Oscar Wilde’s decadent-fantastic poem The Sphinx (which you can read online here) was first published in 1894 by The Bodley Head in a limited edition of 200 (plus an extra 50 copies for sale in the US), illustrated by Wilde’s friend Charles Ricketts, and printed in red, green, and black ink. (You can see a facsimile of this edition here.) Wilde’s biographers disagree on exactly when and where the poem was written. Some say 1883 in Paris, where Wilde lived for a few months on the income from his first successful play, The Duchess of Padua. Others say 1874, again in Paris, at the Hôtel Voltaire; still others say it was begun at Oxford in the same year, where Wilde, then twenty, was in his last year as a student. There’s an extant draft from 1883, which has some differences to the published version (the final poem’s stanzas of two long lines are broken into four shorter ones, for instance), but the poem itself, which mentions its narrator as having “hardly seen/Some twenty summers”, and the whole thing being set in a “student’s cell” at least implies its origins lie, imaginatively if not actually, in Oxford, and in 1874. Perhaps the best explanation is that of H Montgomery Hyde (Oscar Wilde: A Biography), who says Wilde began the poem in Oxford, wrote the bulk of it in Paris, and continued to polish it until its publication.
It was widely, if mixedly, reviewed, no doubt depending on how each reviewer felt about the rising decadent movement in literature. The Pall Mall Budget, for instance, said:
“The monsters of the Egyptian room at the British Museum live again in his weird, sometimes repulsive, but all the same stately and impressive lines…”
While the best the Pall Mall Gazette can find to say is:
“It is fair to add that the poet’s grammar is above the average…”
The Globe, meanwhile, is at the other end of the spectrum:
“…that amazing poem, The Sphinx, which we take leave to think is among the most remarkable works ever penned by human hand…”
Punch carried a parody, “The Minx — A Poem in Prose”, which prosifies Wilde’s poetry, being a dialogue in which a poet interviews a sphinx. Thus, for Wilde’s line:
And you have talked with Basilisks, and you have looked on Hippogriffs…
Poet. No doubt you have talked with hippogriffs and basilisks?
Sphinx (modestly). I certainly was in rather a smart set at one time. As they say, I have “known better days.”
Unsigned, “The Minx” (which you can read as part of the magazine here) is by Ada Leverson, who was a great friend of Wilde’s, being one of his first visitors after his release from prison three years later. Wilde called her “the Sphinx” and “the Sphinx of Modern Life”, though I haven’t been able to find out if that’s because of this piece or not.
Sphinxes were very much in currency at this time, having been taken up by Symbolist artists as something of a dark, decadent muse. Gustave Moreau painted “Oedipus and the Sphinx” in 1864, a picture which almost makes me feel the creature’s claws digging into Oedipus’s skin, in that careless way of cats the world over. Later, more decadent incarnations include the darkly romantic “Kiss of the Sphinx” from Franz von Stuck (1895), and Fernand Khnopf’s “The Caresses, or The Sphinx” (1896), whose sphinx’s leopard spots and tactility seem, to me, to owe something to Wilde’s very physical creature (“let me stroke your throat and see your body spotted like the Lynx”). (Khnopf used his sister as a model for virtually every figure he painted, hence their uniformity of features.)
Wilde’s poem begins with its narrator addressing a “beautiful and silent Sphinx” lurking in the corner of his “student’s cell”. At first he muses on what mythological wonders and scenes from history she must have seen, until those musings lock into a certain trend:
Who were your lovers? who were they who wrestled for you in the dust?
Which was the vessel of your Lust? What Leman had you, every day?
At first, the student speculates on monstrous beasts — giant lizards, gryphons, hippopotami, “gilt-scaled dragons” — then on more human, but still exotic lovers — nereids, Ethiopians, the risen dead in their Pyramids. Finally, to gods — Beelzebub and Bast, Adonis and Ashtaroth — before settling on the Egyptian sun-god Ammon, and dwelling for a while on the luxuries this divine being would have been surrounded by. And the poem drips with luxury and sensuality, with all its names of rare jewels and exotic perfumes, recherché flowers and far-off lands.
