The Paris Review

Solving Riddles, Reading Poems

“I saw two wonderful and weird creatures / out in the open unashamedly / fall a-coupling,” wrote a monk in Old English a thousand years ago, either composing or transcribing a riddle about a rooster and a hen. This riddle and a hundred others—as well as elegies, proverbs, and dreams—were written into one big book, which was bequeathed to Exeter Cathedral by its bishop and subsequently used by the monks as a cutting board and a beer coaster and left vulnerable to bats and bookworms. Still, ninety-four riddles survived.

A thousand years later, I found two dozen of these riddles, translated into modern English and collected in a slim volume called The Earliest English Poems, and a few years after that—now, to be precise—I have published a book of my own riddles and elegies and proverbs.

Riddles aren’t confined to English. There are riddles etched into clay tablets from ancient Babylon, and Sanskrit riddles in the Rig Veda (1700–1100 ). Samson

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