The peerless WS Gilbert wrote a trio in the first act of The Mikado in which three cowardly Japanese officials play a game of hot potato with a sentence of capital punishment. All are desperate to avoid keep their heads without (ahem) losing face.

The morbidly vain Pooh-Bah claims that turning down such a singular honour would be a mortifying act of self-abnegation he owes it to himself to perform. The weaselly Ko-Ko cites the irreparable damage that would be done to mankind in his absence. And the no-nonsense Pish-Tush doesn’t mind who’s for the chop so long as it isn’t him.

The three engage in a merry little trio that has always held a cherished place in the Spotify playlist of my mind, and one whose verbal intricacies I thought I knew backwards.

But the beauty of genius lies in its constant ability to surprise you. And earlier this week I was so struck by a heretofore unnoticed felicity of phrasing that I felt compelled to share it here.

I’ve copied the relevant section of the lyrics below – when all three characters repeat their objections in unison as a build-up to the song’s concluding verse.

To sit in solemn silence in a dull, dark dock,
In a pestilential prison, with a life-long lock,
Awaiting the sensation of a short, sharp shock,
From a cheap and chippy chopper on a big black block!

Brilliant, no? Here it is set to music.

Now, I had always wondered about the syntax of that final line. After all, “To sit in solemn silence” is a clause taking out personal ads in search of another. To quote the late lamented Clippy, it’s a fragment deserving of a wavy green underline rather than a fully-fledged sentence. And here (ahem) sentence is the operative word.

What I’d been overlooking all these years is that the tremendous change in music that occurs at this point does not mean a new sentence has begun. Rather – in the typical Gilbert manner – this final quatrain is a continuation of the preceding verses.

And what I consider a stroke of genius is that Gilbert constructed three separate access ramps on to the motorway of that last chorus. In other words, he has Ko-Ko say:
“So I object to sit in solemn silence…”

Pooh-Bah remark
“I must decline to sit in solemn silence…”

and Pish-Tush aver
“I don’t much care to sit in solemn silence…”

An act of lyrical engineering more elegant, satisfying and thrilling than any autobahn could ever be.


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