The poem then takes a dark turn. Ammon is now a ruined statue, shattered and scattered through the desert. But the Sphinx can, the narrator says, piece her former lover together once more, because:
…Only one God has ever died,
Only one God has let His side be wounded by a soldier’s spear.
It’s a curious use of Christian doctrine, to take the idea that there is only one God, who died for our sins, as proof that other, pagan gods cannot, therefore, have died at all, so must be still around. But it’s from this point, when Christianity is brought into the poem, that the whole thing becomes troubled. The narrator’s earlier musing tone becomes hectoring — he wants the Sphinx to find her former lovers, or any lovers (“take a tiger for your mate”), so long as she leaves him alone. Her formerly luxuriant gaze (“eyes of satin rimmed with gold”, “which are like cushions where one sinks”) are now “like fantastic moons that shiver in some stagnant lake”. The Sphinx has become repulsive to him, because, with all this imaginative indulgence in luxuriance and lust, the narrator has become repulsive to himself. Recalling that one God wakes a sense of shame and sin within him, and for this he blames the Sphinx:
You make my creed a barren sham, you wake foul dreams of sensual life…
But his “creed” is anyway unconvincing. He asks the Sphinx to “leave me to my crucifix” because of thoughts of death, but he pictures death in non-Christian terms (“old Charon, leaning on his oar,/Waits for my coin”). Christ on his crucifix, meanwhile:
…sick with pain, watches the world with wearied eyes,
And weeps for every soul that dies, and weeps for every soul in vain.
Which, after such a welter of images of mythological gods and goddesses dripping in luxury, pomp and ceremony, makes Christianity seem, to the poem’s narrator, strangely powerless — Christ “weeps for every soul”, but “in vain”. Why “in vain”? Because sin — poetically and physically — is the greater force among living souls.
The narrator of The Sphinx seems, not so much like Blake’s view of Milton (that he was “of the Devil’s party without knowing it”), but pagan and not admitting it, even to himself. And if it needs more argument than the luxury of the poetry itself, there’s the idea of the pagan Sphinx as a poetic muse (“Sing to me”, the narrator says to her several times, just as Homer did to his muse), while sin, the Christian concept, is “songless tongueless”, un-poetic, even anti-poetic. And what use has a poet for a religion that is anti-poetic?
The Sphinx seems to trump Christianity in another way. She has been around much longer, and shows no sign of going away:
Red follows grey across the air, the waves of moonlight ebb and flow
But with the Dawn she does not go and in the night-time she is there.
The Sphinx is a constant for beasts and gods, men and myths; she was there in the ancient past, and is here, now, in this student’s cell, with just as much persuasive force as in ancient times. Because she, to this poet at least, represents a thing more primal than the finer ideas behind Christianity, with its idea of sin — she represents lust. Lust with bejewelled, richly-scented sun gods, yes, but also lust with mere beasts, lust in the dust. The Sphinx doesn’t care; lust doesn’t care.
And poetry doesn’t care. In poetic terms, it’s the Sphinx that wins out, not thoughts of sin. The argument that closes the poem may be an attempt to banish this troublesome mythological beast using a crucifix, but The Sphinx is, in the end, about sun gods, not sin gods.
Wilde’s The Sphinx has been compared to Poe’s The Raven. In both, a lone poet addresses an animal, or semi-animal, that either doesn’t speak or speaks only one word, and by this one-sided interrogation tortures themselves with, in Poe’s poem, “Mournful and never ending Remembrance”, and in Wilde’s, “foul dreams of sensual life”. It also, in a way, reminds me of Clark Ashton Smith’s The Hashish Eater (The Sphinx was one of Smith’s favourite poems), in that it starts with the poet indulging in a range of imaginative sights and sensations, and ends with them being locked in a nightmare of self-revelation, and self-confrontation.
How much Wilde was wrestling with his homosexuality in this poem, or with lust in general, or with his need to take poetry beyond the bounds of what was acceptable to such a prudish society as Victorian England, is impossible to tell. It’s no doubt going to be a mix of all three. But the result is one of the finer long fantasy poems of the Victorian era, and one which certainly stands alongside other such classics I’ve looked at in past Mewsings, including Christina Rossetti’s Goblin Market and Browning’s Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came.