Sphinx by Oscar Wilde

First edition. Cover by Charles Ricketts.

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 caricature of Charles Rickett’s illustration

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…

We get:

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.)

Khnopf’s “The Caresses, or The Sphinx”

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.

Gustav Moreau’s “Oedipus and the Sphinx”

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.

Oscar Wilde in 1882

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.

The Sound of His Horn by Sarban

Tartarus Press edition, art by R.B. Russell

Delirious from lack of rest, food and water, Alan Querdillon, escaping from a WWII POW camp through endless German pine forests, sights a small lake and rushes towards it. Crossing a strange beam of pale light, he’s shocked into unconsciousness. He wakes in a private hospital, and when its German doctor invites him to his study for a chat, Querdillon notices an electric calendar-clock displaying the year 102 — “the hundred and second year of the First German Millenium as fixed by our First Fuehrer and Immortal Spirit of Germanism, Adolf Hitler”, as the doctor says, somewhat amused by his patient’s needing to have this explained. Querdillon has slipped into a future where Nazi Germany has won the “War of German Rights”, and reshaped the world to its wildest desires.

He’s being held in the castle of the Reich Master Forester, Count Johann von Hackelnberg, whose grounds are a sort of retreat where the Nazi elite can enjoy a bit of hunting. He soon gets to witness a fat and rather fed-up sportsman indolently shooting at (and missing) a deer or two, then perking up when he’s handed a peculiarly wide-bored gun and a new form of game is driven past the hunting hideout:

A figure had come into sight, running hard over the shock grass: a human figure, but fantastically decked. It came on, running for dear life and the unseen hounds clamoured close behind; there was no mistaking their intention to rend and kill now. The figure held my gaze; it was a tall, long-limbed girl, her head and features concealed by a brilliantly coloured beaked mask, which yet allowed her dark hair to stream out behind. To see her racing up the glade was as astounding as if you had seen one of the bird-headed goddesses of Old Egypt suddenly break from carven stillness into panic flight.

The wide-bore gun fires a weighted net. The hunter misses the first woman, but another follows, and she’s caught, trussed up, and taken away to be presented as the hunter’s prime catch at an end-of-day banquet.

Sphere paperback

Querdillon has already learned this is a harsh future. Slave men from the “Under-Races”, artificially matured, muted and neutered, do the work, while his nurses are all “Pure German maidens”, educated to such a level of discipline they’ll report their own misdemeanours, and suggest their own punishments (“They know better than to propose too little, too!”) rather than have their fellows beat them to it.

But the worst of it waits for the Count’s after-dinner entertainment. The monstrous Count von Hackelnberg takes his guests outside to a pit containing a couple of deer. Querdillon watches as twenty alluring but horrifying creatures file into the pit, a troop of “women transformed by a demonic skill in breeding and training into great, supple, swift and dangerous cats”. At a signal, they tear the deer apart and eat them raw. Then the Count spots Querdillon, and it’s time for some firsthand experience of what it means to be human prey.

Art by Richard Powers

The Sound of His Horn (1952) is the most well-known work by “Sarban” — real name John William Wall — who spent his working life (including during the Second World War) in the British Diplomatic Service, stationed in Beirut, Jedda, Tabriz, Isfahan, Casablanca and Cairo. During his lifetime he published three books (the other two being Ringstones and Other Curious Tales in 1951, and The Doll Maker and Other Tales of the Uncanny in 1953). In a few ways he reminds me of Daphne du Maurier (who I wrote about a little while back), in that his stories didn’t first appear in magazines or anthologies, but only in his own original collections. And, again like du Maurier, he tends to write quite a long short story, starting at an even pace and continuing that way through an often extensive build-up before we get to the meat of the story. His writing’s never dull. It keeps a measured, steady focus, as though every aspect of the build-up is relevant. But, to me, it does feel that at certain moments his writing bursts free and becomes a bit more intense and poetic. Sometimes, as in his long story “The King of the Lake”, this is when describing the underground wonders of the caves where a mysterious people live by a large, hidden, mid-desert lake. But generally Sarban’s poetic flourishes occur when he’s describing something that forms the ultimate core of several of his stories (including the title story of Ringstones, as well as “The King the Lake” and The Sound of His Horn): women being strapped into leather harnesses and being made to act like animals, usually as part of some sporting activity. In The Sound of His Horn, this is the “Jagdstück” or “game-girls” who are the hunting prey; in Ringstones it’s to act as human horses in a chariot race. At the same time, Sarban’s stories are usually focused on his female characters, who are intelligent, practical and capable people, which makes their frustration and humiliation all the more poignant.

