Friday, September 5, 2014

From the Complete Works of Anonymous (2)

Riddle Poems


I am fire-fretted and I flirt with Wind;
my limbs are light-freighted
and I am lapped in flame;
storm-stacked, I strain to fly;
I am a grove, leaf-bearing,
and a glowing ember.
From hand to friend’s hand
about the hall I go,
so much do lords and ladies love to kiss me.
When I hold myself high, and the whole company
bow quiet before me, their blessedness
shall flourish skyward beneath my fostering shade.

A much overlooked, even disparaged form of poetry, these riddles – and dozens of others which only lack of space precludes inclusion – have given me hours of pleasure in the classroom over many years; a marvellous way of introducing children to more difficult and more serious poetry without losing them amidst the obscurities of language - or precisely by doing so, but in a way that makes it both a challenge and great fun.


The wave, over the wave, a weird thing I saw,
thorough-wrought, and wonderfully ornate:
a wonder on the wave – water become bone.


I saw four fine creatures
travelling in company; their tracks were dark,
their trail very black. The bird that floats
in the air swoops less swiftly than their leader;
he dived beneath the wave. Drudgery was it
for the fellow that taught all four of them their ways
on their ceaseless visits to the vessel of gold.


My home is not silent: I myself am not loud.
The Lord has provided for the pair of us
a joint expedition. I am speedier than he
and sometimes stronger; he stays the course better.
Sometimes I rest, but he runs on.
For as long as I live I live in him;
if we leave one another it is I who must die.

From the Classical age, none more famous than the riddle of the Sphinx, to which the answer is... a human being; though actually the riddle comes in several different forms:

In Sophocles: 
"What goes on four feet in the morning, two feet at noon, and three feet in the evening?" 

In Apollodorus:
"What is that which has one voice and yet becomes four-footed and two-footed and three-footed?"

In an anonymous source, thought possibly to be Aeschylus:
"What has four legs, then two legs, then one leg, then no legs."

Which strangely is the one most likely to be known today, but without the final element.

Shakespeare's plays are full of them. 

In Hamlet, for example (Act 5, Scene 1): "What is he that builds stronger than either the mason, the shipwright, or the carpenter?" To which the answer, and the scene in which it occurs gives it away, is of course: "the grave-digger". 

The three caskets at Belmont, in "The Merchant of Venice", all have riddles emblazoned on them (Act 2, Scene 7 - click here); the prize for solving the riddle being the hand of Portia in marriage. 

The same prize for Pericles - the hand of King Antiochus's daughter - in Act 1 (Scene 1, lines 64-71) of that play, though getting the answer right, as Pericles does, may be less wise than giving up the daughter and going elsewhere to seek a wife - you can work out my riddle by looking his up in the text (or here if you are a student of literature), but only if you are 18 (21 in some countries), and after 9pm:

                                                          I am no viper, yet I feed
                                                          On mother's flesh which did me breed.
                                                          I sought a husband, in which labour
                                                          I found that kindness in a father:
                                                          He's father, son, and husband mild;
                                                          I mother, wife, and yet his child.
                                                          How they may be, and yet in two,
                                                          As you will live, resolve it you.

Each riddle is really an extended metaphor; a rhetorical metaphor, in that it asks you, the reader, to figure out what the metaphor is in itself, rather than its purpose in describing something else. But it functions as a game, rather than an academic travail, which is why schoolchildren enjoy trying to resolve them. Perhaps my readers might like to compose a riddle of their own, poetically of course, and submit them to my publisher for inclusion in a modern volume? 


Men are fond of me. I am found everywhere,
brought in from the woods and the beetling cliffs,
from down and from dale. In the daylight, wings
raised me aloft, then into a roof’s shade
swung me in sweetly. Sweltered then
by men in a bath, I am a binder now,
soon a thrasher, a thrower next:
I’ll put an old fellow flat on the ground.
A man who tries to take me on,
tests my strength, soon finds out,
if his silly plan doesn’t pall on him,
that it is his back that will hit the dust.
Loud in words, he has lost control
of his hands and feet; his head doesn’t work;
his strength has gone. Guess my name
who has such mastery of men on earth
that I knock them about even in broad daylight.

I have not, myself, any definite certainty about the solutions to my five offerings (and does it really matter?). I take the first to be a Yule log; the second to be ice; the third – goose feather and sheep's blood – to be handwriting; the fourth, though it could be any strong liquor, because of its early mediaeval date, to be mead; the fifth a fish, perhaps a salmon, swimming up a river. As to the Swift and the Crane - not a clue.

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