Sidi J. Mahtrow

Matthew Prior’s Sphnix Riddle - Legs? - Poem by Sidi J. Mahtrow

Sphinx was a monster that would eat
Whatever stranger she could get:
Unless his ready with disclos’d
The subtle Riddle she propos’d.

Oedipus was resolv’d to go,
And try what strength of parts would do.
Says Sphinx, on this depends your fate;
Tell me what animal is that,
Which has four feet at morning bright,
Has two at noon, and three at night?
‘Tis man, said he, who weak by nature,
At first creeps, like his fellow creature,
Upon all four; as years accrue,
With sturdy steps he walks on two;
In age, at length, grows weak and sick,
For his third leg adopts a stick.

Now, in your turn, ‘tis just methinks,
You should resolve me, Madam Sphinx.
What greater stranger yet is he.
Who has four legs, then two, then three;
Then loses one, then gets two more,
And runs away at last on four?

(To which Matthew Prior provided no answer in the poem which was published in 1710. So, Joseph Addison in the first issue of the magazine, Whig Examiner. proposed an answer which was as follows:

Riddle my riddle
My Ree,
What is this?
Two legs sat upon three legs,
And held one leg in her hand;
In came four legs,
And snatched away one leg;
Up started two legs,
And flung three legs at four legs,
And brought one leg back again.

One leg, was of mutton
Held by two legs of mistress; she
Siting on a three legged stool
When a dog came
And snatched the leg
And ran away
The miss in the riddle jumped up on her two legs
Threw the stool at the dog
And recovered the leg of mutton.

So in answer to Prior’s (Oedipus’) riddle:

Then loses one, then gets two more,
And runs away at last on four?

Addison proposed:
That the person in the riddle was a great man who
Crawled before he could walk
Then walked upon two legs until old age
When he was forced to use a cane.
Alas, he falls, losing the cane,
Regains his footing (on two legs)
And rides away on a horse.

Addison thought the line “gains two more” was introduced to throw the reader off and was not a necessary part of the riddle.

I think not, and have added: Regains his footing (on two legs)

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Poem Submitted: Saturday, June 9, 2007

Poem Edited: Wednesday, March 9, 2011

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