W. S. Gilbert

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Things are seldom what they seem;
Skim milk masquerades as cream.

Sir William Schwenck Gilbert (18 November 183629 May 1911) was an English dramatist and librettist, poet and illustrator best known for his operatic collaborations with the composer Sir Arthur Sullivan.


  • A popular speaker, however unpopular and insignificant, has only to wind up his speech with half-a-dozen lines of Shakespeare (and to make it clearly understood that they are Shakespeare's) and he will sit down amid thunders of applause.
    • "Unappreciated Shakespeare", Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News, Christmas Number, 9 December 1882.
  • So I fell in love with a rich attorney's
    Elderly, ugly daughter.
    • 1875, also quoted in Dictionary of Quotations, p. 353 (2005)
  • She may very well pass for forty three
    In the dusk with the light behind her.
    • 1875, also quoted in Dictionary of Quotations, p. 353 (2005)
  • But I submit, my lord, with all submission,
    To marry two at once is Burglaree!
  • Oh! my name is John Wellington Wells,
    I'm a dealer in magic and spells,
    In blessings and curses
    And ever-filled purses,
    In prophecies, witches, and knells.

    If you want a proud foe to "make tracks"—
    If you'd melt a rich uncle in wax—
    You've but to look in
    On our resident Djinn,
    Number seventy, Simmery Axe!
    • Mr Wells' song, Act I.
    • "Simmery Axe" is the traditional pronunciation of "St. Mary Axe", a road in the City of London.
      In Gilbert's day, the last building was number 68, though number 70 was built later.
  • Or you or I must yield up his life to Ahrimanes. I would rather it were you.
  • From such a face and form as mine, the noblest sentiments sound like the black utterances of a depraved imagination!
    It's human nature! I'm resigned.
  • What, never? / No, never! / What, never? / Well, hardly ever!
  • Things are seldom what they seem;
    Skim milk masquerades as cream.
  • Now landsmen all, whoever you may be,
    If you want to rise to the top of the tree,
    If your soul isn't fettered to an office stool,
    Be careful to be guided by this golden rule—
    Stick close to your desks and never go to sea,
    And you all may be Rulers of the Queen's Navee.
    • The first Lord's Song.
  • I am the monarch of the sea,
    The Ruler of the Queen's Navee,
    Whose praise Great Britain loudly chants
    And we are his sisters, and his cousins, and his aunts!
    • 1878, HMS Pinafore, act 1, also quoted in Dictionary of Quotations, p. 353 (2005)
  • When I was a lad I served a term
    As office boy to an attorney's firm.
    I cleaned the wndows and I swept the floor,
    And I polished up the handle of the big front door.
    I polished up that handle so carefullee
    That now I am the Ruler of the Queen's Navee!
    • 1878, HMS Pinafore, act 2, also quoted in Dictionary of Quotations, p. 353-354 (2005)
  • In spite of all temptations
    To belong to other nations,
    He remains an Englishman!
    • 1878, HMS Pinafore, act 2, also quoted in Dictionary of Quotations, p. 354 (2005)
  • The last three ships we took proved to be manned entirely by orphans, and so we had to let them go. One would think that Great Britain’s mercantile navy was recruited solely from her orphan asylums – which we know is not the case.
    • Frederick explaining to the other pirates why their merciful ways are incompatible with the profession of a pirate.
  • When your process of extermination begins, let our deaths be as swift and painless as you can conveniently make them.
    • The pirate king bidding farewell to Frederic, who has vowed to destroy the pirate band once out of his indentures.
  • No, Frederic, it cannot be. I don’t think much of our profession, but, contrasted with respectability, it is comparatively honest.
    • The pirate king mourning Frederic's decision not to be a pirate once freed, and his commitment to their destruction.
  • Against our wills, papa—against our wills!
    • The daughters of Major-General Stanley, explaining to him the context of declaration of marriage by the various members of the pirate band.
  • Exactly – you said "often" ('frequently') only once.
    • Major-General Stanley resolving a miscommunication with the pirate king arising from the phonetic similarity of 'often' and 'orphan'.
  • Yes, but you don't go!
    • Major-General Stanley expressing irritation with the police sergeant's posse for dawdling due to fear of what may occur during their pursuit of the pirates

Patience (1881)

  • If you want a receipt for that popular mystery,
    Known to the world as a Heavy Dragoon -
    Take all the remarkable people in history,
    Rattle them off to a popular tune!
  • Art stopped short at the cultivated court of the Empress Josephine.
  • Then a sentimental passion of a vegetable fashion must excite your languid spleen,
    An attachment à la Plato for a bashful young potato, or a not-too-French French bean!
    Though the Philistines may jostle, you will rank as an apostle in the high aesthetic band,
    If you walk down Piccadilly with a poppy or a lily in your medieval hand.
    • Act I
  • Yes, I am the Apostle of Simplicity. I am called Archibald the All-Right, for I am infallible.
  • Archibald: To understand this, it is not necessary to think of anything at all.
    Saphir: Let us think of nothing at all!
  • I know what love is. There was a happy time when I didn't, but bitter experience has taught me.
  • A pallid and thin young man,
    A haggard and lank young man,
    A greenery-yallery, Grosvenor Gallery,
    Foot-in-the-grave young man!

