Time, I think, for a smile, and what better than a look at 'Bab Ballads', a collection of light verse, written by W.S.Gilbert, and illustrated with his own comic drawings, prior to his professional association with Arthur Sullivan. In writing these, Gilbert developed his unique "topsy-turvy" style, where the humour was derived by setting up a ridiculous premise and working out its logical consequences, however absurd. The Ballads also reveal Gilbert's cynical and satirical approach to humour. They became famous in their own right, as well as being a source for plot elements, characters and songs often recycled later in the Gilbert and Sullivan operas. The Ballads were read aloud at private dinner-parties, public banquets and even in the House of Lords. (Wikipedia)
From 'Fifty Bab Ballads' published in 1884 by George Routledge & Sons, I have taken two which I hope you will enjoy, namely 'Annie Protheroe - a legend of Stratford-le-Bow'; and 'My Dream', both of which were performed as short operettas.
Annie Protheroe - a legend of Stratford-le-Bow (1868)
Oh! Listen to the tale of little Annie Protheroe.
She kept a small post-office in the neighbourhood of Bow;
She loved a skilled mechanic, who was famous in his day –
A gentle executioner whose name was Gilbert Clay.
I think I hear you say, “A dreadful subject for your rhymes!”
O reader, do not shrink – he didn’t live in modern times!
He lived so long ago (the sketch will show it at a glance)
That all his actions glitter with the lime-light of Romance.
In busy times he laboured at his gentle craft all day –
“No doubt you mean his Cal-craft,” you amusingly will say –
But, no – he didn’t operate with common bits of string,
He was a Public Headsman, which is quite another thing.
And when his work was over, they would ramble o’er the lea,
And sit beneath the frondage of an elderberry tree,
And Annie’s simple prattle entertained him on his walk,
For public executions formed the subject of her talk.
And sometimes he’d explain to her, which charmed her very much,
How famous operators vary very much in touch,
And then, perhaps, he’d show how he himself performed the trick,
And illustrate his meaning with a poppy and a stick.
Or, if it rained, the little maid would stop at home, and look
At his favourable notices, all posted in a book,
And then her cheek would flush – her swimming eyes would dance with joy
In a glow of admiration at the prowess of her boy.
One summer eve, at supper time, the gentle Gilbert said
(As he helped his pretty Annie to a slice of collared head),
“This reminds me I must settle on the next ensuing day
The hash of that unmitigated villain, Peter Gray.”
He saw his Annie tremble and he saw his Annie start,
Her changing colour trumpeted the flutter at her heart;
Young Gilbert’s manly bosom rose and sank with jealous fear,
And he said, “O gentle Annie, what’s the meaning of this here?”
And Annie answered, blushing in an interesting way,
“You think, no doubt, I’m sighing for that felon Peter Gray:
That I was his young woman is unquestionably true,
But not since I began a-keeping company with you.”
Then Gilbert, who was irritable, rose and loudly swore
He’d know the reason why, if she refused to tell him more;
And she answered (all the woman in her flashing from her eyes),
“You mustn’t ask no questions, and you won’t be told no lies!
“Few lovers have the privilege enjoyed, my dear, by you,
Of chopping off a rival’s head and quartering him too!
Of vengeance, dear, tomorrow you will surely take your fill!”
And Gilbert ground his molars as he answered her, “I will!”
Young Gilbert rose from table with a stern determined look,
And, frowning, took an inexpensive hatchet from its hook;
And Annie watched his movements with an interested air –
For the morrow – for the morrow he was going to prepare!
He chipped it with a hammer and he chopped it with a bill,
He poured sulphuric acid on the edge of it, until
This terrible Avenger of the Majesty of Law
Was far less like a hatchet than a dissipated saw.
And Annie said, “O Gilbert, dear, I do not understand
Why ever you are injuring that hatchet in your hand?”
He said, “It is intended for to lacerate and flay
The neck of that unmitigated villain, Peter Gray!”
“Now, Gilbert,” Annie answered, “wicked headsman, just beware –
I won’t have Peter tortured with that horrible affair;
If you appear with that, you may depend you’ll rue the day.”
But Gilbert said, “Oh, shall I?” which was just his nasty way.
He saw a look of anger from her eyes distinctly dart,
For Annie was a woman, and had pity in her heart!
She wished him a good evening – he answered with a glare;
She only said, “Remember, for your Annie will be there!”
