It’s all very well concluding (as Aussie über-codebreaker Captain Eric Nave seems to have done back in 1949, later followed by Jim Gillogly and many others) that the curious message on the Rubaiyat is acrostic rather than enciphered: but does that help us crack it at all?

Ragged Right / Rubaiyat

Because the lines are strongly ragged-right justified, others have suggested that the letters taken as a whole may well encrypt an acrostic poem: and given also that the cryptogram was itself written on the back of a soft-back book of poetry, I personally have long struggled to come up with anything that seems even half as plausible.

Note that I’m really not saying here that the Rubaiyat cryptogram is necessarily a love poem: the poems in the Rubaiyat cover many different emotions, thoughts and feelings (perhaps most famously drunkenness, regret and mortality), so there is still plenty of room for manoeuvre.

However, I think that the presence of the crossed out line #2 (“MLIAOI“) and the extremely similar (but far from identical) line #4 (“MLIABO AIAQC”) is an extremely strong indication that what we are looking at is not a transcription of something that previously existed (say, of a telegram or of a speech) but is instead a record of composition by the author him- or her-self.

That is, I think the writer was probably making up a poem in their head and was quite possibly writing down the first letters of the words in that poem as an aide-memoire to themselves. He/she started to write down line #2 but then realized it was out of order, crossed it out, and wrote down the real next line (line #3), followed by what we now see as line #4.

The first big question, then, is about what the precise relationship between line #2 and line #4 is. Clearly they are not identical: yet they seem to share many of the same words, and very likely the same rhythm and meter. Hence it seems likely that “AOI” is somehow interchangeable with “ABAOI”: though unlikely to be the same, I think it is likely that they work the same within the overall poetic framework.

I am now strongly convinced that only one of the many, many claimed solutions for these lines proposed over the last 60 years that I have seen comes close to approaching the right combination of features that match this template of likely features:

* My Life Is Almost Over, I…
* My Life Is All But Over, And I Am [Quietly Content?]

Note that the scansion and meter are both far from exact here: but as melancholy Strine poetry goes, it’s far from terrible.

What About The Rest?

Line #5 seems (to my eye) to end with an underlined ‘R’: if this is indeed an acrostic letter (and not, say, the second half of the ‘AR’ Morse Prosign for “All Received”), then I do wonder if it is short for ‘Repent’, a fairly decent (and Rubaiyat-themed) rhyme for ‘Content’.

At the same time, if line #1 and line #3 end with D and P respectively, might it be that they rhyme? What D-word and P-word pair not only rhymes but also has roughly the right stress pattern that could be of any use in Strine poetry?

My guess is that if someone were to write a programme to generate potential D-/P- rhyme pairs, there would be only be something like 20 or 30 high ranking candidates (for example, I suspect we could safely rule out ‘Damn’/’Pram’, ‘Deep’/’Peep’ and so forth). Whether that would be enough to infer the rest of those two lines from their last words is marginal at best, if not questionable. All the same, finding good rhymes to go there might well be a good start: so why not try? 🙂

47 thoughts on ““My life is all but over…”

  1. Nick, I expect that by ‘strine’ you mean Australian, but does this mean that you now think the Somerton man was Australian? And if so, by birth or adopted nationality?

    Or perhaps you think it written by the nurse?

    Or maybe – an existing poem or song written by an Australian? (I’d love to see statistics on the number of Australian voters who were Australian-born in the 1940s. They seem to have been near-enough to a minority. So many English, Irish and Welsh fled their circumstances in the north, and of course post-war the boat-loads of refugees were contant and welcomed: Hungarians, Poles, ‘white’ Russians, and inevitably more English, Irish and Scots.

    No wonder the accent is as tonal as Chinese, as vowel-flat as cockney, and the irony more subtle than anything the newly-arrived European expects or registers.

    .. but you were saying, about the ‘melancholy Strine..’?

  2. Oh, by the way, congratulation to you poms on winning ashes.

  3. I agree that the code indeed looks like a composition of sorts, especially with the crossed out line. One idea that I have toyed with is that it is possibly his own form of ‘short hand’ ballet choreography notation. As we know, many things point to The Somerton Man possibly being involved with ballet. Perhaps he was writing a particular piece of choreography to demonstrate particular feelings to ‘Jestyn’?

