The Tale of HB, a Serious and Ambitious Poet who was Remembered for being Extremely Silly.

The fact is this house is beginning to resemble my brain, in which bits of rhyme and reason are all jumbled up together in a glorious mess. Half the time, I don’t know who wrote what or where. Only that someone did.

Today it was Hilaire Belloc. Could I find him? No. I fell off the library steps looking.

In the house where I grew up his Cautionary Tales were in a brown hardback with illustrations by B.T.B. (Basil Temple Blackwood, who was killed at Ypres in 1917). The book was located on one of the shelves to the right of our fire-place in the sitting room, which was odd, because all the other books on that shelf were for grownups. I adored this book. How did it get there? Where did it go?

There’s also a copy in this house somewhere: not the one I grew up with; a remaindered paperback. I can visualise it clearly, but I can’t find it, even though its contents are rattling around in my head with the pictures, which stick in the mind forever. Thanks to Project Gutenberg, the Cautionary Tales, complete, with B.T.B. illustrations, are accessible. Even if it’s not quite the same.

But I learn from Wikipedia (how interesting a Sunday morning can be) that Belloc’s The Bad Child’s Book of Beasts (1896), which sold 4000 copies in three months and considerably helped his grocery bills, got caught up in a plagiarism wrangle. Lord Alfred Douglas brought out his book of funny verse for children two years later: Tails with a Twist by ‘A Belgian Hare’, also with fabulous illustrations (by E. T. Reed) and was promptly accused of plagiarising Belloc. But Douglas later suggested the theft was the other way about: Belloc had imitated him. His rhymes, he claimed, ‘had been written at least two years before Mr Belloc’s, and were widely known and quoted at Oxford, where Mr Belloc was my contemporary’.

So plagiarism (though you knew this already) is nothing new, nor is writing silly verse at Oxford. But both Belloc and Douglas thought of themselves as serious poets writing serious poems. It’s unlikely they planned to be remembered for what they are mainly remembered for: in Belloc’s case the humorous verse for children; in Douglas’s the unhappy relationship with Oscar Wilde. But without Belloc’s Cautionary Tales, could Roald Dahl’s Revolting Rhymes (with illustrations by Quentin Blake) ever have materialised? And did they not create a climate in which the incomparable A.A. Milne could flourish?b2ap3_thumbnail_STRUWWELP.jpg

The facility for witty rhyming, when it comes to the immortal memory, should not be underestimated. That, and the moral tale, goes back a long way. Belloc would have known Hoffmann’s Struwwelpeter, 1858, a volume of which we also had in our house, though Struwwelpeter is painful in its morals, and Belloc is funnier. In fact, Hilaire is hilarious, and if there is ever to be a poetry flash mob, I predict he would serve us well. I could even volunteer to organise it – though not today.

I recommend Belloc’s Lord Lundy for when you have more time but I’ll leave you (because it is short) with Henry King, who chewed bits of string and was early cut off in Dreadful Agonies. If you follow the link, you can also see the pictures.

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 answers, 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.