"Jeweled style": autonomous artificiality as gemstone text-ure in Wilde's The Sphinx.
Dorian Gray praises the implied A Rebours (1884) handed to him by Lord Henry, referring to "that curious jeweled style" as "vivid and obscure at once, full of argot and of archaisms, of technical expressions and of elaborate paraphrases" (Wilde, Dorian Gray 274). This is a straight allusion to the pivotal "Notice" to the third edition of Baudelaire's Les Fleurs du Mal (1868), in which Theophile Gautier professes that the author should borrow "a tousles vocabulaires techniques" ("specialist vocabularies from everywhere") and "des couleurs a toutes les palettes" ("color from every palette"). In his boundary-breaching strategy, "the style of decadence" pushes the" Verbe" "a l'extreme outrance" ("to its very limits") (Gautier, "Notice" 17). (2)
The impact of the Parnassian (3) poet on Wilde was early and conscious; in July 1882, he communicates to Julia Howe that Gautier's work is an essential accompaniment to his travels (Letters 122). In "The English Renaissance of Art" (1882), he is fascinated by "Gautier's advice to the young poet to read his dictionary every day, as being the only book worth a poet's reading" (Wilde, Miscellanies 254). As Wilde revised The Sphinx for about twenty years before publication, he brazenly explores in it Gautier's treasuring of words for their own sake? The poem also builds up as if in a catalogue by Huysmans's baroque bijoux. The machinery of gemstones in The Sphinx sums up the use of the fin-de-siecle leitmotif of recherche materialism. It is not just an experiment after Gautier's admonition: in the Gautierian "Verbe," the arcane term may push the linguistic boundaries, but, in Wilde's "jeweled style," the word's autonomy transcends them by being luxuriated on equal footing with the poem's gemstones.
Wilde's artificiality in gems is not a facile Aestheticist exercise. The role of gems as the catalyst to construe The Sphinx has not been addressed. From Mario Praz onwards, many of the studies race to identify the poem's literary references and rich intertextual allusions, a prime example being Isobel Murray who detects the connections with works by Baudelaire, Rossetti, Gautier, and Flaubert (73-9). (5) This essay focuses on the intrinsic uncommonness and prominence of the gem as the utmost embodiment of the word for its own sake, an evacuated signifier, to use a poststructuralist term. The style lapidaire or mot lapidaire here fully realizes its double bearing, referring both to eclectic phrasing and to gemology. The discussion will further explore how this semantic confusion forges an autonomous artificiality which is self-consuming in the excess of mineral textures that surge and sexually bounce against each other. The transference of erotic charge from the troupe of players to the gems is well illustrated in Wilde's lyric "Les Ballons" where against "turquoise skies," the balloons "Float like strange transparent pearls," "Like thin globes of amethyst, / Wandering opals keeping tryst / With the rubies of the lime" (ll. 1, 7, 14-6). (6) In The Sphinx these "trysts" are violent and confrontational, denoting the tendency of poetic artifice to exceed itself. The two little twin nouns in Gautier's dictum "l'art pour l'art" tend to mount each other dialectically in a sort of latent autoeroticism; Wilde renews the dictum into "l'art a l'art" ("art at art"), whereby art(ifice) is maintained by being cannibalistically overwhelmed by itself.
Artificiality is self-attending, and this is endorsed from the outset with the student's fantasy being farfetched and unconvincing. The atavistic unions between the Sphinx, monsters, and fragments of statues are alien to human eroticism, too unrealistic. Norbert Lennartz notes that "the Sphinx's body, which the speaker badly wants to touch, always remains on the plain of artificiality and neo-Romantic invention" (417-8). But this chasm exists because what is at stake is not juvenile lustfulness but artificiality. For this reason the object of desire is an incredible and devastating Sphinx, rather than, for instance, a voluptuous Cleopatra. A fantasy is, in principle, a controlled and volitional conjuration. Although the Sphinx is the projection of the fantasist's mind, she appears to be invading, involuntarily. Right at the start, the Sphinx hijacks the student's mind: she "watches" him from his subconscious, "a dim comer" of his "room" (l. 1), albeit she is initially a domesticated cat ordered to "put your head upon my knee!" and "fawn at my feet" (ll. 13, 30). Victorian domestic order is here exposed only to be shattered later on by the Sphinx's Decadent excess. Towards the end, the speaker expresses aversion: "what [...] ghost of Sin" "knocked, and bade you enter in" (ll. 163, 164); "Get hence, you loathsome Mystery!" (l. 167). On a par with his habit of setting up illusions, Wilde features the fantasizing of the intrusion of a secondary involuntary visitation. The Sphinx is "silent" (l. 2) and so her aggressive sexual antics are prompted by the speaker's mind. Regenia Gagnier notices that "the object of desire is technically absent" with the student attempting to "seduce himself" (45). (7) What the student actually fantasizes is the idiosyncratically erotic possibilities of artifice essentially in itself, disengaged from the familiar human eroticism. He addresses her as his Homeric muse ("sing me all your memories!" [l. 30]) but is sensually stuck with her throughout the poem. The disengagement of the devices of artifice could be regarded as a contrived illusion, contained within the speaker's mind ("student's cell"). With the ploy of the student, Wilde can displace erotic tension and reassign it to the jeweled textures of The Sphinx.
