Lecture notes and text: Oscar Wilde, “The Harlot’s House”

Dr. Petra Dierkes-Thrun, Stanford University

You can find the text of the poem by clicking here.

General info:

Wilde’s poem “The Harlot’s House” first appeared in the Dramatic Review of April 11, 1885.  It was probably composed in Spring 1883 at the Hotel Voltaire in Paris (according to Robert Sherard in Oscar Wilde: Story of an Unhappy Friendship). It was reprinted in Poems (1908) and also published by the avant-garde and erotica publisher Leonard Smithers (masquerading as The Mathurin Press) in 1904, illustrated by English artist Althea Gyles (see Oscar Wilde, Complete Letters, p. 1174 n.1).

Poem’s style—meter, rhyme etc.:

  • Very regular iambic tetrameter (four feet): v- v- v- v
  • 12 stanzas, 3 lines each (total 36 lines)
  • The first two lines are a couplet, and the third rhymes with the last line of the next stanza.
  • Rhyme scheme: aab ccb dde ffe(impure rhyme) ggh iih jjk llk mm oon ppq rrq
  • Doesn’t seem to correspond to a classical poetic type of poem—nearest seems to be the triolet (medieval French poetic form).

Richard Ellmann’s biography—mentions the poem on pp. 218, 253, 478 (not in the index).

Complete Letters, p. 257, letter to Edwin Palmer (the editor of the Dramatic Review), n.d. [March-April 1885]:

In this letter, it appears that Wilde has received a check for his article on Shakespeare and offers to send a poem as well, but he also stipulates that if Palmer takes the poem, he better not include any other poem in the same issue, and that the poem be printed “across a page” (no “column line” style).  Wilde writes:

“If you would like a poem I will send you one, but I would ask you not to include any other poem in the number in which it appears, particularly no parody of any other poet.  Parodies are a legitimate form of art—and those in your paper I think exceedingly clever—but the art that appeals to laughter and the art that appeals to beauty are different things.  Also a poem should be printed across a page: there should be no column line.  So you see there are difficulties.  Write to me how you propose to print it.

Yours very truly

Oscar Wilde

PS: The poem is in twelve stanzas of three lines each.  It is called ‘The Harlot’s House’.”

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