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.

Goblin Market by Christina Rossetti

Christina Rossetti by her brother Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Christina Rossetti’s fairy-tale poem Goblin Market was completed in April 1859 (when she would have been 28), and was first published in 1862, in Goblin Market and Other Poems, her first non-privately-printed collection. The poem’s initial title was “A Peep at the Goblins”, but her brother, the Pre-Raphaelite poet and painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti, convinced her to change it. (He also provided the illustrations for its first appearance.) It was, appropriately enough for a poem about a redemptive bond between sisters, dedicated to Christina’s sister Maria Francesca Rossetti (a Dante scholar who would later become a nun). And at this point it seems best to bring in the rest of the family: Christina’s other brother William was a critic, biographer and Pre-Raphaelite (and a civil servant); her father Gabriele was an Italian Dante scholar now living in London; her mother was the sister of John Polidori, author of The Vampyre (1819), which was based on Lord Byron’s offering on that infamous night in 1816 when Mary Shelley presented the story of Frankenstein at the Villa Diodati.

Illustration by Arthur Rackham

Goblin Market tells the story of golden-haired sisters Laura and Lizzie, whose country-maiden idyll is interrupted at the start and end of each day by the cries of goblins hawking their wares, a mouthwatering list of ever-ripe, ever-juicy fruits. These goblin-grown (or, in at least one case, imported) fruits are dangerous, though, as the sisters know from the tale of Jeanie:

Do you not remember Jeanie,
How she met them in the moonlight,
Took their gifts both choice and many,
Ate their fruits and wore their flowers
Plucked from bowers
Where summer ripens at all hours?

Having eaten the fruits, Jeanie “Fell sick and died”, and is now to be found in her grave, above which no grass or flowers grow. Laura, though, can’t resist the goblins’ cries. She has no money to buy the fruit, but the goblins are only too happy to give her as much as she can eat for a lock of her hair. The next day, all she can think of is tasting the fruit again, but when the evening comes, she’s devastated to find her sister can hear the goblins’ cries but she no longer can. She pines away, till Lizzie sacrifices herself for her, going to the goblin men and trying to buy their fruits with a penny. When the goblins realise she isn’t going to gobble their fruit up straight away, they assault her with it, pelting her, and smearing it into her face. Lizzie goes home covered in fruit pulp and juice, and offers herself to Laura:

Hug me, kiss me, suck my juices
Squeezed from goblin fruits for you,
Goblin pulp and goblin dew.
Eat me, drink me, love me;
Laura, make much of me;
For your sake I have braved the glen
And had to do with goblin merchant men.

Finding the fruit now tastes of a “bitterness without a name”, Laura is saved, and we get a brief, trite moral about there being “no friend like a sister”, then the poem ends. The moral in no way satisfies, but isn’t that always the way with fairy tale morals? They’re like the “Once upon a time” at the beginning — part of the formula, a way to get things started or get them stopped, a frame for the wonders contained within, and, like most frames, not to be examined too closely.

Illustration by Arthur Rackham

Goblin Market was well-received at the time (though Ruskin didn’t like its irregular rhyme scheme and line lengths), and has since, like eat-me Alice, only grown in stature, and is now perhaps Christina Rossetti’s second most well-known poem (the first being “In the Bleak Midwinter”).

There’s something startling, even shocking, about the poem, that begs for explanation. Those lines I quoted just above are perhaps the key to this feeling, arriving as they do in the midst of a poem by a woman Victorian writer who never married (though was several times engaged), and who held strong religious views. She herself (according to an 1895 biography by her friend Mackenzie Bell) said the poem had no specific meaning, and was just a fairy-story. Brian Stableford, in The Dedalus Book of British Fantasy, calls it “one of the most vividly erotic pieces of writing to have surfaced in England during the entirety of Victoria’s reign”, and Kinuko Y Craft’s illustrations for the poem, published in Playboy in 1970, make it clear that, to her, the goblins’ fruits were sexual in nature. At the time she wrote it, Christina Rossetti was working at the St Mary Magdalene Penitentiary for fallen women in Highgate, an institution “remarkable in the period for its conviction that women who had transgressed sexually could be redeemed” (“An introduction to ‘Goblin Market’” by Dinah Roe), and the tale-within-a-tale of Jeanie:

Who should have been a bride;
But who for joys brides hope to have
Fell sick and died

…combined with the fact that only “maids” hear the goblins’ cries, and Laura ceases to hear them after she’s tasted their fruit, makes it sound that the poem is about Victorian ideas of sexual purity and young women having to act “as modest maidens should” — that is, until it comes to Laura’s redemption through Lizzie putting herself through the same ordeal, which doesn’t fit.