The dominant presence of the Sphinx as antique treasure establishes the poem's mineral look. Wilde may have been inspired by the Egyptian stock of the Louvre and also by the large sphinx-like grotesques, or hieroglyphs, overlooking his study room in the Great Quad of Magdalen College in his Oxford undergraduate years. Mario Praz has described her as the archetypal femme fatale (256-8) (8), but this could only be a frontage of her as anthropomorphized artifice. She is the literary descendant of the artefact of preservation, Keats's Grecian Urn. (9) Unlike the Raven in Poe's poem of the same name (1845) (and major influence to The Sphinx), on which the speaker projects his lamentation, her inorganic, monolithic stiffness dwarfs the speaker's existence.
The speaker mythologizes, monumentalizes, and universalizes her, evoking the timelessness of the jewel: "A thousand weary centuries are thine while I have hardly seen / Some twenty summers cast their green for autumn's gaudy liveries" (ll. 17-8). With a "curved archaic smile" (l. 86), she appropriately nods to the sculptural and mineral mysteriousness of Pater's Mona Lisa who is "older than the rocks among which she sits" (Pater 99). Her inflexibility embodies the maxim "ars est celare artem" (art is to conceal art). In a cancelled stanza for lines 21-24 the poet asks: "what analysis / Can draw the secret forth which is / Concealed within those caverned orbs?" Her Theban verbal cunning has changed sides; the student is instead the questioner (and the answerer), confronted by the mysterious sight of her overpowering rocky body.
The Sphinx is essentially a precious artefact for the student in the same manner as the 1894 edition of the poem is for Wilde, in line with Arts and Crafts aesthetic bookbinding. Nicholas Frankel supports this analogy; for him this "archeological" poem is reduced to a "relic" when divorced from its 1894 editorial and binding decorations: the poem's obdurately concrete subject matter justifies its editorial physicality (174). Two years before publication, Wilde held the project of The Sphinx as "very rare and curious" (Letters 318) considering its tangible preciousness per se. The poem as editorial event with its art nouveau illustrations by Charles Ricketts is an "objet d'art of art for art's sake" (Atkinson 44) and a prime example of the syncretised cross-fertilization of different art media which Wilde firmly advocated. In his review of a lecture by Selwyn Image on modern art in Pall Mall Gazette titled "The Unity of the Arts: A Lecture and a Five O'Clock" (1887), Wilde comments that in "the true unity of the arts ... all the arts have the same message and speak the same language though with different tongues" (Miscellanies 88).
It is especially the Pamassian inter-translation between the scripted word and sculpture that facilitates the gemmological universe of The Sphinx. For Wilde "marble" is "a precious stone" (Miscellanies 302). Wilde's strategy is in accord with Gautier's manifesto poem "L'Art" (1852) which urges the statuaire-poet to "Sculpte, lime, cisele; / Que ton reve flottant / Se scelle / Dans le bloc resistant!" (Gautier, Emaux et Carnies 189); ("Sculpt, file, chisel; / may your floating dream / be embedded / in the resistant block!"). (10) In a similar fashion, the student's floating hallucination is chiselled out of the world of the Sphinx." The girl nicknamed "green lily" told Lady Wilde Oscar's remark regarding The Sphinx that "the written verse was quite different from what the printed poem would be just as the sculptor's clay model differs from the marble" (Harris 86). And in "The Critic as Artist" (1891) Wilde maintains that language is the highest art which can contain the fine arts; "words have ... plastic form no less sure and certain than that which reveals itself in marble or in bronze" (Criticism 141). Wilde's idea of plasticity and concreteness intermediates between the textual and the textural.
