Jilted Brides and “Trial By Jury”

tbyj-judgeDuring the Victorian era, only a woman could break off an engagement without suffering any consequences. A romantic relationship wasn’t over until the woman said it was over.

This was mostly the result of Victorian views about the proper roles of men and women: Men were supposed to be strong and protective, while women were weak and emotional. (See more on Gender Roles here)

Because Victorian women required protection, when a man offered or promised such protection, he had to honor that promise. The breach of promise suit – a legal claim that allowed a jilted person to obtain financial damages from their intended – grew into the standard remedy for a female who had suffered when a relationship that should have resulted in the security and stability of marriage went sour.

“Though seldom helpful to women in the criminal courts, the assumption of manly responsibility for providing, promise-keeping, and sexuality was a great asset to female plaintiffs in the civil tribunals,“ comments an article in Nineteenth Century Studies.

Also, according to this article, during the mid-Victorian years, as many as 100 men a year were sued in court by their former fiancées.

Denise Bates, author of Breach of Promise to Marry: A History of How Jilted Brides Settled Scores, mentioned in her guest post here  that the disappointed brides often won their cases, and sympathetic juries often awarded them substantial sums of around 100 pounds (maybe 10,000 pounds today).

In Anthony Trollope’s The Way We Live Now, the ambitious engineer Paul Montague had an affair with a woman named Mrs. Hurtle.  They lived together in America, but she ditched him at the altar, and he returned to England thinking she was out of his life. However, she suddenly showed up in his life and insisted that because she had “given him all a woman had to give,” it was up to her to say whether their affair was over. Her weapon was the breach of promise of marriage suit.

In Gilbert and Sullivan’s Trial by JuryAngelina, the jilted bride, passionately tells the jury:


Oh, see what a blessing,

What love and caressing

I’ve lost, and remember it pray,

When you I’m addressing,

Are busy assessing

The damages Edwin must pay,

He must pay!


With real life, literature and music all telling them to beware of making hasty promises, Victorian men were very careful about breaking off their relationships with women!

I believe that in real life, Arthur Sullivan had this problem with respect to his painful and protracted relationship with Rachel Scott Russell.

Rachel Scott Russell was the daughter of a wealthy engineer, socially far above the promising but penniless young musician that Arthur Sullivan was at the time. Sullivan had begun to get favorable notices from the music critics, and he had powerful friends, but his income was spotty and depended upon selling the occasional piece of parlor music.

Passionately in love, Rachel “gave him all a woman has to give,” in Trollope’s words. In Rachel’s view, she and Arthur were married in every way that mattered. But Arthur’s income wasn’t good enough for Rachel’s parents. When the young couple went to ask permission, her mother forbade the marriage and demanded that they stop seeing one another.

So why didn’t they just stop seeing one another?

I think that because of the Victorian value system, Arthur couldn’t leave her.  She had to leave him — and Rachel didn’t want to end the relationship.

So, they kept writing to one another in secret. They met in secret too. We know some of how the affair went, because Arthur saved all of Rachel’s letters, although he made her promise to destroy his letters to her, which she did.

Rachel argued and complained in her letters, but she never released him.

Rachel asked Arthur to get a steady job as a clerk in a bank. He refused to give up his musical career.

What’s a Victorian man to do?

According to Michael Ainger’s Gilbert and Sullivan: A Dual Biography, Sullivan began a love affair with Rachel’s sister Alice. Was he hoping that Rachel would find out about the affair and break things off with him permanently?

If that was the case, it didn’t work. The painful and prolonged relationship between Sullivan and Rachel dragged on for several years, before her parents finally married her off to another man and she moved to India.

The affair between Alice and Arthur faded out, too.

Arthur later found pleasure and companionship in his relationship with his married lover, Mrs. Ronalds. But he never did marry!








W. S. Gilbert and the Secret Admirer

W. S. Gilbert

W. S. Gilbert

William S. Gilbert was known for being a strict and demanding director—a martinet, in fact. But he was respected by the actors who worked for him. One awed member of his chorus noted, “He’s the only man I ever met who could swear straight on for five minutes without stopping to think or repeating himself.”

Also, many of the women he worked with really liked him. He defended the ladies of his chorus against “stage-door johnnies” and “mashers” who thought actresses were loose women. He hated the Victorian double-standard of behavior that punished women for the same actions that men were praised for, and wrote a couple of plays to point out this inequity.

