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Rhymes Blog


Rhymes blog

This one is partly at least about rhymes. In a long-ago blog I asked readers: What rhymes with ice-water? And I promised a prize of some kind for the first to respond. A long while elapsed before anyone did; and then I received this:





what rhymes with ice-water


fly swatter?


here's one for you - why do you never see a square silo?


I responded:


Dear Other JC,

Congratulations—you are only the second [I can’t recall who the first was] in quite a few months to come up with the rhyme.

Why do you never see a square silo? I don’t know the answer to that one. If it were a real question I would try something like: because the grain sticks in the corners, but I assume it’s a riddle with a funny answer. I give up: tell me.

Best, JC


I never got a response. Now I want to make a comment about rhymes.


Today’s NYTimes Book Review section, under the notes on new books, reports a new one in the series by Laurie R. King, who writes entertaining mystery novels in two series, one about a lesbian policewoman in San Francisco, the other about a young woman detective named Mary Russell and her aged (but still active) husband Sherlock Holmes. I have read quite a few, maybe most, of both series and enjoy them. Now she has written a new book for the Russell-Holmes series titled Pirate King, in which Russell works with a film crew engaged in making a silent movie after Gilbert & Sullivan’s Pirates of Penzance. Moreover, it goes on, she has composed new words for the Major General’s song in that operetta. And it quotes four lines: “I’m very good at DNA, a whiz at dactylology/, I know the scientific use of -ology and -otomy,/ In short in matters novelistic, short storied and filmical,/I am the very model of a modern major criminal.”


This is shocking--both that King could have written these lines and that the NYTimes critic could have quoted them with evident approval. How could a writer who catches so well the speech patterns of Sherlock Holmes, as they were devised by Conan Doyle a century ago, have such a tin ear for rhymes as to think that dactylology rhymes with -otomy, and filmical with criminal? This is missing the whole point of Gilbert’s genius. As one who has done a lot of writing new words for G&S songs (see, under CYCTIE on my website, my songs for Dan Destry’s Dilemma, or Publish or Perish, or Both), I am deeply shocked.


My boys Julian and Benedict, when they were still third-graders going to the nearby Southlands Elementary School and coming home for lunch every day, once brought home sheets of paper their teacher had given them (and presumably read from in class) with the first stanza of the Major General’s Song. I handed these back to them and sang this first stanza from memory, greatly impressing them. (Later we watched a DVD of the operetta and heard a real professional sing this.) There was nothing unusual, in old days, about literate and literary people having memorized G&S songs. Some of us going to the annual meetings of the Association for Asian Studies would receive in advance, from (blank--Chinese history professor at a major East Coast college--Ezra Vogel?), a notice of when the G&S group would meet--one evening when there was nothing much of interest going on we would gather in some room or hallway of the hotel where there was a piano, bringing bottles of whiskey and (some of us) G&S songbooks. (I remember talking there with, for instance, Stephen Owen of Harvard, and David Keightley was a regular.) But the true afficionadoes would need no songbook, but simply stare off into space and sing, even when the song was not one of the familiar ones. Those were the days.


My close friend Stephen Green (see my Reminiscence no. 80) was a demon memorizer--he could recite Tang poems (in Chinese) endlessly, or the entire Hunting of the Snark.  When he and I worked as freshmen in the U.C. Berkeley Library as book shelvers, we spent much of our hours while doing this mindless job memorizing verses and songs. Stephen, who later was fluent in Japanese as well as Chinese, taught me to sing the first stanza of “The Bus Girls’ Song” as sung by Takamine Hideko in one of her old movies--I can still sing it. (Ask me to some time.)


(Aside: why is it that the ability to memorize is lost in one’s later years? I cannot hold much of anything new in my head for very long these days. Recently I thought I would learn the opening quatrains of Keats’s sonnet “On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer” (I memorized the final stanza, beginning “Or like stout Cortez, when with eagle eyes,” long ago.) Much trying, and keeping them on my computer screen for daily reading, proved useless; I can begin, “Much have I traveled in the realms of gold,” but break down in what follows. Similarly with other recent attempts at memorization.)


I never memorized Hunting of the Snark myself, but did commit The Walrus and the Carpenter to memory, and have recited it numerous times, for my children (both generations) and others, recently for instance for a party organized by Sarah at the Inverness house, after the guests, by her arrangement (well-brought-up daughter that she is), had read successive stanzas of Hunting of the Snark from a book passed around. And in 1942, when my group of newly-arrived Japanese language officers were awaiting assignment for several months in Tokyo, and told to practice our Japanese (we sat at desks with dictionaries in a big room in the Marunouchi Building), I spent some of the time doing a translation of The Walrus and the Carpenter into rhyming Japanese in the original meter. This was later to endear me, as a young Oriental Languages student, to Prof. Denzel Carr and his new wife Betty McKinnon when I took a class in old literary Japanese from him. My original manuscript, written on pieces of Army-issue scratch paper, has been lost, and I remember only a single stanza: (long marks over vowels eliminated, I can’t type them in):


Kaizo to Daiku, futari de,

Sanpo shite ita;

Kaizo wa, “Kono hama ga

Suna-darake da!

Soji shitara, donna ni

Kirei desho ka na!”


That will be appreciated only by readers of Japanese, and not by many of them, I expect. All the rest is lost forever--a huge and irretrievable loss to international culture. And (to answer one of the Walrus’s questions) pigs can fly.


Yours for more verse memorization and translation,

James Cahill (9/25/11)


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