(Poem #88) The Major General's Song
SONG--MAJOR-GENERAL 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; 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, With many cheerful facts about the square of the hypotenuse. ALL: With many cheerful facts, etc. GENERAL: I'm very good at integral and differential calculus; I know the scientific names of beings animalculous: In short, in matters vegetable, animal, and mineral, I am the very model of a modern Major-General. ALL: In short, in matters vegetable, animal, and mineral, He is the very model of a modern Major-General. GENERAL: I know our mythic history, King Arthur's and Sir Caradoc's; I answer hard acrostics, I've a pretty taste for paradox, I quote in elegiacs all the crimes of Heliogabalus, In conics I can floor peculiarities parabolous; I can tell undoubted Raphaels from Gerard Dows and Zoffanies, I know the croaking chorus from the Frogs of Aristophanes! 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. ALL: And whistle all the airs, etc. GENERAL: Then I can write a washing bill in Babylonic cuneiform, And tell you ev'ry detail of Caractacus's uniform: In short, in matters vegetable, animal, and mineral, I am the very model of a modern Major-General. ALL: In short, in matters vegetable, animal, and mineral, He is the very model of a modern Major-General. GENERAL: In fact, when I know what is meant by "mamelon" and "ravelin", When I can tell at sight a Mauser rifle from a javelin, When such affairs as sorties and surprises I'm more wary at, And when I know precisely what is meant by "commissariat", When I have learnt what progress has been made in modern gunnery, When I know more of tactics than a novice in a nunnery -- In short, when I've a smattering of elemental strategy, You'll say a better Major-General has never sat a gee. ALL: You'll say a better Major-General, etc. GENERAL: 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. ALL: But still, in matters vegetable, animal, and mineral, He is the very model of a modern Major-General.
from 'The Pirates of Penzance' Gilbert is beyond a doubt one of the greatest lyricists the language has produced to date. Of course his lyrics need Sullivan's accompanying music for their full effect, but even alone they are outstanding examples of pure comic verse. What I especially love about Gilbert is his scrupulous attention to perfect form, and his unhesitating forays into some remarkably complicated and innovative metres and rhyme-schemes. Not to mention his predilection for triple-rhmyes, an increasingly rare commodity (as are rhymes in general, for that matter <g>). The song above is one of his most famous, and certainly his most parodied - again, the utterly distinctive rhmyes and metre draw imitators like a magnet. Sadly, few of them get it right - perfect triple-rhymes are hard to achieve, and most parodists take the easy way out, resorting to single rhymes, assonance, eye rhymes and suchlike. And, of course, a large and increasing number of them are from the modern school, to whom scansion is an eight letter word beginning with s. <g> There's a parody archive at <http://www.cs.cmu.edu/~valkyrie/parody/>, my undoubted favourite being <http://www.cs.cmu.edu/~valkyrie/parody/xena.html> Tom Lehrer did not precisely a parody, but a song to the same tune - The Elements - see <[broken link] http://www.geocities.com/Vienna/5758/school.htm#elements> m. Biographical Notes: WILLIAM SCHWENCK GILBERT (1836 - 1911) William Schwenck Gilbert, born in London in 1836, was the son of a retired naval surgeon. Except for a kidnapping by Italian brigands in Italy at age two, and a ransomed release, he appears to have had a very normal upbringing. Beyond ordinary schooling, he took training as an artillery officer and was tutored in military science with hopes of participating in the Crimean War. Unfortunately for him, but not for us, he did not graduate until after the War was over. Gilbert subsequently joined the militia and was a member for 20 years. After finishing his military training Gilbert worked in a government bureau job which he hated. Upon receiving a nice inheritance from an aunt, Gilbert indulged his fancy and became a barrister. Called to the bar at age 28, Gilbert's law career, with no "rich attorney's elderly, ugly daughter" to help him escape mediocrity, lasted just a few years. Before leaving his law practice, however, he married the daughter of an army officer. Gilbert had shown a proclivity for caustic wit and sarcasm from an early age and it was this talent that put him on the path to greatness. Beginning in 1861, Gilbert contributed dramatic criticism and humorous verse (unsigned) to the popular British magazine FUN. Some of his work was accompanied by cartoons and sketches which were signed "Bab." Many of the characters in the G&S operas were modelled after some of Gilbert's "Bab" characters. A collection of these Bab Ballads was later published in 1869. The period from 1868 to 1875 was a very fruitful period for Gilbert, primarily because two plays which he wrote in 1871 netted him huge financial rewards. This was also the year that he collaborated briefly with a composer named Sullivan on a production entitled Thespis which did not bring the duo any notoriety. Their collaboration, however, spanned twenty-five years and produced a total of fourteen comic operas of which The Grand Duke, the last in the order, premiered in 1896. Gilbert was knighted by Edward VII in 1907 and died in 1911, at age 74, while attempting to save a drowning woman. For a longer version, see <[broken link] http://diamond.idbsu.edu/gas/html/gilbert_1.html> Criticism: Gilbert was extremely adept in the difficult art of three-syllable rhyming, an art which seems to be almost completely lost today. Most pastiches of the Major-General's song make this distressingly clear. Now in the first line of this song Gilbert rhymes "Gineral" with "mineral". In both words the accented syllable is the first, so Gilbert is forced to find two words ending with "-ineral". For this reason Gilbert has to mis-spell "General", which is much more difficult to rhyme. (If I remember correctly, in a piece of discarded material for Pirates he rhymes "General" with "ten or all", which almost works as a rhyme, but is a bit of a strain.) So now we see why the Major-General is forced to the horrible rhyme "strategy/sat a gee". "Sat a gee" is nonsense, of course: "sat on a gee-gee" would at least be grammatical, though that wouldn't work even as a strained rhyme. But what else rhymes with "strategy"? We are looking for another word, remember, which ends "-ategy". The only word I can suggest is the Indian name "Chatterjee". Of course, the flexibility of English pronunciation means that a word seeming to require a three-syllable rhyme can be made to require a one-syllable rhyme without much strain - thus Samuel's couplet: We'd better pause, or danger may befall, Their father is a Major-General. But the Major-General's song is written in a scheme which commits Gilbert to three-syllable rhymes, and he is forced to obey his own rules scrupulously. I wouldn't mention the requirement that all rhymes in a set lyrical scheme should have the same number of syllables, but Richard Suart's rewrite of "Small titles and orders" in the 1997 Proms Gondoliers perpetrated "lottery/mockery" where two-syllable rhymes were required. (Even as a three-syllable rhyme it doesn't work.) -- From <http://www.users.globalnet.co.uk/~ajcrowth/metre.htm> Gilbert began to write in an age of rhymed couplets, puns, and travesty; his early work exhibits the facetiousness common to writers of extravaganza. But he turned away from this style and developed a genuinely artful style burlesquing contemporary behaviour. Many of his original targets are no longer topical--Pre-Raphaelite aesthetes in Patience; women's education (Princess Ida); Victorian plays about Cornish pirates (The Pirates of Penzance); the long theatrical vogue of the "jolly jack tar" (H.M.S. Pinafore); bombastic melodrama (Ruddigore)--but Gilbert's burlesque is so good that it creates its own truth. As a librettist, Gilbert is outstanding not only because of his gift for handling words and casting them in musical shapes but also because through his words he offered the composer opportunities for burlesquing musical conventions. -- EB