Nevertheless, the poem is undeniably, well, fruity.

Other critics go for a more religious interpretation, and fruit is laden with religious significance, from the fruit of the Garden of Eden, to “You will know them by their fruits” (Matthew 7:16):

“…it is easy to see the produce of the goblins as the corruptible, temporal rewards of earthly life that should be passed over, not because they are necessarily bad, but because there is something better to seek, something that will satisfy where the goblin fruit cannot: the eternal, incorruptible rewards of heaven.” (“Fallen or Forbidden: Rosetti’s ‘Goblin Market’” by Lesa Scholl)

Also, there’s the poem’s feminism:

“The goblin merchants are men… who dominate women; they consume their prey like the fruit they sell, tossing the rinds and pits away once they have found temporary satiety…” (“Can I know it? — Nay: An Alternative Interpretation of Christina Rossetti’s ‘Goblin Market’” by Matt Christensen)

Laura’s pining away for another taste of the fruit sounds like addiction (and fits in with Christina’s brother Dante’s wife’s death from a laudanum overdose, though this was in 1862, after the poem was written), but if so, the goblins aren’t exactly your classic drug pushers, as they make themselves scarce as soon as they’ve created a new addict; they’re only interested in corrupting innocent souls, not leeching off them.

One of Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s illustrations to his sister’s poem

(The goblins are one of the most interesting parts of the poem, from a fantasy-reader’s perspective. They’re not your traditional goblins, but a ragtag mix of animalistic little men:

One had a cat’s face,
One whisked a tail,
One tramped at a rat’s pace,
One crawled like a snail,
One like a wombat prowled obtuse and furry,
One like a ratel tumbled hurry skurry.

And I can’t help thinking of Dante Gabriel Rossetti whenever I read this, as he had his own little private menagerie, which gained a wombat in 1869. It was, apparently, allowed to sleep on the dinner table during meals. Hopefully Dante didn’t also gain his own ratel — another name for one of nature’s most aggressive small animals, the frumious honey badger.)

Goblin Market is obviously a tale of fall and redemption, but one in which redemption can be purchased through the same means as the fall. It’s the glamour the goblins spin about their fruit that makes it taste so good, which is why they don’t want to simply sell it to Lizzie so she can take it to the ailing Laura — they know that, without their sales spiel, the fruit will taste like “wormwood”. Likewise, it seems to be what the fruit is purchased with that gives it its evil or its good effect: Laura purchases hers with a lock of her golden hair, which is usually a gift for lovers (or, in Victorian times, the memento of a dead loved one); Lizzie purchases hers not so much with a penny as her willingness to sacrifice herself for her sister.

Perhaps, with Goblin Market, it’s not the details that give the poem its meaning, but the underlying sentiment, that it’s not what you do but why you do it that matters.

You can read the poem online here.

Meddie, and other poetry updates

I’ve added a few poems to the Poems section of my website over the course of this year — The Night Black Suit, Jack Fear, Tumbledown Tom, and Doctor Freud most recently. I thought I’d end the year with a whole batch more, including this (longish) mix of Greek myth, hair care, and the modern workplace, Meddie:

Also newly up are the story of a rather pointless but nevertheless rewarding quest (Spike and Doodles), Lovecraft-meets-Alan Bennett (New Neighbours), the tale of a very brave little girl (Molly Millie May McGrew), and a couple of other shorter ones (The Imposter, The Icky Drip).

I’ve also added a popup menu at the top of the page, so you can sort the poems by various criteria, including the ability to see what’s been added recently.

Enjoy, and have a Happy New Year!