Thursday, June 11, 2009

"The Sphinx" by Oscar Wilde

As part of our closing ceremonies here At the Sign of the Yellow Sphinx, it is my pleasure to present to you a poem by my close personal friend, Oscar Wilde.

[lights down]

(To Marcel Schwob in friendship and in admiration)

In a dim corner of my room for longer than

my fancy thinks

A beautiful and silent Sphinx has watched me

through the shifting gloom.

Inviolate and immobile she does not rise she

does not stir

For silver moons are naught to her and naught

to her the suns that reel.

Red follows grey across the air, the waves of

moonlight ebb and flow

But with the Dawn she does not go and in the

night-time she is there.

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.

Upon the mat she lies and leers and on the

tawny throat of her

Flutters the soft and silky fur or ripples to her

pointed ears.

Come forth, my lovely seneschal! so somnolent,

so statuesque!

Come forth you exquisite grotesque! half woman

and half animal!

Come forth my lovely languorous Sphinx! and

put your head upon my knee!

And let me stroke your throat and see your

body spotted like the Lynx!

And let me touch those curving claws of yellow

ivory and grasp

The tail that like a monstrous Asp coils round

your heavy velvet paws!

A thousand weary centuries are thine

while I have hardly seen

Some twenty summers cast their green for

Autumn's gaudy liveries.

But you can read the Hieroglyphs on the

great sandstone obelisks,

And you have talked with Basilisks, and you

have looked on Hippogriffs.

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


And did you talk with Thoth, and did you hear

the moon-horned Io weep?

And know the painted kings who sleep beneath

the wedge-shaped Pyramid?

Lift up your large black satin eyes which are

like cushions where one sinks!

Fawn at my feet, fantastic Sphinx! and sing me all your memories!

Sing to me of the Jewish maid who wandered

with the Holy Child,

And how you led them through the wild, and

how they slept beneath your shade.

Sing to me of that odorous green eve when

crouching by the marge

You heard from Adrian's gilded barge the

laughter of Antinous

And lapped the stream and fed your drouth and

watched with hot and hungry stare

The ivory body of that rare young slave with

his pomegranate mouth!

Sing to me of the Labyrinth in which the twi-

formed bull was stalled!

Sing to me of the night you crawled across the

temple's granite plinth

When through the purple corridors the screaming

scarlet Ibis flew

In terror, and a horrid dew dripped from the

moaning Mandragores,

And the great torpid crocodile within the tank

shed slimy tears,

And tare the jewels from his ears and staggered

back into the Nile,

And the priests cursed you with shrill psalms as

in your claws you seized their snake

And crept away with it to slake your passion by

the shuddering palms.

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?

Did monstrous hippopotami come sidling toward

you in the mist?

Did gilt-scaled dragons writhe and twist with

passion as you passed them by?

And from the brick-built Lycian tomb what

horrible Chimera came

With fearful heads and fearful flame to breed

new wonders from your womb?

Or had you shameful secret quests and did

you harry to your home

Some Nereid coiled in amber foam with curious

rock crystal breasts?

Or did you treading through the froth call to

the brown Sidonian

For tidings of Leviathan, Leviathan or


Or did you when the sun was set climb up the

cactus-covered slope

To meet your swarthy Ethiop whose body was

of polished jet?

Or did you while the earthen skiffs dropped

down the grey Nilotic flats

At twilight and the flickering bats flew round

the temple's triple glyphs

Steal to the border of the bar and swim across

the silent lake

And slink into the vault and make the Pyramid

your lupanar

Till from each black sarcophagus rose up the

painted swathed dead?

Or did you lure unto your bed the ivory-horned


Or did you love the god of flies who plagued

the Hebrews and was splashed

With wine unto the waist? or Pasht, who had

green beryls for her eyes?

Or that young god, the Tyrian, who was more

amorous than the dove

Of Ashtaroth? or did you love the god of the


Whose wings, like strange transparent talc, rose

high above his hawk-faced head,

Painted with silver and with red and ribbed with

rods of Oreichalch?

Or did huge Apis from his car leap down and

lay before your feet

Big blossoms of the honey-sweet and honey-

coloured nenuphar?

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!

The river-horses in the slime trumpeted when

they saw him come

Odorous with Syrian galbanum and smeared with

spikenard and with thyme.

He came along the river bank like some tall

galley argent-sailed,

He strode across the waters, mailed in beauty,

and the waters sank.

He strode across the desert sand: he reached

the valley where you lay:

He waited till the dawn of day: then touched

your black breasts with his hand.

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.

White Ammon was your bedfellow! Your

chamber was the steaming Nile!

And with your curved archaic smile you watched

his passion come and go.

