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

Mercury day poetry: Soul and Body

Andrew Marvell. Image via

OK, don’t stop reading.

But, yes, we’re going back a ways in the English poetry lineage. All the way to Andrew Marvell, who maybe ought to rank No. 2 on the list of best Metaphysical Poets.

Metaphysical Poets. Sound a bit familiar? Yes, once again we’re reaching into your high school English class for something that might make you think, “yoga.”

I’ll bet your teacher didn’t bring up yoga when last you read Marvell, best known for “To his Coy Mistress.”

Maybe your asana practice will give you insight into this poem.

‘A Dialogus between the Soul and the Body’


O who shall, from this dungeon, raise
A soul enslav’d so many ways?
With bolts of bones, that fetter’d stands
In feet, and manacled in hands;
Here blinded with an eye, and there
Deaf with the drumming of an ear;
A soul hung up, as ’twere, in chains
Of nerves, and arteries, and veins;
Tortur’d, besides each other part,
In a vain head, and double heart.
O who shall me deliver whole
From bonds of this tyrannic soul?
Which, stretch’d upright, impales me so
That mine own precipice I go;
And warms and moves this needless frame,
(A fever could but do the same)
And, wanting where its spite to try,
Has made me live to let me die.
A body that could never rest,
Since this ill spirit it possest.
What magic could me thus confine
Within another’s grief to pine?
Where whatsoever it complain,
I feel, that cannot feel, the pain;
And all my care itself employs;
That to preserve which me destroys;
Constrain’d not only to endure
Diseases, but, what’s worse, the cure;
And ready oft the port to gain,
Am shipwreck’d into health again.
But physic yet could never reach
The maladies thou me dost teach;
Whom first the cramp of hope does tear,
And then the palsy shakes of fear;
The pestilence of love does heat,
Or hatred’s hidden ulcer eat;
Joy’s cheerful madness does perplex,
Or sorrow’s other madness vex;
Which knowledge forces me to know,
And memory will not forego.
What but a soul could have the wit
To build me up for sin so fit?
So architects do square and hew
Green trees that in the forest grew.

Mercury day poetry: Two Divine Images

And now for something completely different.

'The Divine Image,' Songs of Innocence

William Blake’s most accessible work — I say that with a healthy irony, as “most accessible” doesn’t mean much when one considers “Jerusalem” or “The Four Zoas” — is his collection of shorter poems, “Songs of Innocence and Experience.” You probably know “The Tyger” from your high school English class, although maybe not fondly.

Well, despite what your horrible high school English teacher suggested, it’s great stuff. And there’s no way I can do it justice or provide all the context I’d like. (For instance, they all are engraved / art work, so just the words are but part of the whole.)  Suffice it to say the two perspectives — innocence and experience — give you one filter through which to read the poems.

Here’s a taste. The two “The Divine Image” poems. You can decide if they are meant as a pair. First the Innocence one and then the Experienced.

The Divine Image

To Mercy, Pity, Peace, and Love

All pray in their distress;

And to these virtues of delight

Return their thankfulness.

For Mercy, Pity, Peace, and Love

Is God, our father dear,

And Mercy, Pity, Peace, and Love

Is Man, his child and care.

For Mercy has a human heart,

Pity a human face,

And Love, the human form divine,

And Peace, the human dress.

Then every man, of every clime,

That prays in his distress,

Prays to the human form divine,

Love, Mercy, Pity, Peace.

And all must love the human form,

In heathen, turk, or jew;

Where Mercy, Love, & Pity dwell

There God is dwelling too.

The Divine Image

Cruelty has a Human Heart,

And Jealousy a Human Face;

Terror the Human Form Divine,

And Secrecy the Human Dress.

The Human Dress is forged Iron,

The Human Form a fiery Forge,

The Human Face a Furnace seal’d,

The Human Heart is hungry Gorge.

Mercury day poetry: ‘Oh Beauty Exceeding’

Close-up of Bernini's great 'Ecstasy of St. Teresa'

Week two in our Mercury day poetry series brings us another Christian mystic: St. Teresa of Avila.

She preceded — historically — our poet from last week, St. John of the Cross. Both weave similar themes and images into their works about uniting with the Divine. What always has drawn me to their work is the tinge of danger, horror or pain they portray. That comes through in the look on her face in Bernini’s sculpture, “Ecstasy of St. Teresa,” pictured to the left. Does that look like ecstasy to you?

In other words, reaching the Divine may not be exactly what we’re expecting.

But that won’t stop us from grasping forth.

Oh Beauty Exceeding

Oh Beauty exceeding
All other beauties!
Paining, but You wound not
Free of pain You destroy
The love of creatures.

Oh, knot that binds
Two so different,
Why do You become unbound
For when held fast You strengthen
Making injuries seem good.

Bind the one without being
With being unending;
Finish, without finishing,
Love, without having to love,
Magnify our nothingness.

Posted by Steve

Mercury day poetry: ‘The Living Flame of Love’

Bobbie might kill me for this, but I’m pronouncing Wednesdays at The Confluence Countdown as “poetry day.”

St. John of the Cross, via

(Why might she kill me? Well, at the risk of doubling my chances of death, you can check our her online collection of poems here. I’m not sure it was ever her intention to cross the streams of these two sites. Although her earlier post sets the stage.)

Why Wednesday? Well, because Wednesday — in Spanish, miercoles, in French, mercredi — is Mercury’s day. And among his many attributes, he was the god of communication, so, I’m stretching that means a little. (Apologies, Apollo!) So Wednesday seems a good time to do this.

Now, a caveat. I’m not a huge fan of mixing poetry or similarly “deep thoughts” with yoga — necessarily. I’ve been in classes where hearing a Rumi poem works well, strikes just the right chord and enhances my Shavasana. But I’ve been in far more classes where the teacher’s reading is just annoying. (Fortunately, Tim Miller seems to have the gift for knowing when to read and when not to read. Some of the, shall we say, less experienced teachers I’ve had don’t.)

I’ll try to stay away from the Rumi you all already know.

First poem? One I keep waiting to hear in a class. It sounds like yoga, with tapas.

For those unfamiliar with him, St. John of the Cross is one of — in my mind — the two great Christian mystic poets. (We’ll bring you the other next week.) I’ve always been drawn to this poem through the image of the tender wounding. I often feel like yoga is that: it hurts, it tears, it drains, but it does so tenderly, to help us reach a better, more refined, place.

The Living Flame of Love

Songs of the soul in the intimate communication of loving union with God.

1. O living flame of love

that tenderly wounds my soul

in its deepest center! Since

now you are not oppressive,

now consummate! if it be your will:

tear through the veil of this sweet encounter!

2. O sweet cautery,

O delightful wound!

O gentle hand! O delicate touch

that tastes of eternal life

and pays every debt!

In killing you changed death to life.

3. O lamps of fire!

in whose splendors

the deep caverns of feeling,

once obscure and blind,

now give forth, so rarely, so exquisitely,

both warmth and light to their Beloved.

4. How gently and lovingly

you wake in my heart,

where in secret you dwell alone;

and in your sweet breathing,

filled with good and glory,

how tenderly you swell my heart with love.

Posted by Steve