Hurkling and hills

While browsing Wikipedia the other day, I came across a list of English words without rhymes, formally known as refractory rhymes.  The article also contained a list of common English words that only rhyme with very obscure words.  Of the latter, one that caught my eye was hurkle (which rhymes with circle – I’ll leave it to you to figure out which of those two is the common word and which the obscure one).

To hurkle is a verb, which the Wikipedia article says means to pull in all ones limbs.  Wiktionary gives a bit more detail, suggesting that the primary meaning is to draw in the parts of the body, especially with pain or cold.  It can also mean to cower (obviously a related meaning).  Unfortunately Wiktionary doesn’t give any usage examples (or translations) for this particular word and pretty much all of the hits I turned up on a Google search seemed to be for unrelated uses.  Still, you never know when you might be writing a poem and needing a rhyme for ‘circle’.

Incidentally, I was once told (and it seems to be a commonly held opinion, though I can no longer call it a fact as I once did) that “orange” was the only word in the English language that didn’t have a rhyme.  In fact, orange only makes it onto the obscure-rhymes list rather than the no-rhymes list, as it rhymes with Blorenge, the name of a hill down in South Wales.  On the other hand, there are quite a few words that Wikipedia lists as true refractory rhymes (you can read the article for yourself if you’re that interested).

If tonight is as chilly as the last few nights have been, I shall no doubt hurkle (with cold, rather than pain) when I get into bed.

Stabat mater dolorosa

As part of my preparation for Easter this year, I’ve been listening to various settings of the Stabat Mater.  This is a 13th century Catholic hymn to Mary that has been set to music many times over the centuries.  Although I’m not a Catholic, I find the words (especially those of the first few verses, with which I am most familiar) well worth pondering as Easter approaches.  Also, it’s quite fascinating to listen to the various musical treatments of the work.

I have been listening to the Stabat Mater settings in my own musical library in roughly chronological order.  The earliest is an anonymous 15th century plainchant setting that I got with a copy of BBC Music magazine some years ago.  Next up is a 16th century one by Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (which was on the same BBC Music cover CD, along with a performance of Liszt’s Via Crucis).  My collection then jumps over 100 years to settings by Antonio Vivaldi and Giovanni Battista Pergolesi, with the next example being by Joseph Haydn.  The nineteenth century is represented in my collection by the Stabat Mater settings of Gioachino Rossini and Antonín Dvořák.

The latest Stabat Mater I have listened to so far is by Karol Szymanowski, a Polish composer whose work is previously unfamiliar to me (this, along with a couple of others, is a new addition to my library for this Easter).  Unlike all the earlier ones I’ve got, which were all in Latin (the original language of the hymn), Szymanowski’s version is in Polish.  It was written c. 1925.

There are two further settings in my collection, which I hope to listen to tomorrow.  One is by Krzysztof Penderecki (another Polish composer, though I believe his version is in Latin — it’s another new one for me) and the other is by Welsh composer Karl Jenkins.  This one was written in 2008 and combines verses from the Stabat Mater itself with other texts, both modern and traditional.  It fuses Western classical music with Middle Eastern folk music (and instruments), and includes several languages (including Latin, Aramaic, Arabic and English but, perhaps surprisingly for Jenkins, no Welsh).   I requested and received a copy of this setting (in the original recording conducted by Jenkins himself, which as far as I know is still the only one available) for Christmas a couple of years ago and have listened to it several times, though not for a while.  I’m looking forward to hearing it again tomorrow.

There are several other Stabat Mater settings I’d like to get hold of.  Principal among these would be the one by Josquin des Prez (roughly contemporary with the plainchant one I already have) and the one by Domenico Scarlatti (the only one of those which Wikipedia says are the most famous that I don’t already have).  Still, those can wait until next year and give me something to look forward to then.

