Whimsical Post#22: Understanding true knowledge through a music-hall song

There pursuit of knowledge – for its own sake – is a most noble activity. There was a time – quite far away from dishonourable era some of us find living ourselves (despite some benefits conferred by technology, I do admit), when the pursuit of knowledge was the norm, not the exception, a proud aspiration and not met with the snide response it does now. But I do believe as a truism, if I may say so, there is one attribute that the great masses of people are loath to part with, and will in fact, go to enormous lengths to safeguard and that is ignorance. Anyway, let me furnish me an example from the epoch I do commend.

One thing more, before I get to it. It is often said that a picture is worth a thousand words, and likewise poetry does have more effect that prose, however elegant, especially when it is the form of a lyric. It is therefore this form I use for my example.

I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General (often referred to as the Major-General’s Song or Modern Major-General’s Song) is a patter song from Gilbert and Sullivan’s 1879 comic opera The Pirates of Penzance. Perhaps the most famous song in Gilbert and Sullivan’s operas, it is sung by Major-General Stanley at his first entrance, towards the end of Act I.

Replete with historical and cultural references, the song intends to satirise the idea of the “modern” educated British Army officer of the latter 19th century but that is a partial truth. Though it demonstrates the general officer’s impressive and well-rounded education at the expense of the knowledge he ought to be having, it sets the benchmark of what a well-read gentleman should be – in a time when both these attributes were much sought-after. I may well be an IS as the Ustaad says, (and I know at least four people who would vouch for this), but I do pride myself – by dint of study and acquiring proficiency in languages – of coming close to this model. But that is enough of about me and now enjoy the song……

And n

I am the very model of a modern Major-General,
I’ve information vegetable, animal, and mineral,
I know the kings of England, and I quote the fights historical
From Marathon to Waterloo, in order categorical;
I’m very well acquainted, too, with matters mathematical,
I understand equations, both the simple and quadratical,
About binomial theorem I’m teeming with a lot o’ news,
With many cheerful facts about the square of the hypotenuse.

I’m very good at integral and differential calculus;
I know the scientific names of beings animalculous:
In short, in matters vegetable, animal, and mineral,
I am the very model of a modern Major-General.

I know our mythic history, King Arthur’s and Sir Caradoc’s;
I answer hard acrostics, I’ve a pretty taste for paradox,
I quote in elegiacs all the crimes of Heliogabalus,
In conics I can floor peculiarities parabolous;
I can tell undoubted Raphaels from Gerard Dows and Zoffanies,
I know the croaking chorus from The Frogs of Aristophanes!
Then I can hum a fugue of which I’ve heard the music’s din afore,
And whistle all the airs from that infernal nonsense Pinafore.

Then I can write a washing bill in Babylonic cuneiform,
And tell you ev’ry detail of Caractacus’s uniform:
In short, in matters vegetable, animal, and mineral,
I am the very model of a modern Major-General.

In fact, when I know what is meant by “mamelon” and “ravelin”,
When I can tell at sight a Mauser rifle from a Javelin,
When such affairs as sorties and surprises I’m more wary at,
And when I know precisely what is meant by “commissariat”,
When I have learnt what progress has been made in modern gunnery,
When I know more of tactics than a novice in a nunnery—
In short, when I’ve a smattering of elemental strategy—
You’ll say a better Major-General has never sat a gee.

For my military knowledge, though I’m plucky and adventury,
Has only been brought down to the beginning of the century;
But still, in matters vegetable, animal, and mineral,
I am the very model of a modern Major-General.

And that’s all……


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