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A Yankee Notebook

June 30, 2014


MONTPELIER – Sir Joseph, I cannot express to you my delight at the happy result of your eloquence. Your argument was unanswerable.

Captain Corcoran, it is one of the happiest characteristics of this glorious country that official utterances are invariably regarded as unanswerable.

Mother and I drove out into the countryside last evening to see HMS Pinafore at the Unadilla Theatre. As always, I was delighted by the long-familiar melodies and the familiar roles – though every performance I see has different players. I always fantasize what role I might play. I’ve always though I’d do a pretty good Dick Deadeye, the weaseling misanthrope of the fo’c’sle; but last night’s Dick was so good that I’ve despaired of it, and have switched instead to the bosun, who gets to sing the crucial argument, “He is an Englishman!” (In Iolanthe, I’m the philosophical moron on night guard duty outside Parliament. Producers, take note.)

Gilbert and Sullivan are relatively merciless in their treatment of Parliament, British class distinctions, and the charming idiocies that proceed from both. Sir Joseph Porter, for example, the First Lord of the Admiralty, has risen to his position through law firm advancement: “...and that junior partnership, I ween, was the only ship that I ever had seen.” In Iolanthe, the House of Peers throughout the [Napoleonic] war: “...did nothing in particular, and did it very well.”

The greatest pleasure of the operettas, however, isn’t just the music and social commentary; it’s the word play of 19th-century Englishmen to whom their native tongue was the Stradivarius of languages. They could play on it exquisitely, even juggle it; they knew the nominative from the accusative, and stuck with the proper forms even in the most nonsensical writing – as in Edward Lear’s “Two Old Bachelors”: “Said he who caught the mouse to him who caught the muffin...”

They traveled widely, and were classically educated, most of them,. They knew their Horace, Ovid, Iliad, Odyssey, and Bible. It also didn’t, for example, escape most of their audiences that the most loyal of First Lord Sir Joseph Porter’s long-in-the-tooth cousins and aunts who accompany him everywhere like a Greek chorus is named for Hebe, the Greek goddess of youth.

In the years immediately preceding Victoria’s reign England produced the Romantic poets _ Keats, Shelley, Byron, and Coleridge. Tennyson, Browning, and Kipling (a sometime resident of Brattleboro) succeeded them. They dwelt heavily upon romantic heroism against all odds. Many of us as high school students memorized (and declaimed in class) Kipling’s “If,” Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” or Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan.” I picked Tennyson’s “Ulysses,” and it has stood me in good stead ever since, as the theme of the Geriatric Adventure Society, whose atmosphere is mock heroic and adventurous. But there were other poets, too, equally gifted, but inclined (like Gilbert and Sullivan) to the humorous, wacky, and even silly.

The most famous of them was Charles Dodgson, a lecturer in mathematics at Christ Church, Oxford, and Anglican clergyman who wrote under the pen name Lewis Carroll. He exhibited what we today would call a suspicious interest in very young girls and boys, but struck it big with the publication of his childrren’s book Alice in Wonderland. His poems include “Jabberwocky,” which most of us have heard or read, “The Walrus and the Carpenter,” and “’Tis the Voice of the Lobster” – my favorite because of its relevance to today’s armchair warriors: “When the sands are all dry, he is gay as a lark, And will talk in contemptuous tones of the Shark; But, when the tide rises and sharks are around, His voice has a timid and tremulous sound.”

Carroll, however, is not half as delightful as Edward Lear, who first popularized the limerick and used it to the same effect as W.S. Gilbert’s libretti – to lampoon the disagreeable uppercrusters. In an autobiographical verse he writes, “How pleasant to know Mr. Lear, who has written such volumes of stuff. Some think him ill-tempered and queer, but a few think him pleasant enough.” It’s impossible to know, at this far remove, whether there’s a pun in that third line. Lear, also known as an accomplished painter, was gay (in Victorian times, “the sin that dare not speak its name), and the word, “queer,” was by his time commonly used.

It doesn’t matter. His nonsense is utterly delightful. I still have an LP record of quite a bit of it that I used to play over and over. To this day Mother still can’t stand to hear me recite any of it. Too bad; she misses a nightly performance of “The Two Old Bachelors,” which I use to time – albeit perforce mumbled a bit – the flossing of my teeth. There are others: “The Pobble Who Has No Toes,” “The Duck and the Kangaroo,” and “There Was an Old Person of Bow” (spoofing snooty folks’ obsession with propriety).

My all-time favorite nonsensical Lear poem is “The Dong with a Luminous Nose.” I first heard it read by the British actor Stanley Holloway, best known perhaps for his role as Eliza Doolittle’s father in My Fair Lady. Wildly mock-heroic, it follows the romantic misadventures of a mild-mannered character named the Dong, who falls in love with a Jumbly girl (don’t ask), and when she and her tribe decamp, spends the ensuing years searching for her ‘round the clock. To aid in his nocturnal search, he weaves himself a huge wicker nose “with a luminous lamp within suspended, all fenced about with a bandage stout, to prevent the wind from blowing it out.” This is deathless stuff, my friends. Just don’t try reciting it to Mother, or there may be a death.

Photo by Willem lange