Gilbert and Sullivan Archive


The Libretto

4.1. Sir Joseph's Song

4.1.1 The metre

Andrew Crowther wrote: Most of Gilbert's lyrics are written in a very regular metre - some people say, too regular. This is clearly the result of the words being written before the music. But there's an interesting exception in the song "When I was a lad", many of whose lines are written in a very "sprung" rhythm. For instance, the second line here obviously doesn't follow the pattern of the first:

"As office boy I made such a mark
That they gave me the post of a junior clerk."

Each line contains four stresses, but a variable number of unstressed syllables - very unusual in Gilbert. Another interesting feature of the song is the rhythm of the refrain:

"That now I am the ruler of the Queen's Navee!"

This line is, from a literary point of view, an iambic hexameter: six iambic feet. This is usually thought an unnatural rhythm in English, I believe -but of course it sounds completely natural in this song. Sullivan's setting of the words gives them a very "nautical" snap, thus:

"That NOW i am the RUL-er of the QUEEN'S na-VEE."

The stresses are not regularly distributed. I'm thinking in particular of the phrase "Queen's Navee", with each syllable given a heavy stress. I associate this idea of three sharp stresses at the end of a phrase with the hornpipe - you get this pattern all through Dick Dauntless's hornpipe in Ruddigore, for instance. This pattern is repeated throughout "When I was a lad", particularly in the fourth line of each verse - for instance:

"And i POL-ished up the HAND-le of the BIG front DOOR."

And, thinking about all this today, I was struck by the similarity between this and the end of the refrain in "A British tar is a soaring soul":

"And THIS should be his CUST-o-ma-ry ATT-i-TUDE."

The rhythm is identical to the "Queen's Navee" line, and again we have the three heavy stresses at the end. Sullivan's melody is very similar, too. But what, you may ask, does all this mean? All the lines I've quoted are iambic hexameters, or alexandrines: a highly artificial metre in English. Considered simply as words on the page they are highly inappropriate to the situation. But set to music with the stresses distributed unevenly, they suddenly take on a highly "nautical" air. Bruce Miller interjected: This is surely one way Sullivan gave the Pinafore its distinctive sound; the rhythm echoes that of the traditional hornpipe we all know, and upon which the Ruddigore hornpipe is obviously based.

William S Kelly wrote: I'm not so sure the refrain is either iambic or hexametric, or that it differs in rhythm from the verse. Consider the following analysis, in which CAPITAL letters are stressed syllables and small letters unstressed.

----------| ---------- | ---------- | when*
I was a | LAD i | SERVED a | TERM as
OF fice | BOY to an a | TTOR ney's |FIRM i
CLEANED the | WIN dows and i | SWEPT the |FLOOR and i
POL ished up the | HAN dle of the | BIG front | DOOR i
POL ished up that |HAN dle so |CARE ful | LEE that
NOW i am the | RU ler of the | QUEEN'S Na |VEE as
OF fice | BOY i | MADE such a | MARK that they
GAVE me the | POST of a | JUN ior | CLERK i
SERVED the | WRITS with a | SMILE so | BLAND and i
COP ied all the | LET ters in a | BIG round | HAND i
COP ied all the | LET ters in a | HAND so |FREE that
NOW i am the | RU ler of the | QUEEN'S Na |VEE in
SER ving | WRITS i | MADE such a | NAME that an
AR ti cled | CLERK i | SOON be | CAME i
WORE clean | COL lars and a | BRAND new | SUIT for the
PASS ex a mi | NA tion at the | IN sti | TUTE and that
PASS ex a mi | NA tion did so | WELL for | ME that
NOW i am the | RU ler of the | QUEEN'S Na |VEE of
LE gal | KNOW ledge I ac | QUIRED such a | GRIP that they
TOOK me | IN to the | PART ner | SHIP and that
JU nior | PART ner | SHIP i | WEEN was the
ON ly | SHIP that i | EV er had | SEEN but
THAT kind of | SHIP so | SUIT ed | ME that
NOW i am the | RU ler of the | QUEEN'S na |VEE i
GREW so | RICH that |I was | SENT by a
POC ket | BOR ough in to | PARL ia | MENT i
AL ways | VO ted at my | PAR ty's | CALL and i
NEV er thought of | THINK ing for my | SELF at | ALL i
THOUGHT so | LIT tle they re | WAR ded | ME by
MA king me the | RU ler of the | QUEEN'S na |VEE now
LANDS men | ALL who | EV er you may | BE if you
WANT to | RISE to the | TOP of the | TREE if your
SOUL is n't | FET tered to an | OF fice | STOOL be
CARE ful to be | GUID ed by this | GOL den | RULE stick
CLOSE to your | DESKS and | NE ver go to | SEA and you
ALL may be | RU lers of the | QUEEN'S na |VEE *