Ringstones, cover by Bob Blanchard

It’s impossible to say there isn’t an element of misogyny here, but at the same time, Sarban’s sympathies seem to lie entirely with his female characters. Is he revelling in their humiliation, or identifying with their frustration? I think, as is probably true with most of the best horror fiction, the answer is an anxious mix of both. Sarban’s attitude towards his female characters is a conflicted mix of sympathy, fascination, and identification, rather than mere aggression. All this sports-and-leather-straps stuff at times comes across as a superheated version of John Betjeman’s love of confident, strong young women (“Pam, I adore you, you great big mountainous sportsgirl”), but the darkness at the heart of the stories is unavoidable. Was John William Wall (who, it seems, was somewhat dominated by his stronger wife, in an unhappy marriage), depicting his own sense of humiliation, vulnerability, and frustration — something he perhaps couldn’t express as a stiff-upper-lipped man of the 1950s — or was he inflicting it on others, in a sort of revenge fantasy? Bit of both, no doubt.

The frame story of The Sound of His Horn makes it clear that Querdillon was deeply affected by his experience of a Nazified future (which he escapes from, back to his own time, though of course everyone dismisses it as a hallucination caused by hunger and thirst), leading to his mother wondering why he isn’t marrying his long-standing fiancé:

Alan had lost his spirit; his manhood was lost or sleeping; something had so altered him that the girl’s animation, youth, ardour and beauty daunted him. He was simply afraid of her.

John William Wall, a.k.a. Sarban

His experience seems to have affected his identity as a man. And it’s not his witnessing of the (entirely male) Nazi elite’s inhumanity that has affected him, because man’s inhumanity to man is a long established fact — it’s his glimpse of the “utterly unhuman” cat-women’s bestial viciousness, which seems to have awoken a horror of his fiancé’s love of fox-hunting, as though he suspects that vision of women-as-cats has suggested they might all be cats, somewhere under the skin.

Sarban ceased publishing after 1953, blaming mixed reviews, but he continued writing, as Tartarus Press now include previously-unpublished works in their collections of his fiction. (They also run Sarban.co.uk, which has an interesting biography of the man.)

The Sound of His Horn is a real weird fiction classic, written in the urbane, well-controlled style of a well-read British man of letters, but with moments of genuinely dark strangeness of a sort that you just don’t expect to find coming from that well-read British man of letters.

Lilith by George MacDonald

Cover by Jim Lamb

After Phantastes, published when he was in his early thirties, George MacDonald’s Lilith came out in 1895, when he was 70. Phantastes was a coming-of-age novel, and written by a man who, like its protagonist Anodos, was still finding his way in life — having abandoned his initial career as a minister, and now starting to make his living as a writer. Lilith is still a novel about the quest for the authentic self, but it’s no longer about that initial, coming-of-age moment of self-discovery; it’s about redemption for one’s failings in life, and a reconnection with the innocence of childhood.

It begins with its protagonist, Mr Vane, spending his days reading in his family’s library, where he encounters the mysterious figure of Mr Raven, who appears to have been popping into the lives of Vane’s family for some time. (He knew Vane’s forefather, Sir Upward, whose name makes me think of Anodos from Phantastes, one of the meanings of whose name is “upward path”.) Raven shows Vane how to access another world through a mirror in the attic, a world which is not so much a different physical location as a place that exists alongside, and in the same space, as ours, “In the region of the seven dimensions”:

I was in a world, or call it a state of things, an economy of conditions, an idea of existence, so little correspondent with the ways and modes of this world—which we are apt to think the only world, that the best choice I can make of word or phrase is but an adumbration of what I would convey.

Events there are that much more self-evidently meaningful:

While without a doubt, for instance, that I was actually regarding a scene of activity, I might be, at the same moment, in my consciousness aware that I was perusing a metaphysical argument.

Mr Raven, who seems to mix the roles of Lewis Carroll’s Cheshire Cat and David Lindsay’s Krag, is full of paradoxical-sounding but vaguely threatening advice, all of which turns out to be literally true in this parallel realm, if only Vane could understand him, and which is ultimately directed at redeeming Vane’s soul. The trouble is, Raven seems to be saying that the only way to truly live is to die, and he even has a place in his cellar among all the other dead people waiting for him:

“None of those you see,” he answered, “are in truth quite dead yet, and some have but just begun to come alive and die. Others had begun to die, that is to come alive, long before they came to us; and when such are indeed dead, that instant they will wake and leave us. Almost every night some rise and go. But I will not say more, for I find my words only mislead you!—This is the couch that has been waiting for you,” he ended, pointing to one of the three.

