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As we discover in act 2, Frederic has "lived twenty-one years" or "Years twenty-one I’ve been alive". Yet in the opening chorus it states:

Two and twenty, now he’s rising,

So what's going on here? Seems unlikely this is an oversight given that this is at the heart of the plot.

Is this meant as "completed 21 years and now on course for 22"?

3 Answers 3

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The word rising in this verse is an adjective meaning, per OED:

Of a horse or (in extended use) of a person: approaching (a specified age)

The OED also gives examples of this usage:

1853 ‘C. Bede’ Adventures Mr. Verdant Green i. 7: 'Mr. Verdant Green was (in stable language) ‘rising’ sixteen.'

1920 E. H. Coleridge Life Thomas Coutts I. 22: 'His old companion, then rising fifteen, writes to him from the old home.'

Re-ordering the line to a less poetic format gives us

Now he's rising twenty-two.

So you are correct that he has 'completed 21 years and now on course for 22'.

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  • 2
    I've also heard this in the context of students during summer break: "What year are you?" "I'm a rising sophomore" <- they completed freshman year, and are going to be a sophomore in the fall. Jun 28 at 19:21
  • This use of "rising (age)" is similar to the phrase "going on (age)" as in "sixteen going on seventeen" youtube.com/watch?v=hwK_WOXjfc0 Jun 29 at 20:05
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TL;DR: It does seem contradictory. However, your interpretation doesn't fit the context of that first song. It's much more likely that "Two and twenty" refers to the age-year he's in: having turned 21, he's now (by definition) in his 22nd year.

Explanation

If I understand you correctly, you suggest that "Two and twenty, now he’s rising" is a multiply-reversed way of saying "now he's rising 22". You suggest one possible interpretation, in which "rising" is equivalent to "on course for" (i.e. heading towards or approaching, in the same way a rising tide approaches the peak). Thus, Frederic is 21 and "rising" 22.

However, that interpretation seems unwieldy in the context of the lyrics. Here's the opening of the song:

Pour, oh, pour the pirate sherry
Fill, O fill the pirate glass!
And, to make us more than merry
Let the pirate bumper pass!

For today our pirate 'prentice
Rises from indenture freed
Strong his arm, and keen his scent is
He's a pirate now indeed!

Here's good luck to Frederic's ventures!
Frederic's out of his indentures

Two and twenty, now he's rising
And alone he's fit to fly
Which we're bent on signalizing
With unusual revelry.

Frederic is rising from his indenture as a pirate and (continuing the metaphor) is now fit to fly alone. "Two and twenty, now he's rising" means "He's 22 and now he's rising (to the level of full pirate)". It's a mistake to see "two and twenty" as the complement of "now he's rising"; instead, "now he's rising" is intended to be read with the next line – "now he's rising and alone he's fit to fly".

In Act II, you reference the song "When You Had Left Our Pirate Fold", which is a key turning point in the play. Without giving away the plot, it's sufficient to say that the interpretation of Frederic's age is a critical matter. Here's the relevant text:

I'm afraid you don't appreciate the delicacy of your position
You were apprenticed to us!
[Frederic] Yes, until I reached my twenty-first year
No, no, no
Until you reached your twenty-first birthday!

Since everyone is unequivocal that Frederic had reached his twenty-first year (and therefore, they had all assumed, had completed his apprenticeship as a pirate), the only possible explanation for the earlier "two and twenty" reference is that having turned 21, Frederic is now in his 22nd year.

It's beyond the realms of possibility that "two and twenty" is a mistake. Perhaps Sir William Schwenck Gilbert simply found the alliteration more appealing than "one and twenty"; or perhaps he was just being perverse.

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Neither - because of

His birthday being on the 29th of February

there is a paradox and he is merely

"Five, and a little bit over !"

And being pledged to serve till the age of 21, he will be

84 years old (21x4)

before he sees his 21st birthday.

The full text is in the Paradox song as per

https://youtu.be/XXhJKzI1u48?t=112

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  • Please pardon the use of spoilers, I didn't want to give away the plot points for those who don't already know them.
    – Criggie
    Jun 29 at 2:33
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    I'm not sure if this really answers the question in the spirit that it's asked: it doesn't seem to resolve the question of whether the number of years since his birth is 21 or 22.
    – Rand al'Thor
    Jun 29 at 7:16
  • @Randal'Thor yeah you're right - other than showing he's really not either which is a plot element. This could be a comment, but spoiler doesn't work there and is too long for a comment.
    – Criggie
    Jun 29 at 8:59
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    There's no need to use spoiler blocks here. Site policy is that answers about specific works are expected to contain spoilers, and people who want to avoid being spoiled about a particular work can avoid answers to questions about that work. Jun 29 at 9:14

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