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Friday, February 25, 2011

Matilda, Who Told Lies, and Was Burned to Death

(An illustration from The Wild Things by Maurice Sendak,
born 1928, American artist and writer)

The cautionary tales or verses designed to instruct children in the virtuous and safe life are often filled with dry and dull lessons.

There are exceptions. In Germany, in 1845, Heinrich Hoffmann (1809-1894) published
Der Struwwelpeter, or Slovenly Peter, as Mark Twain called him in his translation. Among the sensible rules Hoffmann set out for children to follow, one verse urged them to watch where they are going and another, to eat the soup their mothers serve them, or else dire consequences would befall them. He also included moral lessons. One verse admonishes three naughty boys who are teasing a dark-skinned youngster; St. Nicholas dunks them in black ink to make them even darker than the boy they had made fun of.

In our time, the American writer and artist Edward Gorey (1925-2000) published his own whimsical and melodramatic warnings directed at both children and adults.

But it fell to an English writer before him, Hilaire Belloc (1870-1953), to satirize this genre with cautionary verses that were quite over the top.

“Upon being asked by a Reader whether the verses contained in a collection of cautionary verses were true,” Belloc wrote the following introduction:

And is it True? It is not True.
And if it were it wouldn’t do,
For people such as me and you
Who pretty nearly all day long
Are doing something rather wrong.
Because if things were really so,
You would have perished long ago,
And I would not have lived to write
The noble lines that meet your sight,
Nor survived to draw
The nicest things you ever saw.

Both Hofmann and Belloc warned against playing with fire — Hoffmann’s Pauline is fascinated with matches, and Belloc’s Matilda is a practiced prevaricator.


Matilda told such Dreadful Lies,
It made one Gasp and Stretch one’s Eyes;
Her Aunt, who, from her Earliest Youth,
Had kept a Strict Regard for Truth,
Attempted to Believe Matilda:
The effort very nearly killed her,
And would have done so, had not She
Discovered this Infirmity.

For once, towards the Close of Day,
Matilda, growing tired of play,
And finding she was left alone,
Went tiptoe to the Telephone
And summoned the Immediate Aid
Of London's Noble Fire-Brigade.
Within an hour the Gallant Band
Were pouring in on every hand,
From Putney, Hackney Downs, and Bow.
With Courage high and Hearts a-glow,
They galloped, roaring through the Town,
“Matilda’s House is Burning Down!”

Inspired by British Cheers and Loud
Proceeding from the Frenzied Crowd,
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.

It happened that a few Weeks later
Her Aunt was off to the Theatre
To see that Interesting Play
The Second Mrs. Tanqueray.
She had refused to take her Niece
To hear this Entertaining Piece:
A Deprivation Just and Wise
To Punish her for Telling Lies.

That Night a Fire did break out —
You should have heard Matilda Shout!
You should have heard her Scream and Bawl,
And throw the window up and call
To People passing in the Street —
(The rapidly increasing Heat
Encouraging her to obtain
Their confidence) — but all in vain!

For every time she shouted “Fire!”
They only answered “Little Liar!”
And therefore when her Aunt returned,
Matilda, and the House, were Burned.

~ Hilaire Belloc (1870-1953), French-born poet, essayist and historian, who became a naturalized British citizen and even served as a Member of Parliament for five years

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