Benford's G&S Lexicon Entries for Patience

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Act I


Mercurous chloride, a medicine used as a laxative. (It's also used in the treatment of a certain unmentionable disease, but we're sure that's not what Bunthorne had in mind. He may have been a fleshly poet, but he wasn't that fleshly.) Shipley (266) says the word derives from the Greek kalos (fair) + melas (black) because it is a white powder that turns black when exposed to light.

Historical aside: The American explorers Lewis and Clark started on their expedition with no fewer than fifty dozen patented calomel pills, the composition of which included six parts of mercury to one part of chlorine, and jalap (a dried root with purgative proclivities of its own). The combination was described as awesome. Indeed, to the man in the street the pills were affectionately referred to as "thunderclappers" (5).

Plinth [When from the poet's plinth]

Square slab forming the base of a column or pedestal. We can interpret this as Bunthorne's reference to being on a poet's pedestal.


Believe it or not, colocynth is a strong purgative made from the pulp of a kind of cucumber. The phrase "amorous colocynth" is an example of advanced oxymoronism.


A purgative derived from the juice of the aloe plant.

Uncompounded pills

Pills containing but a single medicinal ingredient. In this case they are simply derived from plants.

[Note on Bunthorne's Poem]

As you may have surmised by now, Bunthorne's entire poem stresses the incompatibility of medicinal and poetic aspects of flowers (7). So we may now ask the profound philosophical question: Does "Hollow! Hollow! Hollow!" refer to the emptiness of life, or the physical condition of the body cavity after extensive purgative medicinal ministrations? Aurora (16) and Papa (231) take this up at length. Rees (251) notes that medical science was rather limited in those days:

Purgation was pretty standard for anything. I will bet that nobody, but nobody in the Savoy audience had got through life without being purged at least several times. They [referring to the purgatives mentioned above] were standard medicine known to all and stocked by every apothecary. They were prescribed unmixed (uncompounded) with other substances. This much established, I leave it to you to diagnose the cause of the writhing of the lithe-limbed maid, and to decide why the first comment on the poem (by Angela) is "How purely fragrant!"

And, if that is not enough, Rees calls to our attention this poem by Oscar Wilde, which is typical of what Gilbert was parodying:

    …And sweet to hear the shepherd Daphnis sing
The song of Linus through a sunny dell
Of warm Arcadia where the corn is gold
    And the slight lithe-limbed reapers dance about the wattled fold.

And sweet with young Lycoris to recline
In some Illyrian valley far away,
    Where canopied on herbs amaracine
We too might waste the summer-trancèd day … .

from "The Burden of Itys"

Empyrean [You are not Empyrean]]

Pronunciation: em-puh-REE-en

The highest heaven, or region of pure elemental fire (75). Keep in mind that Bunthorne and his admirers are not true aesthetes, but only blind followers and mimics. They use such high-flown language without really understanding the meaning.

Della Cruscan [You are not Della Cruscan]]

Pronunciation: DEL-a-KRUS-kan

The original Della Cruscans were members of a Florentine academy of the sixteenth century dedicated to purifying the Italian language. The term was also used by a group of late-eighteenth century English poets who lived in Florence and wrote in affected aesthetic style.

Early English [would at least be Early English]]

English language and literature between a.d. 1250 and 1500, also Gothic architecture in vogue in England during the thirteenth century (75). Bradley (47) says the style was favored by the Pre-Raphaelites.

Primary colours! [Red and Yellow! Primary colours! Oh, South Kensington!]]

These are the fundamental pigments, red, yellow and blue, from which all the others (orange, green, violet, and brown) can be derived by combining. The aesthetes usually preferred rather subdued and somber mixes.

South Kensington!

This is somewhat obscure, but the consensus of my more knowledgeable friends (140, 243, 247, 251, 265, 273) is that the reference is to the bohemian inhabitants of that part of London. Quoting Prestige (243): "South Kensington was, and still is, the centre in London for art museums, the Royal College of Art, and the area where those so inclined live or (if students) lodge. Punch of the period made frequent references to the outré aesthetic habits of the denizens of South Kensington." Rees (251) makes these comments: "South Kensington and the immediately adjacent Brompton were not only the sites of more than one 'art school' but also the abode of many of the more aesthetically inclined. Gilbert lived on the fringe of this area at The Boltons during the 1870s and '80s and it was here that he wrote the libretto of Patience … Aesthetes were probably two-a-penny in some of the streets nearby and Gilbert doubtless had plenty of opportunity to study them in situ." The aesthetes of that day would certainly look upon primary colors as lacking in sophistication. To Jane's "Oh, South Kensington!" might be added: "Forgive these hopeless Philistines."

