The Puzzly Legacy of Edgar Allan Poe

[Image courtesy of the Poetry Foundation.]

Edgar Allan Poe is one of the most influential writers in all of American literature. Not only did he come to epitomize all things ghastly and unnerving in Gothic horror with chillers like “The Tell-Tale Heart” and “The Cask of Amontillado,” but he also trailblazed the detective fiction genre with his character C. Auguste Dupin.

He also made an impact on the world of puzzles.

[Image courtesy of the National Cryptologic Museum Foundation.]

Those familiar with Poe’s works of fiction probably think I’m referring to his story “The Gold-Bug,” one of, if not the first, stories to not only mention cryptography, but to include a substitution cipher (a cipher where each letter in the alphabet is represented by a different letter, number, or symbol).

In “The Gold-Bug,” an unnamed narrator meets the unusual William Legrand, a man obsessed with restoring his family’s lost fortune. Legrand shows off a large scarab-like insect, the titular gold bug. A month later, the narrator and Legrand are reunited when the obsessed Legrand (along with his servant Jupiter) goes off on a expedition to discover the location of the buried treasure of the legendary Captain Kidd.

As it turns out, a piece of paper Jupiter used to collect the gold bug had traces of invisible ink on it, revealing a cipher containing instructions for how to find Kidd’s gold.

[Image courtesy of Bookriot.]

But this was far from Poe’s only dalliance with codebreaking. In fact, he helped popularize the art and science of cryptography with a series of articles in a Philadelphia publication called Alexander’s Weekly Messenger.

In December of 1839, he laid out a challenge to his readers, boasting that he could crack any substitution cipher that readers submitted:

It would be by no means a labor lost to show how great a degree of rigid method enters into enigma-guessing. This may sound oddly; but it is not more strange than the well know fact that rules really exist, by means of which it is easy to decipher any species of hieroglyphical writing — that is to say writing where, in place of alphabetical letters, any kind of marks are made use of at random. For example, in place of A put % or any other arbitrary character –in place of B, a *, etc., etc.

Let an entire alphabet be made in this manner, and then let this alphabet be used in any piece of writing. This writing can be read by means of a proper method. Let this be put to the test. Let any one address us a letter in this way, and we pledge ourselves to read it forthwith–however unusual or arbitrary may be the characters employed.

For the next six months, Poe tackled every cipher sent to Alexander’s. According to Poe, he received around a hundred ciphers, though historians have stated that only 36 distinct ciphers appeared in Alexander’s Weekly Messenger, 15 of which had solutions or partial solutions printed.

Nonetheless, it’s believed that Poe solved each of those 36 ciphers.

[Image courtesy of Awesome Stories.]

He followed up this impressive feat with an essay about cryptography in July of 1841 for Graham’s Magazine, “A Few Words on Secret Writing,” in which he discussed ancient methods of encryption and decryption, name-dropping codebreaking icons like Trithemius, Vigenere, and others.

He also published two cryptograms for the readers to solve, both submitted by a man named W.B. Tyler, “a gentleman whose abilities we highly respect.” Poe claimed he didn’t have time to solve either cryptogram, leaving them to the readers to crack. (Naturally, some scholars theorize that W.B. Tyler was none other than Poe himself.)

It would be over a century before the first verifiable solution to a W.B. Tyler cryptogram appeared. Professor Terence Whalen published his solution to the first Tyler cryptogram in 1992, and even offered a $2500 prize to whomever could solve the remaining Tyler cryptogram.

[Image courtesy of Cryptiana.web.]

That prize was claimed 8 years later by a Canadian software expert named Gil Broza, who cracked what turned out to be a polyalphabetic cipher, one in which several substitution alphabets are used.

Naturally, Poe’s interest in secret messages and codebreaking has led some to suspect that secret messages are lurking in his poetry and works of fiction. (Similar conspiracy theories abound regarding the works of Shakespeare.)

To be fair, there is something to this theory.

In a manner similar to Lewis Carroll hiding Alice Liddell’s name in an acrostic poem at the end of Through the Looking-Glass, Poe dedicated a poem to friend and poet Sarah Anna Lewis by hiding her name, one letter per line, in the poem itself.

[Image courtesy of The Baltimore Post Examiner.]

Of course, Poe’s method was more intricate than Carroll’s. The S in Sarah was the first letter on the first line, the A was the second letter on the second line, the R was the third letter on the third line, and so on. (Hiding coded messages in plain sight in this manner is known as steganography.)

And to this day, the hunt is on for secret messages in Poe’s works, particularly his more esoteric and oddly worded pieces. For instance, his prose poem “Eureka” — a musing on the nature of the universe itself, which actually proposed a Big Bang-like theory for the birth of the universe well before scientists offered the same theory — is believed to contain some sort of secret message or code.

Poe stated on more than one occasion that “human ingenuity cannot concoct a cipher which human ingenuity cannot resolve.” So if there is a code lurking in his works, someone will surely find it.

And in the meantime, we can still enjoy the chills, the grand ideas, and the mysteries he left behind. That’s quite a puzzly legacy.

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The Puzzly Art of Carmina Figurata

We don’t discuss poetry all that often in the blog. To be fair, when it comes to poetry and crosswords, all you really need to know are E’ER, O’ER, ODE, E’EN, and ‘NEATH.

But there is one form of poetry that lends itself quite handily to our favorite field of study, sitting at the crossroads of art, poetry, and puzzles. Today, we’re going to talk about carmina figurata.


