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Charmides and The Sphinx: Wilde's engagement with Keats.

From the Renaissance to the nineteenth century Greece was a primary object of myth-makers' attentions, its history as well as its mythology fodder for the imagination: a ligature exemplified by Oscar Wilde's "The Theatre at Argos" (1877), a sonnet written in situ, "Where once the Chorus danced to measures fleet; / Far to the East a purple stretch of sea, / The cliffs of gold that prisoned Danae" (ll. 5-7). (1) The mythical Danae is given ontological status equal to that of the historical poet and chorus who would have enacted her story in the theater, thus acknowledging that Greek history, like Greek myth, survives now as an aspect of the individual imagination. But throughout the nineteenth century, as archaeology relocated "Greece" in the stones and soil of a small Levantine peninsula, pushing it back into its chronological container, its potency as a fictive realm was inevitably diminished. This essay examines the confusion of the old mythical Greece and the new archaeologically determined Greece in Wilde's long poem Charmides (first published in Poems [London, 1881]), attributing it in part to Wilde's imitation of older models no longer tenable in the changing climate of classical scholarship: in this instance, Keats's Endymion and Lamia. I conclude by reading The Sphinx (published London, 1894, perhaps begun 1874) as a reworking of "Ode on a Grecian Urn," an advance on Charmides in that it maintains a dialectical and critical relationship with its host text rather than a purely imitative one.

I begin by summarizing two recent critical accounts of Keats's Hellenism, those of Martin Aske and Helen Vendler, since they both chart movements that have repercussions in Wilde's work. Moreover, since my reading of Charmides depends on Wilde's appropriation of Keats's treatment of topography and chronology in Endymion and Lamia, I will consider these poems in detail.

In Keats and Hellenism, Aske proposes that antiquity offers for Keats a reservoir of validatory fictions, fictions which, because of Keats's ignorance of Greek, are refracted through the poetic voices of Spenser, Chapman, Milton, and Shakespeare. (2) Antiquity itself is an absence or lack, around the edges of which the English literary tradition clusters (p. 4). Keats stood on the poets' side of the rift that began to widen at the beginning of the nineteenth century between classical scholarship and Hellenist-inspired art: "Classical Greece does not present itself [to Keats] as a language to be mastered, or a text to be edited, but as a supreme fiction, an ideal space that might yield a host of fine poetic imaginings" (Aske, p. 35). But Keats's anxiety at his belatedness in the English poetic tradition and at the unrecoverability of the classical world (an unrecoverability made overt to him and personally magnified by his ignorance of Greek) mean that his Hellenist works are creative expressions of failure. Borrowing a term from Derrida, Aske submits that Endymion in particular, with its narrative incoherence and apparent linguistic incontinence, should be seen as a parergon, literally a "by-work," here meaning an ornamental appendage detached from a notional primary structure, like a parasite without its host. Endymion, in this reading, is an arabesque drawn over the blank space left by the loss of antiquity, while the fragmentary Hyperion represents the failure to put together a whole out of the scattered remnants of the classical tradition (pp. 5-6).

Helen Vendler, by contrast, offers a reading of the "Ode on a Grecian Urn" that emphasizes the increasing confidence of Keats's encounter with antiquity: the poet, confronted by a silent artwork, passes from archaeological interrogation ("What men or gods are these?," l. 8) through assimilation (the poet's identification with the young lover in the second and third stanzas) to "a generous loss of self in the other." (3) The final scene described on the urn, the procession and sacrifice, represents a religious sensibility for which there is no modern equivalent. It cannot be explained or assimilated. The urn "is not 'they'--men or gods. It is not T or 'we.' Or it is not primarily these. It is itself. And, by its nature, it draws us to itself; we do not impose our concerns upon it" (Vendler, p. 124). The urn provokes what Vendler calls "that journey outward from habitual self into some other thing" (p. 131) and enables the poet in the fourth stanza to see the scene that is not on the urn: the "desolate" town with its "silent" streets emptied by the procession. Aske sees the silence and desolation as metaphors for the radical absence of antiquity; Vendler sees them as marks of Negative Capability, the poet's recognition and acceptance not of the loss of the ancient world but of its inexpressible difference.

