With the exception of The Ballad of Reading Gaol and the occasional comment on "The Harlot's House," Oscar Wilde's poetic production has now been almost completely eclipsed by the tremendous academic and popular-culture attention given to his dramas, (1) to his eclectic novel The Picture of Dorian Gray and to his fairy tales. Even his collection of essays and his tentative approaches to the literary theory of l'art pour l'art have, in the course of the recent decades, elicited more scholarly investigation than his erudite and myth-laden poetry, particularly his obscure poem "The Sphinx."
At first glance, "The Sphinx" seems to be just another sensational work of art taking advantage of the fin-de-siecle predilection for the grotesque, the monstrous and the gothic. (2) The sphinx, like the vampire and many other chimerical creatures, can be counted among the stock-in-trade motifs of late nineteenth century literature and art invented to transgress the Victorian notions of reason and decorum. Thus the reader is led to believe that Wilde, in accordance with many decadent writers and artists, caters to the bizarre neo-Romantic taste for sensational images of misogynism. Up to now the few essays dealing with "The Sphinx"--according to Isobel Murray, "Wilde's best Decadent poem" (3)--have tended to concentrate on images of decadent morbidity while hardly any critic has acknowledged that Wilde's poem must be accorded a much more prominent, if not a key position in the writer's oeuvre. Focusing on the basic contradictions nineteenth-century aestheticism struggled to solve, it gives the attentive reader a shattering insight into the utopian impracticability of dandyish life and is thus, more than any other piece of decadent art, a revealing comment on the illusoriness and deceptiveness of finde-siecle facades and masks.
Published in 1894, only one year prior to Wilde's downfall as a dandy, (4) in a slim volume of forty-four unnumbered pages, with elaborate art nouveau illustrations by Charles Ricketts and a dedication to the French symbolist poet Marcel Schwob, the poem itself with its exquisite binding of white vellum stamped with gold leaf was to be more than just an exceptional and attention-riveting book: like the famous "Preface" to The Picture of Dorian Gray, it was meant to be a kind of self-sufficient manifesto against Victorian didacticism and utilitarian instruction. The additional fact that "The Sphinx" was published in a very limited edition corroborates Wilde's intention that the booklet should be seen as a literary gem for the sensual delight of the splendid few and not for vulgar eyes. "My first idea," Wilde is reported to have said, "was to print only three copies: one for myself, one for the British Museum, and one for Heaven. I had some doubt about the British Museum." (5)
What, however, from the outset reveals a deeply ingrained contradiction in this work is the fact that Wilde's flippant remarks about the extreme elitism of the book's readership clash with the literary matrix on which it is modelled. Far from leaving the trodden paths of his culture behind and, like Mallarme, venturing into the new territory of a poesie pure, in his 174 iambic lines he almost blasphemously makes use of and clings to the metrical peculiarities of one of the most popular poems of the Victorian age: Tennyson's elegiac poem on the death of Arthur Hallam In Memoriam (1850)--an affirmative poem which was highly esteemed by his contemporaries, and especially by Queen Victoria, who derived consolation from it after the untimely death of the Prince Consort in 1861. Hence, the Victorian substratum of the poem, its firm rooting in nineteenth century literary history and thought ought not to be ignored as it has been in the few critical works which emphasize its quaint singularity and simply characterize it as "nonsense poetry of the purest verbal music of rhythm and rhyme." (6)
The first thought that comes to the reader's mind is the striking affinity "The Sphinx" has with Edgar Allan Poe's poem "The Raven" (7): both poems deal with the monologues of highly-strung students who suddenly cannot help being exposed to the intrusion of the fantastic and uncanny into their secluded world of prosaic life. …