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467px-William_S._Gilbert_(1878)Another great Victorian practitioner of light verse was William Gilbert of the Gilbert and Sullivan light operas. I thought I should include him too in this series, since he was a gifted librettist and in fact set the stage for the delightful and witty tradition of English musicals. The lyrics in the best musicals (the one art form in which the Americans have rivaled the British) have often a great deal to say to us besides providing entertainment, and the perspectives they embody are socially fascinating.

Glbert’s lyrics cover a great range, though one can trace certain themes recurring. One of these is his cynical view of British worthies. His Admiral of the Fleet, his Model Major General, and his Lord Chief Justice, are caricatures, but the qualities they embody can be seen in similar holders of (and aspirants to) high positions all over the world.

I do not need to expound this statement, since the lyrics speak for themselves. I am only sorry that I have to be selective in reproducing them –

I am the very model of a modern Major-General,

I’ve information vegetable, animal, and mineral,

I know the kings of England, and I quote the fights historical

From Marathon to Waterloo, in order categorical;a

I’m very well acquainted, too, with matters mathematical,

I understand equations, both the simple and quadratical,

About binomial theorem I’m teeming with a lot o’ news, (bothered for a rhyme)

With many cheerful facts about the square of the hypotenuse.

After a comprehensive account of theoretical knowledge that is irrelevant to the man’s work, he ends with an even more devastating account of relevant theory

For my military knowledge, though I’m plucky and adventury,

Has only been brought down to the beginning of the century;

But still, in matters vegetable, animal, and mineral,

I am the very model of a modern Major-General.

Then we have the cutting social satires, on the House of Lords, on the aesthetic movement as represented most obviously by Oscar Wilde, and on social change in general. In Patience the poet Bunthorne confesses that the persona he has adopted is false

Am I alone, And unobserved? I am!

Then let me own I’m an aesthetic sham!

This air severe Is but a mere Veneer!

This cynic smile Is but a wile Of guile!

This costume chaste Is but good taste Misplaced!

Let me confess!

A languid love for lilies does not blight me!

Lank limbs and haggard cheeks do not delight me!

I do not care for dirty greens By any means.

I do not long for all one sees That’s Japanese.

I am not fond of uttering platitudes In stained-glass attitudes.

In short, my mediaevalism’s affectation,

Born of a morbid love of admiration

Preposterous is a different way is the entry of members of the House of Lords in Iolanthe

Loudly let the trumpet bray!


Proudly bang the sounding brasses!

Tzing! Boom!

As upon its lordly way

This unique procession passes,

Tantantara! Tzing! Boom!

Bow, bow, ye lower middle classes!

Bow, bow, ye tradesmen, bow, ye masses!

Blow the trumpets, bang the brasses!

Tantantara! Tzing! Boom!

We are peers of highest station,

Paragons of legislation,

Pillars of the British nation!

Tantantara! Tzing! Boom!

In addition to the exuberant humour, Sullivan could also be both romantic and sentimental, as we see in Iolanthe, which is a triumph of stagecraft, and can be seen with increasing enjoyment again and again. The plot is extremely complicated and quite absurd, with its basis the fact that Strephon is the son of a fairy, but also of a mortal. He therefore grows and looks much older than his ageless fairy mother Iolanthe, which adds to the complications when his beloved Phyllis sees them together.

The Lord Chancellor, who is in fact Strephon’s father, is also in love with Phyllis. All is resolved however when Iolanthe reveals her true identity, so that the appropriate couples can pair off. And to facilitate this, the problem that Iolanthe had faced, in defying the ban on fairies marrying mortals, is resolved by the simple expedient of amending the law so that it becomes “every fairy who don’t marry a mortal shall die.”

Adding to the entertainment are the LordsTolloler and Mountararat whose approach to love and life is splendidly zany. The former urges the claims to romance of the well-connected

Spurn not the nobly born

With love affected,

Nor treat with virtuous scorn

The well-connected.