The rift that Aske identified between scholars and poets begins to close in Keats's later poetry: according to Vendler Keats "becomes in the last stanza [of the "Ode on a Grecian Urn"] the nineteenth-century intellectual man who is acquainted with archaeological terms and literary genres" (pp. 146-147). This increasingly scholarly attitude can also be charted through the movement of Keats's Hellenist poetry from landscape to topography. Aske talks of Keats's conception of antiquity as an imaginative and imaginary landscape, informed by the mythographical speculations of the late eighteenth century, which, in positing a family connection between all mythologies, caused "'Greece' itself [to become] infinitely expanded in its scope as an imaginative locale" (Aske, pp. 30-31). Add to this the fact that Keats had never visited Greece, and the geographical (and chronological) obscurities of Endymion become explicable. The narrative is set in Caria in Asia Minor, around the slopes of Mount Latmos. But the "moist earth," the "palmy fern," the "rushes fenny," the "ivy banks," the "wide lawn" of the opening description of the locale (I. 63-88) suggest the English countryside rather more than the Turkish. The timeless mythological space of the narrative is jarringly ruptured by the lines "Fair creatures [the Carian shepherds]! whose young children's children bred / Thermopylae its heroes--not yet dead, but in old marbles ever beautiful" (l. 317-319), which raise the questions: how could Carian shepherds be the great-grandparents or ancestors of the Spartan heroes of Thermopylae (480 BC), at which the Carians would have fought on the Persian side? If the phrase "children's children" is to be taken literally, is the narrative intended to take place in the late sixth century BC? Who are not yet dead--the mythical Carian shepherds or the historical heroes of Thermopylae? And which "old marbles ever beautiful" preserve them?

These are scholarly, "archaeological" questions rather than poetic ones. At the beginning of Book I the poet makes clear his allegiance to the spontaneous mythopoeic faculty: "The very music of the name [Endymion] has gone / Into my being, and each pleasant scene / Is growing fresh before me as the green / Of our own vallies" (l. 36-39). The narrative is generated by the poet's consciousness, sown with such few scattered seeds as "the music of the name" of Endymion. Keats acknowledged the slightness of the source on which Endymion is based: "it will be a test, a trial of my powers of Imagination and chiefly of my invention which is a rare thing indeed--by which I must make 4000 Lines of one bare circumstance and fill them with Poetry." (4) The trial is of imagination and invention, not reading or learning. Wilde, echoing Ruskin's assertion in The Queen of the Air that Keats gives a truer picture of the Greek world than "frigid scholarship," (5) comments in "The Truth of Masks":
 I have no desire to underrate the services of laborious scholars,
 but I feel the use Keats made of Lempriere's Dictionary [of
 Mythology] is of far more value to us than Professor Max Muller's
 treatment of the same mythology as a disease of language. Better
 Endymion than any theory, however sound, or, as in the present
 instance, unsound, of an epidemic among adjectives! And who does
 not feel that the chief glory of Piranesi's book on Vases is that
 it gave Keats the suggestion for his 'Ode on a Grecian Urn'? (6)


Wilde identifies in Keats and praises a magpie attitude toward the raw material (though mediated through an organizing dictionary) of scholarship, here represented by Muller's discredited mythographical theories. An Introduction to the Science of Religion can be disproved; proof or disproof are irrelevant to Endymion. In his review of "Two Biographies of Keats" for the Pall Mall Gazette in 1887 Wilde was severe with Sidney Colvin and William Rossetti for their inappropriate epistemological attitudes toward the "Ode to a Nightingale," wherein both critics detected a "logical solecism" in Keats's attribution of immortality to the bird, "as men live longer than nightingales.": Rossetti proceeded to declare that he could not understand how Endymion's "human organism, with respirative and digestive processes, continues to exist" underwater (p. 184). Wilde's elaborately ironic response--"It has been reserved for Mr Rossetti to speculate on Endymion's digestion, and we readily accord to him all the distinction of the position"--may have been all that Rossetti's ludicrous criticisms deserved (p. 185). But he and Colvin, however clumsily, draw attention to a carelessness of external data in Keats's earlier poetry that can turn "Greece" into the kind of mythical-historical-artistic mush betrayed in the lines on Thermopylae, wherein Spartan soldiers, mythical shepherds, and the sculptures in the British Museum are presented as parts of a continuum so foreshortened as to erase the profound ontological differences between them.

Endymion contains a reference to "the vales of Thessaly" (I.144), a famously flat region. Any attempt to trace Endymion's wanderings on a map of Asia Minor would be futile; all we can be sure of is that the sea in which he encounters Glaucus in Book III is probably the Mediterranean. But in Lamia, begun two years after Endymion, the imaginary landscape of "Greece" has congealed into the topography of Greece:
 [Lamia] fled into that valley they pass o'er
 Who go to Corinth from Cenchreas' shore;
 And rested at the foot of those wild hills,
 The rugged founts of the Peraean rills,
 And of that other ridge whose barren back
 Stretches, with all its mist and cloudy rack,
 South-westward to Cleone. (I.173-179)


The deictic adjectives--"that valley," "those wild hills," "that other ridge"--assume the reader's familiarity with the landscape, as though the northern Peloponnese were everybody's home. Aske notes that "in no other poem of Keats does tile classical geography seem so solid and palpable," though his reading of Lamia as a triumphant dematerialization of antiquity and its daimonic fascinations leads him to characterize this as only "the illusion of presence, an identifiable scene in which the text might situate and fix its fictions." (8) But Lamia might also be read as an account of Keats's accommodation with the idea of "Greece" as a series of historical events in a geographical setting. Unlike Endymion, Lamia invites the reader to place it chronologically; the presence of the philosopher Apollonius dates it to the first century CE. The antiquarianist tone of "Ode on a Grecian Urn" is continued:
 It was the custom then to bring away
 The bride from home at blushing shut of day,
 Veil'd, in a chariot, heralded along
 By strewn flowers, torches, and a marriage song,
 With other pageants. (II.106-110)