As well as Stabat Mater settings, my listening this week has included several other Easter-related classical pieces, including the aforementioned Via Crucis by Liszt, Beethoven’s Christus am Ölberge oratorio (often held to be one of his lesser works, but still pretty impressive to my ear) and Bach’s Easter Oratorio.   I’ve also got a few more lined up to listen to over the next few days, including Buxtehude’s Membra Iesu Nostri, Bach’s St. Matthew’s Passion and Haydn’s Seven Last Words of Christ on the Cross, as well as some seasonal Gregorian chant (although it sounds pretty much like any other Gregorian chant to me).

Most of this listening has been done while I’ve been working, so it’s been effectively background music and I have not been able to devote my full attention to listening.  I’m hoping on Friday or Saturday to set aside a bit of time to listen more carefully to one or two of the great liturgical works.  My first choice for this will probably be Handel’s Messiah, which has the advantage that I can understand the words somewhat better than pieces sung in Latin or German!

El regreso del invierno

I’ve just looked out of my window and noticed that it is snowing.  I gather much of the rest of the country has been enjoying (or at least experiencing) snow for the past few days but round here we’ve just had rain (and a sort of rain/hail hybrid for a while last night).  The snow doesn’t seem to be settling, at least for now, but what’s falling from the sky is definitely snow rather than rain.

This simple meteorological observation brings me back to some poetical and (vaguely) philosophical musings that have been on my mind  recently.  I’ve just looked out of my window and noticed that it is snowing. I gather much of the rest of the country has been enjoying (or at least experiencing) snow for the past few days but round here, we’ve just had rain (and a sort of rain/hail hybrid for a while last night). The snow doesn’t seem to be settling, at least for now, but what’s falling from the sky is definitely snow rather than rain.

A couple of weeks ago my brother, Wulf, who is evidently a bit of a closet poet like me, blogged about a short poem he’d written on the return of winter.  The poem itself runs:

Who invited winter back to sup
At dawning summer’s promised cup?

It is, however, worth visiting the original blog post (which is also pretty short), as the sentence introducing the poem itself is also quite poetical in its imagery (albeit written in prose).  Incidentally, the title of my post is “the return of Winter” in Spanish, for no particular reason.

I’m not sure if it was reading that poem or talking to somebody else about the Canterbury Tales, or possibly a combination of both, that has led me to think several times over the past few weeks about the first couple of lines of the General Prologue.  Although I’m fairly familiar with a fairly large chunk of the Canterbury Tales (I’d estimate that I’ve probably read about half of them and know a handful of them pretty well), there are very few lines that I know by heart.  Amongst these are the lines which open the whole thing:

Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote…

As Middle English goes, those lines are fairly easy to understand but, in case you don’t dig the funky spelling, a modern paraphrase is “When April with its sweet showers / has pierced the drought of March to the root…”.  This suggests that in Chaucer’s time (the end of the 14th Century), March was a generally dry month in the South East of England and April was a wet one.  Of course, this same rule of thumb may not necessarily be expected to apply several hundred years later in North Wales (especially the dry part!) but we do often seem to get quite good weather in March.  This time last year, as I recall, we were going through a mini heatwave.  This year, we had particularly fine weather through much of February and it has turned quite wintry through March.  It had, however, managed to stay mostly dry until this last week but it seems that the sweet April showers have arrived a little prematurely.

Finally, I started reading an anthology of French poetry this morning and the very first poem, by Charles d’Orléans (who was roughly contemporary with Chaucer, though a few years younger), gives us something to look forward to (hopefully soon) once the current reprise of winter has run its course.  It begins like this:

Le temps a laissié son manteau
De vent, de froidure et de pluye,
Et s’est vestu de brouderie,
De soleil luyant, cler et beau.

Although that’s in fairly early Middle French (probably roughly to modern French what Chaucer’s English is to modern English), it should be reasonably easy to understand for anyone with a moderate grasp of French.  For the benefit of anyone else reading this, here’s a translation (the one from my bilingual anthology – Introduction to French Poetry by Stanley Appelbaum (Dover, 1969) – which doesn’t seem to list the translators; it could well be the work of Appelbaum himself):

The season has shed its mantle
Of wind, cold and rain,
And has clothed itself in embroidery,
In gleaming sunshine, bright and fair.