The poem as usually printed begins each six-line stanza with what is, I believe, a weak "pick-up" syllable that, from a metrical point of view, is really the completion of the last foot of the last line of the previous stanza. (The pickup to the first stanza is the "completion" of the last line of the last stanza -- a device that will be familiar from musical scoring).

Viewed in this way, all six lines of each stanza follow a scheme of four feet per line, with emphasis always on the first syllable of each foot. Each foot consists of the strong (accented) first syllable followed by one, two, or three weak (unaccented) syllables. (I don't know what this is, but I don't think it's iambic hexameter.)

Yes, the rhythm here is the same as in "British Tar." By my system, the last line of the latter would be diagrammed as

--------| ---------- | ---------- | and*
THIS should be his | CUS to ma ry | AT ti | TUDE *

where once again we have four feet per line, with a heavy accent on the first syllable of each foot. What especially ties the songs together, and gives each its nautical or hornpipe flavor, is that each is built around the following rollicking rhythmic pattern for a line:

BOOM-la-la-la | BOOM-la-la-la | BOOM-la | BOOM *

I say "built around" because the above pattern does not occur in every line of "When I was a lad." To be sure, the last two feet of each line almost always have only one weak syllable each (at most): BOOM-la, BOOM *; and the juxtaposition of those heavy accents helps stir up the sea breeze. But as for the first two feet of each line, in general the number of weak syllables *builds* from usually only one in each of the first two feet of each of the first three lines of each stanza, to as many as three weak syllables in each of the first two feet in the climactic last three lines of each stanza. So, for example, to take the second stanza, the first two feet in the first line are "OF fice | BOY i," each a strong syllable followed by only one weak syllable. But in the fourth line of that stanza, we have the multisyllabic "COP ied all the | LET ters in a." Again, in the third stanza, the first two feet in the first line are "SER ving | WRITS i; but by the fourth line we have "PASS ex a mi | NA tion at the." I admit that the other stanzas do not provide such perfect examples, but the pattern is there, I think.

Bruce Miller has pointed out [See 4.1.3 below] that there were earlier drafts of the song . Originally there was

I was a | LAD i | SERVED a | TERM as
OF fice | BOY to a | COT ton bro king | FIRM i
and then for a time the unnatural
I was a | LAD i | SERVED a | TERM as
OF fice | BOY to | AN at tor ney's | FIRM i

If the "building" strategy had been deliberate, Gilbert would probably have done a much more thorough job of constructing a build pattern and then reiterating it in each stanza. For example, the first stanza could have been handled something like this:

----------| ---------- | ---------- | when*
I was | YOUNG i | SERVED a | TERM as
OF fice | BOY in a | COT ton |FIRM i
CLEANED up the | WIN dows and | SWEPT the |FLOOR and
POL ished up the | HAN dle of the | BIG front | DOOR i

in which, in terms of the number of syllables in the first two feet of each line, one moves from 2/2 to 2/3 to 3/3 to 4/4. Gilbert was clearly not that fussy, no doubt for the better. Still, his final product may include a tendency to build, whether it was the product of a conscious strategy or not.

Note: I didn't include the chorus' echoes in the stanzas above, but they can be fit in without changing the argument. For example:

POL ished up that |HAN dle so |CARE ful | LEE that
NOW i am the | RU ler of the | QUEEN'S Na |VEE he
POL ished up that |HAN dle so |CARE ful | LEE that
NOW he is the | RU ler of the | QUEEN'S Na |VEE as
OF fice | BOY i | MADE such a | MARK that they

4.1.2 Prima La Musica?

Andrew Crowther continued: All this suggests that Gilbert and Sullivan collaborated with unusual closeness, on "When I was a lad", at least. It isn't obvious from the words alone what Gilbert had in mind, but Sullivan clearly picked up exactly on what was wanted, and unless we suppose some sort of telepathy we must assume that they consulted with each other very closely about the effect wanted and how to achieve it. (I contrast this with the usual picture we get of how G & S collaborated: G sending S a lyric with a note saying, "See what you make of this", and Sullivan setting it.) I'm almost tempted to suggest that perhaps Sullivan could have written the music first... but we know from Gilbert that he'd never done that with Sullivan before an aborted Act 2 Finale to Utopia, so I'd better dismiss that. Bruce Miller replied: This has come up before, and I for one am not prepared to dismiss the idea that Sullivan on some occasions suggested musical ideas to Gilbert who then based his words on the composer's inspired thoughts. The nature of collaboration, when it's really working at its best, allows for this kind of flexibility despite what the general pattern may be.