Only the poetic epithet "blushing" (and the meter) distinguishes these lines from a scholarly commentary on a vase-painting or epithalamion. Keats's new enthusiasm for archaeologically accurate stage properties also manifests itself in Lamia (Cook, p. 609): "Twelve sphered tables, by silk seats insphered, / High as the level of a man's breast rear'd / On libbard's paws, upheld the heavy gold / Of cups and goblets" (II.183-186); Elizabeth Cook suggests that Keats may have here relied for information about the design of classical Greek tables on on John Potter's Antiquities of Greece (Oxford, 1697), ii. 376-377. The narrative movement from the parergonal mythical world to the factually conditioned historical is represented also as a movement between genres: from the pastoral opening, reminiscent of Endymion, its timescape marked only by such conventional tropes as "before the faery broods / Drove Nymph and Satyr from the properous woods" (I 1-2), to the temporally and topographically anchored world of the historical drama, in which Lamia, out of her literary element, cannot survive for long.

Wilde's youthful hero-worship of Keats is first evidenced in his letter of c. May 17, 1877 to Lord Houghton on the subject of the medallion portrait of the poet at his grave in Rome. Wilde assimilates Keats to his Hellenist subject-matter: "Instead of the finely cut nostril, and Greek sensuous delicate lips that he had, [the medallion] gives him thick almost negro lips and nose. Keats we know was as lovely as Hyakinthos, or Apollo, to look at" (9) The racial dichotomy is derived from the prevalent ethnography of the nineteenth century, from which Wilde also inherited the idea, since discredited, that the Indo-European homeland where "the wonderful offshoot of the primitive Aryans," the Greeks, originated was in "the chill table-lands of Tibet." (10) Keats is characterized as a carrier of physiognomical racial traits ("Greek ... lips") that are the outward token of his imaginative racial inheritance; the power of heredity makes him literally an ancient Greek reborn in the modern world. Hence the importance of his not being mistaken for a "negro," whom Wilde could never have conceived as partaking in the Greek spirit.

Charmides (1878-79) is Wilde's most ambitious and evident attempt at a Keatsian long narrative poem. Its parents are Endymion and Lamia. Its opening stanzas recall the geographical exactitudes of the latter, even featuring the same "faint Corinthian hills" (l. 13). Wilde, unlike Keats, would have seen them for himself during his trip to Greece in spring 1877. Athens is represented by synecdoche--"a burnished spear / Like a thin thread of gold against the sky" (ll. 7-8)--Charmides' first sight of the city being the spear of the monumental bronze statue of Athena Promachos on the Acropolis. This archaeological precision is matched by the socio-economic precision of Charmides' importing of "pulpy figs and wine from Sicily" (l. 2), and of his having bought his "rich robe ... with Tyrian broideries inwrought" from a "swarthy trader ... at Syracuse" (ll. 19-22), Syracuse being a likely venue for Phoenician traders, owing to its proximity to Carthage, a colony of Tyre. The opening stanzas assume a knowledge of these external data in the reader, and if that knowledge is lacking, then the impression of verisimilitude, of a real world that extends beyond the boundaries of the narrative, can only be increased by unelaborated references to extraneous matter, the intrusions of that world.

Wilde's historically informed reconstruction of late-fifth-century Greece comes apart when his fidelity to the Keatsian model impels him to introduce a supernatural element: the thralldom of his Grecian lad to a goddess, though Athena, unlike Cynthia or Lamia, is not enthralled by him. Since the carefully concretized world of Charmides will not allow--at least at this early point in the poem--the ethereal epiphanies of Endymion, the gods appear only as mediated by the historical Greeks, in the forms of statues. The specificity of the setting means that Wilde is limited to the Parthenon sculptures and frieze--"the twelve gods leapt up in marble fear ... And on the frieze the prancing horses neighed, / And the low tread of hurrying feet rang from the cavalcade" (ll. 86-90). The scene recalls the "Ode on a Grecian Urn," but there the life of the carved figures was apparent only, and the quality most emphasized was its silence. The urn in question was, also, an imagined or composite object, incorporating images from the Parthenon frieze and, according to Wilde, "Piranesi's book on Vases." Keats's technique anticipated what Wilde later praised in his friend E. W. Godwin's sets and costumes for Helena in Troas, performed in London in 1886 with Mrs. Oscar Wilde in a nonspeaking part: not a slavish imitation of Greek originals but a harvesting of details from different sources and their unification in a designed whole. (11) Keats's urn represents not what was but what might have been, within the limitations of art history. Wilde's animated frieze offers what was combined with what could never have been, except within an entirely free narrative such as Endymion, a freedom which Charmides has so far eschewed in favor of historical specificity. The sudden lurch from one genre to another necessitates an act of ontological violence on the frieze that makes its sudden noisy business comic rather than alarming.