  4. Diane: not so fast! Even though we have evidence that loosely connects the piece of paper in the dead man’s pocket to the Rubaiyat, we have no proof that he wrote it (or even read it). The evidence we do have is what Eric Nave pointed out in 1949: that the frequency distribution of the letters on that page closely matches the frequency distribution of the first letters of English words.

    Countless pre-1949 poems and songs have been checked, but given that there seems to be some kind of compositional activity going on, that seems likely to me to have been both fruitless and pointless. 😐

    I suspect the fact that the Whinging Poms won this time may partly be attributed to the fact that I was not playing for them. 😉

  5. Matt: …then why would the frequency distribution so closely match the frequency distribution of written English?

    The Strine poetry theory may not be a beautiful hypothesis, but right now I’d rate it at least twice as likely as any other proposed explanation out there. 😐

  6. Nick,
    Poms only whinge overseas to emphasise that they are used to a higher quality of … everything… but I suspect that at home they whinge to avert the evil eye – an ancient, honourable and perfectly understandable custom.

  7. Terribly tenuous connection, but I wonder – Jestyn became a Jew; perhaps her husband was also. .. I wonder if it might not be Hebrew?

    Probably nothing to it, but as a matter of interest, has that been checked?

  8. Diane: yes, Hebrew has been checked (both as a possible substitution cipher and as a first letter distribution comparison) without success.

    No shortage of evil eyes about these days. 😉

  9. Diane: of course, these days we call evil eyes “speed cameras”. Plenty to whinge about there. 😉

  10. 😀

    ..hahaha

    best thing I’ve heard all day.

  11. – I mean, funniest. Hope noone caught you.

  12. Sorry Nick, I wasn’t disagreeing with your hypothesis. I think it is highly likely, and one which I look forward to you and others pursuing more. As my earlier post was my first, I thought I would put in my two bobs worth. Never is my intention to discount your theories. I look forward to your future posts!

  13. bdid1dr on August 14, 2015 at 2:32 pm said:

    Nick & Diane:

    How does that famous poem go — which ends ‘go gently into the night’ — ?
    Another poem which begins — “My candle burns at both ends; it will not last the night. But ah my foes and oh my friends, it will not last the night.”
    ?
    😉

  14. Matt: two bobs’ worths are always appreciated here. 😉

  15. One very quick (and a bit random) example of how your hypothesis works..

    “Without regret, guilt or anger.. being alive , being dead,

    Without the boy in my possesion, and nothing else to pretend,

    My life is all but over, and I am quite content,

    It’s time to make the stories and memories safe, the good and bad”

    A very quick (and a bit lame..) example, but just an idea that the letters can be used to create a poem that has at least some sense of flow..kinda..

  16. Matt: you’re largely on the right track, but you’re not quite looking at it with a codebreaker’s hat on. For example, if the last two (underlined) letters ‘AR’ stand for “and repent”, might the last line end more like “see thy God, and repent”?

  17. Haha, my codebreaker’s hat is definitely non existent. As is my poet’s hat.

  18. ..but maybe The Somerton Man didn’t have any hats either..??

  19. Anton Alipov on August 14, 2015 at 9:46 pm said:

    Let’s launch a poetry contest 🙂

    Interesting idea about a poem. However, with the first letters only, the uncertainty is too broad. Why “my life” and not, for example, “my love” etc.? Why English and not another language? “Mein Leben” is quite fine as well.

    At the same time, some educated guesses may narrow this down. First, since the writer may have been inspired by the Rubaiyat, the alleged poem may be a quatrain (the number of lines supports this idea) composed in aruz.

    Second, the lines are composed of different number of words (if single letters stand for words indeed), hence the more words in a line, the shorter the average length of an individual word (to keep the meter), e.g. you will probably have shorter words like “to”, “the”, “a”, “and” in the last (the longest) line.

    However, the fact that the first two lines are explicitly separated from the last two lines undermines the idea of the quatrain. Here, another guess comes in place. Actually, when you compose a poem, it is not unusual that you readily compose the beginning and the end, and only then you begin to compose the main body of the poem – a painful process by the way, because you may have no good idea of what you actually have to say beside those 3-4 lines… thus many great would-be poems never see the light of day 🙂 This might have been the case here; the writer may have decided that MLIAOI looks more appropriate in the end of the poem and moved it there, changing it to MLIABO. The explicit line in this case serves to distinguish between the beginning and the end of the prospective unfinished poem.

