The 140-Year-Old Riddle That’s Never Been Solved
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    Bishop Samuel (“Soapy Sam”) Wilberforce, who once famously debated Charles Darwin’s protege Thomas Huxley — Darwin himself was slated to debate Wilberforce but got sick and sent Huxley in his stead — was, among other things, about the most forceful public speaker of his day.

    The writer Benjamin Disraeli coined the unforgettable “Soapy Sam” sobriquet, because the Bishop’s manner was, according to Disraeli, “unctuous, oleaginous, saponaceous.”

    In addition to being a brilliant speaker, Soapy Sam was also a man who enjoyed a good riddle.

    He was born in September of 1805 and died in July of 1873. After his death, the following was found among his papers:

    I’m the sweetest of sounds in Orchestra heard,
    Yet in Orchestra never was seen.
    I’m a bird of gay plumage, yet less like a bird,
    Nothing ever in Nature was seen.
    Touch the earth I expire, in water I die,
    In air I lose breath, yet can swim and can fly;
    Darkness destroys me, and light is my death,
    And I only keep going by holding my breath.
    If my name can’t be guessed by a boy or a man,
    By a woman or girl it certainly can.



    No one has ever convincingly solved this riddle, though “whale” is the answer you’ll most commonly hear, and so if you want to make yourself famous, here’s your chance to shine.






About The Author

The sawed-off shotgun of literary pulp.

21 Responses and Counting...

  • Doc 05.08.2014

    One’s phallus might satisfy, yet I can see some misses.

  • Tim

    It’s a baby

  • A siren, from greek mythology?

  • Oh, I like that.

  • A sperm

  • Sperm?

    I hope you’re not just ejaculating at the mouth when you say that.

    Thank you for coming by.

  • An opinion or idea… “I can only keep going by holding my breath” And women were seen as great gossipers back in the day. It’s not “of” nature. And when you speak an unpopular opinion “light [can be] it’s death”
    I mean, this was coming from a man who was starting to lose a battle with knowledge…

  • Rachel, my dear, I think you may have solved it.

  • I think the most sensible answer is a whale.

  • Melody

  • Jes

    I’ve heard theories it’s a whistle. The sound, not the action or object.

  • I’d not heard that. Thank you, Jes.

    And thank you for dropping by.

  • Amy

    I think he is talking about mother nature

  • Its the heart.Sweetest sound in orchestra heard but never been is a heartbeat.Bird in light plumage is the heart filling w/ all kinds of feelings, nothing on earth has ever been seen means there is nothing like it, on earth i expire is every1 dies in water i die mean the heart can be drowned in tears,Yet i run,swim,fly, is it the beat of your heart when you truly feel,If I cant b guessed by a boy or man A girl or woman I certainly can is Men think w/ there heads women think w/ their heart.So the answer is the heart!

  • Not bad, Krista! Not bad at all.

    Thank you for dropping by.

  • Its a lie.

  • It is an intriguing answer, David McDonald.

    Thank you for dropping by.

  • ENIGMA.

    I am loudest of voices in orchestra heard,
    And yet in an orchestra never have been;
    I’m a bird of bright plumage, and less like a bird
    Nothing in nature has ever been seen.

    Touching earth, I expire; and in water I die;
    In air I lose breath, yet can swim and can fly;
    Darkness destroys me, and light is my death,
    Yet I can’t keep alive without stopping my breath;
    If my name can’t be guessed by a boy or a man,
    By a girl or a woman it certainly can.

    The answer, as such, was provided two months later (this time signed off by “E.B.K.”), also presented in rhyme:

    ‘TIME.’

    I’m beaten, I’m counted, until deadened the sound
    Of violin, trombone,
    Flute, psaltery, and drum;
    Yet in propria personâ I am not there found.
    Some talk of my wings, brightly tinted with gold—
    For so quickly I fly,
    Bringing pleasure and joy.
    Yet I’m not a bright bird—I’m shrivelled and old:
    I carry a scythe,
    And painfully writhe.
    Man, woman, and child,
    The grave, and the wild,
    All lie pale, without motion, and cold.

    But if I thus kill, I myself suffer loss;
    When the earth’s years are o’er,
    Then shall I be no more,
    And all that is good will be cleansed from its dross.
    I’m engulfed, I am past,
    No thought on me is cast
    When each gentle breeze vibrates; when rough winds roar,
    I’m exhausted, I perish,
    And like a ghost vanish;
    Though I swim and I fly,
    Yet in these I must die,
    No pang of remorse can bring me back more.

    The earth in its daily course turns from the sun:
    Man much needeth the night;
    But, oh! sad is my plight,
    For extinction to me has certainly come.
    The daylight returns to gladden man’s heart.
    I’ve been born and have died,
    Death is still at my side,
    Though in man’s joy and pain I must bear my part.
    Time must constantly die,
    With swift wings from us fly;
    Then his forelock pray seize,
    In sloth think not there’s ease,
    Forget not that you too must depart.

    Right. So the answer given was TIME. By 1886 this answer was apparently forgotten, because a correspondent wrote to Notes & Queries in that year to ask for the answer to the riddle, which was now attributed to “Dr. Wilberforce, late Bishop of Oxford”… and it’s been treated as unsolved ever since, far as I can tell.

    Copy pasted from website

  • Wow!

    Thank you, Sarah. Your comment is eye-opening and unexpected — and beautifully written.

    Thank you for dropping by.

  • I know it has been a while and sorry for my bad english, its not my mother tongue.

    What about ‘Hope’ as an answer?

    Hope can be triggered by a orchestra and kind of expressed by sounds.
    But still cannnot be seen. Same for the nature part, also hope doesnt seem like something rooted in nature but rather something higher than that. The gay plummage could refer to all the different shapes hope can take. When you are realistic (it touches earth) it will die, because the definition of hope is to be irrational. Everyday it looses breath in air, meaning it becomes weaker and weaker if it isnt influenced by something. In water I die, could refer to the term of drowning hope. And yet it can go over the top and fly. When its almost gone it still can swim. Darkness destroys me: true. Light is my death: hope will die after it is fullfilled. Hope cannot stay alive without just being hold on for some time, because it takes time to potentially be fullfilled. The last part could refer to the name “hope” for girls.

    Whale doesnt feel like an answer at all, due to the line “Nothing in nature has ever been seen. ”
    And Time still doesnt really add up with all lines in my opinion, but is way better than whale anyways.

  • Bad English? Robin, my dear, your English is brilliant and beautiful.

    Thank you for dropping by.

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