The Riddle of Samuel Wilberforce

Samuel Wilberforce also known as "Soapy Sam" was born at Clapham Common, London in 7 September 1805 and died in 19 July 1873. He was an English bishop in the Church of England. The "Soapy Sam" nickname was coined by Benjamin Disraeli because the bishop's  manner was "unctuous, oleaginous, saponaceous". In 1859 when Charles Darwin published a book about the theory of evolution which entitled "On the Origin of Species”, there was a tremendous backlash from Wilberforce which represent the church. Finally in 1860 a famous debate was staged, wherein both parties would argue their points. At that time Darwin was too sick to attend, and sent acolyte Thomas Huxley in his place. Wilberforce and Huxley locked horns, and neither definitely “won” the debate.

Samuel Wilberforce

Besides his career in the service of the church, Wilberforce was fond of writing, and riddles in particular. 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.

Until now, no one has ever solved this riddle. However, several theories have been put forth (mostly think, that he was referring to a whale), but the real answer probably died with the Bishop.


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1 comment:

  1. These are two letters to the Editor from the Times Literary Supplement, 1969.

    TLS 15.5.1969

    The Bishop’s riddle


    The following riddle is said to nave been written by the late Bishop of Salisbury, and the answer is a word of one syllable. My colleagues and 1 have been working on it for some time; but, though we have often seemed to come close to an answer, the solution still eludes us and we have now given up. May we throw ourselves on the ingenuity and erudition of your readers?
    Incidentally, the present Bishop of Salisbury writes that he does not know the answer and that he has never met anyone who could tell him.

    1 sit on the rock, and call for the wind,
    But the storm once abated, I'm gentle and kind.
    I have kings at my feet who await but my nod
    To lie down in the dust on the ground where I’ve trod.
    I’m oft seen in the world, though known to but few;
    The Gentiles despise me: I'm pork to the Jew.
    I never have passed but one night in the dark,
    And that was with Noah alone in the Ark.
    My Weight is three pounds, my length is a mile,
    And when you have guessed me, you’ll say with a smile
    That my first and my last is the boast of our Isle.


    Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures, Columbia University in the City of New York, N.Y. 10027, USA.


    The Bishop’s riddle

    Sir.—My late husband, R. A. Austen-Leigh, gave air as a possible answer to this riddle (May 15), with the following explanation:

    Couplet 1. South wind (air in motion): gentle when calm; in tempest Euroclydon (or Sirocco), giving pun on rock.
    2. East wind: monsoon, the break (or nod) which oriental kings in India, Siam, etc., watch for that they may plant crops in wind-fertilized soil.
    3. North wind: made visible by snow and ice; known only to a few polar explorers; bitter cold hated by all.
    4. West wind: sent to Noah, sole remnant of humanity; controls flood; blowing one night and day, as Jewish legend states.
    5. Atmospheric pressure (static air); is 31b. on each square inch, equivalent to column of air a mile high.
    6. South and West gales: trade winds; bring Gulf Stream.

    This is what he had written down. Our copy of the riddle was in separate couplets, and I think there was another line, incorporating the words “a mere nothing“. It is now many years ago, and 1 cannot remember whether he guessed it alone or with the help of others.

    Isel Hall, Cockermouth, Cumberland.

    TLS 29.5.1969.


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