Wilde's conceit that Charmides should make love to a statue of Athena makes for another cognitive disjuncture, since here it is reasonable to ask, as it was not reasonable to ask of Endymion: which statue? The fact that the scene is set within the Parthenon and that the statue has "breasts of polished ivory" (l. 104) suggests that Pheidias' chryselephantine statue of Athena Parthenos is meant, but since this was nearly fifty feet tall Charmides would have had to be content with embracing her shin. The "crocus gown" (l. 103) that Charmides slips off the statue is an apparent reference to the new saffron-dyed peplos woven for Athena every four years and taken up to the Acropolis in the Greater Panathenaic procession; but this gown was destined for the statue of Athena Polias in the Erechtheion, an ancient and rudimentary wooden idol that would have made a grotesque object of sexual attention--certainly a more genuinely perverse one. Wilde's conflation of the attributes of the two statues for the sake of the demands of his narrative might have been acceptable if the world of the poem had been set up as an undifferentiated Keatsian melange of history and myth, but Wilde's education would not have permitted that, making the poem a hostage to accuracy of detail, which it forfeits at the cost of its plausibility.

The movement of the poem is the reverse of Lamia's, which showed the world of myth receding to leave one of its inhabitants stranded in the world of history, where she expires, a dramatization of Keats's increasingly rigorous attitude toward ancient Greece, and the effect of that rigor on his imagination. Charmides abandons the world of carefully reconstructed history after the transgression in the temple and enters the world of myth as mediated by the English literary tradition, a movement mirrored by a mapping of the English landscape on to Greek topography: Fong and Beckson note that the description in lines 151-160, with its "wattled cotes" (derived from Arnold's "The Scholar-Gipsy," l. 2, and by Arnold from Milton's Comus, l. 345), "meadows laced with threaded dew" and "misty weald" "suggests an English landscape" (Fong and Beckson, p. 262). Many of Wilde's poems lament the absence of the Greek gods from the English landscape, elaborating tropes used by Arnold in "Philema" (ll. 5-18) and "Thyrsis" (ll. 91-100, 172ff): "but sweeter far if silver-sandalled foot / Of some long-hidden God should ever tread / The Nuneham meadows" ("The Burden of Itys," ll. 67-69); "There [where the Greek gods dwell] never does that dreary north-wind blow / Which leaves our English forests bleak and bare" ("Panthea," ll.61-62); "Here not Cephissos, not Ilissos flows, / The woods of white Colonos are not here, / On our bleak hills the olive never blows," "from each tree its weeping nymph has fled, / ... no more 'mid English reeds a Naiad shows her head" ("The Garden of Eros," ll. 115-117, 221-222). (12)' All these poems were written after Wilde's return from his visit to Greece, and reflect his elegiac recognition that Altertumswissenschaft ("the science of the study of antiquity"), with its topographical specificity, had made untenable the promiscuous mingling of English pastoral and Greek mythology upon which the English poetic tradition had so long depended. (13) But at Colonos, where Charmides' body is washed up, "There lies a long and level stretch of lawn" (l. 290), the same lawn that in Endymion is found at Caria (I.82). In so closely imitating Keats Wilde must anachronistically revive the practice of pressing the English countryside into service as "Greece." The conventional pastoral landscape of Charmides is populated by conventional nymphs and fauns; even as Charmides descends the Acropolis, passing the historical Cave of Pan, he hears "the goat-foot snoring" (l. 135). The reader of Charmides is then compelled to frolic with dryads and naiads whose artificiality is painfully exposed by the recollection of the sharp focus Athens presented at the beginning of the poem. Wilde's progression or regression in Charmides, from historically informed reconstruction to pastoral pastiche, is motivated by no logic other than the desire to write a poem in the manner of Keats, a desire compromised by Wilde's inability to reproduce his model's cavalier attitude to time and place in Endymion, to discover a creative spur equivalent to his increasing engagement with the contingencies of Greece in Lamia.

