by NONA BLYTH CLOUD
I’m in the mood for a Trip to the Zoo, and I think Hilaire Belloc (1870-1953) will be the perfect guide. His classic books, The Bad Child’s Book of Beasts,
and More Beasts for Worse Children, prove his knowledge of beasties large and small. (He’d be one of my favorite satirists even if he hadn’t written The Cruise of the Nona, but my discovery of that book certainly clinched our literary friendship.)
If you are unfamiliar with Monsieur Belloc, and would like to know more about his most interesting life, I refer you to my earlier profile of him, Word Cloud: WHIRLIGIG. Access here: https://flowersforsocrates.com/2017/09/15/word-cloud-whirligig/
And now, on to the Zoo.
Since they are favorites of our guide, let’s begin with Herbivores and Ruminants.
The Bison is vain, and (I write it with pain)
The Door-mat you see on his head
Is not, as some learned professors maintain,
The opulent growth of a genius’ brain;
But is sewn on with needle and thread.
G stands for Gnu, whose weapon of defence
Are long, sharp, curling horns, and common sense.
To these he adds a name so short and strong,
That even hardy Boers pronounce it wrong.
How often on a bright autumnal day
The pious people of Pretoria say,
‘Come, let us hunt the______’ Then no more is heard
but sounds of strong men struggling with a word;
Meanwhile the distant Gnu with grateful eyes
Observes his opportunity and flies.
The Dromedary is a cheerful bird:
I cannot say the same about the Kurd.
This next animal is “mostly” a Herbivore, so he fits best here:
I shoot the Hippopotamus
With bullets made of platinum,
Because if I use leaden ones
His hide is sure to flatten ’em.
The Llama is a wooly sort of fleecy hairy goat,
With an indolent expression and an undulating throat
Like an unsuccessful literary man.
And I know the place he lives in (or at least- I think I do)
It is Ecuador, Brazil or Chile- possibly Peru;
You must find it in the Atlas if you can.
The Llama of the Pampasses you never should confound
(In spite of a deceptive similarity of sound)
With the Llama who is Lord of Turkestan.
For the former is a beautiful and valuable beast,
But the latter is not lovable nor useful in the least;
And the Ruminant is preferable surely to the Priest
Who battens on the woful superstitions of the East,
The Mongol of the Monastery of Shan.
To a Rhinoceros
Rhinoceros, your hide looks all undone,
You do not take my fancy in the least:
You have a horn where other brutes have none:
Rhinoceros, you are an ugly beast.
As a friend to the children commend me the Yak.
You will find it exactly the thing:
It will carry and fetch, you can ride on its back,
Or lead it about with a string.
The Tartar who dwells on the plains of Thibet
(A desolate region of snow)
Has for centuries made it a nursery pet.
And surely the Tartar should know!
Then tell your papa where the Yak can be got,
And if he is awfully rich
He will buy you the creature – or else he will not.
(I cannot be positive which.)
Moving on, let’s peek in at the Big Cats.
The Lion, the Lion, he dwells in the Waste,
He has a big head and a very small waist;
But his shoulders are stark, and his jaws they are grim,
And a good little child will not play with him.
The Tiger, on the other hand,
Is kittenish and mild,
And makes a pretty playfellow
For any little child.
And mothers of large families
(Who claim to common sense)
Will find a tiger well repays
The trouble and expense.
Shall we wander around a little, and see what we can find?
Be kind and tender to the Frog,
And do not call him names,
As ‘Slimy skin,’ or ‘Polly-wog,’
Or likewise ‘Ugly James,’
Or ‘Gap-a-grin,’ or ‘Toad-gone-wrong,’
Or ‘Bill Bandy-knees’:
The Frog is justly sensitive
To epithets like these.
No animal will more repay
A treatment kind and fair;
At least so lonely people say
Who keep a frog (and, by the way,
They are extremely rare).
The species Man and Marmozet
Are intimately linked;
The Marmozet survives as yet,
But Men are all extinct.
The Scorpion is as black as soot,
He dearly loves to bite;
He is a most unpleasant brute
To find in bed at night.
The Vulture eats between his meals,
And that’s the reason why
He very, very, rarely feels
As well as you and I.
His eye is dull, his head is bald,
His neck is growing thinner.
Oh! what a lesson for us all
To only eat at dinner!
If you’d rather look at the biggest animals, here are a pair of them.
When people call this beast to mind,
They marvel more and more
At such a little tail behind,
So large a trunk before.
The Whale that wanders round the Pole
Is not a table fish.
You cannot bake or boil him whole
Nor serve him in a dish;
But you may cut his blubber up
And melt it down for oil.
And so replace the colza bean
(A product of the soil).
These facts should all be noted down
And ruminated on,
By every boy in Oxford town
Who wants to be a Don.
But Belloc hasn’t overlooked even the smallest creatures.
The Microbe is so very small
You cannot make him out at all,
But many sanguine people hope
To see him through a microscope.
His jointed tongue that lies beneath
A hundred curious rows of teeth;
His seven tufted tails with lots
Of lovely pink and purple spots,
On each of which a pattern stands,
Composed of forty separate bands;
His eyebrows of a tender green;
All these have never yet been seen–
But Scientists, who ought to know,
Assure us that they must be so….
Oh! let us never, never doubt
What nobody is sure about!
I hope you’ve enjoyed this tour of the Zoo, and appreciate our guide’s commentary as much as I do. Thanks for your company!
- The Bad Child’s Book of Beasts, by Hilaire Belloc, reissued by Dodo Press (April 2008)
- More Beasts for Worse Children, by Hilaire Belloc,reissued by University of Michigan Library (April 2009)
- Cautionary Tales for Children, by Hilaire Belloc, originally published in 1907
- The Bison, Hippopotamus, Rhinoceros, Lion, Tiger, Frog, Vulture and Whale are all based on the original illustrations by Basil Temple Blackwood for Hilaire Belloc’s books
- The Gnu, Dromedary, Llama, Yak, Scorpion, Elephant, and Microbe were put together from internet sources
- The Marmoset was drawn by R. Stovall
Word Cloud photo by Larry Cloud