Oscar Wilde’s “The Harlot’s House”: Epitomically Wilde

October 26, 2008

Other than being referred to as “the house of Lust” in a near-final stanza, “The Harlot’s House” makes no mention of the overt sexual underpinnings that might be expected of a poem with such a name.

Yet, the connection is there. Why is “Lust” the only word that breaks the line capitalization rule used here? Why is it acceptable to name such a place while leaving out the details, as if the reader possesses some assumption about how this type of setting plays into the meaning of the text?

I submit that this poem represents a transformational moment in the story of Oscar Wilde—a characteristic example of the author as a mediatory between the Victorian and the decadent.

Published in 1885 when Wilde was 31 years old, “The Harlot’s House” incorporates imagery of nature, the supernatural, and courtly ritual to create an atmosphere of transitory sublimation—as if from a dream. The most pungent text of the poem, and which happens to include each of these three, comprises the fourth stanza:

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

Wilde seems to call upon gothic imagery to get at the flavor of the setting. The house is described as a place where spectres dance while musicians play Strauss’s “Treues Liebes Herz.” The figures are “wire-pulled automatons,” who are joined by a “clockwork puppet” and a “horrible marionette.”

Toward the end, the speaker interacts with this dubious environment:

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.

The last stanza:

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

This final text offers a foreboding image. The effect of the house on the speaker’s love is negative, as I read it. Drawn in by the lure of the violin, she is transformed. However, she affects the house as well: “Then suddenly the tune went false, / The Shadows ceased to wheel and whirl…” Ultimately, the final line, “Crept like a frightened girl” seems to speak to the transformative or affective nature of the house—or whatever it represents. The line hints at a loss of innocence; a division has been created between the lovers. To say the least, its break in the syllabic rhythm is jarring.

Of interest to me is what the imagery of the activities going on in the house might mean to Wilde and his audience. The figures in the house dance a “slow quadrille” and a “stately saraband;” these conjure thoughts of the Victorian. And Wilde corrupts them, by either (1) presenting them as being performed by the strange and exotic—arabesques, shadows—or (2) by the transformative event that occurs toward the end. Here, Wilde seems to offer a parody of Victorian sensibilities.

One commentary, Benét’s Reader’s Encyclopedia, labels decadence as “a term used in literary or art history for the decline that marks the end of a great artistic period.” Of course, this only superficially touches upon the complexity, subtlety, and social implications of the artistic and literary tendencies of the end of the nineteenth century.

Wilde’s contributions to the “decadence” movement have been greatly documented; I intend to touch many of these comments in the future at The Modern Dash.

1. “Decadence.” Benét’s Reader’s Encyclopedia. 4th ed. 1996.
2. Wilde, Oscar. “The Harlot’s House.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature: The Victorian Age. Ed. Greenblatt, Stephen. New York: W W Norton & Company, 2006. 1688-1689.