Can You Complete the Lyrics of "I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major General?"

By: Zoe Samuel
Image: Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News via Wikimedia Commons

About This Quiz

Gilbert and Sullivan, the Victorian musical-writing duo whose work you've definitely heard even if you've never set foot in a theater, are among the greatest songwriters of all time. They are most noted for shows including HMS Pinafore, The Mikado, Pirates of Penzance and many more. The latter show is the source of one of their most famous songs, "I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major General". In this song, the ludicrous character of Major-General Stanley sings about all the things he knows in order to hold the rank he holds. It's a satirical song that is supposed to show how out of touch he is.

A notable fact about "G&S", as their fans know them; they are unusual in musical theater for always writing the lyrics first. Gilbert would churn out the libretto - that is, the lyrics and the script or "book" of the show - and then Sullivan would put in the music. This explains the "patter" nature of so much of their work, whereby it scans a lot more like speech than the work of later writers like Stephen Sondheim or Ahrens & Flaherty. Modern musical theater encourages a music-first approach to avoid this and also to promote "the composer as dramatist". It's part of what makes G&S limited, but also incredibly catchy.

If you love this song, hopefully you know it, and we're about to test that - and if you ace it, we encourage you to make like Daniel Radcliffe, who famously knows Tom Lehrer's "Song of the Elements" version in which he set the periodic table to the same music. Once you know both, you're the ultimate lyrics pro!

"I am the very ____ of a modern Major-General". What is the missing word?

This is hardly a tough one, since it is the first line and in the name of the song. The character means he is the perfect exemplar of his type.

In line two, "I've information _____, _____, and _____", which is NOT a missing word?

The missing words are, in order, animal, vegetable and mineral. This was a way of saying, basically, "I know everything".

In line 3, which kings does the Major-General claim to know about?

It's not clear why he doesn't know the kings of the others. Perhaps it is simply because they mostly would not scan and sing so easily.

What's the missing word in "...and I quote the fights ____"?

Of course he knows his history. He can cite past facts, just not anything relevant to the current military situations.

Where is he going with "From Marathon to ____, in order categorical"?

Waterloo is a reference to the great victory over Napoleon. "Modern", it is not.

"I'm very well acquainted, too, with matters mathematical". What word in the next line rhymes with "mathematical"?

He moves on more talking about math generally, to talking specifically about equations. In fairness, quadratic equations are not that easy.

"About ____theorem I am teeming with a lot o' news": what theorem is he discussing?

You might not know what this is, but that surely just makes this all the more impressive. Useful to a major-general? That's up for debate.

"With many ____ facts about the square of the hypotenuse". What adjective does he use?

You might not be delighted by Pythagoras, but the major-general is! His facts are not just factual; they're cheerful.

What branch of math does he mention in "I'm very good at integral and differential ____"?

The major-general here talks about calculus. This actually is more useful than you would think in the navy, since it pertains to acceleration and ship design.

What nonsense word appears in "I know the scientific names of beings ____"?

Gilbert and Sullivan do love their nonsense words. If it gets them a ridiculous rhyme and tells you how absurd the character is, so much the better.

"I know our mythic history, King ____ and Sir Caradoc" - who is the missing king?

King Arthur's myths shed very little light on modern naval warfare. Indeed, they are entirely irrelevant!

"...I've a ___ taste for paradox". What missing word meaning good-looking does he use here?

This is partly a lyric that shows the affectation of the singer. It also gives us an alliteration with paradox.

"I answer hard acrostics...". What is an acrostic?

It's not clear to the modern thinker how one can "answer" an acrostic, but the major-general is going to give it his best shot! In Victorian times, it was more a kind of puzzle whereby you would write the poem yourself using the acronym. Now, this is a parlor game called telegrams.

"I quote in elegiacs all the crimes of ____". Whose crimes does he quote?

Who is Heliogabalus? He's a real Roman emperor. However, he doesn't actually scan here; it's one place the song's music and lyrics bump into one another.