But as far as we know, only one lady of the chorus took her admiration farther than that. While Gilbert was in America for the premiere of The Pirates of Penzance, he received a letter from a chorus member who signed herself “Cynisca.”

She wrote in part:

“How it started God only knows, I flattered myself I was fascinated by your ability…. If you for a moment think I have a sinful thought connected with you, you have sadly mistaken me, my feeling for you is of the head alone…Think of me with respect for I deserve it, there is no shame in the feeling I bear you—Good by.”

Jane Stedman, in her biography of Gilbert, adds that the letter was dated 1880, and was written on cheap lined paper. The author also told Gilbert that she had never loved before, even though she was married to a husband whom she’d left after the American Civil War. “From that time, I encased myself in cast iron,” she wrote, until she met Gilbert. She’d fallen in love with him, and the thought that he would be returning to England was “worse than death.”

Madge Robertson (Mrs.Kendal ) as Galatea. From G&S archive.

Madge Robertson (Mrs.Kendal ) as Galatea. From G&S archive.

Poor Cynisca! Her letter is clearly not an invitation to Gilbert, but rather a farewell. It seems unlikely that Gilbert knew about her feelings until this letter arrived.

Gilbert’s successful play of 1871, called Pygmalion and Galatea, might have been where his anonymous admirer got her name. In that play, the sculptor was married to Cynisca. She’s a strong female character who is most upset when she returns from a trip to find he’s brought his sculpture to life (George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion wasn’t produced until 1913).

History doesn’t reveal who this letter-writing Cynisca was, or how Gilbert felt about it, or even if he knew who she was. He seems to have been a sentimental man and not a Lothario.  However, the fact is that Gilbert usually destroyed all his personal correspondence and this letter, for whatever reason, survives.

What do you think? Would you ever write a letter like the one Cynisca wrote to W.S. Gilbert? Who would you write it to?  Let me know in the comments.



Arthur Sullivan’s Best and Worst Day

sullivanThe worst of days and the best of days – that’s probably how Arthur Sullivan would describe the premiere of Iolanthe on November 25, 1882.

The weeks leading up to the premiere were fraught with tension. To avoid American theatrical companies from pirating their work, Gilbert and Sullivan had arranged for two sets of casts—one in New York and one in London, so the premieres could be held at the same time and thus establish copyright in both places. Letters and transatlantic messages flew back and forth. The music was locked up every night to keep it safe from prying eyes, and during the rehearsals the main character was called Periola instead of Iolanthe!

It was a stressful time. Gilbert had his own way of dealing with stress—he never could stand to be in the playhouse during a premiere. Instead, it was his habit to leave the theater and pace up and down the Thames Embankment until the curtain fell.

Original costume design for Iolanthe by Wilhelm (G&S archive)

Original costume design for Iolanthe by Wilhelm (G&S archive)

At the last minute, Arthur Sullivan told the members of the chorus that the show’s main character was not called Periola—starting on premiere night, they would not be singing “Periola,” as they had been doing for weeks, but they would be singing “Iolanthe” instead.

Understandably upset, some chorus members asked, “What if we forget and say Periola instead of Iolanthe?”

Quickly, Sullivan replied, “Never mind so long as you sing the music. Use any name that happens to occur to you! Nobody in the audience will be the wiser, except Mr. Gilbert – and he won’t be there.”

So Sullivan was good at solving other people’s problems. Too bad he couldn’t solve his own. November 25, 1882 turned out to be a rough day for Sullivan. In his diary he wrote,

At home all day–L.W. [“Little Woman,” his pet name for Mrs. Ronalds] to tea. Received letter from E.A. Hall saying he was ruined & my money (about £7,000) lost, just before starting for the theater—Dined with Smythe at home. 1st Performance of “Iolanthe” at the Savoy Theater. House crammed, awfully nervous, more so than usual on going into the Orchestra—tremendous reception—1st Act went splendidly—the 2nd dragged & I was afraid it must be compressed—however it finished well & Gilbert & myself were called & heartily cheered. Very low afterwards—came home.

So there it is—a brilliant new theatrical success and financial ruin, all in one day.

Original costume design for the Fairy Queen by Wilhelm (G&S archive)

Original costume design for the Fairy Queen by Wilhelm (G&S archive)

According to Hesketh Pearson, that £7,000 sum was Sullivan’s entire life’s savings. According to Measuring Worth, £7,000 in 1882 would have a value of at least £635,800 in 2015.

