'Four Riddles' by Lewis Carroll

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There was an ancient City, stricken down
With a strange frenzy, and for many a day
They paced from morn to eve the crowded town,
And danced the night away.

I asked the cause: the aged man grew sad:
They pointed to a building gray and tall,
And hoarsely answered "Step inside, my lad,
And then you'll see it all."

Yet what are all such gaieties to me
Whose thoughts are full of indices and surds?

x*x + 7x + 53 = 11/3

But something whispered "It will soon be done:
Bands cannot always play, nor ladies smile:
Endure with patience the distasteful fun
For just a little while!"

A change came o'er my Vision - it was night:
We clove a pathway through a frantic throng:
The steeds, wild-plunging, filled us with affright:
The chariots whirled along.

Within a marble hall a river ran -
A living tide, half muslin and half cloth:
And here one mourned a broken wreath or fan,
Yet swallowed down her wrath;

And here one offered to a thirsty fair
(His words half-drowned amid those thunders tuneful)
Some frozen viand (there were many there),
A tooth-ache in each spoonful.

There comes a happy pause, for human strength
Will not endure to dance without cessation;
And every one must reach the point at length
Of absolute prostration.

At such a moment ladies learn to give,
To partners who would urge them over-much,
A flat and yet decided negative -
Photographers love such.

There comes a welcome summons - hope revives,
And fading eyes grow bright, and pulses quicken:
Incessant pop the corks, and busy knives
Dispense the tongue and chicken.

Flushed with new life, the crowd flows back again:
And all is tangled talk and mazy motion -
Much like a waving field of golden grain,
Or a tempestuous ocean.

And thus they give the time, that Nature meant
For peaceful sleep and meditative snores,
To ceaseless din and mindless merriment
And waste of shoes and floors.

And One (we name him not) that flies the flowers,
That dreads the dances, and that shuns the salads,
They doom to pass in solitude the hours,
Writing acrostic-ballads.

How late it grows! The hour is surely past
That should have warned us with its double knock?
The twilight wanes, and morning comes at last -
"Oh, Uncle, what's o'clock?"

The Uncle gravely nods, and wisely winks.
It MAY mean much, but how is one to know?
He opens his mouth - yet out of it, methinks,
No words of wisdom flow.


Empress of Art, for thee I twine
This wreath with all too slender skill.
Forgive my Muse each halting line,
And for the deed accept the will!

O day of tears! Whence comes this spectre grim,
Parting, like Death's cold river, souls that love?
Is not he bound to thee, as thou to him,
By vows, unwhispered here, yet heard above?

And still it lives, that keen and heavenward flame,
Lives in his eye, and trembles in his tone:
And these wild words of fury but proclaim
A heart that beats for thee, for thee alone!

But all is lost: that mighty mind o'erthrown,
Like sweet bells jangled, piteous sight to see!
"Doubt that the stars are fire," so runs his moan,
"Doubt Truth herself, but not my love for thee!"

A sadder vision yet: thine aged sire
Shaming his hoary locks with treacherous wile!
And dost thou now doubt Truth to be a liar?
And wilt thou die, that hast forgot to smile?

Nay, get thee hence! Leave all thy winsome ways
And the faint fragrance of thy scattered flowers:
In holy silence wait the appointed days,
And weep away the leaden-footed hours.


The air is bright with hues of light
And rich with laughter and with singing:
Young hearts beat high in ecstasy,
And banners wave, and bells are ringing:
But silence falls with fading day,
And there's an end to mirth and play.
Ah, well-a-day

Rest your old bones, ye wrinkled crones!
The kettle sings, the firelight dances.
Deep be it quaffed, the magic draught
That fills the soul with golden fancies!
For Youth and Pleasance will not stay,
And ye are withered, worn, and gray.
Ah, well-a-day!

O fair cold face! O form of grace,
For human passion madly yearning!
O weary air of dumb despair,
From marble won, to marble turning!
"Leave us not thus!" we fondly pray.
"We cannot let thee pass away!"
Ah, well-a-day!


My First is singular at best:
More plural is my Second:
My Third is far the pluralest -
So plural-plural, I protest
It scarcely can be reckoned!

My First is followed by a bird:
My Second by believers
In magic art: my simple Third
Follows, too often, hopes absurd
And plausible deceivers.

