But most from the hatefulness of man
Who spares not to end what he began,
Whose acts are ill and his speech ill,
Who, having used you at his will,
Thrusts you aside, as when I dine
I serve the dishes and the wine. - Dante Gabriel Rossetti, “Jenny”
Just as songs about prostitutes reflect the attitudes of the songwriters, so it is with poetry on the subject. The topic was especially popular in the Victorian Era, so it should come as no surprise that all but one of the poets featured in today’s column lived some part of their lives in that period. We’ll start with what is probably the best-known verse on the subject:
To a Common Prostitute by Walt Whitman (1819-1892)
Be composed–be at ease with me–I am Walt Whitman, liberal and lusty as Nature,
Not till the sun excludes you do I exclude you,
Not till the waters refuse to glisten for you and the leaves to rustle for you, do my words refuse to glisten and rustle for you.
My girl I appoint with you an appointment, and I charge you that you make preparation to be worthy to meet me,
And I charge you that you be patient and perfect till I come.
Till then I salute you with a significant look that you do not forget me.
Though Whitman’s message here – “whores are people like anybody else” – is remarkable for the 1850s, I must admit that I inwardly giggle at his earnestness. I can just picture the girl staring back at him, certain that he was quite mad. Of course, it’s unlikely Whitman ever hired a hooker (not a female one, anyway), but if he did I’m sure his attitude was just as he depicts it in the poem. The next poem, written by another homosexual man born a generation later on the other side of the pond, couldn’t be more opposite:
The Harlot’s House by Oscar Wilde (1854-1900)
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 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.
Wilde considered beauty to be the highest morality; his real issue isn’t lust replacing love as he presents it, but that naked heterosexual desire offended his sensibilities. He depicts clients and whores alike as puppets to lust, proving that like most Victorian men he understood neither prostitution nor anything else about women. The next poet is far more realistic:
Ironic Poem About Prostitution by George Orwell (1903-1950)
When I was young and had no sense
In far-off Mandalay
I lost my heart to a Burmese girl
As lovely as the day.
Her skin was gold, her hair was jet,
Her teeth were ivory;
I said, “for twenty silver pieces,
Maiden, sleep with me”.
She looked at me, so pure, so sad,
The loveliest thing alive,
And in her lisping, virgin voice,
Stood out for twenty-five.
The same subject, the harlot’s immunity to male professions of “love”, is handled a little differently by a Frenchman:
To Dahlia by Paul Verlaine (1844-1896) (translated by Walter Wykes)
With your hard black eyes
And your soft budding breasts
Shameless flower of the damned
Your aroma overwhelms my senses
I am driven to possess you
But you scarcely feel my flesh
I make no impression
Bland on your bewitching tongue, I have no taste
You exhale my desire like smoke
Incense sacrificed to your unyielding beauty
In general, the French poet romanticizes the whore far less than the English does; even while extolling the virtues of a particular fille de joie who has enchanted him, or of demimondaines in general, there is generally a recognition of the pragmatic realities of harlotry:
Courtesans by Fernand Gregh (1873-1960) (translated by Jethro Bithell)
Your pose is graceful, and your nostril quivers,
Your feet go dancing, and your deep eyes burn,
Your supple bodies bend like reeds of rivers,
Your robes like incense round about you turn.
Poor men are full of anger when they see you
Come from your segregation of disgrace,
Matrons cast envious eyes at you and flee you,
And the wise, scolding, turn away their face.
But still the sighs of boys with passion paling
Soar up to you in sultry evenings when
You pass, the dreams of lonely artists trailing,
And gray regrets of amorous old men;
And long, strong sighs of young men sick and ailing,
Whose blood chafes at the scent the summer floats,
Longing to take your breasts like fruits, inhaling
Love in the odour of your petticoats.
Of course, there are exceptions to every rule; the next poet shows himself as moralistic and judgmental as any Englishman of his time:
The Gate of the Courtesans by Henri de Régnier (1864-1936) (translated by Jethro Bithell)
If to the town thou come some morning, to
Join the sweet, frivolous, futile sisters who
Bestow their love and sell their beauty, wait
Before thou enter my returnless gate,
Whose folding-doors are mirrors; there descry
Thy coming self, thou who art tempted by
The gold, it may be, and the banquet’s hum,
Thou from a vast and distant country come,
Thou who still pure, and innocently bare,
Smilest, with autumn’s russet in thy hair,
And summer’s fruits upon thy breast embossed,
And thy soft skin like fabled sea-caves mossed,
And in thy warmest flesh’s secret fold
The form of rosy shells the seas have rolled,
And beauty of dawn and shadow, and the scent
Of flowers and gardens, woods and sea-weed blent!
Tarry, ere the ineffable alms thou bring
Of being both the autumn and the spring
To those who far from dawn and harvests live.
Listen, thou mayest yet return, but if
Thou must, I open, glad to see thee pass,
Laughing and double past my double glass.
The poem depicts a beautiful woman’s decision to “waste” her beauty and sex appeal making a living on her own terms as passage through a mirrored gate through which it is impossible to return. Once a woman chose the path of whoredom she was “ruined”, unable to return to the “purity” she left behind. But our last poet dared to denounce that view as pure poppycock in my absolute favorite of all hooker poems:
The Ruined Maid by Thomas Hardy (1840-1928)
“O ‘Melia, my dear, this does everything crown!
Who could have supposed I should meet you in Town?
And whence such fair garments, such prosperi-ty?”–
“O didn’t you know I’d been ruined?” said she.
–”You left us in tatters, without shoes or socks,
Tired of digging potatoes, and spudding up docks;
And now you’ve gay bracelets and bright feathers three!”–
“Yes: that’s how we dress when we’re ruined,” said she.
–”At home in the barton you said ‘thee’ and ‘thou,’
And ‘thik oon’ and ‘theäs oon’ and ‘t’other’; but now
Your talking quite fits ‘ee for high compan-ny!”–
“Some polish is gained with one’s ruin,” said she.
–”Your hands were like paws then, your face blue and bleak
But now I’m bewitched by your delicate cheek,
And your little gloves fit as on any la-dy!”–
“We never do work when we’re ruined,” said she.
–”You used to call home-life a hag-ridden dream,
And you’d sigh, and you’d sock; but at present you seem
To know not of megrims or melancho-ly!”–
“True. One’s pretty lively when ruined,” said she.
–”I wish I had feathers, a fine sweeping gown,
And a delicate face, and could strut about Town.”–
“My dear – a raw country girl, such as you be,
Cannot quite expect that. You ain’t ruined,” said she.
One Year Ago Today
“Easter” fell quite a bit later last year than this.