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Trip a Little Light Fantastic

January 2, 2019

Just been to see Mary Poppins Returns with the family. It’s an enjoyable two hours and fans of the original won’t be annoyed by it: the storyline is consistent with Mary Poppins and it is extremely faithful to the spirit and the aesthetic of the earlier film. It’s not groundbreaking and the songs aren’t as good as the Sherman brothers’ songs but it is a respectful homage and has lots of spectacular scenes; and the acting performances are brilliant.

This isn’t supposed to be a film review, however. I wanted to comment on one of the big set-piece numbers, Trip a Little Light Fantastic. This song, sung by the lamplighter Jack (Bert the chimneysweep’s equivalent), is all about how if you get lost in the dark you could give up and despair or… you can trip a little light fantastic! Now trip the light fantastic is a jocular phrase meaning to dance. It was used by David Essex in his song ‘Me and my Girl’; and no doubt Procol Harum’s ‘skipped the light fandango’ in ‘A Whiter Shade of Pale’ is a version of the same expression. It is a curious phrase, which if analysed logically makes no sense at all. That’s because it is a corruption of some lines by Milton in his 1645 poem L’Allegro: ‘Come, and trip it as you go/ On the light fantastic toe’. In Milton’s poem ‘light’ means that one’s toes, or feet, are light; and ‘fantastic’, also referring to the toes, means ‘imaginative’. In modern parlance, however, these meanings have been forgotten, and the whole thing is just a fancy way of saying dancing. In Mary Poppins Returns, the phrase is somehow stretched to mean both dancing and finding light in the darkness, a meaning embodied by having a load of lamplighters lighting lamps as they dance around.

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10 Comments
  1. Craig permalink

    Hi Brandon. It’s interesting that the phrase originates from the poem and we all now accept it’s meaning as to dance. I haven’t seen the film but I’m guessing the stretched meaning of the phrase, finding light in the darkness, only works when it goes hand in hand with the films visuals? Otherwise the meaning the film attributes to the phrase doesn’t work for me. Hope that makes sense??

  2. Craig permalink

    Apologies I think you have answered my question in your original post. What I’m trying to say (I think) is in the two examples you mention (Me & My Girl, A whiter Shade of Pale) the meaning of the phrase is conveyed via the spoken or written word. We hear the song or read the words and know it to mean to dance. The films meaning of the phrase requires the visuals for us to understand it. Short version I’m trying to get at is, I don’t think Disney will evolve the current meaning of the phrase.

    • Hi Craig. Well I think you are right on both counts: that is, the Disney interpretation of the phrase could only work with additional visuals, and no, it will not catch on as a new meaning of the phrase

  3. Mark Brafield permalink

    This reminds me of an A Level Music lesson at school, in which we were invited to comment on a piece of keyboard music by Bach, the Passacaglia BWV 582. One of our class didn’t like it, and when asked to explain why, he shrugged his shoulders and made reference to ‘all of this fandango’, by which he meant the excessive complexity of the music as it grew more and more involved. I think that he spoke without realising what he was saying, intending to mean ‘fandango’ in the secondary sense of a pointlessly complicated activity, which perhaps he was also confusing with ‘farrago’. The irony of what he said, however, is that he got his dances confused; the fandango is a Spanish dance, as, in fact, is the Passacaglia, a stately, courtly dance in 3/4 time on which Bach based his masterpiece.

  4. Simon Carter permalink

    If you tripped the light fantastic to The Beatles’ Day Tripper there would be a third level of meaning. Fourth actually with the trip pun.

  5. Simon Carter permalink

    And he tripped an alarm. In a strip club.

  6. Desirée permalink

    Thank you for the explanation. I could not quite figure out why that particular phrase irritated me so much. Now I know it’s just stuff and nonsense.

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