Christopher Hibbert writes in Gilbert & Sullivan and their Victorian World that Sullivan received a letter from his stockbroker, E. A. Hall, by special messenger right before he left his house on Victoria Street to go to the theater for the premiere.

You must look upon [all Sullivan’s life’s savings] as lost. God knows how it will all end, but I have seen it coming for ages. Thank God my friends stick to me and believe me honest. I am afraid Cooper [his partner] is not all that we have always thought him. I have been weak and he has exerted a fatal influence and power over me… Come and see me, my dear boy, though I feel you will hate me.”

Sullivan apparently didn’t even blame Edward Hall for the loss. He wrote his friend and stockbroker:

I am deeply grieved at the terrible news which I learned first from your letter yesterday. I of course knew from what you had told me that you were passing through critical times, but I did not anticipate such a speedy and lamentable end. As a friend, and one to whom I am so much attached, you have my deepest sympathy for I know what you must have been suffering.

This level of generosity and kindness was evidently typical of Sullivan. Hibbert tells another story about the time when Sullivan’s fur-lined overcoat was stolen:

It was known, for instance, that when his fur-lined overcoat was stolen by one of the wardrobe staff who pawned it for £2 in order to pay for doctor’s bills for his wife and seventh baby, Sullivan said to the man as he contritely confessed to the crime with the pawn ticket in his hand, “I’m sorry you’re in trouble. But as it happens I’m in need of that coat now the cold weather has set in. Here’s £5. Go and get the coat out of pawn and keep the change to buy something for your wife and baby. And for heaven’s sake don’t say you’re sorry again.”

Gilbert was known for his sharp wit, sarcasm and his championing of justice and fairness. But Arthur Sullivan was known for kindness, generosity and humanity. It’s amazing to me that both men could be admirable in their ways, while being so completely opposite.

Also, check out these gorgeous watercolors of Iolanthe by W. Russell Flint.






Gilbert & Sullivan & Pirates, Oh, My!

Engraving of Richard Temple as The Pirate King, c. 1880

Engraving of Richard Temple as The Pirate King, c. 1880

Arrgh, matey! Since the International Talk Like a Pirate Day was celebrated just a couple of days ago on Monday, September 19, I think that the time is ripe to consider these swashbuckling fellows. So, let us consider why we like pirates.

It’s their devil-may-care attitude

Along with highwaymen, spies and other rule-breaking rogues, pirates seem to hold a special place in our popular mythology. We know what they do is wrong, and yet … there’s just something about them. I believe that pirates appeal to regular people because:

  • They defy conventions. When society is particularly rigid, or when ordinary folk are systematically denied justice, then the rule-breakers who impose their own brand of “natural justice” become folk heroes. As the Pirate King in the Pirates of Penzance admits, “I don’t think much of our profession, but contrasted with respectability, it’s comparatively honest.”
  • They are free. Remember in the movie Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, when Captain Jack Sparrow confessed to Elizabeth Swann, “Wherever we want to go, we go. That’s what a ship is, you know. It’s not just a keel and a hull and sails; that’s what a ship needs. Not what a ship is… What the Black Pearl really is, is freedom.”


It’s the clothes

In addition, pirates really do get to wear the cool clothes. During the hey-day of piracy in the 1500s and 1600s, the Sumptuary Laws of many nations forbade ordinary people from dressing “above their station.”  According to Cindy Vallar’s site, Pirates and Privateers: The History of Maritime Piracy :

Everyone must wear the clothes of his state and rank. To dress more lavishly or more shabbily than is customary for the class or the circle to which one belongs is a sin of pride or a mark of debasement. Moreover, it is a transgression against the social order and thus a cause for scandal… (Pastoureau, xi)

Sumptuary laws separated the upper and lower classes. Silk, velvet, lace, brocades, gold or silver thread; gemstones and pearls; furs like mink, sable and fox – and anything dyed with the royally expensive purple dye – were all forbidden for commoners to wear. Penalties for violating these laws included the loss of one’s title or property, or if one of the lower class, one’s life.

For pirates, such laws were meant to be broken. According to this report on the Pirates and Privateers site:

After sea rogues captured Captain Samuel Cary’s ship, the Samuel, on 13 July 1720, the Boston News-letter reported that “[t]he first thing the pirates did was to strip both passengers and seamen of all their money and clothes…with a loaded pistol to every one’s breast ready to shoot him down who did not immediately give an account of both, and resign them up.” (Sanders, 113)

It’s the accent, matey

We know that the seafaring peoples of Cornwall and England’s West Country produced many pirates during the Golden Age of Piracy in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. But after 400 years, why are we so sure we know how to talk like a pirate?

