In his poem "The Sphinx," Oscar Wilde takes up this mythical animal-woman as a symbol of the decadent life by employing a majority of the long-held paradoxical paradigms about women that Simone de Beauvoir and other feminist thinkers would later harshly criticize. The first stanza introduce the Sphinx as a mysterious and exotic creature to be ogled like a captive animal at the zoo.
Dawn follows Dawn and Nights grow old and
all the while this curious cat
Lies couching on the Chinese mat with eyes of
satin rimmed with gold.
Later, the poem humanizes the Sphinx and suggests she is sexually promiscuous and immoral in unmistakably reproachful language.
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?
The poem goes on to enumerate The Sphinx's lovers, a list that includes beasts, mythical animals, monsters, gods, and exotic warriors from Ethiopia and Syria. The poem describes each of her lovers in turn, also commenting on her sexual appetite and tastes, necrophilia and murder among them. However, after censuring al of these these deviant habits, the poem's speaker entreats The Sphinx to devote herself to nursing her last lover back to health, her duty as a woman and a direct contradiction to the preceding description of The Sphinx as a voracious man-eater.
Charm his dull ear with Syrian hymns! he loved
your body! oh, be kind,
Pour spikenard on his hair, and wind soft rolls
of linen round his limbs!
The poem reduces and condemns The Sphinx for a variety of contradictory crimes of identity and identifies her as a mascot of the "sensual life." The Sphinx is "bad" because she is a feminine mystery, an irresistible seductress, a destroyer, but she is also a mother and healer. The speaker even goes as far to accuse The Sphinx of his own desire to take part in "the sensual life."
You make my creed a barren sham, you wake
foul dreams of sensual life,
And Atys with his blood-stained knife were
better than the thing I am.
In the last stanzas of the poem, the speaker compares himself as Christ on the crucifix who lived a moral and austere life while the rest of the world was seduced by the worldly, decadent, and hedonistic urges personified in this ultimate female power-being.
1. Wilde uses this poem as a vehicle to convey a great deal of history and mythology to the audience. What was Wilde's motive for including so much information in this poem? Do all these references speak to his overarching intentions for the piece?
2. Why does Wilde choose the figure of the Sphinx to represent "the sensual life?"
3. Dowson ends "Nuns of Perpetual Adoration" by asking "Surely their [the nuns'] choice of vigil is the best? Yea! for our roses fade, the world is wild; But there, beside the altar, there, is rest." At the end of "The Sphinx," the speaker "weeps for every soul in vain" ostensibly because they have all chosen to the sensual life over the aesthetic. What kind of dialogue or commentary on society do these two poems produce?
4. Did Wilde write this poem about genuine questions he was grappling with in his life, or was the poem merely a writerly exercise?
- The Riddle of "The Sphinx": Difficult Questions and Troublesome Answers
- The Sphinx in Art and Literature
Last modified 23 April 2009