W.S. Gilbert is one of my heroes. You’ll have to accept this from the start, or we will never get on. The Adam of modern lyric-writing, as Alan Jay (“My Fair Lady”) Lerner called him, he was simply one of the best – from a literary-dramatic point of view, at any rate.
I’m going to tell you all about a very trivial business that happened in the year 1870. This was earlyish in Gilbert’s career, before he had even met Sullivan. But he had started out as a dramatist, was already well known for such plays as Ages Ago and The Princess, and had published the first volume of his Bab Ballads, which were for a long time considered a comic classic. He was, even then, known for his comic verse.
The tale starts with a letter written to the weekly paper The Graphic by someone calling herself “Isabel.” It appeared in the issue for 12 March 1870.
“Talking of rhymes, it has been decided in Notes and Queries that month is our sole unrhymable monosyllable. And even that is doubtful. Twenty-oneth is better English than twenty-first….”
(By the way, Tom Hood, author of The Rules of Rhyme as referred to in Isabel’s letter, was the editor of the comic paper Fun, where it so happens that Gilbert was a major contributor.)
Anyhow, this challenge brought a response from Gilbert the following week (19 March 1870):
“I think I can suggest to your correspondent ‘Isabel’ a more legitimate rhyme to ‘month’ than ‘twenty-oneth.’ What does she say to ‘millionth’ – pronounced, of course, as a trisyllable?
“The word ‘dismal’ has long been held by Notes and Queries to be without rhyme. But ‘paroxysmal’ seems to me to answer all necessary conditions.”
Isabel came back in the issue of 26 March with another rhyme for “dismal” – “abysmal”…..
… but it was at this point that another voice also entered the debate, that of F.C. Burnand. Burnand was an almost exact contemporary of Gilbert (born just eleven days after WSG) and their careers ran in uncanny parallel. They both contributed to Fun – though Burnand lost no time before decamping to Punch – and Burnand wrote comic operas with Sullivan long before the composer had even met Gilbert. At this time they were more or less friends, though in later years they became more like mortal enemies.
Anyway, Burnand wrote in the 26 March issue of The Graphic:
Thus Burnand objected to “millionth” as a rhyme, and suggested as an alternative “runn’th”, an elided version of “runneth.” He then added to the controversy with an added challenge to his friend: “is there a fair dissyllabic rhyme (words of three syllables not admitted) to “silver” without the aid of context? There is an old nut to crack for you, Mr. Gilbert. So unless you have already cracked it (in which case I should like to know the word), why,
There’s your filbert.”
Unfortunately, Burnand couldn’t leave it there. Leaving the worst till last, he added in a P.S.: “Taking as a title ‘Poems by a Lisping Babe,’ such words as ‘runs, puns, buns, tuns, sally-lunns, guns, duns,’ &c., &c., could all be made to rhyme with ‘month,’ in virtue of the assumed lisp of the poet. It Mr. Gilbert will ‘look out,’ it is not improbable that something of this sort may ‘catch his eye’ next week.”
And indeed, if with trembling fingers and dread in his heart Gilbert had turned to Punch dated 2 April 1870, he would have found the following dismal (abysmal, paroxysmal) item, presumably by Burnand:
I will not dignify any of this with a transcription. But it does confirm, if needed, the low threshold of humour at Punch at this date. I can also assure the reader that, whatever Gilbert’s faults, he was not capable of writing such abject trash as this.
Burnand was not finished even here. In The Graphic of 2 April he returned with another letter:
Like so many humorists of the day, he thought nothing of conjuring up an imaginary “provincial dialect” where “silver” might comically rhyme with “pilfer.”
How, in the face of all this, he could object to “millionth” as a rhyme to “month”, I can’t conceive.
However, in the same issue of 2 April, Gilbert was also on hand with some (comparatively) sensible words:
“If Mr. Burnand is in earnest when he suggests “runn’th” as a legitimate rhyme to “month,” and really believes that when he is at a loss for a rhyme he is at liberty to dispense with any letter that may stand between himself and the fulfilment of his wishes, he will perhaps admit that I am at liberty to say –
I have averred – indeed, I still ‘ver –
That I have found a rhyme to ‘silver.’
“… I myself am engaged in perfecting an ingenious apparatus for the purpose of extracting sunbeams from the cucumber of commerce (cucumis communis of Linnaeus), and when it is completed I shall call it a ‘Chilver.’ Perhaps my unconditional acceptance of Mr. Burnand’s challenge to find a dissyllabic rhyme to ‘silver,’ without the aid of a context, had better stand over until this instrument is completed.”
Of course, all this was nothing more than two friends joking and talking nonsense. If these men did not happen to be the two major librettists of Sullivan’s comic operas, we wouldn’t waste a moment on their comments – no, not even I. Two weeks later, on 16 April 1870, it all ended as it had begun, with “Isabel”:
“Permit me to suggest a rhyme for silver more allowable than Mr. Gilbert’s promised Chilver, or than the pilver of Mr. Burnand’s imaginary dialect.
“In Somersetshire, on the margin of the Bristol Channel, there is a small village, mentioned in verse by both Wordsworth and Southey. The latter calls it ‘Kilve by the green sea.’ Now, if a native of London is a Londoner, is not a native of Kilve a Kilver?”
After which, of course, there was nothing more that could be said.