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.

Phantastes by George MacDonald

George MacDonald is a key figure in the development of modern fantasy. A friend of Lewis Carroll (whose Alice in Wonderland he read to his children in manuscript, and encouraged the Reverend Dodgson to publish), and an influence on the Inklings (C S Lewis first read Phantastes in 1916 and went on to champion MacDonald’s writings; Tolkien’s Smith of Wootton Major was the result of his trying, and failing, to write an introduction to MacDonald’s The Golden Key). As well as fairy tales for children, realistic novels, sermons, etc., MacDonald wrote two “faerie romances” for adults, one at the start of his career (Phantastes, in 1858) and one near the end (Lilith, in 1895) — though one of his most famous statements, in the essay “The Fantastic Imagination”, makes it clear he made no real distinction about age:

For my part, I do not write for children, but for the childlike, whether of five, or fifty, or seventy-five.

MacDonald’s approach to fantasy owed a lot to the German Romantics (of whose Märchen, or literary fairy tales, de la Motte Fouqué’s Undine was his favourite), in believing that the imagination, just like the landscape was to so many Romantic artists and poets, was not just a frivolous indulgence, but a realm in which serious spiritual truths could be revealed, for, he believed:

The imagination of man is made in the image of the imagination of God.

And it’s this idea, perhaps, that most attracted Lewis and Tolkien (whose idea of “secondary creation” seems closely related), but also, I think, it’s this sort of moral seriousness that influenced David Lindsay, another reader of MacDonald. At his best (but not always), MacDonald managed to be serious in meaning without having to underline any explicit moral. As he says in “The Fantastic Imagination”:

The best thing you can do for your fellow, next to rousing his conscience, is—not to give him things to think about, but to wake things up that are in him; or say, to make him think things for himself.

Phantastes cover by Gervasio Gallardo, for the Ballantine Adult Fantasy series

The protagonist of Phantastes (and I haven’t found a really good explanation of the title’s meaning, nor how it’s pronounced) is Anodos, whose name means either “pathless” or “upward path” in Ancient Greek (and as he at one point in his adventures hears tittering fairies saying “Look at him! Look at him! He has begun a story without a beginning, and it will never have any end. He! he! he! Look at him!”, it’s at least the former, but most likely both). On his 21st birthday, given the keys to his dead father’s escritoire, he finds a secret compartment that holds a tiny fairy, who grows to full size and tells him he’ll be journeying to Fairy Land tomorrow. The next day, he wakes to find his bedroom half-transformed into a fairy landscape, with a stream pouring from his wash-stand and grass in place of a carpet.

What follows is more a series of episodes than a single narrative, though there is a general movement towards some sort of a moral education on Anodos’s part (this is a coming-of-age story, after all). First, there’s some slapstick with tiny flower fairies, which might come straight out of an early Disney film, but afterwards there’s horror, as Anodos is pursed through the wood by some sort of shadowy walking tree. He’s saved from that by another tree, or tree-woman, who warns him to “shun the Ash and the Alder; for the Ash is an ogre,—you will know him by his thick fingers; and the Alder will smother you with her web of hair”. Later, he finds a woman encased in alabaster, though she runs away when he frees her, and when later still he thinks he’s found her again, it proves to be the deceptive Alder, who looks beautiful from the front, but behind is “hollow, as if made of decaying bark torn from a tree”. After this, he acquires a living shadow, which casts a disillusioning, cynicising darkness on everything it passes over. He finds temporary release in a Fairy Palace, which seems to represent the world of art, both as escape (Anodos spends time sampling other, very real-seeming worlds through the palace’s library) and redemption (he finds, again, his alabaster woman, shrouded by his shadow, and realises he can free her by singing).

Cover by Jim Lamb for 1981 Eerdmans edition

The story seems to consist of a constant shuttling between states of darkness (entrapment by the Alder, disillusionment by the shadow) and visions of light or beauty (the alabaster woman, the fairy palace), with Anodos coming to learn of his own powers as a poet (his singing), while also being genuinely disillusioned that he might be some sort of knightly hero. He finally accepts this and becomes the squire to a genuine knight, but in the end finds a capability that this knight, because of his purity, lacks: having been corrupted by his contact with evil, Anodos is better at spotting it, and when the knight is taken in by the apparent holiness of a church that is actually sacrificing its young worshippers, Anodos realises it is evil, and fights against it. (Something that can’t help making me think of MacDonald’s own background. He was, initially, a minister, but couldn’t bring himself to preach the Calvinist idea that only a predestined elect would go to Heaven. His wages were cut in half, and he soon gave up on a church career.)

