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

Ray Harvey

I was born and raised in the San Juan Mountains of southwestern Colorado. I've worked as a short-order cook, construction laborer, crab fisherman, janitor, bartender, pedi-cab driver, copyeditor, and more. I've written and ghostwritten several published books and articles, but no matter where I've gone or what I've done to earn my living, there's always been literature and learning as the constant in my life.

65 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.


    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:


    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.

  • I think the answer are “the stars” (in particular the known “constellations”). The idea came to me when i realized that the stars are the only thing both vanished through darkness AND light: darkness doesn’t let us see them, and when light comes (day time) that too makes them disappear.
    There are constellations fitting all the parts of the riddle. “I’m a bird of gay plumage” could be the Pheonix, the Swan or even Tucana (an exotic amazonian bird). “I’m the sweetest of sounds in orchestra heard” could be Lyra (the harp) which according to the legend was the instrument played by one of the sons of Zeus who used to claim sounded musically perfect. The riddle also makes several mentions to “breath”, in special “in air i lose breath”, which most likely reffers to the constellation Antlia (the air pump machine).
    The only thing i can’t understand is why should women get the riddle better than men (?)

  • Very creative answer, friend.

    Thank you for dropping by.

  • Thanks! There are many more possible answers, of course. One other solution that i never discarded, taking in consideration what i’ve researched on Wilberforce’s mindset (his creationist worldview, his typical subjects of interest, etc) is LIFE.
    We find life everywhere, from deep in the sea to up in the sky [i can swim and can fly]…
    It was believed back then, especially within creationist circles, that life existed due to an ethereal property of it called The Breath of Life, therefore it was normal to think that life could only keep going by “holding on to its breath” (the breath of life).
    Also, it’s more common for the subject of “life” to be associated to women, rather than men, since women are the bearers of life from its start (and that probably explains the last part of the riddle).
    When life “meets the earth” (burial) it’s the end of it, although life can just as well meet its end inside water. And no living creature can breathe above a certain altitude [in air i lose breath].
    I have yet to understand what the “darkness” and “light” part means, but it most likely speaks through symbolism (the experience of death was often described as a light at the end of a tunel, so maybe that’s what the riddle speaks about).

  • “Life” was the first answer I thought of, actually, when I first came across this riddle, back in 2014. And I like what you say about it.

  • Sound. Wavelengths

  • In other words. Vibration.

  • I like that, Steve! I like it very much.

    Thank you!

    And thank you for dropping by.

  • A harsh wind

  • I like that one a lot, Sean. I like the way you phrase it.

  • Me and my mom were thinking this over, and we believe it’s an unborn baby.

  • I like that!

    My thanks to you and your mother both, Destiny.

  • the answer is death.

  • answer death.

  • Jimmy, Hunter, Jerry, and Adrian:

    You may be right!

  • i know

  • It’s the scream of a mother while giving birth sweetest sound of orchestra heard….it’s a bit like music to the ears of those listening that this woman is fighting to bring out her baby but you’ll definitely never hear such sound in real orchestra. No such pain exist in nature like that…..and obviously in water she will drown….even in oxygen she’s holding her breath to push she can swim in her tears and the feeling is like soaring …..darkness….closing your eyes is giving up and that is like a death and as you die you see the light …and all you have to do is keep pushing and holding your breath only a woman can know such name …the scream while giving birth….I might not be making sense but seriously what else could it be.What else do only women experience..

  • The answer is a whistle

  • That’s good!