"In conics I can floor peculiarities parabolous" - which syllable in "peculiarities" is emphasized here?

The rhyme scheme is very regular in this song. Still, this line is a tough one as it requires being ready to land "pecularities" right on the music when it won't automatically sit there.

"I can tell undoubted Raphaels from Gerard Dows and _____". Which painter does he name?

Zoffany is a very important painter but not as famous as some. The rhyme here is pretty darn genius.

"I know the croaking chorus from The Frogs of Aristophanes!" What is the croaking chorus?

The frogs of Aristophanes croak this Greek chorus together. It's considered a massively highbrow and arcane thing to know about, hence he's really showing off here.

"Then I can hum a ____of which I've heard the music's din afore". What can he hum?

It's a strange choice if you think of a fugue as belonging at a funeral. However if you think of it as more of a jaunty tune, it makes sense.

"And whistle all the airs from that infernal nonsense Pinafore". What type of joke is this?

In making fun of an earlier G&S show, "HMS Pinafore", this is fan service, because it's for the G&S fandom. It's a callback because it references an earlier work. It's an Easter egg because it's a reference that only G&S fans will get. It's working very hard!

"Then I can write a washing bill in ____ cuneiform". What empire does he mention here?

He mentions "Babylonic" cunieform. This is something basically nobody can write in. He's really showing off - again.

What's missing in "And tell you ev'ry detail of Caractacus's ____"?

This is actually a second reference to Caradoc, using his Roman name. He is a British chief who fought back against the Romans. Now you know this, you can also lead the British navy.

What happens in the part of the song starting "In fact, when I know what is meant by 'mamelon' and "%0D'ravelin'"?

This is where the song pivots. The major-general admits he knows nothing useful about anything to do with warfare. He is a total fraud!

"When I can tell at sight a Mauser rifle from a ___" - what weapon does he name second here?

The major-general appears to know some real terms here. He just can't use them in the real world, that's all!

"When such affairs as ____ and surprises I'm more wary at" - what is the missing word here?

A sortie is a military move where you head out and take initiative. This fellow does not appear to have ever engaged in one.

"And when I know precisely what is meant by '_____'". What word does he here admit he does not know?

The commissariat is a mystery to him, which is a pity since it enforces naval rules. Without knowing about it, he will probably get into trouble.

"When I have learnt what progress has been made in modern _____" - in what area does he wish to know more?

Not knowing about gunnery would certainly be a drawback in the Victorian age. The major-general keeps raising the stakes of his ignorance.

"When I know more of tactics than a" who in a what?

A novice in a nunnery presumably knows nothing about tactics. The admissions are coming thick and fast now.

"In short, when I've a ____ of elemental strategy" - what is the missing word?

More than a smattering is probably necessary. It is alarming that he does not even have this!

"You'll say a better Major-General has never ____" - what nonsense word does he make up here?

If you think this is nonsense, that is because it is! It makes no sense at all. It's just there for the rhyme.

"For my military knowledge, though I'm ____ and adventury". What adjective is here?

He's plucky, though this doesn't really help. The increasingly silly non-words and adjectives show him going to pieces.

"Has only been brought down to the _____". To when has his military knowledge been brought?

The Victoria era is the second half of the 1800s. This means, at best, he is admitting he is decades out of date.

What is the meter of the song?

Iambic means ta-DAH ta-DAH ta-DAH. This is the classic G&S patter that comes from writing the lyrics first.

How many syllables are there per line?

16 syllables to the line is very long these days. It's generally great for list songs and terrible for all other songs, as it slows the narrative down.

How many times does the Chorus sing?

The Chorus echoes the major-general whenever he finishes a section. It just repeats what he says, to emphasize it very seriously, no matter how ridiculous it is. Typically it's very silly and funny.

Excluding what the Chorus sings, how many stanzas (verses or choruses) are there?

There are six stanzas: three longer, and three shorter. The Chorus echoes the last line of each of the shorter ones.

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