Roll on, thou ball, roll on!
Through pathless realms of Space
What though I’m in a sorry case?
What though I cannot meet my bills?
What though I suffer toothache’s ills?
What though I swallow countless pills?
Never you mind!
[it rolls on]
Gilbert is mostly known to modern audiences as half of theater duo Gilbert and Sullivan. Most people, however, despite their knowledge of at least one or two of the duo’s light operas couldn’t, if pressed, be sure which was the composer and which the lyricist. This book ought to put that to rest.
A series of comic poems, complete with brilliant illustrations drawn by Gilbert himself, these were originally published in periodicals in the eighteen hundreds. No true canonical list exists, but the poems have received their title because Gilbert signed the drawings “Bab,” a slang term for baby during the period. James Ellis’ magnificent reprinting has trumped just about everyone in this category however, including Gilbert himself.
Gilbert oversaw three printings of the Bab Ballads, collections of various ones and in the third, he combined the first two and omitted the poems he thought somewhat lacking. Like most artists, he was not the best judge of his own work and it was the poems he omitted that the public seemed to love the most. Ellis has taken a utilitarian approach, even including three or four poems of rather dubious authorship, simply because they contain a Bab drawing. Regardless, this collection of over 150 poems is absolutely side splitting.
Gilbert was accused of cruelty by critics in his day, but it’s that very sense of detached misery that makes his poems so hilariously funny. He was, frankly, ahead of his time in many ways and these poems are desperately funny when they lampoon imperialism, gender relations, the passions of first love, familial responsibilities. Some people find offense in his caricatures of Africans and Arabs. And perhaps I would too if not for the fact that he lampoons the English even more; no racism here: Gilbert is an equal opportunity offender. All men, politicians, policeman, African natives, missionaries, curates, bishops, lovers, businessmen, Frenchmen, actors, writers . . . all are fools. And, yes, women too. All utter fools. The only difference is that they are all fools in slightly different ways.
If this seems a dim view of human nature, it doesn’t feel like it because the poems are so incredibly hilarious. There are occasionally more serious poems, particularly the tragic Eheu! Fugaces! Which finds an elderly sinner returning to the church he had shunned, afraid of what awaits him beyond death’s door. But the vast, vast majority of these poems are hilarious romps of political incorrectness and all too accurate satire on all aspects of society.
As well, Gilbert has an incredible gift for poetry in the technical sense; his rhymes are often as amusing as the words he’s actually writing and the way he absolutely murders meter, often making the reader lean on the incorrect syllable of a word for a line to work, is side splitting. The drawings as well show great talent as an artist; they are beyond grotesque. Gilbert himself was uncomfortable with these and replaced them with more dignified drawings in later printings. Ellis gets this right too, returning to the original drawings.
As one critic stated, every Gilbert libretto is simply three or four ruined Bab Ballads. All too true; all too true. Here is the cynical satirist in his purest form. Brilliance and if you think humor can’t be art, read this book.
5 out of 5 stars.