Hillaire Belloc was a well-known satirist. A satire is written to expose the weaknesses of a person. It ridicules the failings and flaws of society. “The Microbe” and “Matilda” are examples of his style of writing.
In this poem the theme is the danger of “crying wolf”. Matilda was a naughty child who obtained an immoral kind of pleasure by misleading people. At this point I am reminded of Nicholas and Nora in two of Saki’s short stories “The Lumber Room” and “The Open Window” who are similarly mischievous. However, unlike Belloc, Saki celebrates the mischievousness of the children.
Matlida’s aunt who values truth makes every attempt at first to believe her deceitful niece. It seems that if her efforts have nearly cost her life. Luckily she learns the danger of believing her untruthful relative before she lost her life or limbs.
Matilda told such dreadful lies,
It made one gasp and stretch one’s eyes;
Her aunt, who, from her earliest youth,
Had kept strict regard for truth,
Attempted to believe Matilda;
The effort very nearly killed her
And would have done so, had not she
Discovered this infirmity.
But is what Matilda does just an infirmity? Could all these practical jokes be a plea for attention from an orphan? Matilda seemed to have possessed a very active imagination. Could she have used it better with proper guidance? The mischievous girl devoid of an outlet for her creativity resorts to pranks. This is the case with many people accused of crimes and misdemeanours. When their intelligence and energies are not properly channelled they often find outlets that are often labelled as anti-social.
For, once towards the close of day,
Matilda, growing tired of play
And finding she was left alone,
Went tiptoe to the telephone
And summoned the immediate aid
Of London’s Noble Fire Brigade
So Matilda in order to entertain her active imagination calls the fire brigade. One cannot approve what she has done as it has caused such chaos. At the same time the very fact she had managed to convince the London Fire Brigade that there was a fire in her house makes one feel impressed by her creativity and intelligence. Usually it takes a lot of convincing to make the fire brigade roll out sirens blaring. But in this case the fire brigade does not sound all too bright.
The next part of the stanza describes how the well-meaning but slightly retarded fire brigade wreck havoc in Matilda’s aunt’s house.
“Within an hour the gallant band
Were pouring in on every hand
From Putney, Hackney Downs and Bow,
With courage high and hearts a-glow
They galloped roaring through the town,
“Matilda’s house is burning down”
It takes the fire brigade an hour to get organized, ample time for a house to burn completely down. Once they have got themselves organized, fire fighters from all over London come rushing crying, “Matilda’s house is burning down”. They gallop bravely with noble thoughts in their minds. Naturally people would cheer the gallant men on:
Inspired by British cheers and loud
Proceeding from the frenzied crowds
They ran their ladders through a score
Of windows on the ball-room floor,
And took peculiar pains to souse
The pictures up and down the house,
Until Matilda’s aunt succeeded
In showing them that they were not needed
And even then she had to pay
To get them to go away!
Emboldened by the cheers of the public, the fire brigade resorts to comical behaviour. The result is many shattered windows on the ballroom floor and drenched artwork. The behaviour of the fire brigade borders on stupidity. They are over emotional and unprofessional in the way they handle the situation. Due to this the poor longsuffering aunt has to bear a massive amount of damage. One can almost see the over enthusiastic fire fighters going around the house wrecking it followed closely by Matilda’s aunt pleading with them to stop. In the end she has to bribe them to prevent further destruction. It is as if Matilda has a good idea of the type of people who manned institutions that served the public.
A few weeks later the aunt goes to the Theatre leaving Matilda home as a punishment. Luck would have it a fire actually breaks out that very night. Locked in Matilda is incapable of escaping. It would not have worked had she called the fire brigade as they would have ignored her call as another prank. So she is reduced to calling for help. Of course no one takes her seriously. Whenever she calls out, “Fire” she is promptly called “Little Liar!” by the passers-by. So she burns to death. The aunt returning from the theatre is confronted with the sight of the burnt down house.
It is almost a re-enactment of “The Boy Who Cried Wolf.” Matilda dies mainly due to her own conduct. One must be truthful. Dishonest people are not taken seriously by anyone. Those who are rejected by society often perish. Dishonesty causes trouble not only to others but to the person himself as well.
The poet had written the entire poem in rhyming couplets. It adds a musical quality to the poem. Without using much figurative language the poet had managed to create unforced humour as well as irony. There is an equal number of “feet” in each line making reading the poem aloud effortless.