Cover by Gervasio Gallardo

Vane decides not to “die” just yet, and instead sets out into this strange new world. He meets a group of parentless forest-dwelling children, who speak in that awful baby-speak so many Victorian children’s writers forced into their young characters’ mouths. Nearby, there’s a race of stupid giants — and as the children also call Vane a giant, it’s obvious these are in fact merely adults. Some of the children occasionally grow into stupid giants, others remain children. Vane wants to help these children grow up properly, without the risk of turning into stupid giants, and so journeys to the city of Bulika, ruled by a princess who doesn’t allow any children in her land, as there’s a prophecy that a child will one day kill her. This princess is in fact the vampire Lilith, Adam’s first wife who left when he said he’d never “obey and worship” her, and who has turned her realm into a waterless desert whose selfish people love only riches. (George MacDonald seems to have regarded wealth as the greatest of sins: “But with God all things are possible: He can save even the rich!”) Vane’s attempts to save the children and overcome Lilith’s evil are closely entwined with his own need to redeem himself and, finally, lie down in Mr Raven’s room and “die” so that he may, mysteriously, live.

Lilith is an odd mix of at times cutesy Victorian fantasy and at others dark, almost existential, psychology. Of the children in the book, J B Pick, in The Great Shadow House (a study of Scottish authors with a metaphysical bent), says:

“The problem is not merely that MacDonald is sentimental about children — that’s common enough in Victorian writers — but that sentimentality is essentially an evasion of reality by wishful-feeling, and its all-pervasiveness casts doubt upon the author’s ability to think straight on other issues.”

He goes on, however, to praise the “intense psychological penetration” of the cornered Lilith’s resistance to being redeemed. Redemption, in this world, requires the renunciation of the self — or, at least, of the willed self — as symbolised by the sleep of death, and Lilith is at first too obsessed with being the person she has made of herself, dark though it is, and not the person she was made (by God) to be. But this self-willed identity is, in the novel, a state of life-in-death:

She knew life only to know that it was dead, and that, in her, death lived. It was not merely that life had ceased in her, but that she was consciously a dead thing. She had killed her life, and was dead—and knew it.

There are moments where Vane himself feels the sort of dread the Existentialists of the 20th century would write about:

Then first I knew what an awful thing it was to be awake in the universe: I was, and could not help it!

And also the sort of idea Hermann Hesse presented in Demian, that a human being is not a finished thing, but an experiment, or a process, always in a state of becoming:

I saw now that a man alone is but a being that may become a man—that he is but a need, and therefore a possibility.

As a result, although MacDonald is clearly writing about a Christian redemption achieved through giving oneself up to God — and returning to the unconvincing, innocent state of his over-cute children — it nevertheless brings in a psychological complexity that means it’s far from presenting it as an easy, simple, or painless thing to do.

Lilith has a mixed feel. On the one hand, there’s the obvious joy Vane takes in the children, which can’t help but make me think of the grandfatherly MacDonald allowing himself to be piled on, and have his beard tugged by, his no-doubt numerous grandchildren (he had, after all, eleven children, so could easily have had a small army of grandkids); on the other, there’s a sense of still, even at the end of life, trying to find a solution to the riddle of oneself, and the burden that being, and willing, bring to the life of a human soul. As Mr Raven says, at one point:

“Indeed you are yourself the only riddle. What you call riddles are truths, and seem riddles because you are not true.”

As a fantasy, I found it a lot less enjoyable than Phantastes, even though its story was more focused. (It still had its bizarre episodes that did little to help the plot except add wonders and horrors, as in the land where monsters and wild animals burst out of and back into the ground, or the ruined castle where skeletons dance at night.) It seems, to me, that MacDonald never wrote enough of this sort of adult fantasy to really hone the form, but nevertheless had a natural feel for how to make serious use of his imagination.

MacDonald’s two adult fantasies were both early entries in the Ballantine Adult Fantasy series (Phantastes coming out in April 1969, Lilith in September the same year), their contents perfectly suited to those flower-powerishly innocent Gervasio Gallardo covers, with their mix of childlike wonder and fairy-tale strangeness. But there’s definitely a darker element there, too, and at its most potent in Lilith’s resistant struggle to being redeemed in Mr Raven’s life-in-death House of Bitterness. This comes across as a little too genuine to be merely MacDonald’s invention, but more likely something he felt, to some degree, himself.