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David Bamberger

Gilbert’s librettos are faultless, or so I was raised to believe. One must admit that Thespis and The Grand Duke leave much to be desired, but the texts of the "sacred canon" were always, I felt, scrubbed to virtual perfection.

Only one item seemed to deny this claim. In the second act Quintet of Patience, the Duke and his friends sing of the potential consequences of his matrimonial selection with an extraordinarily weak rhyme:

In the case unprecedented
  Single I shall live and die –
I shall have to be contented
  With their heartfelt sympathy.

As the various permutations of lovers are reviewed, the "die/sympathy" rhyme is repeated time and time again. If this weren’t bad enough, Gilbert reprises the tune for the finale:

In that case unprecedented
  Single I must live and die –
I shall have to be contented
  With a tulip or lily.

Here the rhyme is intentionally humorous, of course. But why would Gilbert force a joke on top of a rhyme that was already inadequate?

This long-held frustration had been relegated to some remote corner of my mind until I recently picked up a copy of Gilbert’s Bab Ballads. In reading his early verse, two things became clear to me. First, Gilbert’s humor is based on the perfection of his rhymes. He may do bizarre things to create those rhymes, even making up words to achieve them, but the rhymes are there none-the-less. The wit of his topsy-turvy world derives, in part, with inspired nonsense of his tales by contrasting with the perfect order that we find at the end of each verse.

Second, virtually the only exception to this are words ending in "y." This might require a general study, but, for our purposes, the truly relevant item is contained in Baines Carew, Gentleman. Carew is an attorney whose legal activities are described as:

He made out costs, distrained for rent,
  Forclosed and sued, with moistened eye –
No bill of costs could represent
  The value of such sympathy.

"Sympathy" is again rhymed as a long "I". Was this a repeated fault? Was there a form of wit I was missing?

To test the question I turned to the works of Tennyson, poet laureate of the Victorian era. In his long poem In Memoriam A. H. H., a work clearly devoid of any humorous intent, I found:

Our voices took a higher range;
  Once more we sang: "They do not die
  Nor lose their mortal sympathy,
Nor change to us, although they change

Elsewhere the word "die" is rhymed with "reply", "sigh", "eye", and "nigh."

Prompted by this research, P.K. Saha, Professor of Linguistics at Case Western University, was kind enough to delve into the question, and discovered that the word "sympathy" had come into the English language about the time Shakespeare was born. It was a foreign word taken directly from the Greek word simpathia – pronounced "simpuh-THIGH-uh. Over time, the final "a" was dropped, as usual with weak final vowels in English. The final "i" became a "y", probably for visual reasons (to make it easier to read after the vertical lines of the "h") and to distinguish it from Latin plurals (like "castrati.") The first "i" was also changed to "y", probably for symmetry.

But, as the Tennyson poem proves, the Greek-based pronunciation – sympa-THIGH –survived through the 19th century. The modern pronunciation – SYM -pu-thee – evolved, and both pronunciations existed for a period (just as today we can pronounce "futile" either "FYEW-tuhl" or "FYEW-TILE"). The use of "sympa-THIGH" may have been viewed as poetic by Victorian times; but it was clearly regarded as both comprehensible and normal.

At last, Gilbert’s choices in Patience made perfect sense. In the Quintet, we were meant to hear, and to regard as unremarkable:

I shall have to be contented
  With their heartfelt "sympa-THIGH."

There was then real wit in forcing the final rhyme of the operetta:

I shall have to be contented
  With a tulip or lily. (=li-LIGH)

All of which offers no help to modern producers, who must deal with pronunciation as it exists today. Still, it does restore my childhood faith. Gilbert never never made mistakes in his librettos…

Well, hardly ever!

© David Bamberger, 1997

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