Towards the Empyrean Heights:
The Lady Psyche's Classical Canon

Amy E. K. Vail

Baylor University

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 majors.

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!"


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