* * * *
The morrow Gilbert boldly on the scaffold took his stand,
With a vizor on his face and with a hatchet in his hand,
And all the people noticed that the Engine of the Law
Was far less like a hatchet than a dissipated saw.
The felon very coolly loosed his collar and his stock,
And placed his wicked head upon the handy little block.
The hatchet was uplifted for to settle Peter Gray,
When Gilbert plainly heard a woman’s voice exclaiming, “Stay!”
T’was Annie, gentle Annie, as you’ll easily believe.
“O Gilbert, you must spare him, for I bring him a reprieve,
It came from our Home Secretary many weeks ago,
And passed through that post-office which I used to keep at Bow.
“I loved you, loved you madly, and you know it, Gilbert Clay,
And as I’d quite surrendered all idea of Peter Gray,
I quietly suppressed it, as you’ll clearly understand,
For I thought it might be awkward if he came and claimed my hand.
“In anger at my secret (which I could not tell before),
To lacerate poor Peter Gray vindictively you swore;
I told you if you used that blunted axe you’d rue the day,
And so you will, young Gilbert, for I’ll marry Peter Gray!”
[ And so she did.
NB. Cal-craft (v3) --- William Calcraft (1800 - 1879), English Hangman for 45 years, performing 450 executions. Of dubious fame.
My Dream (1870)
The other night, from Care exempt,
I slept – and what d’you think I dreamt?
I dreamt that somehow I had come
To dwell in Topsy-Turveydom –
Where vice is virtue – virtue, vice;
Where nice is nasty – nasty, nice;
Where right is wrong and wrong is right –
Where white is black and black is white.
Where babies, much to their surprise,
Are born astonishingly wise;
With every Science on their lips,
And Art at all their finger-tips.
For, as their nurses dandle them
They crow binomial theorem,
With views (it seems absurd to us)
On differential calculus.
But though a babe, as I have said,
Is born with learning in his head,
He must forget it, if he can,
Before he calls himself a man.
For that which we call folly here,
Is wisdom in that favoured sphere;
The wisdom we so highly prize
Is blatant folly in their eyes.
A boy, if he would push his way,
Must learn some nonsense every day;
And cut, to carry out this view,
His wisdom teeth and wisdom too.
Historians burn their midnight oils,
Intent on giant-killer’s toils;
And sages close their aged eyes
To other sages’ lullabies.
Our magistrates, in duty bound,
Commit all robbers who are found;
But there the Beaks (so people said)
Commit all robberies instead.
Our Judges, pure and wise in tone,
Know crime from theory alone,
And glean the motives of a thief
From books and popular belief.
But there, a Judge who wants to prime
His mind with true ideas of crime,
Derives them from the common sense
Of practical experience.
Policemen march all folks away
Who practise virtue every day –
Of course, I mean to say, you know,
What we call virtue here below.
For only scoundrels dare to do
What we consider just and true,
And only good men do, in fact,
What we should think a dirty act.
But strangest of these social twirls,
The girls are boys – the boys are girls!
The men are women, too – but then,
Per contra, women are all men.
To one who to tradition clings
This seems an awkward state of things,
But if to think it out you try,
It doesn’t really signify.
With them, as surely as can be,
A sailor should be sick at sea,
And not a passenger may sail
Who cannot smoke right through a gale.
A soldier (save by rarest luck)
Is always shot for showing pluck
(That is, if others can be found
With pluck enough to fire a round).
“How strange!” I said to one I saw;
“You quite upset our every law.
However can you get along
So systematically wrong?”
“Dear me!” my mad informant said,
“Have you no eyes within your head?
You sneer when you your hat should doff:
Why, we begin where you leave off!
Your wisest men are very far
Less learned than our babies are!”
I mused awhile – and then, oh me!
I framed this brilliant repartee:
“Although your babes are wiser far
Than our most valued sages are,
Your sages, with their toys and cots,
Are duller than our idiots!”
But this remark, I grieve to state,
Came just a little bit too late;
For as I framed it in my head,
I woke and found myself in bed.
Still I could wish that, ‘stead of here,
My lot were in that favoured sphere! –
Where greatest fools bear off the bell
I ought to do extremely well.
To wisdom belongs the intellectual apprehension of things eternal; to knowledge, the rational apprehension of things temporal. (St. Augustine of Hippo)