Thursday, June 12, 2014


A few months back, a puzzle enthusiast asked me: 'What is special about the surname of the first US President? You have to give me the answer I am looking for. It has something to do with the surnames of all his successors.' I confess that it did take me a while, but solve the riddle I did. 

As I do not want to be a spoilsport and deprive you of the exercise your brain needs, I am not giving the answer straightaway. Those who give up can highlight the next few lines and see the answer for themselves.

The answer: The surnames of all the US Presidents have at least one letter in common with the surnames of all his successors. (No big deal, coming to think of it, because hardly a surname can be formed without a vowel and WASHINGTON has three of them. And it hasm to boot, the letters H, N, S and T at least one of which would be present in any surname.)

was reminded of the puzzle this morning when I chanced upon the sonnet 'Washington Crossing the Delaware' by a little-known poet called David Shulman in 1936. Here is the 14-liner. 


A hard, howling, tossing, water scene:
Strong tide was washing hero clean.
"How cold!" Weather stings as in anger.
O silent night shows war ace danger!

The cold waters swashing on in rage.
Redcoats warn slow his hint engage.
When general's star action wish'd "Go!"
He saw his ragged continentals row.

Ah, he stands - sailor crew went going,
And so this general watches rowing.
He hastens - Winter again grows cold;
A wet crew gain Hessian stronghold.

George can't lose war with 's hands in;
He's astern—so, go alight, crew, and win!

In this fully metrical and rhyming sonnet, Shulman does paint a vivid picture of the violent waves and the wild wind lashing, but it is not without its faults, purists might argue. The rhyme-scheme is not exactly perfect (the 'anger'-'danger' bit), I agree.  In the second line, it should have been 'the hero'. The contraction in the penultimate line ('s for 'his') is a bit outlandish, to say the least. It is hard to parse lines like 'Redcoats warn slow his hint engage'. There are several points where the construction jars.

Yes, granted, it is not exactly the model verse, but did you notice that every line, like the title, is made up of the same letters as the title of the poem? (A Scrabble player will be quick to notice that the high-value letters - Q, Z, J and X - as well as many of the mid-value letters - K, F, V, Y, B, M and P - and the poor U are missing.)

That was quite a feat, considering that the bard had a self-imposed constraint of 16 letters to work with. And each line had to be an anagram of the title!