According to Wikipedia, sources seem to agree that our current ideas of the pirate accent came from one person –Robert Newton, the actor who played Long John Silver and Edward Teach, Blackbeard, in the early 1950s Disney produced films of “Treasure Island” (1950) and “Blackbeard the Pirate”(1952). It was his exaggerated West Country accent that became the accepted pirate voice for us all.

Newton has even been called the “patron saint” of the annual International Talk Like a Pirate Day.


Pirates are desperate and dangerous

The coastline of South West England has many coves and inlets, good for hiding pirates, their vessels and their loot. Smugglers, too, benefited from the coastal geography. Between 1780 and 1783, it’s estimated that as much as 2 million pounds of tea and 13 million gallons of brandy were smuggled into Britain.


And when the economy of the region faltered, there was always the chance that a distressed ship might wreck itself along the rocky shores, providing rich pickings for the locals – at least, until Sir John Killigrew erected the first lighthouse at The Lizard in 1619.

Worst, however, were the pirates who turned kidnappers, raiding villages and selling their captives into slavery in Barbary (North Africa).


But some are not so bad once you know them

sailors-1In the Gilbert and Sullivan opera, the Pirates of Penzance turn out to be “noblemen who have gone wrong” – they have all abandoned the establishment because they’re too tender-hearted and freedom-loving to be true noblemen. But they all desire “domesticity” – female companionship – and ultimately are united in their love and respect for the Queen, that ultimate symbol of the English culture and value system.

So shiver me timbers, matey, join me in song! Or, you can watch a video of Kevin Kline singing this delightful tune here on YouTube.


Oh, better far to live and die

Under the brave black flag I fly,

Than play a sanctimonious part,

With a pirate head and a pirate heart.

Away to the cheating world go you,

Where pirates all are well-to-do;

But I’ll be true to the song I sing,

And live and die a Pirate King.


For I am a Pirate King!

And it is, it is a glorious thing

To be a Pirate King!


Don’t you agree? Let me know in the comments!


Sir Arthur Sullivan and the Lady

Arthur Sullivan’s early love affair with Rachel Scott Russell was doomed by “[her] vain mother who thought the young composer not good enough for her daughter to take in marriage.” (B.W. Findon, Sir Arthur Sullivan, p. 170)

He never married.

Fanny Ronalds

Fanny Ronalds

But he did have a life-long friend and lover—the American socialite and accomplished amateur contralto, Mary Frances “Fanny” Ronalds. She was considered a great beauty, with small and exquisitely regular features, abundant dark hair of a shade called châtain foncé (deep chestnut), a generous smile and beautiful teeth.

Born in Boston, Massachusetts in 1839, by age 20 the beautiful Mary Frances Carter was already known for her singing ability when she married Pierre Lorillard Ronalds, who later was called the “Father of American Coaching” (i.e., horse-drawn carriage-driving).  She gave excellent parties, including a cotillion dinner at Delmonico’s where everyone had to dress in costume. The young Mrs. Ronalds appeared as “Euterpe, the muse of Music,” in a white satin gown embroidered with part of the score of Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera. On her head she wore a tiara decorated with a harp, from which flickered real flames fed by a tiny gas cylinder hidden in her hairdo.

In 1867, she separated from her husband and moved with her three children to Paris, where she joined the court circles of the pleasure-loving Empress Eugénie and Napoleon III. That was where she first met Arthur Sullivan, during one of his travels during that time.

The Second Empire fell in 1871, and Mrs. Ronalds moved with her children to Algeria and then to London, where she soon became known as an elegant society hostess and one of the many “friends” of the skirt-chasing Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII) and had a relationship with Lord Randolph Churchill. Those liaisons notwithstanding, Fanny became friends with Lady Randolph Churchill (the former Jennie Jerome) and was also friendly with Queen Victoria and Queen Alexandra.

by Lafayette (Lafayette Ltd), photogravure by Walker & Boutall, photogravure, 1897; published 1899

by Lafayette (Lafayette Ltd), photogravure by Walker & Boutall, photogravure, 1897; published 1899

Not long after she arrived in London, Fanny and Arthur fell in love. She was three years older than Sullivan, still in her early thirties and beautiful, with a strong personality. Sullivan called her “the best amateur singer in London.” She often performed Sullivan’s songs, especially “The Lost Chord,” singing it both in private and in public, often with Sullivan accompanying her.

