Thursday, October 16, 2008

A Cautionary Tale

While having lunch in Charlottesville last weekend, one of "The Other Girls" was prompted to recite a poem she had written in grade school in the style of
Hilaire Belloc
I was enchanted by her rendition. It was every bit as good as an original Belloc, and even more astoundingly, could be remembered word for word, inflection by inflection and phrase by phrase by it's author. I have vague memories of the style...perhaps Lewis Carroll? If you have never experienced this poet..........
A cautionary tale is a traditional story told in folklore, to warn its hearer of a danger. There are three essential parts to a cautionary tale, though they can be introduced in a large variety of ways. First, a taboo or prohibition is stated: some act, location, or thing is said to be dangerous. Then, the narrative itself is told: someone disregarded the warning and performed the forbidden act. Finally, the violator comes to an unpleasant fate, which is frequently related in large and grisly detail.

The genre of the cautionary tale has been satirized by many writers. Hilaire Belloc in his Cautionary Tales for Children, presented such moral exemplars as "Jim, Who ran away from his Nurse, and was eaten by a Lion", and "Matilda, Who told lies, and was Burned to Death".
Rebecca by Hilaire Belloc
Who Slammed Doors For Fun And Perished Miserably

A trick that everyone abhors
In little girls is slamming doors.
A wealthy banker's little daughter
Who lived in Palace Green, Bayswater
(By name Rebecca Offendort),
Was given to this furious sport.

She would deliberately go
And slam the door like billy-o!
To make her uncle Jacob start.
She was not really bad at heart,
But only rather rude and wild;
She was an aggravating child...

It happened that a marble bust
Of Abraham was standing just
Above the door this little lamb
Had carefully prepared to slam,
And down it came! It knocked her flat!
It laid her out! She looked like that.

Her funeral sermon (which was long
And followed by a sacred song)
Mentioned her virtues, it is true,
But dwelt upon her vices too,
And showed the deadful end of one
Who goes and slams the door for fun.

The children who were brought to hear
The awful tale from far and near
Were much impressed, and inly swore
They never more would slam the door,
-- As often they had done before.

It is even more amusing that our poetry session preceded a rather unfortunate "biting" incident by a couple of unruly boys in an upscale chi-chi shop. I'm sure there is another poem that could be constructed à la Belloc serving this memory.

Illustration: "The Dreadful Story of Pauline and the Matches" from Struwwelpeter, by Heinrich Hoffman, 1858.

1 comment:

  1. Les...THANK YOU for that post. It made J's poem so much more fabulous. You did the research that I'd always planned to do but somehow never got around to. I had a copy of J's poem on my work bulletin board at Duke.

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