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."
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?
Last modified 23 November 2006