  • its obviously a flying fish

  • its obviously a flying fish, it fits everything

  • The answer is LIFE.
    I’m going to break it down on each new line.
    “I’m the sweetest of sounds in Orchestra heard,” Life is the sweetest sound because if there was no life on earth then there would be no sound.
    “Yet in Orchestra never was seen.” Life is never seen because it is something that we are made of. The “Orchestra” is actually all the sounds of life that sounds like music.
    “I’m a bird of gay plumage, yet less like a bird,” A bird of gay plumage can be any bird made out of life and it is less like a bird because LIFE is what makes the bird, it isn’t what the bird is.
    “Nothing ever in Nature was seen.” Parmenides of Elea(Greek philosopher) wrote a poem, “ On Nature.” It is about Life.
    “Touch the earth I expire, in water I die,” When a lifeform touches Earth it expires because we all have a day of death which would be our expiration date. It dies in water because there are lifeforms that live in water that eventually die and humans can drown and die in water taking their life.
    “In air I lose breath, yet can swim and can fly;” Life loses breath in air because the pressure gets higher the higher you go in the air taking your breath. Life can swim and fly because life is found in lifeforms that fly and swim.
    “Darkness destroys me, and light is my death,” Darkness destroys life because after you die it is said that you fall in the darkness. Light is the death because when life is first made it is born in the light of the earth.
    “And I only keep going by holding my breath.” Life keeps going because lifeforms take in breaths of air and keep it inside of them by “holding in the breath.”
    “If my name can’t be guessed by a boy or a man,” A boy and man can’t get pregnant and have a lifeform inside of them.
    “By a woman or girl it certainly can.” A woman or girl can get pregnant and give birth to a new life.

  • Pretty damned good, Levi!

    Thank you for dropping by.


  • Vitamine A

  • “A spirit “


  • It’s a reed fish/rope fish

  • Hey! I like those answers! I like them a lot.

    Thank you for dropping by and taking the time to comment.

  • the message is dolphin because bird of prey but not a bird it hunts for fish also it says it hunts in a heard like a pod holding its breath in water and when leaping in the air and it cant walk because it doesn’t say anything about walking so the answer is simply dolphin

  • Jim

    Flying fish

  • When I hear this riddle, I think of snow, or snowflakes

  • I like that, Eric. Thank you. It has a poetic beauty which sets it apart.

    Thank you for dropping by.

  • It’s a bubble.
    The first verse relates to the sound it makes when popping. This is replicated by the conductor tapping his baton, meaning the orchestra is about to start (and they loved their music back then!)
    The second relates to the pretty colours, but bubbles are man made and don’t naturally occur.
    The third is popping when hitting the floor, a bubble can’t survive pressure IN the water and it gradually disperses and pops in the air. But, it can float on the surface of the water and float through the air, hence the swim and fly.
    Fourth verse. In darkness, it cannot be seen (it could mean that because it can’t be seen it doesn’t exist or that it’ll be popped more easily) and the light may refer to candlelight, where heat will pop it. As long as the surface remains intact and it has air in it, it can keep existing, hence the holding its breath.
    The last verse relates to the girls and women doing the washing, so they’ll be more likely to come across bubbles!

  • Wow! What a careful and closely reasoned answer, Sarah!

    Thank you for taking the time and thank you for dropping by.

  • Originally, I wanted to answer Curtain, Security curtain or stage light.

    I find myself still revisiting some of those, but at this point – I think the answer is “INTERMISSION “ or “INTERVAL” as used in British and Indian English.

  • So original, Lynn, and plausible. Thank you!

    It’s such a pleasure for me to read these ideas and responses, and I marvel at the thought and creativity that you and others like you have given this intriguing, cryptic, well-written Soapy Smith riddle.

    Thank you so much for dropping by.

  • It’s a nightin gale!!!!

  • Florence nightingale, ” lady with the lamp”

  • Clever, Derek! Thank you for dropping by.

  • Shade

  • Shade.



    You cranked it out, sir. Thank you for reading and thank you for dropping by.

  • […] Thought you guys might enjoy this — an unsolved riddle from the 1800s. Story and contents of puzzle have been copy pasted from here: […]

  • TY

    The only answer is..

  • The only answer is … Dawn.

    May I tell you something, TY?

    You may be the rightest one yet.

    Thank you for dropping by.

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