She even attended the auditions which were held at the Savoy, according to Hesketh Pearson in Gilbert and Sullivan, who noted, “she would sit in a box, Sullivan in the pit, Carte in the gallery and [conductor Frank] Cellier in the orchestra, and the nervous singers had to remember that hers was the casting vote.”

Pearson added, “[Sullivan] followed her advice on most matters with a whole-heartedness seldom displayed by husbands when proffered counsel by their wives.”

Their relationship deepened after the deaths of Sullivan’s brother Fred in 1877 and his beloved mother in 1882. Sullivan became close with Fanny’s children and parents, especially after his brother Fred’s family moved to America in 1883.

But of course, they could never marry, or even publicly acknowledge their relationship.  Fanny was still married to Ronalds, despite their separation – though the 1857 Matrimonial Causes Act gave women limited access to divorce, the scandal meant instant social annihilation – and the social stigma of marrying a divorcee would have ruined Sullivan’s career.  So in public, Sullivan called her Mrs. Ronalds. In his private diary, he referred to her as L.W. (Little Woman) or D.H. (Dear Heart, maybe?), with little asterisks showing how many times they’d made love on each stolen night they spent together.

Though their physical relationship seems to have faded out in their later years together (no more little asterisks in the diary), Fanny was Arthur Sullivan’s constant companion until his death in 1900. When he died, he left her the autograph manuscript of “The Lost Chord,” along with other bequests. That manuscript copy was buried with her, at her request, when she died in 1916, at the age of 76. She is buried in the Brompton Cemetery in London.

In an inscription to a wreath that she sent to the funeral, Queen Victoria’s daughter Princess Louise described Fanny Ronalds as “one of the kindest and most unselfish of women.”

I think Arthur Sullivan and Fanny Ronalds would have made delightful dinner companions! Both were clever and witty and talented and kind.

If you could have anyone from any time and place join you for dinner, who would you choose? Let me know in the comments!

How Sullivan’s promotion made “HMS Pinafore” a Success

H.M.S. Pinafore, the beloved Gilbert and Sullivan opera, was almost a flop.

sullivanPinafore opened on May 25, 1878, at a London playhouse called the Opera Comique. The production was well-received, but within a week or two London was engulfed in a summer heat wave. Nobody wanted to sit in a hot, stuffy theater in their Victorian wool suits or tight corsets, so people began to stay home in droves. Box office profits dropped precipitously.

In July, one of the Opera Comique’s directors, Edward Bayley, wrote complaining to theatrical manager Rupert D’Oyly Carte, “I hope you will get Gilbert & Sullivan’s agreement in writing to a break at once. I do not care to go on as a company without it. I object to putting my head in a noose.” But taking a break could have doomed the production entirely—the energy and excitement of the first run would have evaporated, and it is likely that H.M.S. Pinafore never would have recovered from the interruption.

pinafore-1Luckily, that summer, Arthur Sullivan was hired to conduct an eight-week season of “Promenade Concerts” at Covent Garden. In an inspired move, he included in the program a medley of Pinafore’s breezy, tuneful songs.  The strategy worked.

On Saturday August 24, The Times reported, “the chief attraction [of the Promenade Concert] was a highly effective selection from Mr. Sullivan’s comic opera HMS Pinafore … comprising some of its most striking melodies—such as the opening chorus, Josephine’s first song, the songs of Sir J. Porter and Captain Corcoran, that of “little Buttercup,” and a large portion of the finale to Act I.”

The Promenade Concerts were a success, and after several performances of the Pinafore medley, the success of Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic opera was assured. The initial run of the opera lasted an impressive 571 performances.

pinafore-2It seems to me that Arthur Sullivan was a savvy promoter in his own right – when people got a taste of the ‘bright and popular” music of H.M.S. Pinafore, they very likely went home humming the songs. And having enjoyed the musical samples they got at the concert, their interest in seeing the entire comic opera may have been piqued. And the rest is theatrical history.

So would you call that “word of mouth” promotion?

Or maybe “word of ear”?