    In the context of the “poem hypothesis” it is strange, however, that there are some spaces in between the letters. Especially the space after the initial W and the space after M in MLIAOI are strange. Why separate a single word?

  20. You might consider looking at a glossary of ballet – there is a position for every letter of the alphabet and the lines of code may well be a test of memory for a rehearsal or a performance.
    Who knows, the code may be Swan Lake.

  21. Anton Alipov on August 15, 2015 at 11:16 am said:

    After some further consideration, I think that the poem is unlikely. The reason is that 3/4 of the lines have no less than 11 supposed words, the last line having 13. Such long lines are not common for poems, and although we have valid examples like e.g.

    “And his eyes have all the seeming of a demon’s that is dreaming”,

    that would be a complex, developed poem, and most probably not a work of an amateur who would prefer shorter lines and plainer structure.

    So it is more likely to be acrostic for some message, not a poem. In which case it is even more hopeless than the Shugborough inscription: there we have certain context, and here we have none.

    “Out ur own sweet vale Alicia vanishes vanity”, or what do they say? 🙂

  22. Anton: without knowing anything about the person who wrote it, I suspect you’re being a little bit overhasty in rejecting poetry as at least a strong possibility here. As I said in the post, it has a ragged-right structure, it was written on the back of a book of poetry, and it exhibits signs of having been composed by the writer: and in fact longer lines (that you see as a negative) actually make the challenge of rhyming easier.

    Moreover, the same structure might just as well be lyrics or words for a hymn or chorale, so that we might be looking not at (say) -A-a-a-a-a-a-a for a single long line but rather -A-a-a-a / -A-a-a for a pair of shorter lines (with a half-pause in the middle).

  23. bdid1dr on August 16, 2015 at 12:47 am said:

    Oh beautiful for spacious skies
    For amber waves of grain
    For purple mountains majesty
    Above the fruited plain
    America America
    God shed his grace on thee
    And crown thy good
    With brotherhood
    From sea to shining sea

    Count the syllables (if possible) per line of”my-life-is all-but over’ . There might be some comparative syllables which become identifiable “words” (if repetitious enough). ???
    Am I making any sense, Nick?
    🙂

  24. Emma May Smith on August 16, 2015 at 11:41 pm said:

    A few things I have noticed looking at this:

    1) The writer aborts line #2 and begins line #3 with the same letter as line #1. If we assume that the first letter in both lines stand for the same thing, then he might have decided he has “more to say” on the matter.

    2) The topical thread between lines #1 and #3 is literally underlined, not once but twice, before the writer moves on to lines #4 and #5.

    3) If the reading of line #4 as beginning “My life is all but over…” is accepted (or at least acceptable), then this second section is essentially “egotistical”: the writer is talking about himself.

    4) If this is some kind of suicide note (is it?) we might expect the first section to be a complaint, specifically on the topic “W”. And what do many men kill themselves over? Women.

    And…that’s it. That’s the best sleuthing I can do, that maybe lines #1 and #3 might start “Women…”. ‘Tis a rather holey line of reasoning, however.

  25. Anton Alipov on August 17, 2015 at 11:34 am said:

    Emma May Smith:

    Speaking of a poem, I would think of the letter “W” as of a refrain. Like:

    What….
    What…

    or:

    What…
    Who…

    &c.

  26. bdid1dr on August 17, 2015 at 2:37 pm said:

    When all hope is lost, ……
    and the garden is frost…..
    Renew all things
    with the advent of Spring.

    At this point in time
    I don’t know if this rhyme
    Is my own design.
    So please be kind
    and realize I’m nearly blind.
    Truly, you really don’t want to hear me sing!
    😉

  27. qualis-libet on August 17, 2015 at 3:38 pm said:

    In my humble opinion,

    “…the presence of the crossed out line #2 (“MLIAOI“) and the extremely similar (but far from identical) line #4 (“MLIABO AIAQC”) is an extremely strong indication… “

    …that the man who wrote “the code” tried to recollect phrases of an unknown text (lines of a verse?). It seems like he had once learnt it by heart. While trying to remember it he forgot the line “WTB…”, commenced to write the line “MLI…” instead of it, but realised his error and stroke out the line “MLIAOI”. Finally, he correctly wrote all the lines.

    Maybe, this is a quote from a playwright (Shakespeare, Marlowe, etc.) rather than a poem. The plaintext could have no rhyme at all.

