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Riddle: From A Poet's Glossary

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Edward Hirsch

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October 21, 2014


Poetic Terms/Forms
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riddle: “A mystifying, misleading, or puzzling question posed as a problem to be solved or guessed often as a game” (Webster’s Third New International Dictionary). Though the dictionary definition focuses on the riddle as a question and describes it as a game, the riddle is more than a puzzle. It is both an interrogative and an expressive form, possibly the earliest form of oral literature—a formulation of thought, a mode of association, a metaphor.

The comparative work of folklorists suggests that riddle-making is virtually a universal activity, a lyric root, a contest of wit, a process of naming. The earliest riddles on record are preserved on a clay tablet from ancient Babylon. They are inscribed in Sumerian along with Assyrian translations. Here is one that Archer Taylor, the premier scholar of riddles, presents in The Literary Riddle before 1600 (1948):

Who becomes pregnant without conceiving,
who becomes fat without eating? The answer: a raincloud. 

The riddle, a short form with a long history, uses the sentence as its frame. It is often employed for educational purposes, but there are cases—whole cultures—where the riddle is more than child’s play. The oldest Sanskrit riddles (ca. 1000 BCE) appear in the riddle hymn of Dirhatamas (Hymn 164) in book 1 of the Rig-Veda (1700–1100 BCE). The Hebrew Bible refers to riddling and riddling contests. Thus the prophet Daniel was “known to have a notable spirit, with knowledge and understanding, and the gift of interpreting dreams, explaining riddles and unbinding spells” (Daniel 5:12). In the first book of Kings (1:10), Queen Sheba travels to the court of King Solomon to test his prodigious wisdom with “hard questions” or riddles. The judge Samson is known for the riddle he proposes to the Philistines at his wedding reception (Judges 14:14):

Out of the eater came something to eat,
Out of the strong came something sweet?

In the desert, Samson had chanced upon a lion’s carcass in which bees had made a hive. With the help of his bride, who tells the riddle to her countrymen, the Philistines answer the riddle with another riddle: “What is sweeter than honey? What is stronger than a lion?” Samson replies to them with a startling metaphor: “If you had not ploughed my heifer, / you would not have solved my riddle.”

The Greeks were great riddlers. Pindar (ca. 522–443 BCE) was first to use the term riddle in a way that we still recognize. Everyone remembers the riddle at the heart of the narrative in Sophocles’s Oedipus Tyrannus (ca. 430 B.C.E.), which has also been found in various parts of the world: “What has four legs in the morning, two legs in the afternoon, and three legs in the evening?” This is the riddle of the Sphinx, a monster with the head of a woman and the winged body of a lion, who threatened anyone who wanted to enter Thebes. Oedipus solved the riddle with the word “man” and thus proved his cleverness, a quality that would lead to his destruction. Plato refers to riddling in The Republic (ca. 380 BCE) and quotes a variant of Panarces’s riddle: a man who is not a man [a eunuch] threw a stone that was not a stone [a pumice stone] at a bird that was not a bird [a bat] sitting on a twig that was not a twig [a reed]. Heraclitus’s remarks about the universe were so cryptic that Cicero and Diogenes Laertius referred to him as “the Riddler” and “the Obscure.” It was Heraclitus who reported:

All men are deceived by the appearances of things, even Homer himself, who was the wisest man in Greece; for he was deceived by boys catching lice; they said to him, 'What we have caught and what we have killed we have left behind, but what has escaped us we bring with us.'

A riddle is first of all a way of describing one thing in terms of another, as in “Humpty Dumpty,” which describes an egg in terms of a man. In English Riddles from Oral Tradition (1951), Archer Taylor classifies descriptive riddles according to whether the object—“the answer”—is compared to a person, to several persons, to animals, to several animals, to plants, to things, or to a generalized living creature. Aristotle first pointed out in the Rhetoric (335-330 BCE), “Good riddles do, in general, provide us with satisfactory metaphors: for metaphors imply riddles, and therefore a good riddle can furnish a good metaphor.” He also stated in the Poetics (350 BCE) that “the essence of a riddle is to express true facts under impossible combinations.”

True riddles, as they are sometimes called, are enigmatic questions in descriptive form. They are meant to confuse or test the wits of those who don’t know the answer. The riddle arrests our attention by establishing some paradox or internal contradiction, an opposition or blocking element, which makes it hard to solve. The folk riddle is staged, fundamentally aggressive, antisocial. It is vexing and socially disruptive unlike, say, the proverb, which is reassuring and meant to reinforce social wisdom.

The folklorist Roger Abrahams demonstrates that opposition is the most salient of four techniques by which the image (or Gestalt) of the riddle-question is impaired, making it indecipherable. These techniques consist of:

     1. Opposition—Gestalt is impaired because the opponent parts of the presented image do not harmonize.
     2. Incomplete detail—not enough information is given for proper Gestalt to be made (i.e., for the parts to fit together).
     3. Too much detail—the important traits are buried in the midst of inconsequential detail, thus “scrambling” Gestalt.
     4. False Gestalt—details are provided that lead to an ability to discern a referent, and thus call for an answer, but the answer is wrong. The answer is often an embarrassing, obscene reference. This technique is most common in catch riddles.

The techniques of impairment establish the conventions by which riddles are recognized and remembered. Modes of impairment also provide literary strategies. The medieval Hebrew and Arabic poets of Spain, for example, wrote deliberately misleading riddles in verse. There are forty-nine such riddles in the work of the master of Hebrew poetry, Yehuda Halevi (ca. 1075–1141). So, too, the Arabic poet Al-Hariri (1054–1122) filled his masterpiece known as the Maqamat (“Assemblies”) with a wealth of classical lore, including riddles. In Western Europe, the literary riddle begins with the 100 Latin riddles of Symposius (fifth century). The oldest European vernacular riddles are the poetic riddles of the Old English Exeter Book (eighth century). In Enigmas and Riddles in Literature (2006), Eleanor Cook suggests that “riddling illuminates the greatest mysteries through the smallest things.”

Here is a Persian riddle that gives a feeling of sudden liberation, like a Japanese haiku:

A blue napkin full of pears—

Excerpted from A Poet’s Glossary by Edward Hirsch. Copyright © 2014 by Edward Hirsch. Used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.

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