With Syrian oils his brows were bright:

and wide-spread as a tent at noon

His marble limbs made pale the moon and lent

the day a larger light.

His long hair was nine cubits' span and coloured

like that yellow gem

Which hidden in their garment's hem the

merchants bring from Kurdistan.

His face was as the must that lies upon a vat of

new-made wine:

The seas could not insapphirine the perfect azure

of his eyes.

His thick soft throat was white as milk and

threaded with thin veins of blue:

And curious pearls like frozen dew were

broidered on his flowing silk.

On pearl and porphyry pedestalled he was

too bright to look upon:

For on his ivory breast there shone the wondrous


That mystic moonlit jewel which some diver of

the Colchian caves

Had found beneath the blackening waves and

carried to the Colchian witch.

Before his gilded galiot ran naked vine-wreathed


And lines of swaying elephants knelt down to

draw his chariot,

And lines of swarthy Nubians bare up his litter

as he rode

Down the great granite-paven road between the

nodding peacock-fans.

The merchants brought him steatite from Sidon

in their painted ships:

The meanest cup that touched his lips was

fashioned from a chrysolite.

The merchants brought him cedar chests of rich

apparel bound with cords:

His train was borne by Memphian lords: young

kings were glad to be his guests.

Ten hundred shaven priests did bow to Ammon's

altar day and night,

Ten hundred lamps did wave their light through

Ammon's carven house--and now

Foul snake and speckled adder with their young

ones crawl from stone to stone

For ruined is the house and prone the great

rose-marble monolith!

Wild ass or trotting jackal comes and couches

in the mouldering gates:

Wild satyrs call unto their mates across the

fallen fluted drums.

And on the summit of the pile the blue-faced

ape of Horus sits

And gibbers while the fig-tree splits the pillars

of the peristyle

The god is scattered here and there: deep

hidden in the windy sand

I saw his giant granite hand still clenched in

impotent despair.

And many a wandering caravan of stately

negroes silken-shawled,

Crossing the desert, halts appalled before the

neck that none can span.

And many a bearded Bedouin draws back his

yellow-striped burnous

To gaze upon the Titan thews of him who was

thy paladin.

Go, seek his fragments on the moor and

wash them in the evening dew,

And from their pieces make anew thy mutilated


Go, seek them where they lie alone and from

their broken pieces make

Thy bruised bedfellow! And wake mad passions

in the senseless stone!

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!

Wind round his head the figured coins! stain

with red fruits those pallid lips!

Weave purple for his shrunken hips! and purple

for his barren loins!

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.

But these, thy lovers, are not dead. Still by the

hundred-cubit gate

Dog-faced Anubis sits in state with lotus-lilies

for thy head.

Still from his chair of porphyry gaunt Memnon

strains his lidless eyes

Across the empty land, and cries each yellow

morning unto thee.

And Nilus with his broken horn lies in his black

and oozy bed

And till thy coming will not spread his waters on

the withering corn.

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 take a tiger for your mate, whose amber

sides are flecked with black,

And ride upon his gilded back in triumph

through the Theban gate,

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 are you tarrying? Get hence! I

weary of your sullen ways,

I weary of your steadfast gaze, your somnolent


Your horrible and heavy breath makes the light

flicker in the lamp,

And on my brow I feel the damp and dreadful

dews of night and death.

Your eyes are like fantastic moons that shiver

in some stagnant lake,

Your tongue is like a scarlet snake that dances

to fantastic tunes,

Your pulse makes poisonous melodies, and your

black throat is like the hole

Left by some torch or burning coal on Saracenic


Away! The sulphur-coloured stars are hurrying

through the Western gate!

Away! Or it may be too late to climb their silent

silver cars!

See, the dawn shivers round the grey gilt-dialled

towers, and the rain

Streams down each diamonded pane and blurs

with tears the wannish day.

What snake-tressed fury fresh from Hell, with

uncouth gestures and unclean,

Stole from the poppy-drowsy queen and led you

to a student's cell?

What songless tongueless ghost of sin crept

through the curtains of the night,

And saw my taper burning bright, and knocked,

and bade you enter in?

Are there not others more accursed, whiter with

leprosies than I?

Are Abana and Pharphar dry that you come here

to slake your thirst?

Get hence, you loathsome mystery! Hideous

animal, get hence!

You wake in me each bestial sense, you make me

what I would not be.

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.

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.


Van Choojitarom said...

My favorite thing about this poem is, given access to a mythical being, Wilde's natural question is "who did you make it with?"

Jordan said...

He had his priorities straight. There are so many great words in this poem. I'm going to try to work leman and lupanar into casual conversation.