Thursday, November 14, 2013

And I am a doggerel bard - some Bab Ballads

W. S. Gilbert hardly used any nonsense at all, so it is entirely appropriate to include him in Nonsense Week.  He used it once in a while.

Of Agib, who amid Tartaric scenes,
Wrote a lot of ballet-music in his teens:
    His gentle spirit rolls
    In the melody of souls –
Which is pretty, but I don’t know what it means.  (“The Story of Prince Agib”)

For many people that describes poetry, not just its nonsensical version, but never mind that.

In the early 1860s, young Gilbert discovered a talent for light verse and crude illustration, and thus became a regular contributor to a magazine with the oppressive title of Fun.  His poems were collected as The Bab Ballads in 1869 and rearranged and reprinted many times.  This is all over a decade before he began his theatrical collaborations with the composer Arthur Sullivan.  Long before he was part of Gilbert and Sullivan, he was Bab.

Gilbert was more of a satirist than Edward Lear, a creator of characters who were types and behaved ridiculously yet within their social role.

"Your mind is not as blank
    As that of HOPLEY PORTER,
Who holds a curate's rank
    At Assesmilk-cum-Worter.

"He plays the airy flute,
    And looks depressed and blighted,
Doves round about him 'toot,'
    And lambkins dance delighted.

"He labours more than you
    At worsted work, and frames it;
In old maids' albums, too,
    Sticks seaweed — yes, and names it!"  (“The Rival Curates”)

The curates are rivals in mildness.  I can imagine the Monty Python game show – “Welcome to England’s Mildest Curate.”  Gilbert  blows up his types to absurd proportions.  He is not so interested in wordplay.  I am comparing him to Thomas Hood, the previous generation’s master of light verse, who used far more puns and punchlines than Gilbert, more jokes.  Although Hood had his share, Gilbert is more violent, with lots of jolly beheadings, murders, and cannibalism.

Last year, during Ghost Week, I put up a bit of a Gilbert poem, “The Ghost to His Ladye Love,” that I thought was splendidly imaginative.  Few reach that height.  “Emily, John, James, and I: A Derby Legend” comes close, ordinary in content but ingenious in form:

EMILY JANE was a nursery maid –
    JAMES was a bold Life Guard,
And JOHN was a constable, poorly paid
    (And I am a doggerel bard).

A very good girl was EMILY JANE,
    JIMMY was good and true,
And JOHN was a very good man in the main
   (And I am a good man, too).

Rivals for EMMIE were JOHNNY and JAMES,
    Though EMILY liked them both;
She couldn't tell which had the strongest claims
    (And I couldn't take my oath).

Every fourth line is a parenthetical from the narrator, the most intrusive of all intrusive narrators, who even intrudes on the action at a crucial moment.

Gilbert is a bit hard to excerpt, I realize to my regret, since his poems are almost all narrative and almost all a couple of pages long.  Much of the Fun, honestly, is just seeing how he turns this silly stuff into verse.

I have borrowed the illustrations from this Gilbert and Sullivan archive.  They are arranged as they struck my fancy, aside from the curate with the sheep.  My text is the complete, exhausting 1980 Belknap Press edition.


  1. Yes, very little nonsense in Gilbert. He's more of a professional comedian, setting up his premises and pay-offs. His great antecedent in light verse was not only Thomas Hood, but William Barham, whose "Ingoldsby Legends" were quite popular. Barham didn't go in for jokes or puns as much, making a sort of specialty of elaborate and surprising rhymes. I suppose there are many ways to write light verse...

  2. On a couple of poems, Gilbert puts "Nonsense" in the title, so we know the difference.

    I find that Gilbert's illustrations supply much of the nonsense. That turtle-wearing fellow does not seem quite as silly in words,