The first words of the poem, "He was a Grecian lad," betray a bias in Wilde's Hellenism which might also have retarded his gestures toward historical precision. The Grecian lad in question, with his "crisp brown curls," could as easily have been named Hyakinthos or Hylas or Adonis or Keats. In "[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.]" the poet speculates that "had I not been made of common clay ... Keats had lifted up his hymenaeal curls from out the poppy-seeded wine, / With ambrosial mouth had kissed my forehead, clasped the hand of noble love in mine" (ll. 1-14). This ephebic type, epitomized by hair and lips, barely differentiated by the names Wilde assigns to it, is as uniform as the interchangeable faces of the youths on the Parthenon frieze. Keats differs inasmuch as he is generally presented as erastus rather than eromenos, actively lifting his head and kissing the poet in "[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.]"; in "The Tomb of Keats" presented as "a Priest of Beauty," assimilated to Guido Reni's St. Sebastian, "with crisp, clustering hair and red lips ... raising his eyes with divine, impassioned gaze towards the Eternal Beauty of the opening heavens." (14) Here Keats is the philosophical erastes of the Symposium, who, ascending the erotic ladder to its highest rung and epi to polu pelagos tetrammenos tou kalou kai theoron ... gnoi auto teleuton ho esti kalon ("turning and gazing upon the great sea of beauty ... may know finally what beauty itself is" (15); 210d; 211c). In a letter of March 21, 1882 to Emma Speed, Keats's niece, who had sent Wilde the manuscript of Keats's "Sonnet on Blue," Wilde celebrates, with an inebriate rapture, his role as acolyte of the "Priest of Beauty": "now I am half-enamoured of the paper that touched his hand, and the ink that did his bidding, ... for since my boyhood I have loved none better than your marvellous kinsman, that godlike boy, the real Adonis of our age.... In my heaven he walks eternally with Shakespeare and the Greeks.... Again I thank you for this dear memory of the man I love." Wilde goes on to ask that Speed might keep near Keats's own papers the sonnet on Keats's grave that he encloses, so that "it may keep some green of youth caught from those withered leaves in whose faded lines eternal summer dwells." (16) Erotic metaphor shades into erotic fantasy ("the man I love"), while the preoccupation with relics and the magical properties of their touch makes a Catholic icon of the Greek ephebe. Wilde wrote to the Rev. J. Page Hopps on January 14, 1885 that Keats's grave was to him "the holiest place in Rome." (17) This displacement of the Pope was perhaps tactful in a letter to a Unitarian minister campaigning for less funereal ostentation, but that Wilde was now using Keats, or his grave, as an example of Protestant restraint suggests some embarrassment at his earlier intemperance. (18) His hostility to biographical prurience, expressed in his sonnet "On the Sale by Auction of Keats's Love Letters," tacitly acknowledges that he had been guilty of the accusation leveled at the English public in his letter to Edmond de Goncourt of December 17, 1891: "[il] n'a pas su trouver l'art dans l'oeuvre d'art: il y a cherche l'homme." (19)

The Sphinx has attracted little critical attention, though it would be tendentious to agree with Nicholas Frankel that "Nobody reads The Sphinx nowadays." (20) Frankel attributes this neglect to the tendency of editors to "reproduce The Sphinx uniformly with Wilde's plays, prose and poems alike, as if the poem (or for that matter, any of Wilde's works) were reducible to its linguistic structure alone" (p. 157). To print the text divorced from its original embodiment, a limited edition of luxurious and startling design illustrated by Charles Ricketts, is, in Frankel's opinion, "rather like reproducing The Book of Kells with no illumination" (p. 157). This cavil, particularly if extended to "any of Wilde's works," would peremptorily exclude readers without access to first editions, while Frankel's conception of the "linguistic structure" of Wilde's works as a typographical element of designed objects ignores Gilbert's strictures in "The Critic as Artist" against just this idea, (21) and mistakes those works' fundamentally oral character. The elaborate design of The Sphinx marks it not as primarily a material object, but as a poem to be read aloud, with much ceremony, from a lectern.

Frankel himself demonstrates that consideration of the "linguistic structure" alone of The Sphinx is sufficient to know it as an object, in his account of "the speaker's mad interrogation of the sphinx":

For the speaker's urgent questions are driven by a basic archaeological impulse, centered on the problem of defining just what an accurate knowledge of the sphinx might consist of. The sphinx starts out the poem simply as a relic, a pure object whose apparently meaningless form constitutes an unbearable enigma to the speaker's scholarly imagination ...; and the speaker's questions are in one sense historicist attempts to "know" the sphinx using the language of philology and myth (insofar as this approach had become a critical reflex among students of archaeology in the late nineteenth century). (Frankel, p. 166)

The series of questions and apostrophes to the silent sphinx that make up the poem can be traced directly to those addressed to the urn in Keats's ode, which, as David Ferris points out, mean that the "putative material existence" of the urn "must be derived from these acts of address, rather than from the precedent of a visual and material object." (22) Wilde's acts of address rewrite Keats's Hellenist, Romantic poem as an Egyptologically Decadent one, fantastically prolonging it in the process of moving beyond imitation of a revered predecessor into the form of criticism recommended in "The Critic as Artist": criticism which that dialogue specifies may take the form of poetry. (23)

Keats's ode opens confidently with a direct address to the urn: "Thou still unravished bride of quietness, / Thou foster-child of silence and slow time" (ll. 1-2). The anaphora, "Thou ... / Thou ...," places the urn in an uncomplicated frontal position beneath the gaze of the speaker. But the opening stanza of The Sphinx addresses the reader, not the relic, and delays the latter's appearance until the second line:
 In a dim corner of my room for longer than my fancy thinks
 A beautiful and silent Sphinx has watched me through the shifting
 gloom. (ll. 1-2)


