Hilaire Belloc (1870-1953) was French by birth but spent most of his life in England, becoming naturalised as British in 1902. He was an extremely prolific writer in a number of fields as well as being a poet, and he even found time to serve as a Liberal Member of Parliament from 1906 to 1910.
Although he wrote a great deal of “serious” poetry, he is best remembered today for his satirical and children’s poems. The latter included his 1896 collection “The Bad Child’s Book of Beasts” (followed by “More Beasts (for Worse Children)” in 1910) and “Cautionary Tales for Children” which appeared in 1907. There were eleven poems in this latter collection, plus a short introduction, with all the poems being written in rhyming couplets in a mock-solemn style.
“Matilda Who Told Lies, and was Burned to Death” is one of the best-known Cautionary Tales. It comprises 50 lines of rhyming couplets, split into two sections of 30 and 20 lines. In the first section we meet Matilda, whose age is not given, and her Aunt, with whom Matilda appears to live in a large London house. We learn about Matilda’s habit of lying, and her Aunt’s opposite characteristic, at the very start:
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,
The mock-solemn tone is thus established straight away, aided by the use of upper-case initial letters for the most Important Words, except in the final line quoted above where one might expect the reader’s voice to drop to a lower register if the poem is being read aloud. The rhyming of “Matilda” with “killed her” also helps with the humour of the poem.
Matilda calls the Fire Brigade to the house, who arrive in force and proceed to run “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”. Matilda’s Aunt has great trouble in “showing them they were not needed; / And even then she had to pay / To get the Men to go away!” That is the final line of the first section, which does not need any more to tell the story and give the reader a fair idea of the conversation that Matilda will shortly have with her Aunt.
The second part of the poem is its denouement. It should surprise no-one that the outcome is a disastrous one, especially as the plot has already been given away by the poem’s title. The light tone is beautifully continued by the use of apparently extraneous detail in the opening lines:
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.
One wonders if Belloc chose to use that particular play title only because it scanned and rhymed properly. Although the play, by Arthur Wing Pinero, was a sensation at the time and would have been known about by many of Belloc’s original readers, it hardly counted as an “entertaining piece” that would be suitable for a young girl like Matilda to attend. Far from being a light comedy, its plot included themes of sexual mistreatment, troubled pasts and recriminations, and ended with the title character’s apparent suicide.
So was this reference an accident on Belloc’s part, or could it have been a deliberate pointer to the fact that maybe Matilda’s Aunt is not such a truthful person after all and her reason for not allowing Matilda to go has nothing to do with punishment? On the other hand, is all this just an unnecessary diversion from the story at hand, which is that, for whatever reason, Matilda has been left alone in the house when a real fire breaks out?
There is more mock-solemn in:
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
This is followed by the rapid “coup de grace” that summarises the end of the story and points the moral:
For every time she shouted ‘Fire!’
They only answered ‘Little Liar’!
And therefore when the Aunt returned,
Matilda, and the House, were Burned.
This is therefore a modern version of “The Boy who Cried Wolf” from Aesop’s Fables, told as a comic poem with a view to giving entertainment as well as imparting a lesson. Children will always learn better if what they are told makes them laugh and want to hear more. It also falls squarely into the category of “exaggerated consequence” tale that is designed to make children behave better by pointing out what could go wrong if they carry on as they are doing. All children tell lies, but very few get burned to death as a result; however, a child might respond more readily to being told off by a parent if they are put in fear of something really dreadful happening if they do not mend their ways. Belloc's other Cautionary Tales use the same device to warn children against such vices as slamming doors, eating bits of string and wandering away from their nanny, all of which end with the death of the miscreant.
Belloc shows great skill in the way he builds the story in "Matilda", such as the account of the Fire Brigade racing through the town and being cheered on by the crowds. This occupies eight lines out of the total of thirty in the first section, with the exaggeration of lines such as “With Courage high and Hearts a-glow” adding to the sense of excitement and drama. “Matilda” is a well-crafted piece that works as well for adults as for children, and is still as relevant in the 21st century as it was more than a hundred years ago when originally published.