The "jewelled style" involves rhetoric of the collector's habit to amass, found in catalogues and glossaries. As a true pupil of Gautier, Wilde is aware of the fact that in "the clay cylinders of Assyria and Babylon, the hieroglyphics of the pyramids form not history but the material for History" (Criticism 3). He avers that "archaeology is only really delightful when transfused into some form of art," citing as an example "the use Keats made of Lempriere's Dictionary" (Criticism 217). John Lempriere (1765-1824) was a lexicographer, and the author of Bibliotheca Classica (1788), a popular dictionary of names from Antiquity. The Sphinx draws its material from Egyptology: an excellent reservoir of arcane obscurities from an ancient civilisation. Equipped with the meticulousness of the excavator, Wilde unearths archaic and outdated words as if they were those historical ruins; the precious debris of the glorious past tends to identify with the obsolete vocabulary. The effect of foraging lexicons is to showcase the obscure term for its own sake as if it was an exhibited treasure trove:
But you can read the Hieroglyphs on the great sandstone obelisks. And you have talked with Basilisks, and you have looked on Hippogriffs. (ll. 19-20) And did you mark the Cyprian kiss white Adon on his catafalque? And did you follow Amenalk, the God of Heliopolis? (ll. 25-6) And the great torpid Crocodile within the tank shed slimy tears, And tare the jewels from his ears and staggered back into the Nile, (ll. 41-2)
There is a profusion of particularized nouns. Egyptian words such as "obelisks," "Basilisks," "catafalque," and "Amenalk," among a plethora of others, with their oddness and rareness, are encrusted in the poetic space for their dazzling effect and not for their signification. The overuse of the letter (and sound) "k'" is not only of Middle Eastern quaintness; it also onomatopoeically evokes the sharpness of hard gems. Gagnier sees these rhymes as "the excesses of school sexuality" (44); they are more about sexualizing poetic creativity. Wilde is a master technician whose concern is to light up the word from a certain angle when he writes to R. H. Sherard in 1883: "I hope to [find] a trisyllabic rhyme for catafalque" (Letters 144). The circumfulgence in the poem is mostly of prosodic origin, unlike Mallarme's famous Symbolist comment in "Crise de Vers" that words "pass like a trail of fire over precious stones" (West 8). (12) Mallarme is interested in the shimmering qualities of words in relation to each other generating meaning, while words for Wilde are subject to workmanship, selection, and combination for the purpose of display. They exist as an end in themselves in what Roland Barthes calls "aesthetic finality" (143). (13) These words capture the reader's attention because of the position they are placed within the poetic lines. As rhyme-words they have an emphatic pitch and hold a pronounced intonation, prevailing over the hemistiches. They function as the punctuation of the linguistic landscape.
One cannot ignore that the emphasis on eccentric rhymes associates with the Symbolist idea of preciosity. (14) Pointing to unconventional literary finesse, preciosity concerns both jewellery and prosody, especially rare rhymes whose effects in The Sphinx were pointed out by bibliophile Holbrook Jackson as early as 1913 (see 82). The long lines of eight stresses allow for the arrangement of outlandish terms in slow baroque embroidery. The effect of internal chiasmus (ab) (ha) is that of roundness and independence which directs the attention to the core of every stanza and not to the one that follows, suppressing fluidity at the expense of static compartmentalization, leading to a series rather than to a whole, as the journalist Arthur Ransome observed in 1912 (see 76). By being obsolete, evoking, and stationary, the words become hieroglyphs, entries in a dead record, like the "cylinders" and "hieroglyphics" that Wilde "transfuses" into his poem. Wilde manages to create a semantic blur between the lapidary preciousness of diction and the lexical uniqueness of gems. The jewel proves to be more lexical than Gautier's "Verbe" and the latter more gemlike than the jewel.
The hypnotic rhythm slows down reading which disintegrates into scansioning. As a result, the reader perceives the parading words as self-referential broken up sounds or vocables. In its sluggish turns, the speaker's monologue builds around an all-encompassing diazeugma whereby the figure of the Sphinx (addressed in the second person) is the subject-noun which simultaneously governs almost all the clauses of the poem. John R. Reed accurately claims that "the poem is an evocation, an apostrophe, and a catalogue combined" (107). Thought with its associationist processes is numbed by ceremonial repetitive connectives denoting invitation ("Come forth"), request ("Sing to me"), question ("And did you ...?"), command ("Go" "Away"), and alternativeness ("Or"). These also function as bolts that stack the lines vertically, showcasing the accumulative parallel existence of clauses. If one shuffles the order of the couplets-vignettes of the Egyptian spectacle in various permutations, the poem retains its coherence.
The Egyptian teratology is recycled from other texts by Wilde. Towards the end of "The Decay of Lying" (1891), Vivian throws into the mixing pot the wandering off of "Dragons," the soaring of "the phoenix," "the basilisk," "the jewel in the toad's head," "the Hippogriff," and the floating of "the Blue Bird" (Wilde, Criticism, 101). The syntactical and taxonomic adjacencies of obscure names form a sterilized, a-historical zone. Wilde's syntax becomes more distinctive when comparison with examples from exotic Romanticism. The Egyptian atmosphere can be traced back to De Quincey's prose which flows like an opium hallucination:
I came suddenly upon Isis and Osiris: I had done a deed, they said, which the ibis and the crocodile trembled at. I was buried, for a thousand years, in stone coffins, with mummies and sphinxes, in narrow chambers at the heart of eternal pyramids. I was kissed, with cancerous kisses, by crocodiles: and laid, confounded with all unutterable slimy things, amongst reeds and Nilotic mud. (82)
The way in which this passage compares with The Sphinx sheds light on the latter's glyphic stiffness, a property of gemstones. The attraction to putrescence is present in both; in The Sphinx the beasts are "whiter with leprosies than I" (l. 165). Yet, De Quincey's prose is an Odyssean, self-analytic, and transcendental projection of consciousness, a vision. On the contrary, the student is miniaturized against the conjured background of artifice. De Quincey's sentences are fluid and animated, while in Wilde's poem the lines are statically stratified. The student's vision is one of lexical artifice.
