Charmides and the Sphinx: Wilde's Engagement with Keats

By Ross, Iain | Victorian Poetry, Winter 2008 | Go to article overview

Charmides and the Sphinx: Wilde's Engagement with Keats


Ross, Iain, Victorian Poetry


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. …

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