4.1.3 A significant re-write

Bruce Miller observed: This particular song went through a significant re-write; the first verse had Sir Joseph as "office boy to a cotton-broking firm." The word "cotton-broking" fell on the downbeat of a measure. When revised to "an attorney's firm", it was written (and engraved in the vocal score) to underlay the old words exactly, so it had the rather clumpy feeling, with the word "an" on the downbeat. It read, per measure, as

| office boy to | AN attorney's firm (emphasis added)

which was a good rhythm for "cotton-broking firm." At some point in the 20th century, D'OC amended the vocal score, but this was after the deaths of the authors. It is possible that Sullivan and/or Gilbert made the revision, but it seems strange this was not done before 1911 in the vocal score. The original version found in Sullivan's autograph, reads:

I cleaned (no other words entered in this measure) flannel + a mop,
(words not entered) took down the (words not entered) swept the shop.
CHORUS: He took down the shutters and he swept the shop.

Sir Joseph's part continues musically complete but with only fragmentary lyrics; however, the chorus is given in full:

He swept the shop so carefullee that now he is the Ruler of the Queen's Navee!

An interesting feature of this autograph is that all of the choral entries for each verse are carefully notated for both music and words, but Sir Joseph's part only has key words from the first verse entered; and his musical line is generic, not specifically indicated for the verse 1 words (many polysyllabic words are grouped under eighth notes which clearly need to be broken down into sixteenths, but are not. Also in the autograph, there is no sign of "an attorney's firm", only "cotton-broking firm." Thus the only musical source we have for the setting of "Attorney's firm" are the vocal scores. This is true of a number of musical numbers in G & S. "Sorry her lot" in Pinafore has only a (fragmentary) vocal line in the autograph; the only source for the word underlay, and some of the vocal line, is the vocal scores. Katisha's song in Mikado, "Hearts do not break/O living I", is another such example.

4.1.4 Gilbert's Hornpipe

Charles Schlotter wrote: I wonder if Gilbert might have been using traditional hornpipe tunes when he wrote the lyrics. This is a common device of lyricists when they are writing the words before the music. Of course, one may use the dummy tune merely as a starting-off point or mix-and-match a couple of dummy tunes. The trick is then not to let the composer know what that dummy tune was, in hopes that an entirely different melody will emerge. We know of at least one occasion when Gilbert definitely used an old tune to get started: "I Have a Song to Sing-O." On that occasion Sullivan was, for once, stumped and asked to hear the dummy tune and after only a few bars, got the rhythmic idea. For current purposes, the interesting sub-text of the thrice-familiar story is that:

a). Sullivan was aware that Gilbert sometimes based his lyrics on previously-existing tunes and

b) Sullivan studiously avoided any knowledge of what those tunes were

c). Without knowing the dummy tune, Sullivan almost invariably composed an apt and original number.

Sullivan might well have picked up the intended rhythm without prompting, considering the nautical milieu. But it would have taken no more that Gilbert saying, "Ah, Sullivan, hornpipes here and here" to set him on the right track. Not that I can prove the above, but it seems plausible to me.

4.1.5 Draft Lyrics

David Duffey asked: While we know of Gilbert's many drafts of storylines and plots, I for one know not of similar draft materials for the lyrics. Did they flow perfect from the G's "fluent pen"? Do the Gilbert papers have reams of practice verse? Whenever I have cause to essay verse, every line has to be modified several times. Does draft verse from Gilbert exist? To this Marc Shepherd replied: Quite a bit of draft Gilbert verse exists, particularly for the later operas. The Gilbert papers in the British Library do indeed have reams of discarded verses for the operas from Yeomen on. I would assume they would have existed for the earlier operas, too, but that the papers don't survive. I've been researching Pirates lately, and there is a considerable amount of discarded material and early versions of lyrics for that opera, too. Even where the only manuscript draft known to us seems to have flowed from Gilbert's pen as a single thought, it is entirely possible that there are earlier versions now lost to us, or that Gilbert toyed with an idea for many days in his head before committing it to paper. And Andrew Crowther: Jane Stedman discusses this point in the Gilbert biography on pp 215-6 where she says: "Gilbert composed verse more rapidly than prose and with fewer revisions. In his notebooks, many lyrics appear at once in what is essentially their finished form...." However, she does quote a draft lyric with several crossings-out in which he almost seems to be doodling in verse.

