[Note: A decade after writing this question set, the author changed its title and terms pertaining to sew work and workers. —  George P. Landow]

Oscar Wilde's poems "The Harlot's House" and "Impression du Matin" both hinge upon harsh depictions of sex workers. In "The Harlot's House", the speaker describes stopping at night outside the eponymous edifice to watch the harlots and their customers dancing:

Like wire-pulled automatons,
Slim silhouetted skeletons
Went sidling through the slow quadrille,

Then 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.

"Impression du Matin" seems, at first glance, to be a complete departure from "The Harlot's House". It depicts a tranquil morning scene by the Thames in London for three stanzas before abruptly presenting the haunting image of a lady of the night wilting in the light of day:

But one pale woman all alone,
The daylight kissing her wan hair,
Loitered beneath the gas lamps' flare,
With lips of flame and heart of stone.

Both references to sex workers refer to them with disdain of dehumanizing extent. The first poem suggests that the "harlots" and their customers are little more than machines, variously describing them as "mechanical grotesques" (first stanza), "black leaves whirling in the wind" (second stanza), "wire-pulled automatons" and "skeletons" (third stanza), "clockwork puppets" (fourth stanza), "horrible marionettes" (fifth stanza), and "the dead" (sixth stanza). This language reduces the denizens of the debaucherous house to imitations of real life; empty shells that can only commit earthly acts and imitate the human emotions that should accompany them. Images such as the dead leaves also lend an aura of doom to the dancers, who are inexorably drawn along the paths of wickedness according to their flesh-bound fates.

The second poem is less obviously blatantly vituperative, but still employs language that suggests the inhumanity of the woman depicted. The woman's solitude and her paleness under the clear sunlight (the reader can imagine that her hair is not so "wan" when she is in her nocturnal element) make her pathetic. However, the shiftless attitude suggested by the term 'loitered', her unnaturally red lips, and her insensibility to human emotions ("heart of stone") are a deliberate attempt to make her unsympathetic. The unflattering description, coupled with the last stanza's inconsistency with the pacific, neutral-toned first three stanzas, serves to make the woman seem even more unnatural.

Wilde's attitude toward sex work in both poems is puzzling: as a famous Aesthete, he supposedly advocated "art for art's sake" and embraced the unnatural and the counter-customary. The finger-wagging nature of each of these poems more closely exemplifies the straight-laced older Victorian style that Wilde willfully departed from in works such as "The Decay of Lying".


1. It is tempting to oversimplify the famously homosexual Oscar Wilde and to generalize that he was merely misogynistic (see Terrence Dawson's "Fear of the Feminine"), which could have been exacerbated by his turbulent marriage to Constance Lloyd. Does the ending of "The Harlot's House" seem to support this generalization (see text below)? Do any elements seem to refute it? Consider especially the speaker's lover and the characterization of the dawn.

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.

2. How does the rhyme scheme of "Impressions du Matin" contribute to the jarring nature of the last stanza?

3. "The Harlot's House" compares the women many times to manmade materials, such as metal, clockwork, etc. In what way could this be a social commentary?

Created 28 April 2009

Last modified 19 August 2020