Cobwebby gray

This presumably alludes to Whistler's extensive use of muted grays and blacks, as in that famous picture of his mother.

Bloom [with a tender bloom like cold gravy]]

The dull, cloudy coagulated surface of once-warm gravy.

Hessians [a lover's professions, when uttered in Hessians]
Sketch of a Hessian

Knee-high cloth boots with tassels, long worn by Hessian troops (229).


Most extreme.

Chaste [handsome and chaste]

Simple in taste and style (an unlikely adjective to apply to those gaudy dragoon uniforms, but let it pass).


Pertains to the philosophy of Aristotle, who believed in teaching while ambulating about. In the present context one need infer no Aristotelian influence other than the walking-talking aspect.

Dirty greens [I do not care for dirty greens]

This is an apparent allusion to the affected attire of some of the aesthetes. Stedman (274) says they showed a preference for sage green (green mixed with gray).

Platitudes [I am not fond of uttering platitudes]
Sketch of Platitudes in stained glass attitudes

Mundane remarks, especially those uttered in a pompous manner.

Stained-glass attitudes

This may call attention to Morris and Burne-Jones, both of whom worked in stained glass, a medium that tends to depict figures in stiff attitudes. On the other hand it may be a hold-over from those rival curates.

Germs of the transcendental terms

Fundamentals of mystic jargon.

Palmiest day

Most flourishing period (229).

Empress Josephine

Empress of France 1804-09; first wife of Napoleon Bonaparte. Bradley (47) says, "She held a brilliant court and helped confirm the reputation of Paris as the artistic capital of the world." To this DeLorme (88) adds that Josephine also held brilliant courts in Strasbourg and Mainz; she founded a conservatory with great teachers, and is known to have encouraged Cherubini and Le Sueur. Barker (27), on the other hand, maintains that her brilliant court was ostentatious and often empty show. "Bunthorne was trying to emphasize the absurdity of condemning all that is recent by picking a correspondingly absurd climatic point for the last stage of 'good' art." Other historians (109, 218) mention that her rustic upbringing was such that she found it necessary to employ a full-time tutor to bring her cultural prowess up to the level of her imperial position.

Born in Martinique in 1763, Josephine started life as Marie Josephine Rose Tascher de la Pagerie. While still in her teens she married the vicomte Alexandre Beauharnais, who was executed as an anti-revolutionist fifteen years later. After two years of widowhood, she married Napoleon, but he had their marriage annulled after eight years. She nevertheless lived on in style until her death in 1814.

Spleen [must excite your languid spleen]

Asimov (11) explains that the spleen is a small organ near the stomach. In times gone by the spleen was believed to be the seat of various emotions. A man with a "languid spleen" would be unable to work up much enthusiasm for loving a woman.

An attachment à la Plato

Friendly, but without sexual overtones. Plato (ca. 427-347 B.C.) was a Greek philosopher, a pupil and friend of Socrates. He advocated a love of the idea of beauty, evolving from a physical desire for a person through love of physical beauty and later of spiritual and ideal beauty.

French bean

The term has been variously defined as what Americans call an ordinary string bean (perhaps with the pod sliced along its length), kidney bean, wax bean, or scarlet runner (75, 229, 238, 250, 290).

Philistines [Though the Philistines may jostle]]

Pronunciation: FILL-is-tines, or -tins

Uncultured wealth-worshippers who have no interest in the arts. Brewer (54) has a nice outline of the etymology of the word, which has overtones of friction between town and gown. The term was popularized in England by the poet, essayist and critic Matthew Arnold (1822-88).

Apostle [you will rank as an apostle]

A leader of reform. Dixon (94) suggests that this may have been a sly reference to the Apostles Club, a well known but exclusive intellectual society formed in Cambridge in 1820.


A well-known London street of prestigious hotels and shops. "The street's name is believed to be derived from certain collars of the seventeenth century made by a fashionable tailor who called his home 'Piccadilly Hall' "(77). Goodman (140) says the collars were starched and were thought to be called "pikadils."

Poppy or lily

Poppies, as well as lilies, figured in some of the Pre-Raphaelite paintings. The line about walking down Piccadilly alludes to the popular notion that Oscar Wilde had a habit of parading down the street holding a lily. Did he really do so? Ellmann (101) finds reason to think so; but Fido (119) quotes Wilde to the effect that he (Wilde) said he had never done such a thing, but had nevertheless convinced the world that he had, which was far more difficult. Does that settle the issue? Not unless you have confidence in Wilde's veracity.