The poem Matilda, written by Hilaire Belloc (1870-1953), is a typical story written in simple verse format which tells of Matilda, who was prone to telling lies. Known for works which were popularized in the late Nineteen Century and early Twentieth Century, Hilaire Belloc's poetry was diverse, though the Cautionary Tales for Children seem to have captured the hearts of parents, teachers and young readers, particularly when warning about the results of bad behavior. The book containing the poem also appeals to those who enjoy satire, and are familiar with the political time setting of the book.
This particular poem is an example of the messages written by Belloc for a audience of children, and one can imagine the nanny reading this to the children with a very animated voice, so as to entertain and to educate the children in the particular vice of telling lies and the consequences of being untruthful. Popularized in this edition, the poem was illustrated by his friend Edward Gorey in almost a Monty Python sketch style.
Matilda comes over as the daughter of a wealthy family, and when she calls for the services of the London fire brigade in a moment of boredom, this causes chaos. Her aunt was aware of her vice and certainly had more respect for people who told the truth. Coming to terms with the vice the child had and her ability to tell such whopping lies, her aunt was to live to tell the tale of how Matilda had indeed given the fire brigade a false alarm.
The meaning is very plain in the way the poem is written. There is no real need to make an analysis of the meaning of the poem, though the message is very subtle and the verse contains clever use of words, the simplicity of which add to the impact of the message. Much as the “Boy who cried wolf” fable by Aesop, Hilaire Belloc appeared to have a good understanding of the vices of children, and although not clear from this verse, one may even assume that he had a love/hate relationship with youth. He demonstrates this in attempting to address the folly of their ways in many of the cautionary verses presented, as well as admonishing the folly of adults in other satirical works within the book. Having had five children, they would certainly have influenced the writer and encouraged him in his humorous attempt to provide guidelines for children with vices.
To a certain extent the author mocks his own works when asked by a reader in the introduction to this book whether the tales found within the book are true. He replies in prose that if they were true, he might not have lived to tell the tale.
The story continues and Matilda's Aunt is rather cross at Matilda's lies. Having to deal with the harm done to the family portraits by the fire brigade hoses, the Aunt decides to punish Matilda by not inviting her to a popular play. The very fact that the Aunt would normally have invited her niece gives the impression of wealth and status, since at this juncture in British history, working class people would not have had much to do with the performing arts.
Left at home, presumably alone, Matilda finds herself engulfed in a real house fire, and opens the window and screams, her voice being ignored by all and sundry:
"For every time she shouted “Fire!”
They only answered “Little Liar!”
The scary end of the story sees the Aunt returning and finding that the house and Matilda are no longer, and have indeed been burned.
It's a great cautionary tale, and one of the most memorable to many British children growing up in the fifties and sixties. Even 50 years after the writing of the poem, it was still being read in classrooms. The style of Hilaire Belloc lends itself to this type of poem, in that the verses are constructed of very simple rhyme that occasionally takes poetic license in lines finishing with words of similar sounds:
"Attempted to believe Matilda:
The effort very nearly killed her,"
The poem was written in 1907, when Hilaire Belloc was 37 years old. Of all of the cautionary verses, this was the most suited to a child audience, although it has been argued that the verses contained in the book were more of a satirical nature aimed at an adult audience. The verse also shows very British humor at its best.
To summarize, the verse tells of what happens when you tell lies, and how you cause people to disbelieve what you say when it really matters. In simple words, rhyme and presentation, the poem is an epic.