First we are given a location--"a dim corner"--and then we are denied the knowledge of what is located there, the interposed clause "for longer than my fancy thinks" putting off the naming of the sphinx, as though the speaker dreads to face it. Like Keats's urn it is "beautiful and silent"; unlike it, it has eyes, and in a disquieting reversal of the relationship of Keats's speaker and the urn, it watches the speaker. Not until line eleven can the speaker bring himself to turn and address the sphinx, in a sudden torrent of exhortation that has no counterpart in Keats's considered questions and statements:
 Come forth my lovely seneschal! So somnulent, so statuesque!
 Come forth you exquisite grotesque! Half woman and half animal!
 Come forth my lovely langorous Sphinx! And put your head upon
 my knee!
 And let me stroke your throat and see your body spotted like the
 lynx!

(ll. 11-14)


The act of ventriloquism that concludes Keats's ode becomes at the commencement of Wilde's an attribution of agency and volition to the Sphinx, a fantasized erotic encounter to be initiated by an inanimate object. The timelessness and permanence of Keats's urn, a comfort "in midst of ... woe" (l. 47), becomes in The Sphinx the nightmarish fact that it will not leave:
 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.
 ....
 Why are you tarrying? Get hence! I weary of your sullen ways,
 I weary of your steadfast gaze, your somnolent magnificence.

(ll. 5-6, 149-150)


The sphinx's longevity is imagined as a burden to itself as well as to the speaker:
 A thousand weary centuries are thine while I have hardly seen
 Some twenty summers cast their green for autumn's gaudy liveries.

(ll. 17-18)


The first question--"O tell me, were you standing by when Isis to Osiris knelt?" (l. 20)--inaugurates a sequence in which the speaker's cognition of the sphinx expands to incorporate the whole history of the ancient near east, in which Greece figures as a submerged element, evoked in oblique allusions to the "horrible Chimaera" (l. 51), "some Nereid" (l. 54), the sphinx's "curved archaic smile [as in the famous archaic smile of sixth-century Greek sculpture]" (l. 86), "the Colchian witch [Medea]" (l. 98), the "snake-tressed Fury fresh from Hell," and the "poppy-drowsy Queen [Persephone]" (ll. 161-162). Other allusions to Asiatic cults adopted by the Ionian Greeks strengthen further the Orient's claim on Greece: the "naked vine-leaved Corybants" (l. 99), "Atys with his blood-stained knife" (l. 170). The Greece glimpsed through these references is occult, frenzied (in myth Atys castrated himself for the earth-goddess Cybele, and historically her votaries did likewise), a smouldering corrective to Keats's "Cold Pastoral" (l. 45). The Chimaera that emerges from the "brick-built Lyclan tomb" (l. 51) is followed by an apparent change of subject:
 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. 53-54)


But the train of thought is provoked by the presence in the British Museum of the Nereid Monument, a brick-built tomb excavated at Xanthos in Lykia by Sir Charles Fellows in 1842 to the chagrin of Wilde's father, Sir William Wilde, who felt that his own explorations of Lykia at the same time as Fellows ought to have attracted equal attention. (24) The sphinx, therefore, as well as being subjected to a hysterical archaeological exegesis, is conceived as an archaeologist, the profession itself one of "shameful secret quests," kidnap, and rape. Toward the end of the poem the speaker's location is revealed to those who know:
 See, the dawn shivers round the grey gilt-dialled towers, and the
 rain
 Streams down each diamonded pane and blurs with tears the
 wannish day. (ll. 159-160)


The speaker, who has "hardly seen / Some twenty summers," is a student at Oxford, where Wilde perhaps began writing the poem as a freshman in 1874. (25) The inclusion of archaeology in classical studies at Oxford was resisted at the highest level on the grounds that it would compromise the humanist, dialectical, text-based approach promoted there; (26) The Sphinx dramatizes the frustrations and fantasies engendered by an attempted dialogue with a mute artefact, the diseased fecundity of its narrator's imagination a warning against letting archaeology on to the syllabus.

The speaker's first question is preceded by a series of statements:
 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)


No evidence is offered for these assertions, and the only distinction maintained between question or statement in the poem is a decorative one, a variation in what would otherwise be a monotonous litany. The regular alternation between question and statement in Keats' ode are carefully modulated to correspond to the speaker's positive ignorance and subjective responses: "What men or gods are these? What maidens loth? ... Bold Lover, never, never canst thou kiss" (ll. 8, 17). Whom precisely the figures on the urn represent is a matter for conjecture; that they cannot move is a legitimate pretext for imaginative reverie. "Who are these coming to the sacrifice? ... little town, thy streets for evermore / Will silent be" (ll. 31, 38-39). Again the identity of the figures is unknown; but the deduction that the procession has left an imagined town empty is logical. In "Ode on a Grecian Urn" the speaker's acknowledged ignorance admits the existence of the urn as something separate from himself, with its own unknown meanings in addition to those he bestows upon it; in The Sphinx, the speaker's ignorance is presented as an intolerable imposition by the object of that ignorance, to be countered with an effluence of statements disguised as questions that eventually obliterate their supposed referent in the attempt to suppress its otherness.

