Tuesday, July 10, 2007

The Harlot's House

We caught the tread of dancing feet,
We loitered down the moonlit street,
And stopped beneath the harlot's house.

Inside, above the din and fray,
We heard the loud musicians play
The 'Treues Liebes Herz' of Strauss.

Like strange mechanical grotesques,
Making fantastic arabesques,
The shadows raced across the blind.

We watched the ghostly dancers spin
To sound of horn and violin,
Like black leaves wheeling in the wind.

Like wire-pulled automatons,
Slim silhouetted skeletons
Went sidling through the slow quadrille,

Then took each other by the hand,
And danced a stately saraband;
Their laughter echoed thin and shrill.

Sometimes a clockwork puppet pressed
A phantom lover to her breast,
Sometimes they seemed to try to sing.

Sometimes a horrible marionette
Came out, and smoked its cigarette
Upon the steps like a live thing.

Then, turning to my love, I said,
'The dead are dancing with the dead,
The dust is whirling with the dust.'

But she--she heard the violin,
And left my side, and entered in:
Love passed into the house of lust.

Then suddenly the tune went false,
The dancers wearied of the waltz,
The shadows ceased to wheel and whirl.

And down the long and silent street,
The dawn, with silver-sandalled feet,
Crept like a frightened girl.

by Oscar Wilde

(Painting by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec)



Anonymous said...


What a dark, haunting allegory! It also reveals that Oscar Wilde, for all his bluster about *innocent* and *harmless* free love, had a very good sense of what really happens to love when it "passes into the house of lust."

Did he write this before or after his reversion? (My guess is the former. I'll go look it up . . .)

elena maria vidal said...

I was wondering the same thing. Wow, I think his poem is as effective as any "chastity program."

Anonymous said...


I did look it up:

The Harlot's House was first published in 1885--a good ten years before Wilde's infamous trial.

About the rest of his poetry: I'm only familiar with what he wrote after his reversion, and I don't think that it's very good. :( I can't think of enough specific cases to make a good point, but it does seem that many notoriously sinful artists who experience a deep conversion of heart produce inferior output afterwards.

It kind of reminds me of something St. Therese of the Child Jesus recorded in her autobiography. An older nun told her that she did not have much to say because her soul was so simple. Artists may lose some of their wonderful complexity after a conversion; but that is no great loss, even if it diminishes them in the eyes of their public, should it mean that their souls have become more like little children before God.

(Of course, there are also marvelous artists who are very devout and moral. The above only refers to those whose lives follow a pattern very much like Wilde's.)

elena maria vidal said...

Very interesting, Marissa. I think that even before his conversion he had as strong sense of spirituality. Sometimes it is innately spiritual people who get drawn into the demimonde. After his conversion to the Catholic faith, he was an ill and beaten man, who had lost everything. He just probably could not write with the same flair. I am just speculating, not having really studied his life....

Anonymous said...


You're right: there were other factors. Perhaps Wilde was also self-consciously censoring himself.

It has been years since I read his De Profundis--and I didn't even read it that carefully--but what struck all throughout was a sense of purity and longing for purgation. Wilde wrote about taking the time after a meal to pick up the crumbs around his plate, as if he were writing about a meditation or spiritual exercise. He was also very happy to be reading the Gospels in Greek, because of some strange theory that Jesus had originally spoken in Greek to His disciples and the multitudes.

It helped him to think that he was returning to the basics--to the core of things. I imagine it's the same feeling that pilgrims have when they travel to the Holy Land, especially when they travel as simply as possible and make extra sacrifices along the way. Wilde must have felt that everything he produced had to be as sublime as he could make it, from then on.

(Pardon me for rambling. This poem was just so fascinating!)

elena maria vidal said...

Ramble away, dear. I am so glad that someone appreciates this poem as much as I do and sees the underlying longing for purity and redemption in it.