W.S. Gilbert’s Family History…Look, a Squirrel!

gilbert-tartanWhat was Sir William Gilbert’s family background? Was he a descendant of a distinguished and noble family line that included the Elizabethan navigator, Sir Humphrey Gilbert? Or was he the descendant of a Hampshire yeoman who moved to London and found prosperity through his corner grocery store?

During his life, W. S. Gilbert’s family legend was that the original Gilberts came from Cornwall. The most notable member of the family was Sir Humphrey Gilbert (1539-1583) who was Sir Walter Raleigh’s half-brother (they had the same mother, Catherine Champernowne). Sir Humphrey was an adventurer, explorer, member of parliament, a soldier serving under the reign of Queen Elizabeth and a pioneer of the English colonial empire in North America and the Plantations of Ireland.

The relationship to Sir William Raleigh’s half-brother was also strengthened by the description of Sir Humphrey Gilbert as a man ‘of higher stature than of the common sort, and of complexion cholerike’.  Naturally, that sounded very much like W.S. Gilbert himself, who was also a tall man well known for his hot temper.

arms_gilb2And so, Gilbert adopted the Gilbert family crest, described as: ‘Argent, on a chevron sable, three roses argent. Crest, on a wreath of the colours, a squirrel sejant erect gules, holding a nut. Motto: Mallem Mori Quam Mutare’   (Death rather than change)

Personally, I adore the crest with its red squirrel holding a nut. I’d be totally in favor of a family heritage that included such a brilliant element in its heraldry.

But alas, a legend is all that was – according to biographer Michael Ainger, who wrote Gilbert and Sullivan: A Dual Biography, Gilbert was actually descended from a family of Hampshire yeomen.  His great-grandfather, also William Gilbert, born in 1746, and after serving his apprenticeship to a shopkeeper set out for London to make his fortune. He established a grocery shop in Westminster. He prospered, had many sons, and eventually retired a wealthy man. His son took over the family business and by the time W.S. Gilbert’s father was born, the connection to trade had been superseded and Gilbert’s father was able to consider himself a “gentleman.”

For further reading, check out this essay on Gilbert’s genealogy at the Gilbert & Sullivan Archive.

Family ties were very important to the Victorians, and Gilbert was not unusual in his desire to connect himself with a long and distinguished lineage. Nowadays, especially among Americans, a family background is not considered as essential to an individual’s success.

What about you? Have you ever researched your own family history? Do you value your heritage? Tell me about it in the comments!




Sullivan’s “The Lost Chord”

Fred_Sullivan by Unknown (from Wikipedia)

Fred Sullivan

Arthur Sullivan wrote a lot of popular “parlor music” – songs that were intended to be played and sung in middle-class homes by amateur performers in the days before radio, television and so on.

One of his most famous works is called “The Lost Chord.” The text is a poem by Adelaide Proctor, which was published in The English Woman’s Journal in 1860. Sullivan is said to have struggled for years to set the poem to music, but finally found his way to expressing himself musically in 1877, as he sat by the bedside of his dying brother Frederick.

Fred Sullivan had trained as an architect, but soon switched to the stage. Arthur and Fred were very close, and Fred sang and acted in a number of his brother’s works, including Cox and Box, Thespis, and The Contrabandista. Fred also created the role of The Learned Judge in the original performance of Trial by Jury. Unfortunately, he fell ill in 1876 and died in 1877 at the age of 39.


Arthur Sullivan

The song is usually understood to be sentimental and religious in nature, but an interesting analysis of its meaning presented at Songs of the Victorians  suggests that it’s actually a feminist poem – describing the sentiments of Victorian women who suffered a “discordant life” because of gender inequality, and expressing the feeling that harmony would only be achieved in the afterlife.

The text of the poem, along with a video of a performance from 2011, can be found below. Which reading do you prefer?


The Lost Chord

Seated one day at the organ, I was weary and ill at ease,

And my fingers wander’d idly over the noisy keys;

I knew not what I was playing, or what I was dreaming then,

But I struck one chord of music like the sound of a great Amen.


It flooded the crimson twilight like the close of an Angel’s Psalm,

And it lay on my fever’d spirit with a touch of infinite calm.

It quieted pain and sorrow like love overcoming strife,

It seem’d the harmonious echo from our discordant life.


It link’d all perplexed meanings into one perfect peace

And trembled away into silence as if it were loth to cease;

I have sought, but I seek it vainly, that one lost chord divine,

Which came from the soul of the organ and enter’d into mine.


