W. S. Gilbert: His Life and Letters

by Sidney Dark and Rowland Grey. London: Methuen & Co., Ltd.; New York: George H. Doran Co. 8vo. Illustrated. x+269 pp. $5.00.
How many readers of the Atlantic can sing the song of ‘the merry man moping mum’ in The Yeomen of the Guard, beginning: —
I have a song to sing, O!
Sing me your song, O?
How many others are familiar— perhaps through the Rev. John Henry Hopkins’s Carols, Hymns, and Sonys containing ‘We three Kings of Orient are’ — with the Cornish Christmas Carol, beginning: —
Come and I will sing you!
What will you sing me?
I will sing you One — O!
What is your One — O?
One reviewer, with a remote boyish remembrance of Dr. Hopkins’s own singing of this carol, and with a later liking for ‘the merry man moping mum,’ blended with a constant feeling that the sacred and the secular words must somehow be related each to each, must record a sense of triumphant discovery in learning, from this biography of Gilbert, that he took the swing of his ‘merry man’ song from a carol which the Cornish sailors on his yacht used to sing as a chantey, and that he quoted the carol in a letter to Sullivan, in almost precisely the words which Dr. Hopkins set down as given to him by three children who had learned them from some Cornish copper-miners on the southern shore of Lake Superior. In the annals of folklore it would be hard to find two widely separated versions of a ballad so nearly identical.
All this is somewhat extraneous to a brief notice of the book which has prompted it; but the biography itself is anything but close-knit, and the detached facts to be derived from it are more notable than the book as a whole. Its authors are candid enough to say of it, as its end draws near: ‘In the preceding chapters there is, perhaps, sufficient material to re-create the character of the man who lives in literary history as the author of the Bab Ballads and the Savoy opera libretti.’ So there is, but the reader is left to do much of the re-creating for himself. Indeed there is something ironic in the fact that the life of so deft a workman as Gilbert should have been written with so little skill in the handling of biographical material.
Good material abounds in the best of the letters, in the unfamiliar verses and drawings, in the reminiscences of devoted and penetrating friends. In the Gilbert who himself ‘went to the bar as a very young man,’ who discovered his true gifts early enough to turn them to the prodigious delight of the English-speaking world, who found his heaven-sent mate in Sir Arthur Sullivan, fell at odds with him and made reconciliation, who had a host of friends, especially, like Lewis Carroll, among children, who came to his own gallant end in saving a girl from drowning in a pond on his own grounds — in Gilbert himself there is a figure whose charm is perennial. It is superfluous to liken him, as he is likened in this book, to Aristophanes, Herrick, or Dickens. He was Gilbert the incomparable, the unapproachable writer of verse that sings itself — the better for Sullivan’s enchanting tunes — into the heart and memory. If ‘ The Beggar’s Opera,’ after two hundred years, can be revived wit h such delight, one may almost wish to be living for the Gilbert and Sullivan revivals of the twenty-first century.
Whatever its shortcomings, the Life and Letters of Gilbert will help one, then as now, to realize what this unique maker of clean mirth was and did.