The interconnection between the Sphinx and the cult of Gautierian lexicons is addressed through her multifarious sexual antics. What follows in lines 46-52 is a catalogue of bizarre couplings of bestiality, zoophilia, lesbianism, and necrophilia with a score of monsters. The bestiarum vocabulum of "Lizards," "Gryphons," "Hippopotami," "Dragons," and "Chimaera" is an exotic nomenclature of hollow signifiers. The erotic tension of the monsters' couplings is channelled through the stylistic distractions the names produce upon the process of reading. By having the speaker ask, "Which was the vessel of your lust?" (1.46), Wilde objectifies sexuality. He designates to the reader that these figures are words-artefacts. The speaker's question implies his own fetishist desire and frustration towards his own imaginings, towards his poetic creations.
The jewelled texture pertains decisively to the eroticism of the Sphinx by proxy of her partners. In spinning his fantasy, the student encrusts heraldic images: "Did Gryphons with great metal flanks leap on you in your trampled couch?" (l. 48); "Did gilt-scaled dragons writhe and twist with passion as you passed them by?" (l. 50). Jerome Buckley claims that "the encrusted narrative describing [the Sphinx's] wiles has become a desperate search for the frisson nouveau in a contrived allegory of Decadence" (27). In allegorizing Decadence, though, Wilde seeks to register something larger than a simple new thrill. The poet skilfully accentuates the unreality of these mythical monsters by focusing on the metal veneer that their organic parts naturally resemble, in the famous idea of Decadent artificiality whereby nature imitates the man-made, such as Des Esseintes's collection of monstrous plants in A Rebours. Thus, sex is redefined in the combinations of the materials of artifice as they are fixed into a glittering panel. As Arthru Ransome put it, eroticism becomes "lava-like" (76). The rhetorical question-marks that fall catechistically like flashing points on the printed page show this glitter, emulating the sparkling quality of Gustave Moreau's paintings: "Or had you shameful secret quests and did you harry to your home / Some Nereid coiled in amber foam with curious rock-crystal breasts?" (ll. 53-4); "Or did you love ... Pasht, who had green beryls for her eyes?" (ll. 65, 66). The Nereid in foam and Pasht are not just female deities but flesh and seascape tu--into objets d'art, into gemstones, "amber," "rock-crystal," and "beryls." The homoerotic sex hinted in the Sphinx's "shameful secret quests" is engineered in actuality by gems. In the collisions of these mineral entities Wilde succeeds in perfectly assimilating and amalgamating eroticism and elemental artificiality in poetry.
The Sphinx has intercourse with what could be precious souvenirs and trophies, the "swarthy Ethiop whose body was of polished jet" (1.58) or Assur "the God of the Assyrian" (l. 68), "Whose wings, like strange transparent talc, rose high above his hawk-faced head, / Painted with silver and with red and ribbed with rods of oreichalch?" (ll. 69-70). The Wildean image consists of the unusual name accompanied by a gemlike component. The line between name and gem blurs. Linguistic unusualness is amplified by combining peculiar terms into more peculiar adjectival composites. The style lapidaire ceases to be representational and becomes the object of focus. The rareness and choiceness of diction is self-attending and distracting as in the well-noted case of corrupting Englishness of "oreichalch."
On reviewing the poem, the critic of the Pall Mall Budget expounds: "How many of us, I wonder, know the nature of 'rods of oreichalch'?--but the phrase serves none the less, but doubtless all the more, to give that sense of mysterious luxury at which Mr. Wilde is aiming" (Beckson 164). The word oreichalch is an anglicization of the Greek which means brass. Fong and Beckson define it as "a gilded copper or brass alloy" (Wilde, Poems 308). (15) The printed word appears exclusive like a precious jewel despite the fact that the term stands for an impure admixture. It represents the hybridized body of the Sphinx and the other chimerical beasts on the smallest scale, that of grammar.
