Bab Ballads  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

The Bab Ballads are a collection of light verse by W. S. Gilbert, illustrated with his own comic drawings. Gilbert wrote the Ballads before he became famous for his comic opera librettos with Arthur Sullivan. In writing the Bab Ballads, Gilbert developed his unique "topsy-turvy" style, where the humour was derived by setting up a ridiculous premise and working out its logical consequences, however absurd. The Ballads also reveal Gilbert's cynical and satirical approach to humour. They became famous on their own, as well as being a source for plot elements, characters and songs that Gilbert would recycle in the Gilbert and Sullivan operas. The Bab Ballads take their name from Gilbert's childhood nickname, and he later began to sign his illustrations "Bab".

Nothing else quite like the Ballads has ever been produced in the English language. They contain both satire and nonsense, as well as a great deal of utter absurdity. The Ballads were read aloud at private dinner-parties, public banquets, and even in the House of Lords. The ballads have been much published, and there are even recordings of readings of some of them.


Early history

Gilbert himself explained how the Ballads came about:

In 1861 Fun was started, under the editorship of Mr. H. J. Byron. With much labour I turned out an article three-quarters of a column long, and sent it to the editor, together with a half-page drawing on wood. A day or two later the printer of the paper called upon me, with Mr Byron's compliments, and staggered me with a request to contribute a column of 'copy' and a half-page drawing every week for the term of my natural life. I hardly knew how to treat the offer, for it seemed to me that into that short article I had poured all I knew. I was empty. I had exhausted myself: I didn't know any more. However, the printer encouraged me (with Mr. Byron's compliments), and I said I would try. I did try, and I found to my surprise that there was a little left, and enough indeed to enable me to contribute some hundreds of columns to the periodical throughout his editorship, and that of his successor, poor Tom Hood! (Gilbert, 1883).

For ten years Gilbert wrote articles and poems for Fun, of which he was also the drama critic. Gilbert's actual first column "cannot now be identified" (Stedman 1996, p. 11). The first known contribution is a drawing titled "Some mistake here" on page 56 of the 26 October 1861 issue of Fun (Plumb 2004, p. 499). However, some of Gilbert's early work for the journal remains unidentified, because many pieces were unsigned. The earliest pieces that Gilbert himself considered worthy to be collected as Bab Ballads started to appear in 1865, and then much more steadily from 1866–1869.

The series takes its title from the nickname "Bab," which is short for "baby," and may also be an homage to Charles Dickens's pet name, "Boz." Gilbert did not start signing his drawings "Bab" regularly until 1866, and he did not start calling the poems "Bab Ballads" until the first collected edition of them was published in 1869. Thereafter, his new poems in Fun were captioned "The Bab Ballads," and he started numbering them, with "Mister William" (published 6 February 1869) as No. 60.

It is not certain which poems Gilbert considered to be Nos. 1–59. Ellis counts backwards, including only those poems with drawings, and finds that the first Bab Ballad was "The Story of Gentle Archibald" (Ellis 1970, p. 13). However, Gilbert didn't include "Gentle Archibald" in his collected editions, while he did include several poems published earlier than that. Moreover, Gilbert did not limit the collected editions to poems with illustrations.

By 1870, Gilbert's Bab Ballad output started to tail off considerably, corresponding to his rising success as a dramatist. The last poem that Gilbert himself considered to be a Bab Ballad, "Old Paul and Old Tim," appeared in Fun in January 1871. In the remaining forty years of his life, he would make only a handful of verse contributions to periodicals. Some posthumous editions of the Ballads have included these later poems in the canon, although Gilbert did not.

Subsequent publication

By 1868, Gilbert's poems had won sufficient popularity to justify a collected edition. He selected forty-four of the poems (thirty-four of them illustrated) for an edition of The “Bab” Ballads – Much Sound and Little Sense. A second collected edition, More “Bab” Ballads, including thirty-five ballads (all illustrated), appeared in 1872.

In 1876, Gilbert collected fifty of his favourite poems in Fifty “Bab” Ballads, with one poem being collected for the first time ("Etiquette") and twenty-five poems that had appeared in the earlier volumes being left out. As Gilbert explained it:

The period during which they were written extended over some three or four years; many, however, were composed hastily, and under the discomforting necessity of having to turn out a quantity of lively verse by a certain day in every week. As it seemed to me (and to others) that the volumes were disfigured by the presence of these hastily written impostors, I thought it better to withdraw from both volumes such Ballads as seemed to show evidence of carelessness or undue haste, and to publish the remainder in the compact form under which they are now presented to the reader. (Gilbert 1876, p. vii).