MacDonald’s primary motive in Phantastes seems more to have been following the whims of his imagination, and exploring this faerie realm to see what it could teach him (and his readers). He wrote the book in part under the patronage of Lady Byron (mother to Ada Lovelace, and a mathematician in her own right), and although Phantastes was not a critical or popular success when it came out, it did earn him some recognition, and led to a lifelong career as a writer.

John Bell illustration from an 1894 edition

To me, Phantastes is one of the founding texts of modern fantasy, standing in the same relation to the genre as The Turn of the Screw, The Picture of Dorian Gray, Dracula, and Jekyll and Hyde do to modern horror. Like them, it has the feel of illustrating the findings of twentieth century psychology a good half century before they were discovered. The difference with Phantastes, though, is that its story is too messy for it to make the same impact as those seminal horror novels and stories. With Phantastes, the fundamental story of psychological growth reads almost in pure Jungian terms — Anodos is drawn on by his quest for the anima-like “Alabaster woman”, who has, like the seed of his own psyche, “the face that had been born with me in my soul”, while fleeing his Jungian shadow, which at one point is literally his shadow — but that story has to be sought amidst a welter of wonders, side-stories, and diversions. In story terms, Phantastes resembles the tangled, sometimes-treacherous fairy wood Anodos himself tramps through, and it feels as though the story is something that emerged from those tangles as MacDonald went along, rather than something he told intentionally.

MacDonald, like Jung, had faith in the imagination as a self-healing realm of inner meaning. As he says in his long essay, “The Imagination, its Functions and its Culture”:

If the dark portion of our own being were the origin of our imaginations, we might well fear the apparition of such monsters as would be generated in the sickness of a decay which could never feel—only declare—a slow return towards primeval chaos. But… a wise imagination, which is the presence of the spirit of God, is the best guide that man or woman can have… For the end of imagination is harmony. A right imagination, being the reflex of the creation, will fall in with the divine order of things as the highest form of its own operation…

And it’s his taking the imagination seriously that makes him so important as a fantasist in the modern tradition, and lifted him above the twee, imitative fairy tales of his day. Phantastes might read more like an experiment in imagination than a polished masterpiece, but it is nevertheless a significant work.

The Lifted Veil by George Eliot

In 1859, George Eliot — not yet known to the world at large as Mary Anne Evans — wrote her most uncharacteristic work, “The Lifted Veil”. She had recently had her first major success with Adam Bede, and took a break from her second novel, The Mill on the Floss, to write this supernaturally-tinged tale in March. It was a difficult time for Eliot, as she was torn between revealing her identity (which would mean having her two-year ménage with George Henry Lewes exposed to the Victorian public) and having other people take credit for her work (a man called Joseph Liggins had been suggested by some as the mysterious “George Eliot”, and Liggins was busy doing nothing to deny it). On top of these obvious reasons, there was, perhaps, a sensitive person’s natural need for privacy. In the light of this, “The Lifted Veil”, a story about a young man who, after an illness, finds himself burdened with a constant telepathic awareness of other people’s thoughts, as well as the occasional doom-laden prevision of his own future, feels like a nightmarish unloading of anxieties on Eliot’s part.

For a story about telepathy, “The Lifted Veil” is remarkably unconcerned with exploring the possibilities of being able to read other peoples’ minds. In fact, to Latimer, already a sensitive and slightly “morbid” young man, this gift feels like a curse, revealing to him as it does nothing but the petty selfishness of other minds, even those closest to him. Here’s a sampling of how he describes the sort of thing his gift reveals:

“…vagrant, frivolous ideas and emotions… the trivial experience of indifferent people… all the intermediate frivolities, all the suppressed egoism, all the struggling chaos of puerilities, meanness, vague capricious memories, and indolent make-shift thoughts… worldly ignorant trivialities… their narrow thoughts, their feeble regard, their half-wearied pity…”

And as he can’t shut it off, it becomes “like an importunate, ill-played musical instrument, or the loud activity of an imprisoned insect”, a constant background drone of dreary, wearying banality.