High rank involves no shame

We boast an equal claim

With him of humble name

To be respected!

Blue blood! blue blood!

When virtuous love is sought

Thy power is naught,

Though dating from the Flood,

Blue blood! Ah, blue blood!


And the latter has a splendid account of the work of the House of Lords

When Britain really ruled the waves

(In good Queen Bess’s time)

The House of Peers made no pretence

To intellectual eminence,

Or scholarship sublime;

Yet Britain won her proudest bays

In good Queen Bess’s glorious days!


When Wellington thrashed Bonaparte,

As every child can tell,

The House of Peers, throughout the war,

Did nothing in particular,

And did it very well:

Yet Britain set the world ablaze

In good King George’s glorious days!

Gilbert could also approach tragedy, as in The Yeoman of the Guard with its astonishingly complicated plot. What sticks in the mind there, despite the comic reverses, is the plight of the strolling player Jack Point, whose companion Elsie is paired at the end with Colonel Fairfax who was condemned to death but pardoned. His final song, to which Elsie responds sympathetically, while sticking to the Colonel, is most moving –

Point –

Attend to me, and shed a tear or two —

For I have a song to sing, O!


All. Sing me your song, O!



It is sung to the moon

By a love-lorn loon,

Who fled from the mocking throng, O?

It’s the song of a merryman, moping mum.

Whose soul was sad and whose glance was glum.

Who sipped no sup and who craved no crumb.

As he sighed for the love of a ladye!

All.Heighdy! Heighdy!



I have a song to sing, O!


All. What is your song, O?


It is sung with the ring

Of the songs maids sing.

Who love with a love life-long, O!

It’s the song of a merrymaid, nestling near.

Who loved her lord — but who dropped a tear

At the moan of the merryman, moping mum.

Whose soul was sad and whose glance was glum,

Who sipped no sup and who craved no crumb,

As he sighed for the love of a ladye!

The play ends with the stage direction ‘Fairfax embraces Elsie as Point falls insensible at their feet.’

But it would not do to end on that note, so I will conclude with the song of the Mikado, in Gilbert and Sullivan’s whimsical transposition of Victorian society absurdities to Japan –

A more humane Mikado never

Did in Japan exist,

To nobody second,

I’m certainly reckoned

A true philanthropist.

It is my very humaneendeavour

To make, to some extent,

Each evil liver

A running river

Of harmless merriment.


My object all sublime

I shall achieve in time–

To let the punishment fit the crime–

The punishment fit the crime;

And make each prisoner pent

Unwillingly represent

A source of innocent merriment!

Of innocent merriment!


All prosy dull society sinners,

Who chatter and bleat and bore,

Are sent to hear sermons

From mystical Germans

Who preach from ten till four.

The amateur tenor, whose vocal villainies

All desire to shirk,

Shall, during off-hours,

Exhibit his powers

To Madame Tussaud’s waxwork.


The lady who dyes a chemical yellow

Or stains her grey hair puce,

Or pinches her figure,

Is painted with vigour

With permanent walnut juice.

The idiot who, in railway carriages,

Scribbles on window-panes,

We only suffer

To ride on a buffer

In Parliamentary trains.


The advertising quack who wearies

With tales of countless cures,

His teeth, I’ve enacted,

Shall all be extracted

By terrified amateurs.

The music-hall singer attends a series

Of masses and fugues and “ops”

By Bach, interwoven

With Spohr and Beethoven,

At classical Monday Pops.


The billiard sharp who any one catches,

His doom’s extremely hard–

He’s made to dwell–

In a dungeon cell

On a spot that’s always barred.

And there he plays extravagant matches

In fitless finger-stalls

On a cloth untrue

With a twisted cue

And elliptical billiard balls

A Japanese emperor punishing someone who cheats at billiards by giving him elliptical billiard balls to play with is a truly sublime fantasy.