Britain's Victorian era featured many noteworthy writers, one of whom was Oscar Wilde, a man whose personal life was as remarkable and intriguing as any fiction he ever dared to pen. Wilde's novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, has been read by millions over the years and made into several films. It examines the darkness that lurks within us all. Wilde's most famous play, The Importance of Being Earnest, still evokes unbridled laughter more than a century after if was first staged. In both of those works, Oscar Wilde took on the social norms and mores of British gentry and exposed the human underpinnings of the stodgy social class.
Oscar Wilde was also an accomplished poet with several works focusing on travel as well as the lives of his poetic predecessors like Keats and Shelley. In today's selection, Wilde looked the topic of prostitution in Victorian England from a street-level perspective. His cadence and imagery put me in mind of early American poet Edgar Allan Poe.
Lust and love and Oscar Wilde - please enjoy.
The Harlot's House
by Oscar Wilde
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.
They 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 shadows 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.