Mercury Day poetry: Wilde’s ‘The Harlot’s House’

I’ll make a tortured leap that one could read the speaker and his love in the following poem as akin to “looking bird” and “eating bird,” (if you are familiar with that story).

Why? Because I simply, absolutely, irredeemably and unapologetically love this exquisite poem, “The Harlot’s House,” by Oscar Wilde. (Fun fact: My English Master’s thesis was on Oscar Wilde’s play “Salome.”)

Wilde is a pretty familiar figure, I think. The tortured gay poet/dramatist and, I’d argue, philosopher of the late 19th Century, perhaps best known for his play, “The Importance of Being Earnest,” and short novel, “The Picture of Dorian Gray.”

He was famously tried, albeit due to his own missteps. He sued someone for libel (that someone was the father of his male lover) and ended up being found guilty of various indecencies. Prison seemingly broke him, and he died a few years after being released and leaving England for good.

As I said, I’m sure I’m stretching things, but I think reading some Wilde will do you some good!

 

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.
 
The 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.
***
The shortness of that last line is wonderful.
Posted by Steve