us
lessons; they make us laugh. Take the unfortunate Jim, who slipped away
from his nurse at the zoo:

He hadn’t gone a yard when—

Bang! With open Jaws, a Lion sprang.

And hungrily began to eat

The Boy: beginning at his feet.

Now just imagine how it feels

When first your toes and then your heels,

And then by gradual degrees,

Your shins and ankles, calves and knees,

Are slowly eaten, bit by bit.

No wonder Jim detested it!

In place of fearsome gore, the wonderfully inappropriate “detested”
gives deep satisfaction.

A similar sangfroid attends the misfortune of several other miscreants.
Young Algernon, “The Doctor’s son, / Was playing with a Loaded gun. / He
pointed it toward his sister, Aimed very carefully, but / Missed her.”
George’s generous Grandmama buys him an “Immense BALLOON,” which
explodes, killing or maiming most of the household staff, “While George,
who was in part to blame / Received, you will regret to hear / A nasty
lump behind the ear.” John Vavassour de Quentin Jones, who stands to
inherit his uncle Bill’s great fortune, is undone by his love for
throwing stones. (“Like many of the Upper Class / He liked the sound of
Broken Glass.”) When he accidentally launches one that hits his
benefactor in the eye, Uncle Bill disinherits him on the spot, and wills
his estate to his young nurse-companion, the lovely Miss Charming, “Who
now resides in Portman Square / And is accepted everywhere.”

Matilda, a compulsive liar, amuses herself when her parents are out by
summoning “London’s Noble Fire Brigade.”

They ran their ladders through a score

Of windows on the Ball Room Floor;

And 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!

Inevitably, when the house does catch fire and Matilda screams for help,
no one believes her.

The verses in Belloc’s “Bad Child’s Book of Beasts” and “More Beasts for Worse Children” are clever, but, to me, they lack the
inspired nonsense of the “Cautionary Tales,” and the only one I still
quote with irritating frequency is “The Crocodile,” whose closing six-line crescendo spreads over five illustrated pages. Its subject is a
Missionary in “some far Coptic town” who sits down to breakfast by the Nile.

Why does he start and leap amain,

And scour the sandy Lydian plain

Like one who wants to catch a train,

Or wrestles with internal pain?

Because he finds his egg contain—

Green, hungry, horrible and plain

An infant crocodile.

Kids do giggle a bit at this one, especially if they’re looking at Basil
Blackwood’s antic illustrations.

Belloc’s life, one feels, was more happy than not. He adored his
American wife, an Irish Catholic girl from California named Elodie
Hogan, and her death, in 1914, of influenza, was a cruel blow. He
mourned her with Victorian rigor, closing the door to her bedroom in
their West Sussex house and never reopening it during his lifetime. He
did not remarry, and in time he was able to resume his hyperactive
schedule—writing three or four books a year, sailing his boat,
travelling, and lecturing in the United States whenever his funds ran
short. A series of strokes in his last decade took the edge off his
effervescence, but until the end he was still capable of self-mockery.
He often entertained his visiting children and grandchildren after
dinner by shouting old English drinking songs and reciting the
“Cautionary Tales.”

His death, in 1953, just a few days short of his eighty-third birthday,
was peaceful. He had escaped the fate of Mary Lunn, a lady in one of his
later poems, who

Died suddenly, at ninety-one

Of Psittacosis, not before

Becoming an appalling bore.