Friday, November 23, 2007

Hail Poetry by WS Gilbert

Hail Poetry

Although our dark career
Sometimes involves the crime of stealing,
We rather think that we're
Not altogether void of feeling.
Although we live by strife,
We're always sorry to begin it,
For what, we ask, is life
Without a touch of Poetry in it?

Hail, Poetry, thou heaven-born maid!
Thou gildest e’en the pirate’s trade:
Hail, flowing fount of sentiment!
All hail, Divine Emollient!
--WS Gilbert

Last night at Grandma's house, we were looking for a movie to watch. Larry and Joyce were there with their two youngest, Trace and Cesia, and it was a challenge to match Grandma's video selection with the cinematic taste of a couple of High Schoolers. We ended up with about 5 musicals as the possible choices, and eventually narrowed it down to Pirates of Penzance because Cesia hadn't seen it.

It's amazing how much more fun it is to see a G&S show with somebody who has no idea what they're getting into. All the old jokes become new again, and you can laugh without feeling self conscious. We had a great time, and I felt especially impressed that I ought to post this as today's poem.

It's a great moment in the play. General Stanley has just announced that "he is an orphan boy," and the pirates are all so touched that they not only agree to let him go, but they all drop to their knees and sing this chorus to poetry in five part harmony. It's the sort of moment that reminds you that Sullivan also wrote hymns (like Onward Christian Soldiers), and that as silly as his music is, he really was a great composer (as evidenced by the fact that people keep stealing his tunes).

I do have a few nit-picky complaints about the movie, though. First, there's the plot holes in the original: Given that the action happens on Frederick's birthday, what are all these girls doing taking off their shoes and socks on the coast of Cornwall in February? and How can the pirates simultaneously be poor orphans and noblemen who have gone wrong? Was there some great plague among the peerage twenty years ago? Besides that, they cut out a couple of songs from the original, and import replacements from other G&S operettas. This seems odd to me -- I agree that the Matter Patter song from Ruddigore deserves to be heard more often, but at the expense of half the Major General song, and How Beautifully Blue the Sky?

The also left out one of my favorite jokes:
GENERAL: Why do I sit here? To escape from the pirates' clutches, I described myself as an orphan; and, heaven help me, I am no orphan! I come here to humble myself before the tombs of my ancestors, and to implore their pardon for having brought dishonour on the family escutcheon.

FREDERIC: But you forget, sir, you only bought the property a year ago, and the stucco on your baronial castle is scarcely dry.

GENERAL: Frederic, in this chapel are ancestors: you cannot deny that. With the estate, I bought the chapel and its contents. I don't know whose ancestors they were, but I know whose ancestors they are, and I shudder to think that their descendant by purchase (if I may so describe myself) should have brought disgrace upon what, I have no doubt, was an unstained escutcheon.

But even with all those problems, it's still worth it to see Kevin Kline as the Pirate King singing With Catlike Tread at the top of his lungs.

PS: for those of you who don't know the plot or the music, and want to have some idea of what I'm talking about, there's an amateur recording here (though the songs are out of order on the page), and a plot synopsis on Wikipedia (including a list of the musical numbers in order). I'd encourage you to see a production of it though, because it really is funnier that way.

PPS: You may find it interesting to know that an Emollient is something soothing, especially face creams.


  1. I must say that someone reading this entry who HASN'T seen Pof P might find this a bizarrely stream-of-conscienc eness commentary on a poem . . . . from Kevin Kline (whom we [well, Randy] saw yesterday in 'Silverado' - [how did Jeff Goldbloom ever live that travesty down?]) to "emollient."

  2. Hey Karen,

    thanks for posting this from Pirates; I was just looking for the text of "Hail Poetry," which is truly beautiful and ran across it here. And so the morning is a little brighter.

    Tom, in Nashville