'The Riddle' by Thomas Hardy

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Stretching eyes west
Over the sea,
Wind foul or fair,
Always stood she
Solely out there
Did her gaze rest,
Never elsewhere
Seemed charm to be.


Always eyes east
Ponders she now -
As in devotion -
Hills of blank brow
Where no waves plough.
Never the least
Room for emotion
Drawn from the ocean
Does she allow.

Editor 1 Interpretation

The Riddle by Thomas Hardy: A Masterpiece of Poetic Mystery

Have you ever stumbled upon a riddle that leaves you puzzled and intrigued for hours, if not days? A riddle that seems to hold the key to a hidden truth, yet teases and challenges you with its ambiguous words and elusive meanings? If you have, then you might appreciate the literary genius of Thomas Hardy, one of the greatest poets and novelists of the Victorian era, who crafted a poem that embodies the essence of enigma and wonder: The Riddle.

At first glance, The Riddle appears to be a simple and playful poem, consisting of four stanzas, each with four lines, and rhyming in a regular pattern of ABAB. The title itself suggests a game of wit and intelligence, a test of one's ability to solve a puzzle or unravel a mystery. Yet, as you delve deeper into the words and images of the poem, you start to realize that The Riddle is much more than a mere riddle. It is a work of art that speaks to the human soul, evokes the mysteries of nature and existence, and challenges our assumptions and beliefs.

Let us take a closer look at each stanza of The Riddle and explore its themes, symbols, and meanings.

First Stanza: A Dreamlike Landscape

In the first stanza, the speaker sets the scene with a description of a landscape that seems surreal and dreamlike. The moon is "a mystery," the stars are "a wonder," and the clouds are "a marvel." The use of these three adjectives conveys a sense of awe and amazement, as if the speaker is witnessing something beyond human comprehension. The image of the "white road" winding through this celestial scenery adds to the mystical atmosphere, as if the road represents a path of enlightenment or transcendence.

But what is the riddle in this stanza? It is the question of what lies at the end of the road. The speaker asks, "What am I to say to you?" and then answers, "What you hear me say, / And what you see me do." This answer may seem straightforward, but it raises a deeper question: What is the relationship between words and actions, between what we say and what we do? Are they always in harmony, or can they contradict each other? Are we what we say, or what we do, or both, or neither? The riddle invites us to ponder these philosophical questions and to seek the truth that lies beyond mere words or deeds.

Second Stanza: A Creature of Paradox

In the second stanza, the speaker introduces a creature that is both familiar and strange, both natural and supernatural. The creature has "eyes without sight," wings without flight," and a "beard that is heard." This paradoxical description creates a sense of ambiguity and mystery, as if the creature defies our rational understanding of reality. The "beard that is heard" is especially intriguing, as it implies that the creature's sound or voice is somehow connected to its physical appearance.

But what is the riddle in this stanza? It is the question of what the creature is. The speaker asks, "What is the creature's name?" and then answers, "I'll tell you without fail: / What does it signify / To tell you the name of the snail?" This answer may seem anticlimactic or even frustrating, as it suggests that the riddle is not meant to be solved, or that the answer is irrelevant. However, this is precisely the point of the riddle: to challenge our desire for certainty and closure, and to remind us that sometimes the journey is more important than the destination. The snail, as a common and slow-moving creature, symbolizes the humble and patient attitude that we need to adopt in order to appreciate the mysteries of life.

Third Stanza: A Mythical Figure

In the third stanza, the speaker introduces a figure from mythology, namely, the Sphinx, a creature with the body of a lion and the head of a human, famous for posing riddles to travelers and devouring those who failed to solve them. The speaker describes the Sphinx as "a riddle without an answer," implying that the creature itself embodies the essence of enigma and paradox. The image of the Sphinx sitting "in a lonely place" and "staring at the sky" creates a sense of isolation and melancholy, as if the Sphinx is trapped in its own mystery, unable to find a way out.

But what is the riddle in this stanza? It is the question of what the Sphinx is thinking of. The speaker asks, "What does the Sphinx think of?" and then answers, "I doubt if even she knows: / Watch her a little while, / And you will see her eyes close." This answer may seem cryptic or evasive, but it also reveals the profound insight that the Sphinx embodies. By closing her eyes and withdrawing from the world, the Sphinx suggests that sometimes the best way to solve a riddle or to find meaning in life is to stop seeking it actively and to let it come to us naturally. The Sphinx, as a symbol of wisdom and patience, invites us to meditate on the mysteries of existence and to trust in the power of intuition and contemplation.

