Benford's G&S Lexicon Entries for Patience

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About the Opera


For his next libretto, Patience, Gilbert chose to poke fun at the "aesthetic" craze that had then been in vogue in England for a couple of decades. For full enjoyment of the work you should know something about the aesthetic movement. Its progenitors included William Morris (poet and designer), Edward Burne-Jones (painter), James Whistler (painter), Dante Gabriel Rossetti (poet and artist), and Algernon Swinburne (poet). They formed a closely-knit group with uniform convictions about the dreary constraints of Victorian art, design, and literature -- and the new direction in which they ought to steer it. They elevated the search for beauty above all other aims in life and thus came to be referred to collectively as "the aesthetes." The writers sought freedom from stuffiness and extreme respectability. The painters wanted to rescue art from the traditions of the Renaissance religious painter Raphael, whose style still influenced accepted artists of the day. They sought inspiration in earlier, romantic themes, often with story-telling composition enhanced with elaborate decorative detail. It was this harking back to earlier styles of art that gave them the popular name "Pre-Raphaelites," a designation that was often applied to the writers as well.

The aesthetes were unquestionably talented. Their free-thinking proclivities, however, often led to bizarre affectations in attire, speech, and life style. Moreover, they attracted a large following of admirers who mimicked their superficial behavior but lacked the talent to emulate their commendable works. Gilbert's jibes were not directed at the talented work of the aesthetes. Rather, they were directed at their eccentric affectations and, most of all, at their ranks of mindless admirers.

At the time Gilbert was writing the libretto, Oscar Wilde, a recent Oxford graduate, was determined to make a name for himself as an aesthete. He carried the bizarre features to new extremes and probably served in part as one of Gilbert's targets. His advocacy of knee breeches for men and Grecian costumes for women is still reflected in most productions of the opera. He became strongly identified with the opera, especially when D'Oyly Carte paid him to go on a lecture tour of North America so the American public would know what the fun was all about. Nevertheless, each of the aesthetic poets in Patience appears to bear characteristics attributable to several of the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood, as well as to Oscar Wilde.

You should also know that for a period during his work on the opera, Gilbert intended to feature two rival curates (based on his Bab Ballad The Rival Curates) rather than two rival poets (272). Traces of those clergymen are still to be found in the libretto.

For a nicely summarized explanation of the aesthetic movement and Patience, see Williamson (318). For more complete expositions see Fido (119), Ellmann (101), Beerbohm (32), Stedman (272), Forty (120), and Von Eckardt (297).

The opera opened at the Opera Comique on April 23, 1881. The following October 10 it was transferred to a new theater, the Savoy, which Carte had designed and built specifically for the Gilbert and Sullivan operas. This was the first theater to be illuminated throughout by electricity, although a gas-light system was also included just in case the new gadgetry should fail. (The theater still stands, and has recently been rebuilt after a disastrous fire.) Patience was well received and ran for 578 performances.

Although Patience was highly topical, it has remained popular because the affectations satirized in the opera live on today in the arts, in politics, and in nearly every walk of life. Gilbert's memorial on the Thames Embankment carries the words "His foe was folly and his weapon wit." That was never more true than when he wrote Patience.


Dragoon Guards

Cavalry soldiers. According to the OED (229) the term is derived from dragon because the soldiers were originally equipped with an early form of musket that "breathed fire like a dragon." Another source (6) says the term arose because the pistol hammers were shaped something like dragons. In any event, when first formed, dragoon guards were infantrymen who did their fighting on foot, but rode horses for quick deployment. Bierce (39) defines a dragoon as "A soldier who combines dash and steadiness in so equal measure that he makes his advances on foot and his retreats on horseback." Like the Duke of Plaza-Toro. The Encyclopædia Britannica (103) explains that the scheme of alternating between horse and foot eventually developed into all-horseback operations, i.e., cavalry. Cavalry units were of three types: heavy, medium, and light, each suited to its own special duties. At one end of the scale large men on large horses formed the heavy cavalry and they were often called heavy dragoons, hence "Dragoon Guards." See also The Sorcerer.

