In going over this poem, I found my key to it in the single line: "Then suddenly the tune went false." The tune referred to here is "Treues Liebes Herz" by Strauss, which can be translated from German as "true loving heart." It is to this tune that the shadows, who live in the Harlot's house, dance. The speaker describes these inhabitants of the house as mechanical and deathlike, lacking any life force what so ever. Yet they dance to the tune of the true loving heart, the beat of emotions. They carry on the dancing of the quadrille, and the "stately saraband" yet they are all a ghastly combination of machines and death, automated and completely lacking life. These shadows are both automatons and skeletons, yet go through the motions of lovers, or at least attempt to. But as seen here, they never fully realize the fullness of these emotions:
Sometimes a clockwork puppet pressed
A phantom lover to her breast,
Sometimes they seemed to try to sing.
All which appears in "The Harlot's House" is illusion and shadow, mechanical and deathlike; lust becomes the failed attempt at love, emotionless action. But what are we to make of the speaker's lover passing into the house of lust? She seems not to share the speaker's perception of the poem's action (the dead are dancing with the dead,/ the dust is whirling with the dust.) Rather she only hears the violin itself, and is enticed by the music into the building. But what is can be understood from the fact that the "tune went false" the very moment she came in? What does it mean that "Love passed into the house of lust"?
I would like to argue that the speaker is here presenting society's view of lust, as empty and lifeless, a sphere which is removed from love, which is celibate and innocent. Yet is Wilde pointing to the fact that, when love inhabits the home of lust, and is taken up in lust's music, that the death and artificiality, which represents it in this poem, is dispelled, just as the "dancers wearied of the waltz, the shadows ceased to wheel and whirl?" Is it pointing to how society sees the pleasures of the body as evil and empty of emotion, just as the speaker does? And yet it his lover, (love personified) which cannot see this vision of death, only hears the tune which is playing. And thus by entering the home of lust she renders this very tune false; by love taking up lust's role, she dispels the shadows, and harkens the dawn. Is this Wilde pointing to a much more liberal view of sexuality?
1. Is this pointing to the fact that society is blind, or projects a negative quality to liberal sexuality, or sexuality that does not fall within society's boundaries?
2. Is he thus pointing optimistically towards a love which is blind to any such borders, and can inhabit this forbidden house, infusing what is perceived as lifeless, and negating the the music of lust. But this is a negation of the song in the first place, which is entitled True loving heart. (Double negative here) and thus returning sexuality from the forbidden realm of lust to being inhabited by love.
3. But this still leaves me with the question of what to make of the dawn, which "crept like frightened girl" down the street?
Last modified 9 December 2003