Thursday, December 2, 2010

Mr Browning, what rhymes with Timbuktu?

It is related that the 19th century poet Robert Browning boasted he could make a poem to rhyme with any word. A man at his London club challenged him: What about Timbuktu?

    Once a Cassowary
        in Timbuktu
    Ate a missionary
        and his hymn book too.

Missionary needs to be said as “mission airy”. A Cassowary, since you ask, is an ostrich-like bird native to New Guinea; hence unlikely to be found in Timbuktu.  The word rhyme has an interesting history.  Until the 17th century it was written rime, derived from Old French.  My English teacher, Mr Dumbreck, told us that it was changed to rhyme due to false etymology, associating it with rhythm (of Greek origin).  However the OED says that ultimately the English word rime and the Greek word rhythm do have the same source, so perhaps Mr Dumbreck was a little too severe.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Climate change scientists warn 4C global temperature rise will create hellish world

Turkana nomadic pastoralists herd goats and sheep to an
almost dry dam in northwestern Kenya, December 2009.
Photograph: Stephen Morrison/EPA (The Guardian)
A hellish vision of a world warmed by 4C within a lifetime has been set out by an international team of scientists. The agonisingly slow progress of the global climate change talks that restart in Mexico today makes the so-called safe limit of 2C impossible to keep. A 4C rise in the planet's temperature would see severe droughts across the world and millions of migrants seeking refuge as their food supplies collapse.

Story in Guardian.  Comments also worth reading.

Royal Society publication :  'Four degrees and beyond: the potential for a global temperature increase of four degrees and its implications'

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Stir up we beseech thee, the wills of thy faithful people

Last Sunday, 21st November, was Stir-up Sunday, an informal term in the Anglican church for the last Sunday before Advent. The term comes from the opening words of the collect for the day. This is to be found in the Book of Common Prayer, first published in 1549 and after many revisions re-issued in 1662.

Stir up, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people; that they, plenteously bringing forth the fruit of good works, may of thee be plenteously rewarded; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Through an association of ideas (I'm quoting from Wikipedia here) the day subsequently became connected, especially in England, with the preparation of Christmas puddings.

Archbishop Cranmer
National Portrait Gallery, London
English literature is a mountain range of many peaks. The Book of Common Prayer sits atop one of them. Most of the collects (maybe all?) were closely based on translations from the Latin of the Roman Missal. So far as I know the translating was all done by Archishop Thomas Cranmer. If so then Cranmer must be numbered with Shakespeare, Chaucer and William Tyndale (more of him another time) amongst the fathers of the English language.

(Actually I see from an exhibition at the British Library, Feb 2011 that he only headed up a committee.)

Cranmer was tried for treason and heresy after the Catholic Queen Mary Tudor came to the throne. Imprisoned for over two years and under pressure from the Church authorities, he made several recantations and apparently reconciled himself with the Roman Catholic faith. However, on the day of his execution, 21 March 1556, he dramatically withdrew his recantations, thrusting his right hand (the hand that has signed the recantations) first into the fire, to die a heretic (to Catholics) and to Protestants, a martyr.

Here's a another collect, or it is just prayer, I don't know the difference:

Lighten our darkness, we beseech thee, O Lord; and by thy great mercy defend us from all perils and dangers of this night; for the love of Thy only Son, our Saviour, Jesus Christ. Amen.

When I was at prep school between the ages of 7 and 13, we used to go chapel every morning and every evening for a 15-minute service, and on Sundays for a one-hour service in the morning and about half an hour in the evening. I suppose these were matins and evensong, though I don't recall those terms actually being used. At Sunday evensong we used to sing the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis. Every day there would be a collect from the Book of Common Prayer, and the consequence is that there are numerous collects which are so familiar to me that they summon up my childhood like a sharp jolt. Here is another collect. I know now, but didn't then, that it's the Collect for Ash Wednesday and is repeated every day throughout Lent. Since Lent lasts 40 days, this repetition could account for it being ingrained so deeply in my memory.

Almighty and everlasting God, who hatest nothing that thou hast made and dost forgive the sins of all them that are penitent, create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we, worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness, may obtain of thee, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness; through Jesus Christ. Amen

A few weeks ago I announced a competition for the three most sublime passages in the English language, and shortlisted a tale told by an idiot from Macbeth. I now add the following Collect for Grace. This morning I almost choked with tears when I read it. But not now, how strange. Does it objectively deserve such a high accolade? Or is it all mixed up with some childhood memories that I'm not fully aware of?

O Lord our heavenly Father,
almighty and everlasting God,
who hast safely brought us to the beginning of this day;
defend us in the same with thy mighty power;
and grant that this day we fall into no sin,
neither run into any kind of danger,
but that all our doings may be ordered by thy governance,
to do always that is righteous in thy sight;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.