"Who were your lovers?" asks Wilde's speaker (l. 45), echoing the apostrophe in the second stanza of Keats's ode; but the eternal love of the urn, "For ever warm and still to be enjoy'd, / For ever panting, and for ever young" (ll. 26-27), becomes in The Sphinx eternal promiscuity: "what leman had you, every day?" (l. 46). After a catalogue of possible lovers, the speaker hits at random upon certainty: "Nay, I know / Great Ammon was your bedfellow! He lay with you beside the Nile! ... White Ammon was your bedfellow! Your chamber was the steaming Nile!" (ll. 73-74, 85). In The Sphinx, to assert a thing is to know it, and to repeat an assertion is to provide evidence for it, contra Keats and his scholarly humility before the unknown. The mention of Ammon introduces a long digression on his ancient worship--an elephantine corollary to the description of the sacrifice in Keats's ode--in which the sphinx is entirely forgotten, ending with the claim, "deep hidden in the windy sand / I saw his giant granite hand still clenched in impotent despair" (ll. 115-116). With the loss of the object (the sphinx) the subject too is lost, free to fantasize himself a wanderer in the Egyptian desert rather than an undergraduate at Oxford, because the distance between object and subject has been so collapsed as to achieve identity.

The return of the speaker's attention to the sphinx is marked by another repeated assertion--"But These, thy lovers, are not dead.... Your lovers are not dead, I know" (ll. 131, 137)--that also marks a return to the theme of the immortal lovers taken from Keats's ode and given a new, corrupt significance. In the final stanzas the speaker, sickened by the sphinx, or rather by himself, as if by now there were a difference--"You wake in me each bestial sense, you make me what I would not be ..., you wake foul dreams of sensual life" (ll. 168, 169)--turns to another artefact:
 leave me to my Crucifix,
 Whose pallid burden, sick with pain, watches the world with
 wearied eyes,
 And weeps for every soul that dies, and weeps for every soul in
 vain.

(ll. 172-174)


Whereas Keats's urn "dost tease us out of thought / As does eternity" (l. 44), the reference to eternity confirming that he conceives it as offering access to an ideal realm beyond thought, Wilde's sphinx, making the speaker's "creed a barren sham" (l. 169), teases him out of thought so as to leave him a prisoner of his appetites. Helen Vendler says of the first stanza of Keats's ode that it "gives way to a mounting voyeuristic excitement, as the beholder surrenders to the orgiastic scene.... [A]t the very moment of its interrogatory climax, it is admonished by a reproof of the sensual, as the wild ecstasy is replaced, in a striking whitening of voice, by soft pipes which play 'not to the sensual ear' but rather 'to the spirit ditties of no tone'" (Vendler, p. 124). In Wilde's poem no such admonition occurs; instead of ditties played on soft pipes to the spirit alone, the sphinx's lovers "clash their cymbals" (l. 138). The Sphinx makes poetry of a failure to move beyond the interrogatory frenzy of the first stanza of Keats's ode, offering instead of "a generous loss of self in the other" a desperate attempt to submerge the other in the self. Confirmation that Wilde, consciously or unconsciously, had Keats's ode in mind, comes in the final line: the paired repetitions of "weeps" and "every soul" recall the repetitions of "Truth" and "Beauty," "all," and "know" in the final lines of the "Ode on a Grecian Urn," even reproducing the position of the verb: "And weeps for every soul that dies, and weeps"; "Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know." Archaeological interrogation of a silent artefact, whose answers can only be ventriloquized, leads to stasis and exhaustion, and while the speaker's new epistemology finally repels him, he finds, in an attempted return to the old--unhistoricized Christianity--that it is no longer adequate. At the beginning of the century Keats's ode responded to the enthusiastic amateurism of archaeology's inception; by the end of the century the discipline had been professionalised and specialized, casting over the previously free realm of antiquity a net of chronological and topographical overdetermination. In writing Charmides Wilde had attempted to tailor his poetry to the exigencies of Keats's era, producing an uncomfortable hybrid. In writing The Sphinx he took Keats's ode and made it his own; he brought it up to date.

Notes

(1) All quotations of Wilde's poetry are from Bobby Fong and Karl Beckson, eds., The Complete Works of Oscar Wilde I: Poems and Poems in Prose (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2000).

(2) Martin Aske, Keats and Hellenism: An Essay (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1985), p. 1.

(3) Helen Vendler, The Odes of John Keats (Cambridge The Belknap Press of Harvard Univ. Press, 1983), pp. 123-125.

