Towards the Empyrean Heights:
Lady Psyche's Classical Canon
Amy E. K. Vail
In a landmark article she wrote in 1927, Edith Hamilton awarded
W.S. Gilbert the title of "Mid-Victorian Aristophanes." As
usual, she was right.
Like his Athenian counterpart, Gilbert enjoyed studding his
libretti with displays of doctrina,
but almost always in parodic or satiric contexts. Hence, Gilbert's
Mikado is "the Lucius Junius Brutus" of his race, while Robin
Oakapple of Ruddigore considers himself a poet on the order not merely
of Swinburne and Morris, but also of Ovid and Horace. Major General
Stanley, even more erudite than the rest, knows "the croaking
chorus from the Frogs or Aristophanes," is
able to "write a washing-bill in Babylonic cuneiform," and
can even "quote in elegiacs all the crimes of Heliogabalus!"
Gilbert's Princess Ida began
as a blank-verse travesty of Tennyson's poem, The Princess. This
play, with music mostly stolen from Offenbach, played successfully at
the Olympic Theater in 1870. Only in 1883, when it was rewritten
as a libretto for Arthur Sullivan, were the remarks of Professor of Humanities
Psyche added, perhaps as a balance for the remainder of her lecture,
a disquisition on the nature of Man.
In the play, Princess Ida, unwilling to marry, has retreated
to the Castle Adamant with two lady professors (soprano and alto) and
a chorus of female undergraduates. There they study Mathematics,
Diplomacy, Logic, Abstract Philosophy of a peculiarly Germanic dullness,
Darwinian Evolution, Surgery, Music, Chemistry, and of course, Classics.
When Lady Psyche, who seems to be a chemist as well as a philologist,
is asked about the reading list for the scholar of Classics, she unhesitatingly
recommends the following: Anacreon, Ovid, Aristophanes, and Juvenal.
The Castle Adamant Classics Department syllabus is certainly
idiosyncratic, as is only natural for the world of operetta. To
Lady Psyche, epic is irrelevant: she canonizes neither Homer nor
Virgil. That she does not read Plato or any other philosopher is
perhaps not so surprising as it might be, for she understandably would
not want to tread on the formidable toes of her colleague Lady Blanche,
the Professor of Abstract Philosophy. Conspicuously omitted from
her canon is history, but then the Adamant faculty are all radical feminist
revisionists, and might not consider Herodotus or Tacitus worth the time. Nor
is tragedy deemed relevant for an operetta chorus of potential Classics
Insomuch as any study of the ancient world can be deemed frivolous,
Lady Psyche's is determinedly so. Anacreon's name is synonymous
with wine, women and song, while Ovid is noted for his wit. Lady
Psyche is a thoroughly light-minded soul, who inadvertently reveals that
she does not know her originals as well as she thinks she does. Both
Juvenal and Aristophanes lampooned female intellectuals unmercifully.
Lady Psyche's final words of advice to her students show why
the satirist and the comic poet found their way into the Adamant canon. Professor
Psyche is a scholar, but she is first and foremost a lady. Consequently,
she has been reading her ancient authors in expurgated editions. "But
if you will be advised/ You will get them Bowdlerized!"