Through The Looking Glass Darkly

by Larry Fyffe

In reaction to the prudish Victorian establishment, symbolist-influenced Charles Swinburne puts a twist on the mythology of Phaedra who desires to have sex with her stepson, stung as she is by the poisonous scorpion of love set upon her by sea-shelled Aphrodite.

Swinburne expresses sympathy for the seemingly irrational passion Phaedra has for her stepson-prince, the son of Theseus, the heroic King of Athens.

The so-called ‘Decadents’ see no beautiful and caring world of Nature to be their guide in life in contrast to the more optimistic viewpoint held by the Romantic Transcendentalist writers.

Unlike the Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands, the author depicts, in the lyrics below, an over-wrought Phaedra who is not prepared to face the trials and tribulations of life in a stoic manner.

Phaedra suffers greatly; craves to die because of her secret passion.

However, she’s not about to kill herself without first taking deceptive steps to clear her name after her stepson rejects her; she accuses him of rape.

For Swinburne, the use of sensual and symbolic language becomes the key to open the door into Phaedra’s secret and shadowy inner sanctum:

Yea, if my own blood ran upon my mouth
I would drink that. Nay, but be swift with me
Set the sword between the girdle and breast
For I shall grow a poison if I live
(Charles Swinburne: Phaedra)

The tragic mythological tale easily construed burlesqued into double-edged comedy in the following juiced-up song lyrics:

Well, Phaedra with her looking glass ...
She gets all messed up, then she faints
That's 'cause she's so obvious, and you ain't ...
I wanna be your lover, baby
I don't wanna be hers, I wanna be yours
 (Bob Dylan: I Wanna Be Your Lover)

Alluding to the Bard:

Look into thy glass, and tell the face thou viewest
Now is the time that face should form another
(William Shakespeare: Sonnet III)

Mad she may not be ~ could be that Phaedra comes up with her ill-fated schemes in an attempt to ensure that she has sons by the prince, as well as those by her husband King Theseus, in line for the throne; rather than any sons who might be sired by her biologically-unrelated stepson with someone else.


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