“I saw two wonderful and weird creatures / out in the open unashamedly / fall a-coupling,” wrote a monk in Old English a thousand years ago, either composing or transcribing a riddle about a rooster and a hen. This riddle and a hundred others—as well as elegies, proverbs, and dreams—were written into one big book, which was bequeathed to Exeter Cathedral by its bishop and subsequently used by the monks as a cutting board and a beer coaster and left vulnerable to bats and bookworms. Still, ninety-four riddles survived.
A thousand years later, I found two dozen of these riddles, translated into modern English and collected in a slim volume called The Earliest English Poems, and a few years after that—now, to be precise—I have published a book of my own riddles and elegies and proverbs.
Riddles aren’t confined to English. There are riddles etched into clay tablets from ancient Babylon, and Sanskrit riddles in the Rig Veda (1700–1100 B.C.E.). Samson posed a riddle to the Philistines at a wedding, as did Queen Sheba when she visited the court of King Solomon. The ability to solve a riddle is a sign of wisdom or folly, the business of prophets or fools. The Hebrew prophet Daniel could unwind spells, interpret dreams, and explain riddles. But so could Oedipus. He solved the riddle of the sphinx: What has four legs in the morning, two legs in the afternoon, and three legs in the evening? A lot of good that did him. For the Greeks, riddles demonstrated the limits of knowledge. “All men are deceived by the appearances of things,” wrote Heraclitus, illustrating his point with an apocryphal story about Homer, who was said to have once been embarrassed by some boys when he failed to solve their riddle about lice.
The poet Daniel Tiffany has said that “it may be possible to claim that lyric poetry first emerged in English as the enigmatic voice of certain highly wrought objects,” which is just the sort of wildly speculative claim that I love. He is referring to artifacts from the Anglo-Saxon world that bear inscriptions such as GODRIC MADE ME and AENRED OWNS ME. Some venture even further into speech: CROSS IS MY NAME. ONCE, TREMBLING AND DRENCHED WITH BLOOD, I BORE THE MIGHTY KING. Out of that same Anglo-Saxon world came the Exeter riddles. Like the inscriptions on those highly wrought objects, the Exeter riddles give voice to objects as well as to animals and natural phenomena, like ice and fire. Some speak in the first person, others in the third. Several end with some version of the injunction “say my name.”
Their dark bodies, dun-coated,
when the breeze bears them up over the backs of the hills
are black, diminutive.
they go in companies, call out loudly;
they tread the timbered cliffs, and at times the eaves
of men’s houses.
How do they call themselves?
The answers to the Exeter riddles are by turns worldly and domestic, the ordinary stuff one encounters over the course of a day: crows, an onion, a rake, a mirror, a one-eyed garlic seller. (“Two ears it had, and one eye solo, / two feet and twelve hundred heads.”)
I was drawn to the riddles in part because my own life had become so worldly and domestic. I had a baby daughter; the business of living was conducted mostly at home and often on the ground. Nobody told me I would be spending so much time on all fours. This terrestrial existence continued as my daughter got older. By the time she was two, we were taking long, slow—so slow—walks together to the park. The moon! she would trumpet, pointing to the sky. Yes, dear. Now keep walking. Which we would, for another couple feet at least, before she stopped, picked up a rock and sat down to consider it, the day rattling by like a freight train, its cars full of books to read, writing projects to pursue, friendships I had neglected. The rock went in the bucket, the bucket went in my hand, and the journey continued, at least for a few feet, before she spotted an ant and stopped dead in her tracks.
Naturally, the things with which we kept company all day became the subjects of the riddles I wrote at night.
Traveler, head like a spade, an inch, two?
Its body in three pieces, three drops of ink
forever walking across five continents.
It scuttles on six legs. It tarries
strategically. O apt carapace.
Not embodied but encased it doesn’t breathe it’s breathed
like a tiny recorder seven holes
for seven fingers but whose fingers?
For how long?