  28. boyfriend on August 17, 2015 at 4:26 pm said:

    Hi Nick. ( Somerton man).
    2.Line = Characters are crossed out. No underlined. These characters make up to 1 bar ( line).

    Always just one characters.
    Example – 1 line :
    War go Alibabi do.

    The bottom line :
    I Tot. Mat. Sam. Sit Cap.

    I Tot = ( I am dead. ( In German )).
    Mat = ( Chess, checkmate ) , ( Ende).
    Sam = ( Name , ????)
    Sit Cap = ( I sit by the sea ).
    _____________________________________

    Example 1. Line .

    W.R.G.O.A.B.A.B.D.

    + ( L.I.A.O.I.) = War. Go. Alibabi. Do.

    ( Alibabi ….Taman shud….Persian ….Ende).

  29. According to an Adelaide TV channel (9) tonight’s news is going to have a significant development about the relatives (but not sure whether that’s just Professor What’sHisFace).

  30. bdid1dr on August 23, 2015 at 5:12 pm said:

    Jobe: Was that Prof-Z or Prof-B ?
    beady-eyed won-der
    😉

  31. bdid1dr on August 27, 2015 at 3:07 pm said:

    Perhaps the decoded translation (Nick’s?) ‘Strine’ could be read as ‘string’ (?) — as in ‘string whole words together into a poem, song, or rant’ ?

    beady-eyed wonder 😉

  32. Wow. Intellectuals participating in creative writing classes. Hmmm.

  33. Misca: it’s hard to avoid seeing those who are not trying to be part of the solution as part of the problem.

  34. I posted this elsewhere but perhaps I should have posted here. There are two well-respected Australians with ties to Isham Randolph. They are also related to one another. They are Sir Robert Randolph Garran and Randolph Isham Stow. If DA has not yet explored their family tree, it might be of interest for him to do so as there might be a connection there.

  35. Hi Nick! I posted a link to a book that explains the family tree connection between Robert Garran and Isham Randolph…It got blocked. Just letting you know about the link.

  36. Misca: sorry, it didn’t end up in my spam folder. If you want to put a link in a comment here, just take out the first ‘:’ and the final ‘.’, I’ll put them back in when I approve it. 🙂

  37. It’s a page from the book “Australia and the World: A Festschrift for Neville Meaney”.

  38. What number bus would the Somerton man have caught?

  39. Dan: the 666 that goes all the way to Hell, if you believe half the things written about him on the Internet. :-/

    Seriously, I don’t know: I’m not even sure they were numbered back then. Many seem to have been run by small bus companies, rather than a monolithic urban transit authority etc.

  40. Dan: check the link.

  41. Cheers,
    I just wondered if the GO on the first line might have been a 60 instead. I wondered if the letters could be directions.

  42. Dan: it’s a reasonable hypothesis. I and Pete Bowes have independently raked over suburban Adelaide bus, tram, and street maps of that general period looking for things that might somehow be reflected in the initials, but without any success. Which is not to say the suggestion is wrong, but rather to say that nobody yet seems to have found any actual evidence it is right. 😐

  43. milongal on January 12, 2017 at 10:25 pm said:

    He’s not a poet, he’s keeping a diary (which he inexplicably chucked in a car after removing a seemingly meaningless scrap).

    Went ’round (to) Glenelg onboard a bus and bought dinner
    Went to Beach in my pants and nobody even took pictures
    Maybe later I’ll ask Brian over, and imbibe a quiet Chardonnay*
    I’ll try to meet the same angel Mike saw tasting Grenache at Brighton.

    *everyone knows Adelaide Yuppies have a reputation for drinking Chardonnay – out of plastic glasses (although I’m increasingly thinking the ‘C’ either doesn’t belong, or is an S with the bottom part faded – so perhaps “Shiraz”)

    On a (slightly) more serious note, it’s interesting no matter how you try to make words fit it’s the same places that become challenging. The O’s are inconvenient, and the “MTS” is hard (given the two ‘T”s before).

  44. I’ll try turning Minx towards Somerton at Mosley Street, Glenelg along beach… Quebec Canada and hold the chardonnay svp.

  45. Rick A. Roberts on January 13, 2017 at 5:42 am said:

    See my message posted on 09NOV16 on Nick’s TAMAM SHUD/SOMERTON MAN site. I think that I have a solution that has a very good fit for the mystery.

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