I was minding my own business last week—hush, it could happen—when a friend sent me a copy of a poem called “Sarah Byng, Who Could Not Read and Was Tossed into a Thorny Hedge by a Bull” with a note saying that it reminded her of me, “but in a totally twisted way.”
This worried me, but I read it anyway:
Some years ago you heard me sing
My doubts on Alexander Byng.
His sister Sarah now inspires
My jaded Muse, my failing fires.
Of Sarah Byng the tale is told
How when the child was twelve years old
She could not read or write a line.
Her sister Jane, though barely nine,
Could spout the Catechism through
And parts of Matthew Arnold too,
While little Bill who came between
Was quite unnaturally keen
On ‘Athalie’, by Jean Racine.
But not so Sarah! Not so Sal!
She was a most uncultured girl
Who didn’t care a pinch of snuff
For any literary stuff
And gave the classics all a miss.
Observe the consequence of this!
As she was walking home one day,
Upon the fields across her way
A gate, securely padlocked, stood,
And by its side a piece of wood
On which was painted plain and full,
BEWARE THE VERY FURIOUS BULL
Alas! The young illiterate
Went blindly forward to her fate,
And ignorantly climbed the gate!
Now happily the Bull that day
Was rather in the mood for play
Than goring people through and through
As Bulls so very often do;
He tossed her lightly with his horns
Into a prickly hedge of thorns,
And stood by laughing while she strode
And pushed and struggled to the road.
The lesson was not lost upon
The child, who since has always gone
A long way round to keep away
From signs, whatever they may say,
And leaves a padlocked gate alone.
Moreover she has wisely grown
Confirmed in her instinctive guess
That literature breeds distress.
I wondered when Roald Dahl had written this and how I’d missed it when I noticed the poet’s name and wondered who the heck Hilaire Belloc was and how on earth I’d missed him.*
Joseph Hilaire Pierre René Belloc (thank you very much) was born in France in 1870, married an American in 1896, and became an English citizen in 1902, which goes to show you something, but I’m not sure what that would be. He was apparently known as a generous, thoughtful man who could hold a grudge like nobody’s business, as a prolific writer in almost every form except drama, and as a thorough, devout, relentless Catholic.
And he obviously had a wicked sense of humor, despite his expression in any photograph I could find of him. “Sarah Byng” is one of his Cautionary Tales for Children, which probably isn’t entirely indicative of its true target audience, as most of them have titles like “Godolphin Horne, who was cursed with the sin of pride and became a Boot-black” and “Matilda, who told lies and was burned to death.”
Mr. Belloc’s Moral Alphabet is also not what one might ordinarily expect, either:
The Dreadful Dinotherium he
Will have to do his best for D.
The early world observed with awe
His back, indented like a saw.
His look was gay, his voice was strong;
His tail was neither short nor long;
His trunk, or elongated nose,
Was not so large as some suppose;
His teeth, as all the world allows,
Were graminivorous, like a cow’s.
He therefore should have wished to pass
Long peaceful nights upon the Grass,
But being mad the brute preferred
To roost in branches, like a bird.1
A creature heavier than a whale,
You see at once, could hardly fail
To suffer badly when he slid
And tumbled (as he always did).
His fossil, therefore, comes to light
All broken up: and serve him right.
If you were born to walk the ground,
Remain there; do not fool around.
FOOTNOTES: 1We have good reason to suppose
He did so, from his claw-like toes
Poetry with built in footnotes. Dude.**
But Mr. Belloc, who served as an MP in the House of Commons for several years, had a serious side as well. He supported radical social and economic reforms and disapproved of British imperialism, particularly in South Africa. He also disliked capitalism and preferred the idea of distributism, a system that would involve the granting—by the Catholic Church—of small, self-sufficient landholdings that would provide for the individual’s needs without the wage and tax problems that he felt were ruining England.
He wrote a few essays about this—which didn’t endear him to most of Parliament, who called him a feudal papist, among other things—and a poem or two, which endears him to me, because regardless of politics, this is driven stuff:
There is a wall of which the stones
Are lies and bribes and dead men’s bones.
And wrongfully this evil wall
Denies what all men made for all,
And shamelessly this wall surrounds
Our homesteads and our native grounds.
But I will gather and I will ride,
And I will summon a countryside,
And many a man shall hear my halloa
Who never had thought the horn to follow;
And many a man shall ride with me
Who never had thought on earth to see
High Justice in her armoury.
When we find them where they stand,
A mile of men on either hand,
I mean to charge from right away
And force the flanks of their array,
And press them inward from the plains,
And drive them clamouring down the lanes,
And gallop and harry and have them down,
And carry the gates and hold the town.
Then shall I rest me from my ride
With my great anger satisfied.
Only, before I eat and drink,
When I have killed them all, I think
That I will batter their carven names,
And slit the pictures in their frames,
And burn for scent their cedar door,
And melt the gold their women wore,
And hack their horses at the knees,
And hew to death their timber trees,
And plough their gardens deep and through—
And all these things I mean to do
For fear perhaps my little son
Should break his hands, as I have done.
So thanks to Val for introducing me to Mr. Beloc, so I could finally center that Roald Dahl / Lewis Carroll / Charles Addams Venn diagram I’ve been working on for so long.
It’s looking good.
*I expect a few of you just said, “What do you mean who the heck—he’s Hilaire Beloc. And you call yourself an Anglophile.” Fair enough.
**This one tickles me, too:
E stands for Egg.
The Moral of this verse
Is applicable to the Young. Be terse.