W.S. Gilbert: Rhyme and Reason

pin1971Rhymes link words. In the hands of a master like Shakespeare, they gracefully tie together the disparate elements of, say, a sonnet. We admire a rhyme that quietly but firmly makes a bridge from one line or sentiment to the next.

One of the true masters of that aspect of the English language is W.S. Gilbert, famous for light verse but especially for “and Sullivan.” In operettas like H.M.S. Pinafore where Gilbert wrote the words and Sullivan the music, the latter’s perfectly straight and sometimes sentimental music highlights the former’s satirical lyrics and dialogue.

Gilbert’s spectacular rhymes are anything but quiet. They are intended to be visible and risible. Here are some examples, for no reason other than to make the most of a January afternoon.

In his early collaboration with Sullivan, the short piece Trial by Jury, we find lines like these:

Doubly criminal to do so,
For the maid had bought her trousseau.


O fetch some water from far Cologne;
For this sad slaughter, Atone! Atone!

In Pinafore, when Captain Corcoran confronts his daughter about to elope with Able Seaman Ralph Rackstraw, he declares:

Pretty daughter of mine, I insist upon knowing
Where you may be going with these sons of the brine;
For my excellent crew, though foes they could thump any,
Are scarcely fit company
My daughter,  for you.

And the captain, who “hardly ever swears a big, big D,”  in exasperation  further declares:

In uttering a reprobation to any British tar,
I try to speak with moderation, but you have gone too far.
I’m very sorry to disparage a humble foremast lad,
But to seek your captain’s child in marriage
Why, damme, it’s too bad!

To which language Sir Joseph Porter, K.C.B. (the ruler of the Queen’s navy), expresses his shock:

I will hear of no defence,
Attempt none if you’re sensible;
That word of evil sense
is wholly indefensible.
Go ribald, get you hence
To your cabin with celerity;
This is the consequence
Of ill-advised asperity.
For I’ll teach you all, ere long,
To refrain from language strong,
For I haven’t any sympathy for ill-bred taunts!
No more have his sisters, nor his cousins, nor his aunts.

In between songs, practically every word of dialogue furthers the satirical effect. For example, here’s how, earlier in the action, the lowly sailor expresses his love for the captain’s daughter:

“I am poor in the essence of happiness, lady – rich only in never-ending unrest. In me there meet a combination of antithetical elements which are at eternal war with one another. Driven hither by objective influences – thither by subjective emotions – wafted one moment into blazing day, by mocking hope – plunged the next into the Cimmerian darkness of tangible despair, I am but a living ganglion of irreconcilable antagonisms. I hope I make myself clear, lady?”

She replies, “Perfectly.” And then aside to the audience, “His simple eloquence goes to my heart.”

Most spectacular of all are the rhymes in Gilbert’s “patter” songs, such as the Major-General’s in Pirates of Penzance, with lines like these:

I can tell undoubted Raphaels from Gerard Dows and Zoffanies,
I know the creaking chorus from the Frogs of Aristophenes,
Then I can hum a fugue of which I’ve heard the music’s din afore,
And whistle all the airs from that infernal nonsense Pinafore.

Those airs, as well as Gilbert’s lyrics, have stood the test of time. You cannot do better.


Return to Top