The Absent-Minded Beggar - Reception


Sullivan's music captured Britain's jingoistic mood, and Sullivan's diary entry notes, "Wild enthusiasm. All sang chorus! I stood on the stage and conducted the encore – funny sight!" With characteristic grace, the composer wrote to Kipling, "Your splendid words went with a swing and enthusiasm which even my music cannot stifle". Kipling, on the other hand, described the music as "a tune guaranteed to pull teeth out of barrel-organs".

The Daily Chronicle wrote that "It has not been often that the greatest of English writers and the greatest of English musicians have joined inspiring words and stirring melody in a song which expresses the heart feelings of the entire nation". Sullivan's manuscript was later auctioned for £500 towards the fund. Critic Fuller Maitland disapproved of the composition in The Times, but Sullivan asked a friend, "Did the idiot expect the words to be set in cantata form, or as a developed composition with symphonic introduction, contrapuntal treatment, etc.?"

The poem, song and piano music sold in extraordinary numbers, as did all kinds of household items, postcards, memorabilia and other merchandise emblazoned, woven or engraved with the "Gentleman in Kharki" figure, the poem itself, the sheet music, or humorous illustrations. Some of these items were very expensive. 40 clerks answered 12,000 requests a day for copies of the poem, and it was included in 148,000 packets of cigarettes within two months of the first performance. Alternative arrangements of the song were published, such as "The Absent-Minded Beggar March".

The Daily Mail's charitable fund was eventually titled the "Absent Minded Beggar Relief Corps" or the "Absent-Minded Beggar Fund," providing small comforts to the soldiers themselves as well as supporting their families. Among other activities of the Corps, it "met the soldiers on arrival in South Africa, welcomed them on their return to Britain and, more importantly, set up overseas centres to minister to the sick and wounded". The fund raised the unprecedented amount of more than £250,000. The money was not raised solely by the Daily Mail; the poem was publicly available, with anyone permitted to perform or print it in any way, so long as the copyright royalties went to the fund. Newspapers around the world published the poem, hundreds of thousands of copies were quickly sold internationally, and the song was sung widely in theatres and music halls, first being heard in Australia on 23 December 1899. Local "Absent Minded Beggar Relief Corps" branches were opened in Trinidad, Cape Town, Ireland, New Zealand, China, India and numerous places throughout the world; all of this contributed to the fund and to other war efforts, such as the building of hospitals. The fund was the first such charitable effort for a war and has been referred to as the origin of the welfare state. In December, after the first £50,000 was raised, the Daily Mail asserted, "The history of the world can produce no parallel to the extraordinary record of this poem."

The popularity of the poem was such that allusions to it were common. Mark Twain wrote that "The clarion-peal of its lines thrilled the world". By 18 November, less than a month after publication of the poem, "a new patriotic play" was advertised to open the next week, titled The Absent Minded Beggar, or, For Queen and Country. The same month, the Charity Organisation Society called "The Absent-Minded Beggar" the "most prominent figure on the charitable horizon at present." Even a critical book on the conduct of the war, published in 1900, was titled An Absent-Minded War. Kipling was offered a knighthood within a few weeks of publication of the song but declined, as he declined all offers of State honours. Historian Stephen M. Miller wrote in 2007, "Kipling almost single-handedly restored the strong ties between civilians and soldiers and put Britain and its army back together again."

A performance of "The Absent-Minded Beggar March" on 21 July 1900 at The Crystal Palace was Sullivan's last public appearance, and the composer died four months later. "The Absent-Minded Beggar" remained popular throughout the three-year war and for years after the war ended It became a part of popular culture of the time, with its title becoming a popular phrase and cartoons, postcards and other humorous representations of the character of the absent-minded beggar becoming popular. The song is performed in John Osborne's 1957 play The Entertainer.

Today the song is still heard on re-issues of early recordings and on post World War II recordings by Donald Adams and others. On 19 June 2010, a Kipling conference, called "Following The Absent-minded Beggar" was held at the School of the Humanities of the University of Bristol, organized by Dr. John Lee, that included lectures and an exhibition of memorabilia and documents relating to the poem and song.

Read more about this topic:  The Absent-Minded Beggar

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