Bishop Samuel (“Soapy Sam”) Wilberforce, who once famously debated Charles Darwin’s protege Thomas Huxley — Darwin himself had been slated to debate Wilberforce but got sick and sent Huxley in his stead — was regarded in nineteenth-century England (by his friends and enemies alike) as among the most forceful public speakers 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.” (Say what!?)
In addition to being a brilliant orator and a master-debater, Soapy Sam was also a cunning linguist.
As such, Soapy Sam was a man who enjoyed a good riddle.
(“The unraveling of a riddle is the purest and most basic act of the human mind,” wrote Vladimir Nabokov.)
Soapy Sam was born in September of 1805 and died in July of 1873.
After his death, the following riddle was found among his papers, no solution given:
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” and “whistle” and “echo” are the answers you’ll most commonly hear. So if you want to make yourself famous, here’s your chance to shine.
Now shine on, you crazy Neil Diamond.