It may be that Death’s bright Angel will speak in that chord again;

It may be that only in Heav’n I shall hear that grand Amen!




W.S. Gilbert on “The Reward of Merit”

It is said that William S. Gilbert was often annoyed that the Victorian public seemed to worship men with money or aristocratic birth, and totally ignored men of talent and genius. So the notion that one had to be rich or titled to get respect was probably on his mind when he composed the following poem, “The Reward of Merit.”

Originally, these were the words to a song that was to have been sung in the second act of “Iolanthe,” but it was cut on the grounds that it slowed down the story. So instead, Gilbert included it in the 1897 edition of Bab Ballads.

Some of the references in the poem would have been familiar to Victorian audiences might be a bit confusing to current day readers, so check the notes following the poem.

Also, don’t miss the excellent audio rendition of the poem by Andrew Crowther, which you can listen to on Soundcloud.


The Reward Of Merit

bab-smart-young-manDe BELVILLE was regarded as the CRICHTON of his age:
His tragedies were reckoned much too thoughtful for the stage;
His poems held a noble rank, although it’s very true
That, being very proper, they were read by very few.
He was a famous Painter, too, and shone upon the “line,”
And even MR. RUSKIN came and worshipped at his shrine;
But, alas, the school he followed was heroically high –
The kind of Art men rave about, but very seldom buy;
And everybody said
“How can he be repaid –
This very great – this very good – this very gifted man?”
But nobody could hit upon a practicable plan!

He was a great Inventor, and discovered, all alone,
A plan for making everybody’s fortune but his own;
For, in business, an Inventor’s little better than a fool,
And my highly-gifted friend was no exception to the rule.
His poems – people read them in the Quarterly Reviews –
His pictures – they engraved them in the ILLUSTRATED NEWS –
His inventions – they, perhaps, might have enriched him by degrees,
But all his little income went in Patent Office fees;
And everybody said
“How can he be repaid –
This very great – this very good – this very gifted man?”
But nobody could hit upon a practicable plan!

At last the point was given up in absolute despair,
When a distant cousin died, and he became a millionaire,
With a county seat in Parliament, a moor or two of grouse,
And a taste for making inconvenient speeches in the House!
THEN it flashed upon Britannia that the fittest of rewards
Was, to take him from the Commons and to put him in the Lords!
And who so fit to sit in it, deny it if you can,
As this very great – this very good – this very gifted man?
(Though I’m more than half afraid
That it sometimes may be said
That we never should have reveled in that source of proper pride,
However great his merits – if his cousin hadn’t died!)



DeBellville is a fictional character made up just for the purposes of this poem.

Crichton refers to Sir John Crichton of Scotland,  considered one of the most gifted individuals of the 16th century, noted for his extraordinary accomplishments in languages, the arts, and sciences before he was killed at the age of 21. Crichton’s fame is based on a wildly exaggerated biography of him written in 1652 by Sir Thomas Urquhart (1611–1660).

Mr. Ruskin refers to John Ruskin,  the leading English art critic of the Victorian era, also an art patron, teacher, essayist and philanthropist.

The “Line” refers to the Royal Academy of Art’s annual Exhibition of the Work of Living Artists. Each year, the best paintings were arranged at eye-level, which was called being “on the line.”



Test your Gilbert and Sullivan Knowledge

gilbert-drawingDid you know that there is a site dedicated to an online Gilbert and Sullivan quiz? There is! Created by Alexander Scutt, it’s the Gilbert and Sullivan Quiz .

So now that you’ve learned all about the fourteen Gilbert and Sullivan operas from last week’s blog post, you can test your knowledge! There are 20 quizzes in all, so if you’re brave (and have memorized all the lyrics and fun jokes), go for it!

Once you’re at the site, use the link at the top right of the page to go to the First Quiz , or check out the Quiz Topics! It’s a fun way to learn all sorts of trivia related to the operas — and a way to enjoy Gilbert’s clever lines all over again!

Note: While perusing the site, I was interested to learn that the following joke really was attributed to Gilbert:
“Call me a cab sir”
“Certainly sir, you’re a four-wheeler”
“How dare you, sir!”
“Well, you asked me to call you a cab and I certainly couldn’t call you hansom.”

I thought for sure this was a made-up one, because although Gilbert was really very quick with his wordplay, I had a hard time believing anybody could mistake his tall, imposing figure as a hotel doorman. Live and learn!