Iolanthe (1882)

  • The Law is the true embodiment
    Of everything that’s excellent.
    It has no kind of fault or flaw,
    And I, my Lords, embody the Law.
  • The House of Peers, thoughout the war
    Did nothing in particular
    And did it very well.
  • I can tell a woman's age in half a minute — and I do!
  • ...Darwinian Man, though well-behav’d,
    At best is only a monkey shav’d!
  • Man is nature's sole mistake.
  • Ah pray, make no mistake,
    we are not shy;
    We're very wide awake,
    The moon and I!
  • I am, in point of fact, a particularly haughty and exclusive person, of pre-Adamite ancestral descent. You will understand this when I tell you that I can trace my ancestry back to a protoplasmal primordial atomic globule. Consequently, my family pride is something inconceivable. I can’t help it. I was born sneering.
  • No money, no grovel!
    (Actually an ad-lib introduced by Rutland Barrington when playing the rôle of Pooh-Bah, to the annoyance of Gilbert.)
  • …in the first place, self decapitation is an extremely difficult, not to say dangerous, thing to attempt; and, in the second, it’s suicide, and suicide is a capital offence.
  • Pooh Bah: This professional conscientiousness is highly creditable to you, but it places us in a very awkward position.
    Koko: My good sir, the awkwardness of your position is grace itself compared with that of a man engaged in the act of cutting off his own head.
  • 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!
  • [Koko is negotiating the terms by which he can behead Nanki-Poo in his place, and they involve letting the latter be married to his fiance until he is executed]
    Koko: But my position during the next month will be most unpleasant, most unpleasant!
    Nanki-Poo: Not nearly so unpleasant as mine at the end of it.
  • I have a left shoulder-blade that is a miracle of loveliness. People come miles to see it. My right elbow has a fascination that few can resist.
  • Ko-Ko: Well, a nice mess you've got us into, with your nodding head and the deference due to a man of pedigree!
    Pooh-Ba: Merely corroborative detail, intended to give artistic verisimilitude to an otherwise bald and unconvincing narrative.
  • ...but it's an unjust world, and virtue is triumphant only in theatrical performances.
  • The idiot who praises, with enthusiastic tone,
    All centuries but this and every country but his own.
  • As someday it may happen that a victim must be found
    I've got a little list, I've got a little list
    Of society offenders who might well be underground,
    And who never would be missed—who never would be missed!
    • Song, "As someday it may happen".
  • My object all sublime
    I shall achieve in time—
    To let the punishment fit the crime,
    The punishment fit the crime.

Ruddigore (1887)

  • I know a youth who loves a little maid—
    (Hey, but his face is a sight for to see!)
    Silent is he, for he's modest and afraid
    (Hey, but he's timid as a youth can be!)
  • Some word that teems with hidden meaning, like "Basingstoke". It might recall me to my saner self. For, after all, I am only Mad Margaret! Daft Meg! Poor Meg! He! he! he!
  • My eyes are fully open to my awful situation, I shall go at once to Roderic and make him an oration,
    I shall tell him I've recovered my forgotten moral senses, and I don't care tuppence ha'penny for any consequences.
    Now I do not want to perish by the sword or by the dagger, but a martyr may indulge a little pardonable swagger
    And a word or two of compliment my vanity would flatter, but I've got to die to-morrow, so it really doesn't matter!
  • When maiden loves, she sits and sighs,
    She wanders to and fro -
    Unbidden tear-drops fill her eyes,
    And to all questions she replies
    With a sad "heigh ho!"
  • Heigh-dy! Heigh-dy!
    Misery me, lack-a-day-dee!
    He sipped no sup, and he craved no crumb,
    As he sighed for the love of a ladye!
  • I've jibe and joke,
    And quip and crank,
    For lowly folk
    And men of rank.
  • Is life a boon?
    If so it must befall
    That death when e're he call
    Must call too soon.
  • I should have preferred to ride through the streets of Venice; but owing, I presume, to an unusually wet season,
    the streets are in such a condition that equestrian exercise is impractical.
  • In enterprise of martial kind,
    When there was any fighting,
    He led his regiment from behind—
    He found it less exciting.
  • One of you may be Baptisto's son, for anything I know to the contrary; but the other is no less a personage than the only son
    of the late King of Barataria. ... And I trust — I trust it was that one who slapped me on the shoulder and called me his man!
  • Of that there is no manner of doubt—
    No probable, possible shadow of doubt—
    No possible doubt whatever.
  • Oh, philosophers may sing
    Of the troubles of a King,
    But of pleasures there are many and of worries there are none;
    And the culminating pleasure
    That we treasure beyond measure
    Is the gratifying feeling that our duty has been done.
  • The end is easily foretold,
    When every blessed thing you hold
    Is made of silver, or of gold,
    You long for simple pewter.
    When you have nothing else to wear
    But cloth of gold and satins rare,
    For cloth of gold you cease to care—
    Up goes the price of shoddy.
    In short, whoever you may be,
    To this conclusion you'll agree,
    When everyone is somebodee,
    Then no one's anybody!
  • There's a little group of isles beyond the wave,
    So tiny you might almost wonder where it is—
    That nation is the bravest of the brave,
    And cowards are the rarest of all rarities.
    The proudest nations kneel at her command,
    She terrifies all foreign-born rap-scallions;
    And holds the peace of Europe in her hand
    With half a score invincible battalions.
    • Final chorus.
  • By doing so, we shall, in course of time,
    Regenerate completely our entire land—
    Great Britain is that monarchy sublime,
    To which some add (but others do not) Ireland.
    • Final chorus, concluding lines.

