02 June 2008

Like a swim in vinegar

Arthur, the Reference Librarian on Savoynet, found some letters by W.S. Gilbert published in UK periodicals. He gave us a sneak peak of two of as he transcribes them for the Archive. The second one was good, but the first one really captures that cranky old guy side Gilbert's personality that makes him one of my heroes. Somewhere up in heaven, Gilbert, John Adams, and Harry Truman have having a lovely time being acerbic with each other. One day I hope to join them, merely as a delighted auditor.

Gilbert’s letter to The Graphic, April 2, 1870, p. 427


To the Editor of The Graphic

SIR, -- I accept Mr. Burnand’s challenge to find a rhyme to “silver,” if he will allow me the license that he himself takes in finding a rhyme to “month.”
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 liberty to say—

I have averred—indeed, I will ’ver—
That I have found a rhyme to “silver.”

But allowing, for the sake of argument, that Mr. Burnand is at liberty to rob “runneth” of its only e whenever it pleases him to do so, the fact remains that the u in “runn’th” is, in strictness, no rhyme to the o in “month.” To a careless ear there is, no doubt, a strong analogy between the two sounds, and in ordinary versification they might pass muster as fairly good rhyme; but in seriously discussing a question of nicety in rhyme, we are bound to look at it from a purist’s point of view, and form this point of view “runn’th” is no rhyme to “month.”
I still adhere to “millionth” as the best rhyme to “month,” and I have the authority of the greatest poets in the English language for treating it as a tri-syllable, if I feel disposed to do so. The termination “ion” in such words as “million,” “contagion,” “rapscallion,” “morion,” “pillion,” “vermilion,” has been used indifferently as one or two syllables by every poet in the English language from Chaucer to Tennyson:

Bring forth the parties of suspicion.
Rom. and Jul., Act v. Sc. 3.

--Woe, woe, woe to such communion.
BYRON’s Heaven and Earth, Part i. Sc. 2.

Here are some analogous cases:

And bear the work of Heaven with patience.
Rom. and Jul., Act v. Sc. 3.

And let mischance be slave to patience.
Rom. and Jul., Act v. Sc. 3.

I will do so; but look you, Cassius.
Jul. Caes., Act i. Sc. 2.

Would not Mr. Burnand consider himself justified in writing,

Put a pillion
This little filly on?

Inventors often give arbitrary and wholly irrational names to their inventions, in order to bring them more immediately into notice. Now these ingenious gentlemen would take rank as public benefactors if, in selecting these arbitrary names, they would be so good as to enrich the English language with rhymes to words that are at present rhymeless, or nearly rhymeless. If the inventor of the Rantoone had called it a “Ronth” (explaining in his specification that the o was to have the exact value of the o in “month”), this controversy would have been avoided, and the instrument, whatever it is, extensively advertised, for, as the only unimpeachable rhyme to “month” (except my “millionth”) it would be perpetually lugged into doggerel. 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 disyllabic rhyme to “silver,” without the aid of a context, had better stand over until this instrument is completed.
Yours faithfully,
Junior Carlton Club, March 27

*Burnand = Most likely F.C. Burnand, humorist and editor of Punch.

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