The pros and cons of shopping by bike

Most days, cycling to and from work is a fairly pleasurable experience. Yesterday wasn’t one of those days, on account of the weather, which was cold, windy and wet.

As it happens, I needed to go shopping (to a supermarket which is a couple of minutes’ walk down the road from my office) yesterday. As I was cycling home afterwards, I reflected on some of the benefits and drawbacks of this approach to shopping.

Probably the main downside is the fact that it limits the amount I can purchase at once to what I can feasibly carry on my bike. Fortunately, with the aid of a pair of panniers I can carry a reasonable amount. Even when I had a car I always preferred to avoid using it whenever possible and, until last year, I always lived (at least since I’ve had to do my own shopping) within easy walking distance of my regular supermarkets, so I have developed the habit of making fairly frequent trips to buy fairly small, manageable amounts of stuff rather than buying in bulk on fortnightly or monthly shopping trips; this approach translates well to shopping by bike.

Another problem seems to be that the regular loading of the back end of my bike with fairly heavy loads of shopping does seem to put quite a strain on my rear axle, so this ends up needing replacing rather more often than I’d like (about a year seems par for the course). It may be unfair to place the blame entirely on my shopping since I am a fairly well-built cyclist (aka built like a brick outhouse – although I have lost a fair bit of weight since starting to cycle regularly) and even without the groceries my poor bike has to bear quite a bit of strain.  In any case, £5 or so a year for a new axle, even added to the other maintenance costs of the bike, pales into insignificance in comparison with the regular running costs of a car.

In general, the benefits of shopping by bike are much the same as the general benefits of cycle commuting, given that I live about 3 miles (and only one serious hill) away from my workplace and regular shops. I outlined these in my first post about cycling, just over a year ago.  On a windy day like yesterday (which also happened to be a day when I was buying fairly heavy things like milk and potatoes) there is an added advantage, which can be summed up in one word — ballast.  Having an extra load centred fairly low on the back of my bike definitely helps to keep the bike steady against the wind, which makes it somewhat easier work (slightly paradoxical, as you’d expect it to be harder to cycle with a heavy load) and probably a good deal safer too.

Regaining Paradise

If you’ve read my previous posts on the subject of poetry, you may well have come to the conclusion that my poetic tastes tend towards shorter poetic forms such as haiku and lyric poetry.  That’s probably a fair assessment, but every now and then I like to immerse myself in longer works of poetry too (at least for reading — my attemts to write poetry have so far been confined to shorter pieces and I don’t currently feel any inspiration to write anything longer).

At the moment, I am working my way through John Milton’s epic poem, Paradise Lost.  This is widely hailed as a masterpiece of English literature and a copy has sat on my shelf for the last 3 years, waiting to be read (I’ve been meaning to read it for much longer, but that’s when I actually got round to getting a copy).  The poem is divided into twelve books (ten in the first edition) and, apparently, contains over 10,000 lines of verse so I’d say it’s definitely epic in length, at least. 🙂

It is written in blank verse (i.e. unrhymed iambic pentameter), which is quite a common metre for English poetry — it has been claimed that up to three quarters of all English poetry is in blank verse.  Shakespeare was another early proponent of blank verse, but apparently Milton was amongst the first people to use it significantly (and well) for non-dramatic poetry.

This is not the first time I’ve read, or at least started, an epic poem.  However, more-or-less by definition, any epic poem is too long to be read at a single sitting (unless you have plenty of time and a very comfortable chair) and I usually find myself reading part of an epic and then putting it aside for too long and losing the plot.  This time, I’m aiming to read a book each day, which breaks it into manageable chunks.

In general, I prefer to read poetry aloud, so that I can fully appreciate its sound (which, after all, is an essential part of what poetry is all about); by contrast, I usually try to read prose silently and without subvocalising so I can read it faster.  Since the first two books of Paradise Lost each took me about three quarters of an hour to read aloud, even going at a fairly fast pace, and since my time for reading each day is fairly limited, I’ve decided to go for a compromise and mostly read it quietly but with subvocalisation, pausing occasionally to reread particularly juicy phrases out loud.  This approach seems to be yielding an average reading time of about 20 minutes per book which, hopefully, makes it feasible to stick to my target of one book per day.  At that rate, I should have finished reading Paradise Lost just before Easter.