4.2 Gilbert's Grammar & language

4.2.1 The Grammar

Thomas Drucker wrote: I have always been a little taken aback by Gilbert's defiance of the conventions of grammar in the chorus' lines for Sir Joseph's song. Surely there is something wrong with a lyric that calls on users of standard English to say 'for he' [other than in proposing someone to be a jolly good fellow], 'suited he', and 'rewarded he'. If this is the kind of grammar Gilbert was capable of, surely questions about his use of the subjunctive are rather abstruse by comparison. Otherwise it looks as though when it comes to the work of finding rhymes for objective pronouns, Gilbert declined it. And Arthur Robinson: I've wondered about this too. I believe that in the libretto the lines read something like "He polished up, etc." so maybe Sullivan provided the "for he"--but what else could he do, without rewriting Gilbert entirely (which few mortals would have dared)? Gilbert certainly allowed it. I've wondered if this was intentional humor on his part, or whether he figured nobody would notice what the chorus sang.

Marc Shepherd replied: Surely you are jesting? Throughout the Savoy Operas (and the Bab Ballads, for that matter), Gilbert deliberately misuses the language for comic effect. In this case, he is choosing the wrong pronoun so that he'll have a rhyme for "Navee". He certainly knew that this was grammatically incorrect; it is part of the joke. To which Philip Sternenberg responded: I wonder how much of this was really Gilbert's idea? As was pointed out, in libretto form the chorus responses are written with "etc.," so we don't see the improper pronouns. I believe the TREASURY books use "him" where appropriate, but I don't know on what authority. It's possible Gilbert knew either grammar or a rhyme must be sacrificed but considered each as the lesser of two evils at a different time. Here's another possibility: Gilbert might have written the lyrics as a pure solo, not intending the chorus to respond. Sullivan then felt that the chorus shouldn't stand around silently. After several exchanges between the two of them, they came up with the final version, by which time Gilbert might have decided errors just weren't worth fixing. The problem I have with this song is that it most certainly does NOT represent typical Gilbertian use (or misuse) of pronouns. I may be overlooking something, but as far as I can tell, only Verses 3-5 of Sir Joseph's song and Verse 3 of the Lord Chancellor's first song misuse pronouns for the sake of rhymes. Furthermore, the latter is done so perversely as to make Gilbert's intent obvious, something I can't say for the former. We might never know what Gilbert really had in mind for Sir Joseph here.

4.2.2 The Language

Louis Wernick made the observation: Of course, in 2Oth century America, it is somewhat difficult to reflect upon precisely what kind of social satire that WSG had in mind when he wrote dialogue for the male performers in Pinafore. It is often pointed out that the most eloquent use of language per se is given to Ralph Rackstraw. Captain Corcoran, good-hearted and efficient as he is, has absolutely no polish at all, while Sir Joseph speaks in a manner which in modern America would simply be a social-climbing civilian with a good deal of "political savvy".

4.3. Fettered to his stool

Thomas Drucker wrote: In the last stanza of Sir Joseph's song he remarks that his advice should be taken 'if your soul isn't fettered to an office stool'. The advice, however, is, in fact, to fetter your soul to an office stool, since that is presumably what sticking close to your desks involves. I refuse to believe that the rhyme is dictating the sentiment, but I don't see the distinction between what is being rejected and what is being accepted. The point is an important one for those of us still trying to rise in the ranks. Harriet Meyer replied: I've taken it to mean "if you're not adverse to advancement." As for Gilbert declining the rhyme - Good one! :-) Tim Devlin replied: Does it? I've always taken Sir Joseph's lines to mean simply---if you DON'T love office-work, you SHOULD: that's how I got to be where I am!