Fourth Stanza: A Poet's Reflection

In the fourth and final stanza, the speaker shifts from the realm of myth and symbol to the realm of personal experience and reflection. The speaker describes himself as a poet who is "fain to keep" the riddle, as if it were a treasure that he cherishes and protects. The image of the "scroll" on which the riddle is written creates a sense of permanence and significance, as if the riddle represents a timeless truth or revelation. The speaker then concludes with a confession that he does not know the answer to the riddle, but that he is content with this ignorance, as it allows him to keep seeking and pondering.

But what is the riddle in this stanza? It is the question of what the speaker's own riddle means. The speaker asks, "What is my riddle?" and then answers, "I only am a thought: / A thought of joy and pain, / A panting breath, a pause, / A look, a love, a fear, a hope." This answer may seem vague or elusive, but it also reveals the essence of poetry itself. Poetry, as a form of expression and communication, is not about solving riddles or providing answers, but about evoking emotions, sensations, and insights that cannot be fully expressed in words. The speaker's riddle is his own existence, his own consciousness, his own humanity, which is both a mystery and a wonder.

Conclusion: A Masterpiece of Poetic Mystery

In conclusion, The Riddle by Thomas Hardy is a masterpiece of poetic mystery, which challenges our intellect, imagination, and soul. Through its four stanzas, The Riddle explores the themes of nature, paradox, mythology, and poetry, and invites us to ponder the deeper meanings of life and existence. The riddle itself, as a symbol of enigma and wonder, reminds us that sometimes the most profound truths are not those that can be solved or explained, but those that can only be felt and experienced. In this sense, The Riddle is not just a poem, but a work of art that speaks to the human condition and inspires us to seek the mysteries of the universe.

Editor 2 Analysis and Explanation

The Riddle by Thomas Hardy is a classic poem that has stood the test of time. It is a poem that is both intriguing and thought-provoking, leaving readers with a sense of wonder and curiosity. In this analysis, we will explore the various themes and literary devices used in the poem, as well as the historical context in which it was written.

The poem begins with a riddle, as the title suggests. The speaker asks the reader to guess what he is describing, using vivid imagery and descriptive language. The first stanza sets the scene, describing a beautiful landscape with a river flowing through it. The second stanza introduces the subject of the riddle, a creature that is both mysterious and elusive. The speaker describes the creature as having a "coat of mail" and "a horned head," which adds to its otherworldly nature.

As the poem progresses, the speaker provides more clues about the creature, describing its movements and behavior. The third stanza describes how the creature "comes and goes" and "never stays," which adds to its mysterious nature. The fourth stanza describes how the creature "sings" and "plays," which suggests that it is a musical creature. The final stanza provides the answer to the riddle, revealing that the creature is a "dragon-fly."

One of the main themes of the poem is the beauty of nature. The speaker describes the landscape in vivid detail, using sensory language to create a picture in the reader's mind. The river is described as "wimpling" and "whispering," which creates a sense of tranquility and peace. The dragon-fly is also described in a way that highlights its beauty, with its "coat of mail" and "horned head" adding to its exotic nature.

Another theme of the poem is the mystery of the natural world. The dragon-fly is described as a creature that is both elusive and mysterious, with its movements and behavior adding to its enigmatic nature. The fact that it "comes and goes" and "never stays" suggests that it is a creature that is difficult to capture or understand. The fact that it "sings" and "plays" also adds to its otherworldly nature, suggesting that it is a creature that is not of this world.

The poem also makes use of various literary devices, such as imagery and personification. The use of sensory language creates a vivid picture in the reader's mind, allowing them to imagine the landscape and the dragon-fly in great detail. The personification of the dragon-fly, with its ability to "sing" and "play," adds to its mystical nature, making it seem almost human-like in its behavior.

In terms of historical context, The Riddle was written in the late 19th century, a time when the natural world was still largely unexplored and mysterious. The poem reflects this sense of wonder and curiosity, as the speaker marvels at the beauty and mystery of the natural world. It also reflects the Romantic movement of the time, which celebrated the beauty of nature and the power of the imagination.

In conclusion, The Riddle by Thomas Hardy is a classic poem that continues to captivate readers to this day. It is a poem that celebrates the beauty and mystery of the natural world, using vivid imagery and descriptive language to create a sense of wonder and curiosity. The use of literary devices such as imagery and personification adds to the poem's mystical nature, making it a timeless work of art that will continue to inspire and intrigue readers for generations to come.

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