Thomas Humphry Ward, ed. The English Poets. 18801918. Vol. V. Browning to Rupert Brooke
Critical Introduction by Charles L. Graves
William Schwenck Gilbert (18361911)
[William Schwenck Gilbert was born in London in 1836, educated at London University, held a clerkship in the Privy Council Office from 1857 to 1862, and was called to the Bar in 1864. He began to write for the stage in 1866, his best-known plays being The Palace of Truth (1870), Pygmalion and Galatea (1871), The Wicked World (1873), Sweethearts (1874). To the earlier part of this period belong his Bab Ballads, many of which appeared in Fun. His famous partnership with Sir Arthur Sullivan was formed in 1875, and led to a long series of brilliantly successful comic operas, beginning with Trial by Jury and including The Sorcerer, H. M. S. Pinafore, The Pirates of Penzance, Patience, and The Mikado. Knighted in 1907, he died in May, 1911, from heart failure brought on by over-exertion while saving a young lady from drowning.]
W. S. GILBERT, the last of the writers of light verse who comes within our survey, was only five years younger than Calverley, but he outlived all the Cambridge poets noticed above, and was writing for at least twenty years after the death of A. C. Hilton. There is thus excuse for discussing him out of his strict order, and there are literary reasons as well. Locker compares him with the authors of Rejected Addresses, but it is not easy to see the affinity. In his feats of rhyming he recalls Barham, but he certainly owed nothing to Praed. His first success was achieved with the Bab Ballads, begun with The Yarn of the Nancy Bell, which was declined by Punch as too cannibalistic, but which revealed a distinctly new vein of extravagance. There are some critics who think that the Bab Ballads are his best work, and it is worthy of note that the plots of more than one of his comic operas are to be found in them. But there is no questioning the fact that his most enduring claim to remembrance rests on his achievements as a librettist. In this domain he improved so much on his forerunners that he founded a new school, of which he remains the most accomplished and popular representative. He had cherished other ambitions, and intermittently tried his fortune as a writer of serious or fantastico-romantic plays; but he will be remembered as the author of the Bab Ballads and the books of Trial by Jury, The Sorcerer, The Mikado, Patience, H. M. S. Pinafore, and half a dozen other comic operas, in which the collaboration of librettist and composer was so close and illustrative that, as has been said, they form a sort of musical Punch for the last twenty years or so of the nineteenth century. One cannot think of Sullivans tunes without Gilberts words, or of Gilberts words without Sullivans music. And if he was not a poet in that he lacked supreme distinction of style, fervour, and magic, he was a wonderful craftsman, a most ingenious rhymer, and a great phrase-coiner. In a recently published Dictionary of Quotations he is credited with no fewer than seventy entriesMr. Gladstone, who stands next in alphabetical order, has only eight. Many of Gilberts are still in use, and some (e.g., the admirable estimate of the House of Lords who did nothing in particular and did it very well, or his crystallization of the party system as a congenial attribute of every British boy and girl, or his statement of the credentials of a ruler of the Queens Navee) have passed into proverbs. They represent in a condensed form the cynical wisdom of the plain man. His verse was not sensuous or passionate, but it was simple, intelligible, and eminently quotable. He appealed to the plain man by his complete avoidance of all poetic inversions, and his faithful adherence to the order of good colloquial speech. He was, in the famous phrase which he himself applied to the Hamlet of a well-known actor, funny without being vulgar, though his taste was not always impeccable. His madrigals and songs, though deft in workmanship, are conventional and frigid in sentiment. And his peculiar quality of topsy-turvydom, which has perhaps added the word Gilbertian to the language, was sometimes too mechanical and calculated to be effective. It is only right to add that he sometimes prophesied better than he knew, as in the instance of the Duke of Plaza Toro who converted himself into a limited liability company. But when all deductions are made, Gilberts contribution to the gaiety of the nation and the diversion of those who, in Johnsons phrase, are afraid to sit at home and think, was perhaps larger than that of any of his contemporaries.