William S Kelly: Harriet, is right: "But I think Tom's point is that the song appears to give the following advice: "If your soul's not fettered to a stool (i.e., you want to advance), then my advice is to fetter your soul to an office stool (i.e., 'stick close to your desk')."You see the problem -- a classic conundrum. To which Ken Chambers replied: I appreciate Tom's pointing out a possible ambiguity in SJP's patter-song lyric, but it never did cause me a problem because I felt that the word "soul" is the key to Gilbert's idea. i.e., if you dream of (as in 'aspire to') a high position in the navy, you should not go to sea, but rather, remain in physical proximity to (as in 'stick close to') your office stool. This doesn't mean fetter your soul to the office stool. In my copy of the old Random House book titled "The Complete Plays of G. and S.", pg. 110, is a Bab drawing of a clerk seated on a stool by his desk, with a pensive look on his face. His soul being not fettered there, I picture a kind of thought balloon above his head, containing an imagined portrait of himself wearing the fancy uniform of a Monarch of the Sea.

Harriet Meyer again: FWIW, as we micro dissect this line: if G had meant what is immediately above, would he have written "fettered" rather than "bonded" or "indentured" or another term implying voluntary action at that point? [aside to Tom Shepard: The syllabification ("the word is English") could work with "indentured" if "your soul isn't" is changed to " your soul's not."] Nevertheless, I have greatly enjoyed the other interpretations, which I'd not thought of. To which Tom Shepard replied: Perhaps it was meant by WSG as deliberate nonsense. Look at it this way: your soul has to be unfettered at least long enough for you to ascend to the top of that tree, and the irony is that Sir J. makes it palpably clear that his soul was completely fettered up to the moment of his appointment. So perhaps it's just a bit of absurdity. Sir J actually thinks he was unfettered, at least long enough to get noticed. Or perhaps I am entirely wrong and it's just that WSG got a little careless - but the line never bothered me because Sir Joseph is a morass of contradictions anyway. He keeps on spouting one thing or another without necessarily either believing it or practising it. He has not been drawn sympathetically, only comically. He is apparently devoid of any weakness or fallibility, he never elicits our sympathy, and he is someone who would never (hardly ever) invite me out to dinner. So, if he will not invite me to his club, I will henceforth refrain from further examination of his stool.

4.4. The institute

William S Kelly wrote: Sir Joseph wore a clean collar and a brand new suit for the "pass examination at the Institute."

1. What is the "Institute"?

2. What is a "pass examination"? Is that a phrase actually used, or just a Gilbertianism driven by the requirements of prosody? In ordinary English, wouldn't we just say "for the examination at the Institute?"

3. Sir Joseph dresses up for the occasion. Does that mean there was some kind of oral examination involved -- that is, that he would be seen and judged on his appearance during the exam?

Barri Soleil replied: I have also thought that this meant that no grade was given, but it was a pass/fail situation. Many of the "board exams" given in the U.S. are "pass examinations." I defer to our UK friends, on exactly what "Institute" Gilbert may have been referring to. Paul McShane replied: I read somewhere that the Institute (or the Law Institute) was the common name for the Hall of the Incorporated Law Society. As for dressing up for the "pass" examination, perhaps some UK legal mind can elucidate further.

Helga J Perry: I remember asking my father this question about 30 years ago. He said it referred to the Mechanics' Institute, an educational movement started in 1823 in Scotland by someone who I think was called Birkbeck (as in Birkbeck College?). [Note added by Bill McCann: George Birkbeck (1776-1841) was born in Settle Yorkshire. In 1799, as professor of Natural Philosophy at Anderson's College in Glasgow he delivered his first free lectures to the working classes. In 1804 he became a physician in London and in 1824 founded the London Mechanics or Birkbeck's Institute. This was the first Mechanics Institute and later became Birkbeck College, a constituent of the University of London. It is unlikely that this is what Gilbert is referring to.]

Clive Woods reported: At my exams (at Oxford) I was required (about 15 years ago, and probably still would be) to be dressed in "sub fusc", i.e. dark suit white bow tie, academic gown, black shoes, mortar-board, white shirt. Examiners were also required to be similarly attired. This is probably a remnant of some old requirement, which presumably arose because even earlier students presented themselves in unsuitable clothing. Maybe this used to be required at other institutions but has gradually been forgotten. If SJP took his exams in a brand new suit, presumably the point is that he did not otherwise have one and had to buy it especially. Scandalous, in those days, but of course quite commonplace now.

Page created 22 October 1997