My plan, once I finish Paradise Lost, is to try to keep reading epic poetry on a fairly regular basis, in manageable chunks (the idea being to try to read any given epic in daily doses but probably to have longer breaks between poems).  Next up on my epic poetry reading list will probably be Paradise Regained, John Milton’s sequel to Paradise Lost (which I have bound in the same volume).  I shall then probably revisit some of the epic poems I’ve previously tried to read and not yet got round to finishing.  The ones that spring to mind are the Iliad (I’m just over half-way through it, reading a parallel text Greek-English edition mostly in English with occasional forays into the Greek), Dante’s Divine Comedy (I’ve read Henry Longfellow’s translation up to about the middle of Purgatorio – the second of three volumes – so I’ll finish this one, although someday I’d like to tackle it in Italian) and the Kalevala (again, in translation, as I doubt I’ll ever learn enough Finnish to read the original; I got about half-way through this one too — there seems to be a pattern developing). With each of these, I’ll have to decide whether to try and pick up the thread from where I previously got to (I think my bookmarks are still in all the relevant volumes) or to start again from scratch.

I’m not sure whether Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales count strictly as epic poetry but I’ll probably add them to my list and see if I can complete my long-ago started project of reading the whole lot (in Middle English, of course).  And then there’s the rest of Chaucer to read, as well as Piers Plowman and quite a lot of other Middle and Old English verse (including Beowulf in at least two modern translations as well as the original language!), not to mention many other epic poems from around the world and across the centuries.  In short, I’m not going to run out of poetic reading matter any time soon!

Sláinte – better late than never!

Yesterday was St Patrick’s Day.  As I said the other day, this is a good month for Celtic patron saints, with Ireland being the third Celtic nation in as many weeks to celebrate its saint’s day. I was busy for most of the day so I didn’t get very much opportunity to mark the occasion, although I did listen to a bit of Irish music in the evening (including some wonderful traditional piping by Finbar Furey and an album by the Bumblebees, a lovely bunch of ladies with whom I once had the pleasure of playing at a jam following a gig they did over in Caernarfon several years ago).

Today I have been continuing the same audio theme by listening to more of my reasonably extensive collection of Irish music.  This is mostly folk music based, but it ranges from quite traditional stuff (such as solo fiddling by Paddy Canny and some truly beautiful singing (mostly in Gaelic) by Lasairfhíona Ní Chonaola) to somewhat more modern interpretations (for instance, the Mary Custy band, which has drums and everything!).  The classical music world is represented by a set of four Irish dances by Malcolm Arnold, which are based on folk dances (he also did sets of English, Scottish, Welsh and Cornish dances, though sadly I forgot to listen to the latter the other week).  In the true Irish spirit of not taking oneself too seriously, I also slipped Tom Lehrer’s Irish Ballad (an exploration of all the cliches of the genre which has to be the most hilarious murder ballad of all time) in there.

Probably one of the most esoteric bands in my collection of music with Irish connections is the Russian band Белфаст (that’s “Belfast”, for those of you who don’t read the Cyrillic script). I first discovered this band on about 18 months ago, where they had (and still have, at the time of writing) several tracks available as free downloads.  The genre of their music is described as “rockapaddy”, a term I’ve never encountered elsewhere that apparently means an Irish-oriented mix of Oi, punk and rock.  I’ve no idea what Oi is supposed to be but I can certainly detect punk and rock influences in there.  Some of their stuff is quite Irish flavoured, although some of it sounds more country & western to me.  In any case, it’s quite fun to listen to.

This evening I hope to be going to another meeting with the Bangor polyglots.  At least one member of the group speaks fluent Irish (while I have a very limited command of the language), so I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s one of the languages spoken about (or, indeed, spoken) tonight.  I may also depart from my usual choice of Wychwood or Jennings beers and have a pint of Guinness or Magners, or some other beverage from the Emerald Isle, depending on what is available.