[A poem shaped like an altar, a work by Publilius Optatianus Porphyrius.
Image courtesy of Some Grey Matter.]

A carmina figuratum is a poem wherein either the entire body of the poem or select parts form a shape or pattern. Often this shape reflects the subject of the poem.

But that’s what the term has come to mean over time, as poetry has evolved and grown. The original carmina figurata were religious-based poems where letters were colored red to stand out from the regular black lettering in order to draw attention to or highlight a certain religious figure.


[“De laudibus sanctae Crucis” by Oliverus.
Image courtesy of WTF Art History.]

For instance, in this image, titled “Praises to the Holy Cross,” you can see “rex,” meaning “king” in red above Christ’s head and “virtu” on his stomach, among other words. Obviously, having the image superimposed over the text helps highlight the words, representing John 1:14, ““And the Word became flesh and made His dwelling among us.”

Quite a bit to unpack in such a small piece.

Other carmina figurata have no color or imagery, relying on the cleverness of the reader to uncover the hidden messages within the text. This was particularly true of the poet Publilius Optatianus Porphyrius, who wrote dozens of carmina figurata of increasing complexity.

Some of these hidden messages honored the same rulers the poems were meant to impress. Other messages referenced the date the poem was written or the poet himself. Some even concealed drawings or designs.





[Several of Porphyrius’s most ambitious creations, revealing just how far a reader would have to delve to uncover the hidden messages. Images courtesy of Some Grey Matter.]

From the article on Some Grey Matter:

The poems contain supplementary text ‘hidden’ within the main body of the individual poems and intended to be ‘discovered’ by the reader. These versus intexti poems were apparently intended to dazzle Constantine with their technical virtuosity and thereby inspire the hoped–for recall of their creator…

Now that’s ambition. Imagine you’re constructing a Marching Bands puzzle, with the overlapping lines and loops of text, but all in the hope of courting favor with a major political player. And to do so, you need to hide even more information in the grid. That’s next-level puzzling, to be sure.

Whether you’re moved by the artistry, impressed by the construction, or intrigued by the puzzly challenges they represent, you must admit: carmina figurata are works of puzzle art unlike anything else.


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Hidden in a crossword!

[A grid from]

Everyone loves a little something extra, and that goes double for puzzle fans.

Whether it’s a hidden quote or a secret theme lurking in plain sight, a bonus answer revealed after a tough solve or a final twist that wows you with a constructor’s cleverness and skill, these little surprises are gifts every solver can appreciate.

In Sunday’s New York Times Crossword, what appears at first blush to be a simple themed puzzle — with poet WILLIAM CARLOS WILLIAMS paired with his poem THE LOCUST TREE IN FLOWER — turns out to be much more, as the entire poem is concealed within the grid!

[Image sourced from Amy Reynaldo’s Diary of a Crossword Fiend.]

While this is a particularly ambitious example, this is not an uncommon challenge for a constructor to tackle.

Sometimes, the bonus is announced upfront, as it was in Merl Reagle’s puzzle for the 100th anniversary of the crossword a few years ago. His puzzle was converted into a solvable Google Doodle, and Merl added a crafty word search element by hiding the word FUN multiple times in the grid.

Why “fun,” you ask? Because that was the set word in Arthur Wynne’s original “word-cross” puzzle over one hundred years ago!

[Click here if you haven’t tackled Merl’s marvelous puzzle.]

Our friends at Penny/Dell Puzzles have a recurring crossword variant, Revelation, which conceals a quotation in a standard crossword grid, using the same letters-in-circles technique as Jacob Stulberg did in his poem puzzle.

And, of course, I would be remiss in my duties if I didn’t mention the secret message reading out in both a New York Times crossword and a puzzle featured on The Simpsons, wherein Homer conceals an apology to Lisa inside a crossword with the help of Will Shortz.

[Check out the full puzzle by clicking here.]

So, crossword fans, be vigilant! You never know what hidden treats are lurking inside seemingly innocuous puzzles.

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These puzzles deliver!

Puzzles are all around us. They’re in our newspapers and on our phones, they’re lurking in math problems and board games and children’s toys.

But as it turns out, according to an article forwarded to me by puzzler and friend of the blog Cathy Quinn, they’re also on our stamps.

At least in Macau, that is.

Late last year, Macau Post released the latest stamps in their Science and Technology series. Previous editions have featured the Golden Ratio, Fractals, and Cosmology, but this time around, they selected a topic near and dear to the hearts of many puzzlers:

Magic squares.

For the uninitiated, a magic square is a grid where the numbers within add up to the same total in every row, column, and diagonal.

Our friends at Penny/Dell Puzzles utilize patterns like this in their Anagram Magic Square puzzle, where a word to anagram accompanies each number in the diagram, eventually spelling out a bonus phrase or quotation.

But at its core, a magic square is about cleverly balancing every element until you reach a harmonious arrangement. It’s a curiously meditative sort of puzzle solving, and I can see how it would appeal to the meticulous nature of stamp collectors worldwide.

Here are the six stamps currently available through Macau Post.

There’s a classic 4×4 magic square grid in the upper left and an ancient Latin palindrome in the upper right, as well as part of a 4th-century Chinese palindromic poem in the lower left and a geometric puzzle in the lower right where the pieces in the inner squares can make all of the designs in the outer squares.

Not only that, but three additional stamps will be released this year, making a total of nine themed stamps, and wouldn’t you know it? The stamps themselves can be arranged to form a magic square when assembled, based on the values printed in the corner of each stamp.

Just another sign that puzzle magic is alive and thriving all across the world.

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