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The Harlot's House by Oscar Wilde (1854-1900)

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,

Vocabulary
tread: To beat or press with the feet;
loitered down: walk down
harlot: prostitute or promiscuous woman
beneath: below
din: noisy
fray: disorderly
Treues Liebes Herz: true loving heart
(in German)
arabesques: ballet position

Making fantastic arabesques,


The shadows raced across the blind.

wheeling: rolling
Sidling: move sideways
quadrille: a dance performed by four couples

We watched the ghostly dancers spin


To sound of horn and violin,
Like black leaves wheeling in the wind.

stately: impressive
saraband: fast, erotic dance
Shrill: sharp sound
clockwork puppet: marionette
phantom: an illusion.
whirling: spinning
wearied of the waltz
crept: to creep (present tense)
to crawl with the body touching the ground

Like wire-pulled automatons,


Slim silhouetted skeletons
Went sidling through the slow quadrille.
They 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 shadows 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.

Activity

1.- Discuss Wildes depictions of female bodies.


2.- How does Wilde make use of body language to convey a characters emotions?
What connection does he assume between the body and emotional life?
3.- Analyze the poem considering structure, rhyme, metonymy, alliteration, irony and
images
Metonymy: rhetorical figure by which the name of a referent is replaced by the name of an
attribute.For instance: press (newspapers). The stage (theater). The crown (monarchy).
Wales, K. (1990). A Diccionary of Stylistics. London. Logman.

1. Is the term "harlot" used here just for the sense of sexual promiscuity or the actual practice of
selling one's body for money or material wealth?

2. Is there any indication of the narrator considering entering the harlot's house?
3. How does this poem compare to Dante Gabriel Rossetti's "Jenny"?
4. What does it mean for Strauss's piece "Treuves Liebes Herz" to be played in the
harlot's house?
5. Wilde uses many words from a distinctively French origin (including "marionette,"
"quadrille," and "harlot"). How does this affect Wilde's style?
6. Wilde uses a few off-rhymes at the end of certain lines ("false"/"waltz" and
"blind"/"wind"). Is this of any significance to the meaning of the poem?
"Thensuddenlythetunewentfalse."Thetunereferredtohereis"TreuesLiebesHerz"byStrauss,
whichcanbetranslatedfromGermanas"truelovingheart."Itistothistunethattheshadows,who
liveintheHarlot'shouse,dance.Thespeakerdescribestheseinhabitantsofthehouseasmechanical
anddeathlike,lackinganylifeforcewhatsoever.Yettheydancetothetuneofthetruelovingheart,
thebeatofemotions.Theycarryonthedancingofthequadrille,andthe"statelysaraband"yetthey
areallaghastlycombinationofmachinesanddeath,automatedandcompletelylackinglife.These
shadowsarebothautomatonsandskeletons,yetgothroughthemotionsoflovers,oratleastattempt
to.Butasseenhere,theyneverfullyrealizethefullnessoftheseemotions:
Sometimes a clockwork puppet pressed
A phantom lover to her breast,
Sometimes they seemed to try to sing.

Allwhichappearsin"TheHarlot'sHouse"isillusionandshadow,mechanicalanddeathlike;lust
becomesthefailedattemptatlove,emotionlessaction.Butwhatarewetomakeofthespeaker's
loverpassingintothehouseoflust?Sheseemsnottosharethespeaker'sperceptionofthepoem's
action(thedeadaredancingwiththedead,/thedustiswhirlingwiththedust.)Rathersheonlyhears
theviolinitself,andisenticedbythemusicintothebuilding.Butwhatiscanbeunderstoodfrom
thefactthatthe"tunewentfalse"theverymomentshecamein?Whatdoesitmeanthat"Love
passedintothehouseoflust"?
thespeakerispresentingasociety'sviewoflust,asemptyandlifeless,aspherewhichis
removedfromlove,whichiscelibateandinnocent.YetisWildepointingtothefactthat,whenlove
inhabitsthehomeoflust,andistakenupinlust'smusic,thatthedeathandartificiality,which
representsitinthispoem,isdispelled,justasthe"dancersweariedofthewaltz,theshadowsceased
towheelandwhirl?"Isitpointingtohowsocietyseesthepleasuresofthebodyasevilandemptyof
emotion,justasthespeakerdoes?Andyetithislover,(lovepersonified)whichcannotseethis
visionofdeath,onlyhearsthetunewhichisplaying.Andthusbyenteringthehomeoflustshe
rendersthisverytunefalse;bylovetakinguplust'srole,shedispelstheshadows,andharkensthe
dawn.IsthisWildepointingtoamuchmoreliberalviewofsexuality?

Prosody: study of all the elements of language that contribute toward acoustic and
rhythmic effects.
Oscar Wilde's "The Harlot House" is a narrative poem that indicates contrasts: night from dawn,
true from false, and, most especially, sexual love from lust. The poem begins with activities that
"we," meaning the narrator and his lover, experience. At the beginning of the poem, they
stopped just "beneath the harlot's house." From this point, they can sense that a party is
occurring in this house. They see "ghostly dancers," singing puppets, and "a horrible
marionette" among other not-quite living things enjoying this party. Then, the poem shifts; "we"

no longer experience the activities of the harlot's house. Instead, the "we" is split into "she" and
"I":
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.
The narrator explains the harlot's house is a place for the dead and dead alone. And yet the
house captivates his lover, and she decides to enter it. This is the point where "love passed into
the house of lust." Wilde draws a contrast with the experience of being in the proximity and not
entering the harlot's house, implying a relationship both romantic and sexual, and the experience
of actually entering the harlot's house, in which there are only the sexual elements remaining.
This is why "then suddenly the tune went false." The balance of the relationship deteriorates,
and is therefore no longer true.
Wilde ends the poem with a stanza that brings out these contrasts further:
And down the long and silent street,
The dawn, with silver-sandalled feet,
Crept like a frightened girl.
Wilde personifies the dawn and leaves the reader with a somewhat ambiguous image. That the
dawn "crept" shows that a new day has finally arrived, which is altogether appropriate
considering everything else that has happened. However, Wilde chooses the image of a
"frightened girl" "with silver-sandalled feet" as his method for conveying this information,
which appears to be a deliberate and pointed choice. The narrator bitterly implies that his former
lover's future is to creep "down the long and silent street" as a "frightened girl."