In case you were wondering about the patron saints of the other Celtic nations (apart from Wales, Cornwall and Ireland, whose saints have featured recently in this blog), Brittany has St Anne (traditionally recognised as the mother of Mary and hence grandmother of Jesus), who is celebrated in July, and Scotland has St Andrew, whose feast is on 30th November.  I was unable to discover from Wikipedia (the font of much, but not quite all, knowledge) anything about the patron saint of the Isle of Man.

Prolog: Just the beginning?

If you’ve been following my recent computer-related posts about learning 7 languages in 7 weeks from a similarly titled book, you may be wondering why several weeks have elapsed since I wrote about my experiences with Io and there has been nothing about the next language on the list, whose tutorial I should have completed at least a fortnight ago.  If you know me reasonably well, you may have guessed that this project has fallen by the wayside as I’ve moved on to other interests.  Ordinarily, that would not be a bad guess but, as it happens, I’ve just been taking a slightly more leisurely pace than the book’s title indicates (and, yes, it’s partly because I have other interests and obligations and can’t spend all my time just concentrating on learning one programming language for a whole week).

The third language covered in the book is Prolog.  This is the oldest language covered in the book, by quite some margin.  It dates back to around 1972, so it’s a bit older than me. It’s also the only language covered, apart from Ruby, that I’d ever really looked at before.  It’s been a few years since my last foray into Prolog and I’d forgotten most of what little I learned about it at the time.

Prolog is an example, perhaps the Ur-example, of logic programming languages, which are based on a programming paradigm called declarative programming.  Thus, the Prolog approach to programming is quite strange to someone used to the more common imperative programming paradigm.  Instead of issuing the computer with a set of commands to solve your problem, you give it a description of the problem and leave the solution to the computer.  It takes a bit of getting used to this idea, but it means that Prolog is very good at solving some problems that would be much more difficult with other languages and, conversely, much less well suited to other problems.

The tutorial in the book builds up to a couple of quite neat programs.  One is designed to find solutions to the classic Eight Queens puzzle in chess, while the other is a Sudoku solver.  The worked example of the latter in the book is only for a 4×4 sudoku, and it leaves the full solution of the standard 9×9 puzzles as an exercise (which is a fairly straightforward generalisation, involving quite a bit more typing but no new concepts that don’t appear in the smaller version).  Unfortunately, the program in the book is designed to work with GNU Prolog and uses some library functions that are not available in other implementations, so I couldn’t just type it in and get it to work on the SWI Prolog system I was using.  However, a bit of Googling turned up a couple of other solutions written for SWI Prolog (making use of some libraries for that version, and hence not directly useful to other Prolog versions – this lack of portability seems to be a particular feature of the language, although it’s by no means unique).  One of these managed to fit the whole program into 13 lines of code and seems very elegant, although a couple of the details are slightly beyond my current grasp of the language.  This is certainly a big improvement on sudoku solvers I’ve looked at in other languages, which are typically much longer and more convoluted.

Due to the very different approach to programming, Prolog represents a quite different tool from any of the other programming languages with which I am acquainted, and it seems especially good at some kinds of problem that especially interest me (including, but not limited to, natural language processing).  For that reason, I’m hoping to keep on developing my Prolog skills and hope to be able to do useful things with the language before too long.  In the meantime, I’m going to carry on with the remaining 4 language tutorials in the book (the next one up, IIRC, being Scala).

The film that Tate associates with Prolog is Rain Man.  This is, by all accounts, a classic film on the subject of autism and generally very well regarded by critics.  Although it dates back to 1988 I have not previously got round to watching it, but I managed to pick up a cheap copy the other day and I thought it was an excellent, thought-provoking and very moving film.  I can certainly see how Prolog resembles the semi-eponymous character, Raymond (an autistic savant), who seems very difficult to interact with in many respects but is outstandingly brilliant at certain things.