In "The Sphinx", Oscar Wilde infuses a sense of sensuality in his depiction of the ever-standing sphinx. He uses personification on this "Inviolate and immobile" figure of the ancient times to give her the breath of life and to transform her from a simple slab of stone into a character oozing sexual prowess. The poem reflects a dream like state where the lone sphinx remains immutable despite the constant motions of time and her surroundings. She is firm, withstanding the effects of time, as she becomes a silent observer of the times passing by. Wilde's narrator continually poses rhetorical questions to the sphinx:

O tell me, were you standing by when Isis to
Osiris knelt?
And did you watch the Egyptian melt her union
for Antony

And drink the jewel-drunken wine and bend
her head in mimic awe
To see the huge proconsul draw the salted tunny
from the brine?

And did you mark the Cyprian kiss white Adon
on his catafalque?
And did you follow Amenalk, the God of
Heliopolis?

Not only do these repetitive questions emphasize the old age of the sphinx but also her continuity. She alone has stood by with her "subtle-secret" smile through the passage of time, and while those around her such as the pharaoh, Cleopatra, and her lover Antony have fallen, the sphinx remains, untouched by the circumstances of life. The narrator even goes to the extent of portraying her with predator like qualities, biding her time to feed on those who become entranced by her exotic features. She is a silent, sexual predator luring in potential lovers unlearned of on her destructive nature.

Your lovers are not dead, I know. They will
rise up and hear your voice
And clash their cymbals and rejoice and run to
kiss your mouth! And so,

Set wings upon your argosies! Set horses to
your ebon car!
Back to your Nile! Or if you are grown sick of
dead divinities

Follow some roving lion's spoor across the copper-
coloured plain,
Reach out and hale him by the mane and bid
him be your paramour!

Couch by his side upon the grass and set your
white teeth in his throat
And when you hear his dying note lash your
long flanks of polished brass . . .

And toy with him in amorous jests, and when
he turns, and snarls, and gnaws,
O smite him with your jasper claws! and bruise
him with your agate breasts!

The late nineteenth century had great interest in events related to Egypt. The Illustrated London News, for example, showed images of monuments of Egypt such as the Great Sphinx of Giza and the Tombs of the Mamelukes of Cairo. The presence of these influences may have inspired Wilde to delve deep into the histories of the Egyptian arts. Wilde explores Egyptian art by giving life to the Sphinx and creating her into a character that is the epitome of sexuality. He uses the sphinx's ability to dominate her lovers as a reflection on her immutability, she manages to conquer her surroundings rather than be conquered herself. The sphinx's sexual nature enraptures the narrator's mind as he states: "False Sphinx! False Sphinx! By reedy Styxold/ Charon, leaning on his oar,/Waits for my coin." He is fully aware of the alluring factor of the sphinx but knows he is powerless against the sexual deviant.

Questions

1. The narrator states: "Your lovers are not dead, I know. They will rise up and hear your voice." What does he mean by this? Are her past lovers to return or is she to lure more in the future to replenish the ones she has lost?

2. What effect does the sphinx's immutability have on the poem as a whole?

3. Compare these passages:

Couch by his side upon the grass and set your
white teeth in his throat
And when you hear his dying note lash your
long flanks of polished brass

and

And toy with him in amorous jests, and when
he turns, and snarls, and gnaws,
O smite him with your jasper claws! and bruise
him with your agate breasts!

Why does the narrator first speak of violence when taming the lover, but then switch to another tactic, the use of feminine wiles?

4. At the end of the poem, the narrator believes there is no escape from the sphinx. Why then does he scream for her to leave? Is it merely a means of making himself feel better by saying he tried to resist her?


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Last modified 30 April 2010