Wilde's Sphinx strikingly evokes the gleaming sterility of Baudelaire's amalgam of the "sphinx antique" and "l'ange inviole" in the latter's sonnet "Avec ses vetements ondoyants et nacres." The eyes of Baudelaire's creature are made of "mineraux charmants" and "Ou tout n'est qu'or, acier, lumiere et diamants, / Resplendit a jamais, comme un astre inutile, / La froide majeste de la femme sterile" (Baudelaire 56). (16) The jewel-eye or cat's eye is linked with the optical effect of chatoyance, the reflecting property in gemstones. Not only the "green beryls" of Pasht--who is a "cat-headed Egyptian sun-goddess" (Wilde, Poems 308) (17)--are chatoyant, but also the Sphinx herself who is a "cat" with "eyes of satin rimmed with gold" (1.8), or with eyes that "are like fantastic moons that shiver in some stagnant lake" (l. 153). The "cat's eye" is a succinct conceit of artifice as a process of self voyeurism, and so independent from the speaker. The organ of sight is identified with the precious stone. The very act of perceiving--seeing--artifice is itself artificial.
The show of minerals intensifies in the middle section of the poem, where the jewelled style is applied on a single figure, the principal lover of the Sphinx, god Ammon who is "mailed in beauty" (l. 78). Ammon's body is never convincingly animated; he is a bundle of gemstone decoration, a cluster of jewels. His sexual union with the Sphinx in lines 73-86 is not that in Wilde's other long narrative poem, between Athena and Charmides, which unfolds with penetrative Keatsian sensuality; it is rather a collation of a series of emotionless, fanciful mementos. His body as a spectacular array of jewels is chiselled out of its also jewelled oriental setting. The overreaching of lyrical language entails an elegant lapidary excess:
His marble limbs made pale the moon and lent the day a larger light. His long hair was nine cubits' span and colored like that yellow gem Which hidden in their garment's hem the merchants bring from Kurdistan. (ll. 88-90) The seas could not insapphirine the perfect azure of his eyes. (l. 92)
Simile, hyperbole and conceit are used to accommodate the elevation (or reduction) of color to the particularized solidity of stones and jewels.
Natural color--"pale," "yellow," "azure"--is emblazoned in the gem, "marble" "gem ... from Kurdistan," "insapphirine'" respectively. The phrase "seas ... insapphirine" seems to be a malapropism modelled upon Shakespeare's "multitudinous seas incarnadine"
(Macbeth, II. ii. l. 60)
Bending the grammar of a word was systematized by Jacques Plowert's archiving of poetic obscurities, Petit Glossaire pour Servir a l'Intelligence des Auteurs Decadents et Symbolistes (1888). This eclectic dictionary contains "la signification precise de tous les termes raves" (1-2) ("the exact significations of all root terms") not found in ordinary lexicons. In this book lexical definitions are replaced by authors' quotations. Accordingly, Wilde pushes the word-jewel to a proper state of exclusivity and preciousness, even by employing a modified intertextual neologism. He tailors grammar in order to create jewelled eccentricity. The body of "limbs," "hair" and "eyes" is aestheticized as dazzling artifice, which nature--the "moon" and the "seas"--seeks to imitate as tonal inferiors. Already in "Art and the Handicraftsman" Wilde had described the "tone colors" of "Eastern tapestry" "like brilliant jewels set in dusky gold" (Miscellanies, 297).
Wilde's heightened eclecticism in choosing his gemmological diction is a matter of scholastic erudition, a quality already present in Dorian Gray who, in a dense and lengthy encyclopaedic passage, after Huysmans's Des Esseintes, "on one occasion he took up the study of jewels" (Dorian Gray, 282). (18) Des Esseintes is entranced at the sight of precious stones such as diamonds and amethysts, but shortly after he is wearied at their familiarity; he seeks more unconventional ones: "They were all too civilised, too familiar. Instead he turned his attention to more startling and unusual gems" (Huysmans 55). Des Esseintes composes a bouquet of flowers out of gems: "the leaves were set with gems of a strong and definite green--asparagus-green chrysoberyls, leek-green peridots, olive green olivines--and these sprang from twigs of almandine and uvarovite of a purplish red ..." (Huysmans 55). Ammon's body is choicely composed out of strange minerals in the same manner a bouquet of flowers in A Rebours is. This technique seems to be a sort of Parnassian Impressionism which Wilde uses in his Franco-titled lyric cycle in Poems.