(4) John Keats, letter to Benjamin Bailey, October 8, 1817, in Elizabeth Cook, ed. The Oxford Authors: John Keats (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1990), p. 361.

(5) John Ruskin, The Queen of the Air: Being a Study of the Greek Myths of Cloud and Storm (London, 1869), p. 20.

(6) Oscar Wilde, "The Truth of Masks," Intentions and The Soul of Man (London: Methuen, 1908), p. 245.

(7) Oscar Wilde, "Two Biographies of Keats (Pall Mall Gazette, 27 September, 1887)," Reviews (London: Methuen, 1908), p 184.

(8) Aske, p. 138. Aske characterizes "Corinth" as "a strong, 'masculine' cadence"; but Corinth was famous as the city of Aphrodite and for the goddess's temple prostitutes, referenced by Keats in the "temples lewd" of I.352. Corinth is thus an appropriate setting for a story of sexual enchantment by a daimonic woman.

(9) OW to Lord Houghton, c. May 17, 1877, The Complete Letters of Oscar Wilde, ed. Merlin Holland and Rupert Hart-Davis (London: Fourth Estate, 2000), p. 50.

(10) Oscar Wilde, "The Rise of Historical Criticism [parts I-III]," Lord Arthur Savile's Crime and Other Prose Pieces (London: Methuen, 1908), pp. 224-225.

(11) Oscar Wilde, "Helena in Troas," Reviews (London, Methuen, 1908), p. 72.

(12) See also the variants of "Pan. Double Villanelle" given in Fong and Beckson, pp. 140-142.

(13) Nineteenth-century mythography also emphasized the differences between Greek mythology and the mythologies of other nations, rather than, in the manner of the eighteenth century, the similarities. See J. A. Symonds. Studies of the Greek Poets, second series (London, 1876), p. 6; Suzanne L. Marchand. Down from Olympus: Archaeology and Philhellenism in Germany, 1750-1970 (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1996), p. 44.

(14) Oscar Wilde, "The Tomb of Keats (Irish Monthly, July 1877)," Miscellanies (London: Methuen, 1908), pp. 3-4. In his review of the Grosvenor Gallery of the same month Wilde compared Guido Reni's Sebastian to the boys of the Greek islands, "as beautiful as the Charmides of Plato":"The Grosvenor Gallery 1877 (Dublin University Magazine, July 1877)," Miscellanies, pp. 5-23; 12. Wilde assimilates Keats to his hero Endymion in "Amor Intellectualis" (1877-78; ll. 10-11) and "Sonnet. On the Sale by Auction of Keats' Love Letters" (1885; 1. 1), and makes him Sappho's heir in "The Grave of Keats" (1877; l. 10). See Sarah Wootton, Consuming Keats: Nineteenth. Century Representations in Art and Literature (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006), pp. 33-40, for a recent account of the erotic dynamics of Wilde's representations of Keats, focusing particularly on "Endymion" (1878).

(15) Author's translation. The edition of of Plato's works prescribed at Oxford when Wilde was studying there was J. G. Baiter, J. K. von Orelli, and A. W. Winckelmann, Platonis Opera omnia (Zurich: Meyer & Zeller, 1839-54).

(16) OW to Emma Speed, March 21, 1882; Holland and Hart-Davis, pp. 157-158.

(17) OW to the Rev. J. Page Hopps, January 14, 1885; Holland and Hart-Davis, p. 247.

(18) Although he could still conflate Keats with Endymion in 1885; see note 14.

(19) OW to Edmond de Goncourt, December 17, 1891; Holland and Hart-Davis, p. 505.

(20) Nicholas Frankel, Oscar Wilde's Illustrated Books (Ann Arbor: Univ. of Michigan Press, 2000), p. 155.

(21) "Since the introduction of printing ... there has been a tendency in literature to appeal more and more to the eye, and less and less to the ear.... We ... have made writing a definite mode of composition, and have treated it as a form of elaborate design.... Yes: writing has done much harm to writers. We must return to the voice" (Oscar Wilde, "The Critic as Artist," Intentions and The Soul of Man, pp. 117-119).

(22) David Ferris, Silent Urns: Romanticism, Hellenism, Modernity (Stanford: Stanford Univ. Press, 2000), p. 81.

(23) Wilde, "The Critic as Artist," pp. 192-195.

(24) W.R. Wilde, Narrative of a Voyage to Madeira, Teneriffe and Along the Shores of the Mediterranean (Dublin, 1844), pp. 331, 332n.

(25) Richard Ellmann, Oscar Wilde (New York: Knopf, 1988), p. 90.

(26) Christopher Stray, Classics Transformed: Schools, Universities, and Society in England, 1830-1960 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998), pp. 152,205ff; Linda Dowling, Hellenism and Homosexuality in Victorian Oxford (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1994), pp. 64, 73.
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Author:Ross, Iain
Publication:Victorian Poetry
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Date:Dec 22, 2008
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