Gilbert's readers were not happy with the loss, and in an 1882 edition Gilbert published all of the poems that had appeared in either The “Bab” Ballads or More “Bab” Ballads, once again excluding "Etiquette." (Some twentieth-century editions of More “Bab” Ballads included "Etiquette," although Gilbert had not done so.)

In 1890, Gilbert produced Songs of a Savoyard, a volume of sixty-nine detached lyrics from the Savoy Operas, each with a new title, and some of them slightly reworded to account for the changed context. Many of them also received "Bab" illustrations in the familiar style. He also included two deleted lyrics from Iolanthe (footnoted as "omitted in representation"). The effect was that of a new volume of Bab Ballads. Indeed, Gilbert had entertained calling the volume The Savoy Ballads (Ellis 1970, p. 27, n. 53).

Finally, in 1898, Gilbert produced The “Bab” Ballads with which are included Songs of a Savoyard. This volume included all of the Bab Ballads that had appeared in any of the earlier collected volumes, the sixty-nine "Songs of a Savoyard" from the 1890 volume, and eighteen additional lyrics in the same format from the four new operas he had written since then. The Bab Ballads and illustrated opera lyrics alternated, creating the impression of one integrated body of work.

For the 1898 volume, Gilbert also added over two hundred new drawings, providing illustrations for the ten ballads that had previously lacked them, and replacing most of the others. He wrote:

I have always felt that many of the original illustrations to "The Bab Ballads" erred gravely in the direction of unnecessary extravagance. This defect I have endeavoured to correct through the medium of the two hundred new drawings which I have designed for this volume. I am afraid I cannot claim for them any other recommendation. (Gilbert 1897).

It was in this form that the Ballads remained almost constantly in print through the expiration of the copyright at the end of 1961. James Ellis's new edition in 1970 restored the original drawings, retaining from the 1898 edition only those drawings that went with the previously unillustrated ballads.

Identification and Attribution

There is no universally agreed list of poems that constitute the Bab Ballads. The series clearly includes all of the poems that Gilbert himself published under that title, but there are others he did not include in any of the collected editions in his lifetime. Most writers have accepted as "Bab Ballads" any poetry (whether illustrated or not) that Gilbert contributed to periodicals, not counting poems written or repurposed as operatic lyrics.

After Gilbert's death, there were several attempts to identify additional ballads that were missing from the collected editions that had been published to that point. Dark & Gray (1923), Goldberg (1929), and Searle (1932) identified and published additional ballads, not all of which have been accepted as canon. The most recent edition, edited by James Ellis (1970), includes all of those that Gilbert himself acknowledged, all of those from Dark & Gray, Goldberg, and/or Searle that Ellis finds authentic, plus others identified by no other previous compilers.

There are several ballads that Ellis identifies as Gilbert's either on stylistic grounds or by the presence of a "Bab" illustration accompanying the poem in the original publication. These include two distinct poems called "The Cattle Show," as well as "Sixty-Three and Sixty-Four," "The Dream," "The Baron Klopfzetterheim," and "Down to the Derby." These attributions are provisional, and not accepted by all scholars, because the poems themselves are unsigned, and Gilbert sometimes provided illustrations for the work of other writers.

Starting with the "new series" of Fun (those with 'n.s.' in the source reference), Gilbert's authorship is not in doubt, as the pieces for which he was paid can be confirmed from the proprietors' copies of that journal, which now reside in the Huntington Library.

List of Bab Ballads

The table below lists all of the Bab Ballads that are included in Ellis (1970). The second column shows the reference for the periodical in which each poem originally appeared, and the third column shows the collection(s) that have included the poem. The following abbreviations are used:

  • TBB: The Bab Ballads (London: John Camden Hotten, 1868).
  • MBB: More Bab Ballads (London: Routledge, 1872)
  • 50BB: Fifty Bab Ballads ((London: Routledge, 1876)
  • D&G: W.S. Gilbert: His Life and Letters, Sidney Dark & Rowland Grey (Methuen, 1923).
  • Goldberg: Story of Gilbert and Sullivan, Isaac Goldberg (John Murray, 1929).
  • Searle: Lost Bab Ballads, Townley Searle (G. P. Putnam's Sons, Ltd. 1932),.
  • Ellis: The Bab Ballads, James Ellis, ed. (Belknap Press, 1970).

Starting with "Mister William," Gilbert assigned numbers to most of the ballads that appeared in Fun. Those numbers are shown in the second column after the source reference.

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Bab Ballads" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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