I remember the first time I read John Senior’s Death of Christian Culture. That it ended with a reading list was, well, something of a surprise. There was everyone you would expect—Dickens and Scott, Austen and Wister—and some I had never met. But what struck me the most were the unknown titles from authors I already enjoyed. I had been reading Belloc for years and I had never seen mention of the Bad Child’s Book of Beasts or Cautionary Tales.
It turns out that it is somewhat standard when introducing Belloc’s historical writing or cultural criticism to point out that he was famous chiefly for writing children’s books. What is more, besides a volume of mature poetry, the Bad Child’s Book was one of Belloc’s first published work, selling thousands of copies—a rather interesting start for a twenty-six year-old amateur.
Without going into too much biography, let me simply say that Belloc is incredibly funny. He has, of course, the reputation of being pugnacious, a bit irascible, and argumentative—and he is all those things and more. The reputation is rooted in reality; anyone who was read The Path to Rome knows of what I speak.
This is really a review of two separate books, but Dover has done us the service of reprinting both of them in one edition. Not only that, but they have preserved the illustrations of Basil T. Blackwood, a college friend of Belloc’s. These illustrations are essential to the joy of the works as Belloc intended. If you are printing off individual poems from the Internet with only text, you can be sure you are stoking his ire from the other side of the veil.
Why should I attempt to introduce the Bad Child’s Book when Belloc has done so himself?
I call you bad, my little child,
Upon the title page.
Because a manner rude and wild
Is common at your age.
The Moral of this priceless work
(If rightly understood)
Will make you—from a little Turk—
Senior locates this book in the “Nursery,” which is for children generally two to seven years of age. This seems about right; the poems are often short—sometimes only two lines—and you can get through a reading of the whole thing in a quarter of an hour, replete with obligatory requests to read certain passages again.
Every “beast” or animal has his own poem, and the lines are simple, wonderful, and perhaps most important, they lend themselves to memorization well. Consider the example of the Marmozet (sic):
The species Man and Marmozet
Are intimately linked;
The Marmozet survives as yet,
But Men are all extinct.
There are some peculiar modern writers who use poems like this as evidence that Belloc was really writing for adults, not children. Pay them no heed. If you would take their word over John Senior’s, you should probably find a different site to read.
Belloc would follow this work with several other books for children, such as More Beasts for Worse Children in 1897 and A Moral Alphabet in 1899. These are delightful as well, but harder to find. There was a gap of eleven years between The Bad Child’s Book of Beasts and Cautionary Tales, during which Belloc was occupied penning several dozen books in other genres.
Cautionary Tales is based on a literary model common in the nineteenth century. Like many of the old fairy tales, the plot is straightforward: a forbidden act or place is introduced, a character who disregards this warning comes along, and then the consequences are apparent to all. Belloc does not hide much in the titles of the poems: “Jim, Who ran away from his Nurse, and was eaten by a Lion”; “Matilda, Who told Lies, and was Burned to Death”; and my personal favorite: “Lord Lundy, Who was too Freely Moved to Tears, and thereby ruined his Political Career.”
I should point out that Senior recommends this work for children of a slightly older age—seven to twelve years old—though I suspect this is only because the poems are a bit longer. The illustrations remain. If your five-year-old finds them boring, you could always try singing them. (Lest you think I am jesting, apparently some British contralto did quite well touring England and singing these.)
In the end, it seems the world knows a different Belloc than Catholics do. But there is no reason this should be so. If it is easier than ever to destroy a child’s sense of wonder, we can be glad these classics are part of our tradition. And, more importantly, we can say to our children, with Belloc the poet:
And when your prayers complete the day,
Darling, your little tiny hands
Were also made, I think, to pray
For men that lose their fairylands.