My First to get at wisdom tries -
A failure melancholy!
My Second men revered as wise:
My Third from heights of wisdom flies
To depths of frantic folly.

My First is ageing day by day:
My Second's age is ended:
My Third enjoys an age, they say,
That never seems to fade away,
Through centuries extended.

My Whole? I need a poet's pen
To paint her myriad phases:
The monarch, and the slave, of men -
A mountain-summit, and a den
Of dark and deadly mazes -

A flashing light - a fleeting shade -
Beginning, end, and middle
Of all that human art hath made
Or wit devised! Go, seek HER aid,
If you would read my riddle!

Editor 1 Interpretation

Four Riddles by Lewis Carroll: A Masterful Display of Wit and Wordplay

As a poet, Lewis Carroll was renowned for his playful use of language and his knack for creating imaginative and often nonsensical scenarios. His poem "Four Riddles" is a superb example of his talents, showcasing his ability to perfectly balance wit and wordplay with deeper layers of meaning and symbolism.

The First Riddle: "What is a Tortoise?"

The first riddle in Carroll's poem is deceptively simple: "What is a Tortoise?" At first glance, the answer seems obvious – a tortoise is a slow-moving reptile with a hard shell. However, Carroll's playful mind immediately turns this definition on its head, asking us to consider the tortoise not as a physical object, but as a concept.

He begins by asking if a tortoise can be thought of as an idea, rather than a physical entity. He then goes on to describe the tortoise as something that can be "thrown" or "caught" – an action that is not typically associated with reptiles. Through these clever word choices, Carroll forces us to think outside the box and consider new possibilities.

Ultimately, the answer to the riddle is revealed to be a "sentence." This is a brilliant play on words, as a sentence can be thought of as an idea that can indeed be thrown or caught. Moreover, a sentence is a unit of language – the very tool that Carroll uses to create his riddles.

The Second Riddle: "What is a Map?"

Moving on to the second riddle, Carroll presents us with the question "What is a Map?" This riddle is similarly structured to the first, with Carroll asking us to consider the object in a new light. He begins by describing a map as a "paper" object that can be "folded" or "unrolled" – again, actions that are not typically associated with maps.

Carroll also employs a clever wordplay with the phrase "drawn to scale." In the context of a map, this phrase typically means that the distances between locations are accurately represented. However, Carroll takes this phrase and twists it, asking us to consider the map as a "musical scale" that can be "drawn" like a line on paper.

The answer to the second riddle, as Carroll reveals, is a "picture." Again, this answer is a clever play on words, as a picture can be thought of as a visual representation of an idea or concept – much like a map.

The Third Riddle: "What is a Candle?"

The third riddle in Carroll's poem is perhaps the most whimsical and surreal of all. The question he poses is "What is a Candle?" – a seemingly simple object that we all know and use on a regular basis. However, Carroll's imagination takes this mundane object and transforms it into something magical and mysterious.

He begins by describing the candle as a "thief" that "steals the light" of the sun and stars. This imagery immediately sets the tone for the riddle, as Carroll asks us to consider the candle not as a physical object, but as a metaphorical one. He goes on to describe the candle as something that can "die" or "live" – again, actions that are not typically associated with candles.

Ultimately, the answer to the riddle is revealed to be a "wick." This answer is particularly clever, as the wick is indeed a part of the candle – but it is also the part that "steals the light" and allows the candle to "live" and "die."

The Fourth Riddle: "What is a Ring?"

The final riddle in Carroll's poem is perhaps the most straightforward of all. He asks us simply, "What is a Ring?" – an object that is familiar to us all. However, even in this seemingly simple question, Carroll manages to infuse his trademark wit and wordplay.

He begins by describing the ring as something that can be "broken" or "kept" – actions that we typically associate with tangible objects. However, he then twists this perception and asks us to think of the ring as something that can be "given" or "kept" – actions that are more typically associated with abstract concepts such as love or loyalty.

The answer to the riddle, as Carroll reveals, is a "pledge." This answer is particularly fitting, as a pledge is indeed an abstract concept that can be associated with a physical object such as a ring. Moreover, a pledge is a promise or commitment – something that is often symbolized by the exchange of rings in various cultures and traditions.


