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Critical reception of the sphinx

As already observed, publication of The Sphinx was held up for the best part of a year, in part because of the attention given by Mathews and Lane to Salome and The Yellow Book , but perhaps also because of some reticence on the part of the publishers as well as by Ricketts’s efforts, whilst engaged on The Sphinx , to illustrate, print, and privately publish an edition of Hero and Leander , by Christopher Marlowe and George Chapman. When the book was eventually published in June 1894, The Sphinx appeared on either 8 June 1894 (Nelson The Early Nineties , 322; A Checklist , 59) or 11 June 1894 (Mason, Bibliography , 394) as a large octavo, measuring 8 ½ inches by 6 ¾ inches, printed on unbleachedlaid paper watermarked “Unbleached Arnold,” priced at two guineas. Fifty copies were exported to Copeland and Day for sale in America (Nelson, The Early Nineties , 311 and 322). According to Mason, “The agents for the book in America, Messrs. Copeland and Day, of Boston,having drawn the attention of the London publishers to the fact that The Sphinx did not bear the imprint of the Boston firm, a special label was designed by Charles Ricketts for insertion in thecopies for sale in the United States of America” ( Bibliography , 394). Later in the year, an additional twenty-five large-paper copies were issued, measuring 10 inches by 7 ½ inches,printed on handmade paper watermarked “Unbleached Arnold (Ruskin),” with Copeland and Day’s imprint appearing alongside Mathews and Lane’s on the titlepage. These were priced at five guineas in England and thirty dollars in America. Owing to the larger format, Ricketts’s cover designs were extendedvertically by approximately one inch for the large-paper issue. It is not known how many of the large-paper copies were exported to America. There exists someuncertainty about the size of the edition where the small-paper copies are concerned. The book’s statement of limitation states merely, “the edition ofthis book is limited for England to 200 copies,” and Mason too mentions this figure (though he underestimates the number of small-paper copies shipped toAmerica when he writes “besides the 200 copies for sale in England, fifty additional copies were printed for the Press and for sale in America” [ Bibliography , 394]). The publisher’s announcement ofAugust 1894 (see Mason, Bibliography , 394) states “250 copies.” It was common practice, then as now, to hold back somecopies for the author’s and publishers’ private use, and though the number of such copies cannot now be determined with accuracy, eight presentation copiesare known to exist inscribed with Wilde’s signature. Intriguingly, the BodleyHead’s stock inventory of 30 June 1894 (Nelson The Early Nineties , 322) lists a print run of 303 small-paper copies, as well as domestic sales of just 81 copies prior to the end of June, with another128 copies standing unbound in quires. Clearly the book was not “subscribed for before publication,” as Wilde had hoped when agreeing to publishing terms( Complete Letters , 533), and almost as certainly a large number of copies remained unsold by the time of Wilde’simprisonment, only to be accidentally destroyed in a fire at the Ballantyne Press in 1899 “with the result that The Sphinx is not only the most splendid of Ricketts’s early books, but also the rarest” (Calloway, 16). copies did fall into the “gutter” of English journalism, despite Wilde’s own wishes, where the book met withgenerally hostile—though not unperceptive—reactions. After making the already- quoted remark about the “cynical humour” to be found in Wilde’s “writing such apoem…in the meter of In Memoriam ,” The Athenaeum commented only that “admirers of some of Oscar Wilde’s previously published poems…will not welcomethis poem” (“Unsigned Review,” 171). The poem’s gorgeousness of diction disguised a “poverty of motive,” remarked the Athenaeum ’s anonymous reviewer; and while the poem’s meter was “handled” with “skilfulness,” and its lines possessed an “easy flowand sonorousness,” the poem showed obvious defects such as “the too frequent use of the word `paramour’ or the employment of ‘curious’ in a somewhat precioussense” (“Unsigned Review,” 171). The Pall Mall Budget was more biting: “the keen olfactory nerves of the Nonconformist conscience would not…find it difficult” to “scent” the “meaningunderlying Mr. Wilde’s poem,” remarked the Budget ’s anonymous reviewer (“The City of Books,” 164-65), implying by this elliptical remark that the “meaning underlying”Wilde’s poem was decadent, presumably sexual, and offensive to conventional taste. Or again, “it will be interesting to watch the effect of this poem on theeminently respectable newspapers” (“The City of Books,” 166). But despite these strictures, the Budget ’s reviewer went on, the poem’s “motive is mainly important as affording Mr. Wilde a theme for thedisplay, in a sort of processional, of beautiful words strangely shaped and coloured” (“The City of Books,” 165). Meaning was a secondary consideration tothe poem’s “beautiful sound”: “How many of us, I wonder, know the nature of 'rods of oreichalch’ [or of ]… 'samite’?” (“The City of Books,” 164). For the Pall Mall Budget , the unintelligibility of Wilde’s language “serves…all the more to give that sense of mysterious luxury atwhich Mr. Wilde is aiming” (“The City of Books,” 164).

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Source:  OpenStax, The sphinx. OpenStax CNX. Apr 11, 2010 Download for free at http://cnx.org/content/col11196/1.2
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