Duke [The Duke of Dunstable]

The highest order of nobility in Britain's peerage. The word derives from the Latin words for a leader: dux, or duc (266).


Pronunciation: DUNST-ible

A market town in a southern corner of Bedfordshire, north of London. At the time the opera was written, Dunstable was known as a center for printing and straw hats.

Fleshly [a Fleshly Poet]

Fleshly can mean corporeal, corpulent, gross, or sensual. We can assume that Gilbert meant that Bunthorne (or at least his poetry) was sensual, i.e., carnal -- in a Victorian way--as opposed to the idyllic poetry of Grosvenor; whereas the term when later applied to the Dragoon Guards ("They are fleshly men of full habit!") surely implies gross. Under the entry "The Fleshly School" in Brewer (54) we read of Robert Buchanan's violent published attack on the poetry and literary methods of Swinburne, Rossetti, Morris, and others of their ilk. Buchanan apparently coined the term, with Rossetti particularly in mind.


Pronunciation: GROVE-nerr

Bunthorne's rival, Grosvenor, takes his name from a London art gallery that opened in 1877 and became famous for its association with the aesthetes. More on this later.

Idyllic [an Idyllic Poet]

Pronunciation: ih-DILL-ick

An idyll may be, among other things, a poem or narrative of simple perfection and loveliness.

Solicitor [Mr. Bunthorne's Solicitor]

Legal advisor. In England there are two classes of lawyers: barristers and solicitors -- all of which is explained under the heading "Barrister" in Trial By Jury.

Act I

Concords [To weeping concords tune thy roundelay!]



An air or tune in three parts, in which the first strain is repeated in the others (75).

Cynosure [the very cynosure of our eyes and hearts]

Pronunciation: SIGN-oh-sure or SIN-oh-sure

Center of devotion. Brewer (54) says the term derives from the name of the North Star. Cameron (66) explains that cynosure is the Greek word for "dog's tail," which was the ancient name for the constellation Ursa Minor, or the Little Dipper. As you may recall, the end of the Little Dipper's handle is the North Star.

For the nonce

For the moment; i.e., temporarily. See also Princess Ida and The Yeomen of the Guard.

Transcendentality [There is a transcendentality of delirium]

Pertaining to a condition of being abstruse, mystical, and perhaps with an intuitive feeling for divine truths. Remember that the aesthetes held that beauty transcended all other considerations in life.

Transfiguration [it is aesthetic transfiguration.]

A change in external appearance, from being plain or ugly to being radiant or beautiful, or both.

Full habit [They are fleshly men, of full habit!]

This can be interpreted as gross men of vulgar tastes: boors, oafs, and lumpkins. Hyder (161) says that "of full habit" is an old expression meaning fat. This is borne out in Captain Marryat's novel Peter Simple (200) in which a 250-pound man is described as having a "full habit of body."

Etherealized [our tastes have been etherealized.]

Rendered spiritual and attuned to celestial philosophies.

[Note on Colonel's song] [If you want a receipt]

The next 51 entries are from the Colonel's song "If you want a receipt." If you are in a hurry you can skip right past them and not miss a thing as far as understanding the plot is concerned. Look for the row of asterisks to mark the end.


An older term for a cooking recipe. The word was also used to indicate a list of medical ingredients (217).

Heavy Dragoon [Known to the world as a Heavy Dragoon]
Sketch of Colonel Calverly, a Heavy Dragoon

See "Dragoon Guards" under Characters at the start of the chapter.

Lord Nelson [The pluck of Lord Nelson on board of the Victory]

Vice-Admiral Lord Viscount Horatio Nelson (1758-1805): English naval hero. Under his command British naval forces inflicted a major defeat on the French and Spanish fleets off Cape Trafalgar in 1805. Nelson, who lost his life in the battle, is memorialized by a statue on an exceedingly tall pedestal in London's Trafalgar Square.