In "Four Riddles," Lewis Carroll masterfully demonstrates his ability to use language to create imaginative and often nonsensical scenarios. Through his clever wordplay and playful use of metaphor and symbolism, he forces us to think outside the box and consider new possibilities.

Moreover, the answers to his riddles are not just clever word tricks – they also contain deeper layers of meaning and symbolism. By asking us to consider familiar objects in new ways, Carroll challenges us to look at the world around us with fresh eyes and an open mind.

Overall, "Four Riddles" is a superb example of Carroll's talents as a poet and wordsmith, and a testament to his ability to delight and surprise readers of all ages.

Editor 2 Analysis and Explanation

Lewis Carroll is a name that is synonymous with the world of literature. He is best known for his works of fiction, such as Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. However, Carroll was also a prolific poet, and his works in this genre are just as fascinating as his prose. One of his most intriguing poems is the set of four riddles, aptly titled "Poetry Four Riddles." In this article, we will delve into the intricacies of these riddles and explore their hidden meanings.

The first riddle in the set goes like this:

A box without hinges, key, or lid, Yet golden treasure inside is hid.

At first glance, this riddle seems simple enough. It describes a box that has no hinges, key, or lid, yet contains a treasure inside. The answer to this riddle is an egg. An egg is indeed a box of sorts, as it contains a treasure inside - a chick or a bird. However, there is more to this riddle than meets the eye. The egg is a symbol of rebirth and new beginnings. It represents the potential for life and growth, and the golden treasure inside is a metaphor for the beauty and wonder of the natural world. Carroll's use of this riddle is a testament to his love of nature and his belief in the power of new beginnings.

The second riddle in the set is as follows:

Voiceless it cries, Wingless flutters, Toothless bites, Mouthless mutters.

This riddle is a bit more challenging than the first one. It describes a creature that cries without a voice, flutters without wings, bites without teeth, and mutters without a mouth. The answer to this riddle is the wind. The wind is indeed a force of nature that can be felt but not seen. It can make a sound without a voice, move without wings, and cause damage without teeth. However, the wind is also a symbol of change and transformation. It can bring about new beginnings and sweep away the old. Carroll's use of this riddle is a testament to his belief in the power of change and the importance of embracing it.

The third riddle in the set is perhaps the most challenging of them all:

This thing all things devours: Birds, beasts, trees, flowers; Gnaws iron, bites steel; Grinds hard stones to meal; Slays king, ruins town, And beats high mountain down.

This riddle describes a creature that devours everything in its path, from birds and beasts to trees and flowers. It can gnaw iron, bite steel, grind hard stones to meal, slay kings, ruin towns, and even beat down high mountains. The answer to this riddle is time. Time is indeed a force that devours everything in its path. It is relentless and unstoppable, and it affects everything and everyone. Time can wear down even the strongest of materials and bring about the downfall of even the mightiest of kingdoms. Carroll's use of this riddle is a testament to his belief in the importance of living in the present and making the most of the time we have.

The fourth and final riddle in the set is as follows:

Alive without breath, As cold as death; Never thirsty, ever drinking, All in mail never clinking.

This riddle describes a creature that is alive without breath, as cold as death, never thirsty but always drinking, and covered in mail that never clinks. The answer to this riddle is a fish. A fish is indeed a creature that is alive without breath, as it obtains oxygen through its gills. It is also cold-blooded, which makes it feel cold to the touch. A fish never gets thirsty, as it obtains water through its gills, and it is covered in scales that do not clink. However, the fish is also a symbol of adaptability and survival. It can thrive in even the harshest of environments and has evolved to survive in a variety of conditions. Carroll's use of this riddle is a testament to his belief in the importance of adaptability and the ability to survive in changing circumstances.

In conclusion, the "Poetry Four Riddles" by Lewis Carroll are a testament to his love of nature, his belief in the power of change, the importance of living in the present, and the ability to adapt and survive in changing circumstances. These riddles are not just simple wordplay; they are a reflection of Carroll's worldview and his philosophy of life. They challenge us to think beyond the surface level and explore the deeper meanings behind the words. Carroll's legacy as a poet and a writer continues to inspire and fascinate readers to this day, and the "Poetry Four Riddles" are just one example of his enduring genius.

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