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  • Parody and Poetic Tradition:Gilbert and Sullivan's Patience
  • Carolyn Williams (bio)

Parodies of aestheticism were common fare by the time Patience was produced in 1881. Even so, Patience was recognized as "the most subtle and incisive of all the contributions to the exhaustive satire of aestheticism." It is "deeper than the rest," said the astute reviewer for the Illustrated London News, because it performs "a travesty not only on the mere decorative craze, but upon the form of literature that is supposed to be held in high esteem by the ardent lovers of the beautiful in art" (italics mine).1 As this contemporary assessment shows, reference to "the decorative craze" was one contemporary default parameter for characterizing aestheticism. In our own day, instead, it is most common to associate aestheticism with a fin-de-siècle loosening of Victorian norms of gender and sexuality. Between then and now, however, the point articulated by the reviewer for the Illustrated London News has been overlooked, while W. S. Gilbert's deep engagement with nineteenth-century poetry and poetics has been relatively unacknowledged.2

Patience launched a complex genre parody, directed against Victorian poetry in general. The parody is developed through the rivalry between Reginald Bunthorne, an "aesthetic poet," and Archibald Grosvenor, an "idyllic poet." Thus dividing Victorian poetry into two camps and making fun of both, the libretto manages, by implication, to comment on a long nineteenth-century history of Romantic and Victorian poetry, and it shows Gilbert to have been exceptionally well-informed about poetic controversy in the decades before Patience. The fact that this aspect of Patience has not been explored is all the more surprising, since it bears directly upon the opera's concern with changing gender norms, as well as its analysis of class.

The Clerical Version

Before his collaboration with Sullivan began, Gilbert published comic ballads under the pen name "Bab" (short for "Babby," his infant nickname). Most of them were published in Fun magazine, a popular humor magazine that was, for a while, the chief rival to Punch. These Bab Ballads took part in the Victorian efflorescence of comic and nonsense verse and were also a late flowering of the widespread interest in ballad revivals and ballad parodies that spans the nineteenth century. The germ of Patience appears in one of Gilbert's [End Page 375] Bab Ballads, "The Rival Curates," first published in 1867.

In "The Rival Curates," two clergymen vie for the honor of being known as the mildest and most insipid curate in the neighborhood. Gilbert had written about two-thirds of an opera libretto based on his ballad, when he abandoned it in favor of the rivalry between two "Aesthetic fanatics, worshiped by a chorus of female aesthetics" (Stedman, p. 287). As he later explained, he "became uneasy at the thought of the danger [he] was incurring by dealing so freely with members of the clerical order, and [he] felt . . . crippled at every turn by the necessity of protecting [himself] from a charge of irreverence."3 The Church was still off-limits for theatrical parody and satire. Luckily for us, the clerical version of Patience survives in manuscript and offers clear evidence that curates prefigured the aesthetes.4 The name of the central clergyman, praised for "his exceeding mildness" and "his lamblike innocence" provides one hint of what the clerical version of the opera might have promised. That character was to have been called "The Reverend Lawn Tennison." His name gathers together a quiver of barbs, aimed against the supposed blandness of curates, against haute-bourgeois leisure pastimes, and against the Poet Laureate. As we will see, Tennyson remains an active object of parody in the final version of Patience. But for now, we should pause briefly to appreciate the cleric behind the aesthete, whose "style is much too sanctified, [whose] cut is too canonical."5

"The Rival Curates" tells of Mr. Clayton Hooper, of Spifftonextra Sooper, and his rival Hopley Porter, curate of nearby Assesmilk-cum-Worter. These amusing place-names emphasize the premise that curates might be associated with bland fatuity and excessive mildness. (For the text of the poem, see Appendix.) In this ballad, the sort of insipidity...


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