A riddle, says the poet Ed Hirsch, is “both an interrogative and an expressive form.” What it tends to express, however, is not prayer, praise, or lamentation—the lyric’s impulses, according to Hirsch—but delight and confusion. A lyric poem sounds like this, from an elegy in the Exeter Book: “old is this earthen room; it eats at my heart.” A riddle like this: “that is a strange thing, I thought, weird.” The riddle first asks not why or how but what. What is that? What am I? In asking and answering these questions, it obscures its object, even as it ostensibly clarifies it, talking around things—a pillow, a glass of wine, the sky (a blue napkin full of pears, as one Japanese riddle has it)—until their edges blur.
What the late Richard Wilbur said of riddles is equally true of all poems and a useful reminder to those of us struggling to read them: “To ask a riddle is to describe something, darkly and figuratively, without naming it. The description must be true, but it will also involve deliberate difficulty … To solve a riddle one must be both intuitive and analytic.” Emily Dickinson loved to riddle in her poems, as she does here in #466. (Like the Exeter riddles, her poems are numbered.)
I dwell in Possibility –
A fairer House than Prose –
More numerous of Windows –
Superior – for Doors –
Of Chambers as the Cedars –
Impregnable of eye –
And for an everlasting Roof
The Gambrels of the Sky –
Of Visitors – the fairest –
For Occupation – This –
The spreading wide my narrow Hands
To gather Paradise –
Say my name, the poem says. What am I that dwells in possibility, has narrow hands, uses them to gather paradise? Poetry, I assumed for years, until I found myself reciting the poem to my grandfather just hours before he died.
Dickinson’s poem reminds us that poetry has always been about more than just “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings,” as the Romantic poet William Wordsworth put it. Poetry has and will continue not just to emote but to provide instruction, to curse and heal, and, who knows, maybe even to aid the soul in its journey to the next world, as the ancient Egyptians thought their spells did. While the language for these other forms and purposes of poetry—the language of riddles, spells, oracles, kennings, parables—has vanished from any but the most rarefied conversations about poetry, the impulse to utter them remains. Listen for them when next you read a poem.
Modern editions of the Exeter riddles come with an answer key in the back, but the answers are provisional and contingent, a matter of scholarly consensus but by no means authoritative. The history of their reception is a history of human ignorance and human ingenuity. For years it was assumed that riddle #73 was about mermaids. “I was a pure girl and a grey-maned woman,” it starts. Only when a linguist, a scholar of Japanese and Chinese who also happened to know Old Icelandic, reviewed an edition of the riddles and recognized in that “grey-maned woman” a conventional trope from Icelandic poetry, which compares a hill covered with snow to the mane of a gray horse, was the riddle solved. At least for the time being.
A similar slipperiness holds true for my riddles. I have heard clouds, atoms, and the constellation Aquarius all proposed as solutions to a riddle about fish. Unlike in the Exeter Book, my answer key is authoritative. The author can be consulted, the mistake corrected. But something happened in the short life of that error. When the fish said, “I scoot by even water can’t hold me,” someone heard a cloud elbowing its way through the sky; when the fish boldly declared itself “cosmos incarnate matter articulate,” someone else heard the small, proud voice of an atom. I invited a fish to speak. When it did, the world spoke with it.
So when you buy my book and open it to riddle #3 and read the first stanza—
I am flat and cannot be gathered.
The earth is not mine, neither are the rivers.
—and think not of your shadow but of a butterfly, good. And when, that butterfly still floating through your mind, you read the first line of the next stanza—
This flickering existence
—and see in the butterfly’s flight (how it floats in and out of view) the shape of your own life, well that’s good, too. It’s your poem, after all. Make it meet you. The riddle, and the poem, does not preexist the act of reading. Or if it does, it does so only in the way the morning glory preexists morning, its petals shut like fists to the dark.
Geoffrey Hilsabeck is the author of Riddles, Etc. and the chapbooks The Keepers of Secrets and Vaudeville. His poems, essays, and translations have appeared or are forthcoming in Seneca Review, 6X6, Bomb, the Poetry Foundation, and elsewhere.