Oscar Wilde draws his conception of the Sphinx in decadent fashion, calling to mind Franz von Stuck's sexualized renditions of the creature in The Sphinx and Kiss of the Sphinx.

Two paintings by Franx von StuckKiss of the Sphinx and The Sphinx. [Click on thumbnails for larger images.]

In "The Sphinx," Wilde, a veritable brothel-man, plays up the Sphinx's exoticism to evoke her sensuality and peddles her off to all of the gods and beasts in the purview of his colorful client base. Wilde's speaker inquires of her lovers, and accuses her of her many consorts:

Who were your lovers? who were they
who wrestled for you in the dust?
Which was the vessel of your Lust? What
Leman had you, every day?

Did giant Lizards come and crouch before you
on the reedy banks?
Did Gryphons with great metal flanks leap on
you in your trampled couch?

Wilde's language employs the mythic quality of the beasts to at once convey their strangeness and magnificence, however his descriptions are mostly abstractions that rely on the name and the image his readers associate with it to evoke the presence of each beast. As the inquiries continue to build, the tone turns accusatory towards the Sphinx and she is made out to be a sort of prostitute to the ranks of mythical monsters. Wilde, however, complicates this conception of the Sphinx as a prostitute when he introduces her true lover:

How subtle-secret is your smile! Did you
love none then? Nay, I know
Great Ammon was your bedfellow! He lay with
you beside the Nile!

...

You kissed his mouth with mouths of flame:
you made the horned god your own:
You stood behind him on his throne: you called
him by his secret name.

You whispered monstrous oracles into the
caverns of his ears:
With blood of goats and blood of steers you
taught him monstrous miracles.

Whereas the Sphinx was previously likened to a prostitute and subject to the speaker's libel, Wilde now reveals a layer of depth to the Sphinx in her power over her lover. That Ammon, a worshipped oracle god, receives his information from the Sphinx who has "taught him monstrous miracles," is a testament to her true power as the god's mistress. Yet the Sphinx remains in the shadows and Wilde reserves the poem's loftiest and most lush images to describe the god Ammon, perhaps a comment on the power of women in society, far beyond the ken of their acknowledged roles but still not fully emerged from behind the men who stand at the forefront.

The riddle of the Sphinx and what she symbolizes grows deeper as speaker confronts her directly at the end of the poem, cursing her presence and decries what emotions of lust and sensuality she awakens within him. He highlights the Sphinx as an allegory of these negative qualities, and turns to his Christian beliefs to clear his mind of the thoughts that haunt him:

False Sphinx! False Sphinx! By reedy Styx
old Charon, leaning on his oar,
Waits for my coin. Go thou before, and 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.

Questions

1. Who is this "False Sphinx," if not a true Sphinx, and why is she false? Why, at the conclusion of the poem, does Wilde choose to make this distinction?

2. Does Wilde's exotification of the Sphinx and her posited relations with other deities and beasts ever cross into the satiric realm? Is this instance of cross-cultural pimping that is byproduct of the decadent movement?

3. What does Wilde hope to accomplish by juxtaposing the image of the Sphinx as a lowly prostitute against her "bedfellow," the magnificent and widely-worshipped "Great Ammon"? There seem to be aspects of both empowerment and objectification, and there are a lot of angles from which to approach this question.

4. Though most of the poem concentrates on Egyptian and other foreign gods, Wilde inserts a brief stanza comparing all of the Sphinx's Egyptian lover-gods to Christ:

Away to Egypt! Have no fear. Only one
God has ever died.
Only one God has let His side be wounded by a
soldier's spear.

What does it mean that only Christ "has ever died," and all the other gods the speakers mentioned continue to live? Contrasting the brevity of Christ's life as a human with the eternal nature of the Sphinx, what sort of message comes across?

5. Considering this passage in connection with the speaker's beliefs and the conclusion of the poem, does Wilde face the Christian speaker against the temptation of the Sphinx and pagan gods to suggest something about the status of belief at the time he wrote "The Sphinx"? What sort of cultural presence did Egypt and Africa have in Europe at the time?


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Last modified 30 April 2010