Academic journal article Style

"Jeweled Style": Autonomous Artificiality as Gemstone Text-Ure in Wilde's the Sphinx

Academic journal article Style

"Jeweled Style": Autonomous Artificiality as Gemstone Text-Ure in Wilde's the Sphinx

Article excerpt

In an annotative comment in vol. 4 of the definitive edition of Oscar Wilde's writings, Josephine Guy contends that references to exotic gemstones "are usually employed to denote a conspicuous and decadent luxury" (Wilde, Criticism 388). (1) Luxury, in fact, is the basis from which gemstone imagery sets off a semantic mutation which strives to liberate artifice from the shackles of linguistic function. This happens ingeniously in The Sphinx (1894), a true specimen of Victorian curiosa, over-coated with a rich gemological and mineral network. While Salome (1893), The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890, 1891), the fairy tales (1888, 1891), and the essays in Intentions (1891) exhibit local bursts of gemstones, almost all stanzas in The Sphinx consistently feature precious materials. The proliferative use of this imagery offers new insight to the effects of Wilde's notion of the "jeweled style."

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. …

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