The extensive focus on Ammon is a diversion and distraction from the Sphinx, a second proxy; as such it further questions the commitment to the initial fantasy. From the student, to the Sphinx, to Ammon, Wilde follows a strategy of deferrals, digressions, and pretexts in order to indulge the "jeweled style." With Ammon, Wilde may have the opportunity for homoerotic voyeurism; but, in essence, he uses it as pretext for luxurious acquisitiveness. The speaker pieces together both the god's body and its paraphernalia in a conglomeration of gems:
On pearl and porphyry pedestalled he was too bright to look upon: For on his ivory breast there shone the wondrous ocean-emerald, That mystic, moonlight jewel which some diver of the Colchian caves Had found beneath the blackening waves and carded to the Colchian witch. (ll. 95-8) The merchants brought him steatite from Sidon in their painted ships: The meanest cup that touched his lips was fashioned from a chrysolite. (ll. 103-4)
The "pedestalled" Ammon designates a museum exhibit in the Roman fashion. Minerals like "steatite" and "chrysolite" are not just Gautierian obscurities; they are pedantic and encyclopaedic. They are aligned with "beryls," "talc," "oreichalch" and the "cream-blue" "turkis-stone" (turquoise) featured in a cancelled stanza after lines 67-8. The diction reshuffles Herod's speech to Salome of the inexhaustible catalogue of enticing "chrysolites and beryls, and chrysophrases and rubies," "sardonyx and hyacinth stones, and stones of chalcedony" (Wilde, Plays 95). Part of the molange of Ammon is the recondite "ocean-emerald" of Medea ("Colchian witch") which, as well as the gem from Kurdistan (l. 90), upgrades the poem's artifice to higher levels because it is an article of unique identity in which the merely rare has become one of a kind, singular, or sui generis. Even the reiterated adjective "Colchian" creates the onomatopoeic echo of a hard-edged stone. These flaunted gems are sealed-off signifiers, nonce words (for special occasions) that squeeze poetic language into the skeletal monument of long, block-like iambic lines uninterrupted by caesurae.
The speaker constructs Ammon's body only to deconstruct it straight after. The visual splendor of Ammon gives place to a falling movement of decay, recalling the dismantling of the jeweled statue in "The Happy Prince" (1888). The speaker urges the Sphinx to resume carnal interaction with the fragments. In Egyptian mythology, Ammon, or Amun-Ra, is the god of fertility, and the fact that he is outlived by the Sphinx hints at the triumph of art as unproductive: "The god is scattered here and there: deep hidden in the windy sand / I saw his giant granite hand still clenched in impotent despair" (ll. 115-6). This echo from Shelley's "Ozymandias" transforms the Romantic political overtones "Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare" (198) into an emblem of the "impotent despair" of overt artifice. Stagnant circularity, omnipresent in the poem's chiastic stanzas, is encoded in Ammon's "barren loins" (l. 128).
As in "Charmides" and Salome, Wilde sports his favorite motif of the fetishized dead lover culminating in a dramatic, yet ironic and self-questioning, outcry: "Go, seek them where they lie alone and from their broken pieces make / Thy bruised bedfellow! And wake mad passions in the senseless stone!" (ll. 123-4). By way of the speaker's command, the Sphinx's suggested erotic activity is a reversed version of the Pygmalion myth, as she analyzes the object of desire into its constituents. Ross stresses the speaker's frustrations that are "engendered by an attempted dialogue with a mute artifact" (462). In fact, the speaker becomes the Sphinx ("You wake in me each bestial sense" [l. 168] he exclaims in the poem's climax) in a fantasy inside another fantasy in the fashion of Chinese boxes. The inability of the Sphinx to resuscitate Ammon corresponds to the speaker's inability to animate his own inventions, that is, the Sphinx, including Ammon. The god's body is de-forme, a jigsaw of "fragments" (l. 121) and "pieces." The student prompts the Sphinx to re-member Ammon from of his disjecta membra, just as he strives to re-member the Sphinx with his daydream, and just as, in extent, Wilde the poet strives to recall and piece together mythical history into an aphrodisiac mosaic. The phrase "mad passions in the senseless stone" captures the frustrated endeavors to eroticize the text through its inert texture. The "fragments" of the Egyptian god recall princess Hermonthis's mummified foot in Gautier's short story "Le Pied de Momie" ("The Mummy's Foot") (1840): the fetishized foot, the fragment, becomes the portal through which the narrator's fantasy is realized with the conjuration of the tantalizing princess and the recreation of an Egyptian spectacle inside his quarters. (19) From the student-Sphinx's specter pair the poem's initial erotic fantasy is disengaged into total and consuming artificiality in the Sphinx-Ammon's fragments pair.
Essentially, the Sphinx copulates with the omnium-gatherum of fragments, gemstones, and names rather than what these represent. This process is additionally corroborated by a major source of the poem's influence, the Sphinx-Chimera episode in Flaubert's La Tentation de Saint Antoine (1874). In Flaubert's text, the Sphinx stands for the inflexibility and the Chimera for the aimless flight of the imagination. Here is an enlightening exchange:
O Fantasy, carry, me off on your wings to distract me from my sadness!
O Unknown, I am in love with your eyes! Like a hyena on heat I circle, I solicit you, eaten up with the need to be made fertile ...