Bartlett's Familiar Quotations, 10th ed. (1919)

Quotes reported in Bartlett's Familiar Quotations, 10th ed. (1919).
  • You have a daughter, Captain Reese,
    Ten female cousins and a niece,
    A ma, if what I'm told is true,
    Six sisters and an aunt or two.
    Now, somehow, Sir, it seems to me,
    More friendly-like we all should be
    If you united of them to
    Unmarried members of the crew.
    • Captain Reese.
  • Oh, I am a cook and a captain bold
    And the mate of the Nancy brig,
    And a bo'sun tight and a midshipmite
    And the crew of the captain's gig.
    • The Yarn of the "Nancy Bell". Compare: There were three sailors of Bristol city
      Who took a boat and went to sea.
      But first with beef and captain's biscuits
      And pickled pork they loaded she.
      There was gorging Jack and guzzling Jimmy,
      And the youngest he was little Billee.
      Now when they got as far as the Equator
      They'd nothing left but one split pea.
      W. M. Thackeray: Little Billee.
  • Roll on, thou ball, roll on
    Through pathless realms of space,
    Roll on!
    • To the Terrestrial Globe.
  • It's true I've got no shirts to wear,
    It's true my butcher's bill is due,
    It's true my prospects all look blue,
    But don't let that unsettle you!
    Never you mind!
    Roll on!
    (It rolls on.)
    • To the Terrestrial Globe.
  • He is an Englishman!
    For he himself has said it,
    And it's greatly to his credit,
    That he is an Englishman!.

    For he might have been a Rooshian
    A French or Turk or Proosian,
    Or perhaps Itali-an.
    But in spite of all temptations
    To belong to other nations,
    He remains an Englishman.
    • The Englishman (from HMS Pinafore).
  • I love my fellow-creatures, I do all the good I can,
    Yet everybody says I'm such a disagreeable man
    And I can't think why!
    • The disagreeable Man (from Princess Ida).
  • Ah, take one consideration with another
    A policeman's lot is not a happy one!
    • The Policeman's Lot (from The Pirates of Penzance).
  • Bad language or abuse
    I never, never use,
    Whatever the emergency;
    Though "Bother it" I may
    Occasionally say,
    I never use a big, big D-
    • The first Lord's Song (from HMS Pinafore).
  • The Law is the true embodiment
    Of everything that's excellent.
    It has no kind of fault or flaw,
    And I, my Lords, embody the Law.
    • The Lord Chancellor's Song (from Iolanthe).
  • On a tree by a river a little tomtit
    Sang "Willow, titwillow, titwillow"
    And I said to him, "Dicky-bird, why do you sit
    Singing ‘Willow, titwillow, titwillow?'.
    "Is it weakness of intellect, birdie?" I cried,
    "Or a rather tough worm in your little inside?"
    With a shake of his poor little head he replied,
    "Oh, Willow, titwillow, titwillow!"
    • The Suicide's Grave (from The Mikado).
  • Life's a pudding full of plums;
    Care's a canker that benumbs,
    Wherefore waste our elocution
    On impossible solution?
    Life's a pleasant institution,
    Let us take it as it comes!
    • The tangled Skein.
  • As innocent as a new-laid egg.
    • Engaged.
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