The one exception to this is Bertha Grant, his older brother’s fiancé. Latimer can’t hear her thoughts, and so is free to relate to (and idealise) her as any young man might a pretty woman. He falls in love with her, despite her evident cynicism:

“What! your wisdom thinks I must love the man I’m going to marry? The most unpleasant thing in the world. I should quarrel with him; I should be jealous of him; our ménage would be conducted in a very ill-bred manner. A little quiet contempt contributes greatly to the elegance of life.”

Although the “veil” of the title brings to mind images of the gauzy barrier Victorian Spiritualists saw as standing between the worlds of the living and the dead, in this story it refers to the block Latimer has against reading Bertha’s thoughts. Despite knowing she’s engaged to his “florid, broad-chested, and self-complacent” brother, Latimer has a bittersweet vision of his own future, in which he is married to his beloved Bertha — bittersweet because, in this future, she evidently hates him.

And, when this vision comes true and they do marry, the veil lifts:

“The terrible moment of complete illumination had come to me, and I saw that the darkness had hidden no landscape from me, but only a blank prosaic wall: from that evening forth, through the sickening years which followed, I saw all round the narrow room of this woman’s soul…”

It’s a very dim vision of human relationships, though one that recurs in the only novel of Eliot’s I really know, Middlemarch, in its desolate mismatches of Dorothea Brooke with the emotionally dead scholar Casaubon, and of the ambitious Lydgate with the frivolous Rosamond Vincy. In both cases in that novel, marriage seems to clang down like a portcullis, preventing escape until all the illusions of pre-marital love have been stripped away.

To Latimer, the “sweet illusions” we live with are, in the end, essential to life, as is all mystery:

“So absolute is our soul’s need of something hidden and uncertain for the maintenance of that doubt and hope and effort which are the breath of its life, that if the whole future were laid bare to us beyond to-day, the interest of all mankind would be bent on the hours that lie between…”

There’s even a note of cosmic or religious horror, as Latimer, in the latter stages of his condition, experiences more generalised visions of the world at large:

“…of strange cities, of sandy plains, of gigantic ruins, of midnight skies with strange bright constellations, of mountain-passes, of grassy nooks flecked with the afternoon sunshine through the boughs: I was in the midst of such scenes, and in all of them one presence seemed to weigh on me in all these mighty shapes—the presence of something unknown and pitiless.”

That “presence” remains unexplained, though the next thing Latimer says, “For continual suffering had annihilated religious faith within me”, implies that the “something unknown and pitiless” is his feeling of what the God of this world must be like. (Eliot herself had long struggled against her own religious upbringing. At one stage, her father threatened to throw her out of the house because of her rejection of it.)

Read as horror fiction (and coming nearly thirty years before the boom in Victorian classics that saw the publication of Jekyll and Hyde, Dracula, Dorian Gray and The Turn of the Screw), “The Lifted Veil” is more about the horror of other people, and the weariness of the “incessant insight and foresight” of a sensitive soul. Nevertheless, it ramps up the Gothic at the end, for a post-deathbed confession scene, in which Bertha’s maid, freshly expired from peritonitis, is revived long enough by an experimental blood transfusion to issue a dreadful confession and accusation.

(Given that Latimer has visions and can read minds, this ending, with its Gothic appurtenances of blood, death, illness, fringe science, and a dramatic revelation, seems hardly needed, and, indeed, Eliot’s publisher Blackwood tried to persuade her to remove it.)

In the end, “The Lifted Veil” was printed anonymously in the July 1859 issue of Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine (a periodical which had an established reputation for tales of Gothic horror, to the extent of having been satirised even by Poe, in his essay “How to Write a Blackwood Article”).

A muted horror tale, but one that fits very much into George Eliot’s work as a whole, full as it is of moments of extreme sensitivity to the subtleties of her characters’ emotional lives, “The Lifted Veil” is a significant piece of Victorian fantasy.

The text is freely available online, and I have a downloadable version on my free ebooks page.