Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Cowper's Riddles

The great English poet, William Cowper (in his day, it was pronounced "Cooper"), used to apply his creative mind to inventing riddles for his friends. I have assembled some here, along with the answers, for those who may also share his interest.

William Hayley, The Life and Letters of William Cowper, Esq., p. 86 (Letter LXI to the Rev. John Newton, July 30, 1780):

I am just two and two, I am warm, I am cold,
And the parent of numbers that cannot be told,
I am lawful, unlawful -- a duty, a fault,
I am often sold dear, good for nothing when bought,
An extraordinary boon, and a matter of course,
And yielded with pleasure -- when taken by force.
[Alike the delight of the poor and rich,
Tho' the vulgar is apt to present me his breech.]

An Answer was penned by "J.T." in the Gentleman's Magazine, Vol. LXXVI, p. 1224 (1806):

A RIDDLE by Cowper
Made me swear like a trooper;
But my anger, alas! was in vain;
For, remembering the bliss
Of beauty's soft Kiss,
I now long for such riddles again.

T.S. Grimshawe, ed., William Cowper: His Life, Letters, and Poems, p. 90 (Letter to John Newton, April 8, 1781):

I send you a cucumber, not of my own raising, and yet raised by me.
Solve this enigma, dark enough
To puzzle any brains
That are not downright puzzle-proof,
And eat it for your pains.

Cowper provided a solution to his "enigma" to his friend a fortnight later (ibid, p. 90, Letter to John Newton, April 23, 1781):

It is worth while to send you a riddle, you make such a variety of guesses, and turn and tumble it about with such an industrious curiosity. The solution of that in question is -- let me see; it requires some consideration to explain it, even though I made it. I raised the seed that produced the plant that produced the fruit I sent you. This latter seed I gave to the gardener of Tyringham, who brought me the cucumber you mention. Thus you see I raised it -- that is to say, I raised it virtually by having raised its progenitor; and yet I did not raise it, because the identical seed from which it grew was raised at a distance. You observe I did not speak rashly when I spoke of it as dark enough to pose an OEdipus, and have no need to call your own sagacity in question for falling short of the discovery.

Upon receiving the news that his friend Samuel Rose was to be married, he wrote the following (William Hayley, The Life and Letters of William Cowper, Esq., p. 86, Letter CCCXXI to Samuel Rose, June 8, 1790)::

Samson, at his marriage, proposed a riddle to a Philistine. I am no Samson, neither are you a Philistine. Yet expound to me the following if you can:
What are they which stand at a distance from each other, and meet without ever moving?
Should you be so fortunate as to guess it, you may propose it to the company, when you celebrate your nuptials; and, if you can win thirty changes of raiment by it, as Samson did by his, let me tell you, they will be no contemptible acquisition to a young beginner.

He added later in a postscript (ibid, p. 406, Letter CCCXXIX to Samuel Rose, Sept. 13, 1790):

The trees of a colonnade will solve my riddle.

Cowper also once translated a Latin poem by his old tutor, Vincent Bourne, An AEnigma (ibid, p. 625):

A needle, small as small can be,
In bulk and use surpasses me,
Nor is my purchase dear;
For little, and almost for nought,
As many of my kind are bought
As days are in the year.
Yet though but little use we boast,
And are procured at little cost,
The labour is not light;
Nor few artificers it asks,
All skilful in their sev'ral tasks,
To fashion us aright.
One fuses metal o'er the fire,
A second draws it into wire,
The sheers another plies,
Who clips in lengths the brazen thread
For him, who chafing every shred,
Gives all an equal size.
A fifth prepares, exact and round,
The knob with which it must be crown'd;
His follower makes it fast:
And with his mallet and his file
To shape the point, employs awhile
The seventh and the last.
Now, therefore, OEdipus! declare
What creature, wonderful and rare,
A process, that obtains
Its purpose with so much ado,
At last produces? -- tell me true,
And take me for your pains!

Other riddles are scattered throughout Cowper's writings here and there. Perhaps the most profound enigma which sums up the poet's wisdom (Prov. 1.5-6: "A wise man will hear, and will increase learning; and a man of understanding shall attain unto wise counsels: To understand a proverb, and the interpretation; the words of the wise, and their dark sayings.") more than any other, is found in these lines from The Olney Hymns:

H.S. Milford, ed., The Complete Poetical Works of William Cowper, XXXV. Light Shining Out of Darkness, p. 455:

Judge not the Lord by feeble sense,
But trust him for his grace;
Behind a frowning providence,
He hides a smiling face.

No comments:

Post a Comment