(Flaubert, Temptation 223)
This excerpt is a key to unlocking Wilde's poem. Flaubert implies that in its labor to beget, the imagination ends up burgeoning accumulatively on the "eyes," the medium for perceiving the visible. In her introduction to Flaubert's book, translator Mrosovsky interprets the interaction of the Chimera and the Sphinx as copulative. She notices that "their copulation manque is a ponderously apt metaphor for every creative debacle," with a "gross physicality" in the words themselves (Flaubert 47). Given that everything is staged in the student's head, Wilde has informed his poem with Flaubert's turbulence of the imagination, albeit with a fin-de-siecle twist. If the poem's student is a persona of Wilde the Oxford undergraduate, poetic creativity is in crisis; it struggles as it is governed by carnal impulse. The immovable Sphinx tends to arrest the force of creativity on the jewelled but barren texture. Ironically, Ammon the fertility god--a potential alternative to Flaubert's Chimera--is dead. As a result, the imagination ends up gyrating frustratingly on the brilliance of textures.
In context, erotic tension in the poem appears as figuration for the self- consuming friction inside the gem textures. When the guarded way the speaker attributes activities to the Sphinx with questions in the past tense crescendos into aggressive imperative syntax, he asserts in a powerful tone: "Your lovers are not dead, I know. They will / rise up" "And clash their cymbals" (ll. 137, 138). The word "cymbals" is a homophone of "symbols" In a key sound pun, the Sphinx's lovers will rise and clash their symbols, their insignia, or constituents of artifice. The apex of this excess is reached in the Sphinx's doomed unions that follow with wild feline animals like herself. In two striking unions, the Sphinx interacts abrasively with a lion:
Couch by his side upon the grass and set your white teeth in his throat And when you hear his dying note lash your long flanks of polished brass (ll. 143-4)
and a tiger:
And toy with him in amorous jests, and when he turns, and snarls, and gnaws, O smite him with your jasper claws! and bruise him with your agate breasts! (ll. 147-8)
The Sphinx is a vagina dentata whose vampiric, voracious sexuality is expressed by a series of sharp, violent verbs: "lash," "smite" and "bruise." Like Ammon's, her body is made out of artificial tissues, jewels and inorganic matter, "polished brass," "jasper" and "agate." In the coital moment, her sterile, metallic flesh clashes violently with the tiger's organic body. In the early post-1890s criticism, Ransome had placed sexual excitement through minerality in The Sphinx, between the "over-sensitive" and the "utterly insensible" (77). Later, Epifanio argued that "the technical beauty of aesthetic surface controls the violent impulses latent in the subject" (32). On the contrary, the sharp violence coming from the collision of jewels expresses the poem's climactic discharge and backlash from the piling-up of excess. The tiger symbolizes power and dominance yet it is unable to defeat the Sphinx because, as it is made clear at the start, she is "so somnolent, so statuesque" (l. 11) and "Inviolate and immobile she does not rise she does not stir" (l. 3, see also ll. 3-7). The stratum of artifice is impenetrable. Like Baudelaire's "l'ange inviole," she sustains a kind of morbid virginity resulting contradictorily from the bouncing off of lovers in her promiscuous activity. The encounters between cognate monsters--in this case wildcats--in the last part indicate that in colliding with itself, in biting its tail, the jewelled texture is a poetic dramatization of the notion of self-reference.
The coital tension within artifice itself is registered in the duality of the Sphinx's image. Aligned with the Baudelairian fusion of the "sphinx antique" and "l'ange inviole," she is an "exquisite grotesque! half woman and half animal!" (l. 12) (see also ll. 150-I). Picking on this line, Dijkstra interprets her as the Victorian mother turning feral (see 331). In Wilde's pen, though, she is much more than her psychoanalytic dimensions. The first hemistich of the enjambment is a catchphrase of the Decadence that puns on the preciosity of the relic. It is a perfectly unified compound consistent with the gemmed mergence present in a metal alloy (i.e. "oreichalch"). It describes the hybrid of the second hemistich in which "woman" and "animal" concur but remain distinct with the emphatic repetition of "half' followed by the exclamation mark. The Sphinx is even an amalgam of her literary origins that are both Greek and Egyptian. More than this, her body encodes all the monstrous unions of the poem's teratogony. Its dichotomy presages the folding-ups and ricochets of the poem's jeweled textures. She is not only a concurrent articulation of dichotomy and synthesis of the gem/word, but also of the schematized gem/gem dipolic conflict formed within the bubble of artifice.
The student's erratic retort and loathing of the Sphinx in the final stanzas is excess taking its toll on the phenomenon of art-at-art; it is when excess reaches a critical mass. It does not undercut the poem's Decadent leaning; on the contrary, it enhances it. The horror of the ending is schematic. It is the climax of excess exceeding itself, leading to autoerotic self-consuming, or rather, self-consummation. The student expresses the full effect of the Decadent topos of extravagant opulence when he says to the Sphinx: "you wake foul dreams of sensual life" (l. 169). In the inversion of waking inside the dream, establishing reality inside illusion, the gemmological apparatus of the bestiarum vocabulum is oddly equated with "sensual life." The exclamatory "False Sphinx! False Sphinx!" (l. 171) rings also "false" in its theatricality, as if the student did not know that the Sphinx had been a figment of his imagination all along. Fong's and Beckson's assertion that "the rejection of the Sphinx appears to be merely conventional to assure Victorian readers of his moral probity" (Raby 66) is only partially valid as well as Behrendt's comment of Wilde's homoerotic preference for Jesus (61). The allegiance to the "Crucifix" is ironically undercut at the very end when the crucifix "weeps for every soul in vain" (l. 174), a dramatic attempt at self-elusion and a suggestively understated return to the indulgence of the Sphinx. Lennartz argues that the poem exposes the impracticability of the neo-pagan dandy in artificial language (417-8). More accurately, it poses the elaborate paradox in which the dandy, realizing that live interaction with artifice is illusionary, achieves it by transferring it inside a wider illusion governed by artificial language.
Wilde disengages, re-channels and redefines eroticism from the speaker's mental theatre to the gem-oriented language. But complete disengagement of the jeweled style is unfeasible since it must be conceived by an external referent (the student in his cell), a Decadent paradox fueling the tension of surging textures. Pound's "Hugh Selwyn Mauberley" (1920) entombed artifice but The Sphinx opened up its "pyramid" and made it into a "Lunapar" (l. 62); it showcased artifice in all its possibilities, balancing Parnassian tangibility, Symbolist preciosity, and Decadent excess. From the semantic gem-hess and archaeology of the Gautierian "Verbe" to the coital collisions of gem textures, The Sphinx is a bold experiment of transcending linguistic function. It is a cabinet where words and phrases are carefully and brilliantly cut and put on show. But ultimately it is about the exigencies in liberating and animating poetic artificiality.
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Durham University, UK
(1) Editorial comment to page 88.
(2) My translation.
(3) The Parnassian school peaked in the 1860s and 1870s in France. It rejected Romantic sentimentality, drew its subject matter from exotic myths, and favored strict rhythms, objective voice, erudition, and eclectic diction. Apart from Gautier (1811-1872), poets such as Leconte de Lisle (1818-1894) and Catulle Mendes (1841-1909) were pillars of the Movement.
(4) In general, Wilde's theory that nature imitates artifice is identical with Gautier's. See Tennant 21.
(5) See also Julian 250-2.
(6) Oscar Wilde, Poems and Poems in Prose, eds. Bobby Fong and Karl Beckson (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2000), vol. 1 of The Complete Works of Oscar Wilde, eds. Russell Jackson and Ian Small. 4 vols to date, 2000--. All consequent references to Wilde's poetry, most importantly to The Sphinx, are from this edition.
(7) Gagnier recapitulates that The Sphinx is "the summa of Wilde's art-as- seduction" (44).
(8) Praz enumerates all the different embodiments of the Sphinx, simultaneously identifying the literary form: a cat from Les Fleurs du Mal, Swinburne's Cleopatra, and Dolores, Pater's Gioconda, and Poe's The Raven.
(9) See also Ross 460-5. In his article lain Ross explores systematically the dialectic between Keats's Grecian Urn and Wilde's Sphinx, and the transformation of the former into the latter.
(10) My translation.
(11) In a similar way, Baudelaire likens beauty to a "sphinx" who is like "un reve de pierre" ("a stone-fashioned dream") in "La Beaute" (Baudelaire 38-39).
(12) The essay was first published in La Revue Blanche (Sept. 1895).
(13) On discussing Flaubert's description of Rouen in Madame Bovary, Barthes concludes that Rouen serves as a pretext for the display of rhetoric, "the jewels of a number of rare metaphors" (144), similarly to the Wildean/Gautierian "jewelled style." But whilst the resulting intermediality in The Sphinx is between poetry and gem, in Flaubert's novel Barthes indicates it to be between poetry and landscape painting.
(14) For the explication of "preciosity" as a literary construct see Bradbury and McFarlane, 211.
(15) See note 70. Fong and Beckson identify Flaubert's La Tentation de Saint Antoine as the source of this term.
(16) The two tercets translate: "Her polished eyes are made of charming stones, / And in her essence, where the natures mix / Of holy angel and the ancient sphinx," "Where all is lit with gold, steel, diamonds, / A useless star, it shines eternally, / The sterile woman's frigid majesty" (Baudelaire 57).
(17) See note 66.
(18) Josephine Guy informs us that Wilde's scholastic knowledge of gems comes from two studies: William Jones, History and Mystery of Precious Stones (1880) and A. H. Church, Precious Stones Considered in their Scientific and Artistic Relations (1886). Wilde used these sources extensively in Chapter 11 of the 1891 version of Dorian Gray: see commentary in Wilde, Criticism, 388.
(19) See Gautier's short story in Roseberry, 99-118.
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