by Elyse Graham
First published in 1905 by an arrangement between Oscar Wilde and Robert Ross, who visited Wilde at Reading and later became his literary executor, De Profundis was written in prison over three months in 1897. It is a curious document: part apologia, part aesthetic discourse, part religious testimonial, part retort to religion, a letter that addresses a private recipient and was written for public view, but that despite these layers of performance has a strange inward quality; this is a letter from Wilde to himself. 1
The theme of De Profundis is tragedy, its expression and possibility. The text has a controlled voice and turns often toward the writer’s old extravagance of expression, the petty generosity of a rich man who takes pleasure in making constant small expenditures; but underlying this is the heavy tone of one who feels himself to be speaking from the depths of potentially final defeat. “Hardly if at all have my friends suffered to see me,” he writes. “But my enemies have had full access to me always; twice in my public appearances in the Bankruptcy Court; twice again in my public transferences from one prison to another have I been shown under conditions of unspeakable humiliation to the gaze and mockery of men.” 2 During Wilde’s early months of imprisonment his mother died. “Her death was terrible to me,” he writes; “but I, once a lord of language, have no words with which to express my anguish and my shame” (DP, 27).
One reason that words fail is that, accustomed to speaking from a position of effortless superiority, Wilde is conscious of how vulnerable his style looks against a background of abjection. His mother would have wanted to be mourned like a Shakespearean queen; her son’s tribute to her should have been an expression of his highest style, a work in which all was extravagantly formal; but the meaning of his style was no longer in his control. It made futile the attempt at what in the best circumstances would have been insufficient: “Never even in my most perfect days of my development as an artist could I have found words fit to bear so august a burden; or to move with sufficient stateliness of music through the purple pageant of my incommunicable woe” (DP, 27).
But Wilde also feels that something not merely in his own circumstances, something in modern life itself, precludes the expression of tragedy. Modern life is a farce. Wilde describes his situation as potentially tragic in the sense of attendance by grand familial or historical forces: Sir and Lady Wilde made for their child’s inheritance an august and noble name, and the child dragged that name down to infamy. Instead he became absurd, Wilde laments: “the dreadful thing about modernity was that it put tragedy into the raiment of comedy, so that the great realities seemed grotesque or lacking in style” (DP, 102). Players on the modern stage lack the intellectual experience or depth of feeling even to recognize a tragedy when its elements surround them. What remains for them to perform with is a set of low-culture distractions, the sort of material that fuels the music hall: brutality, low gossip, bawdy jokes, like the jokes that pervaded the culture during Wilde’s trial.
De Profundis is in large part an effort to find a way of rationalizing his suffering. “Where there is sorrow there is holy ground,” Wilde writes, paraphrasing a stanza from Goethe that his mother used to recite. 3 “Some day people will realize what that means. They will know nothing of life till they do” (DP, 29).
Why should sorrow be the material of holiness? The move to Wandsworth and Reading was a transition from the self-definition of the artist to the featureless and ritualized existence of a prisoner. “I was a man who stood in symbolic relations to the art and culture of my age,” Wilde says. “I had realized this for myself at the very dawn of my manhood, and had forced my age to realize it afterwards” (DP, 36). When he speaks of his present existence, he often slides into the anonymous plural. “With us time does not progress,” he says. “It revolves. It seems to circle round one’s center of pain” (DP, 26). He describes his pain on learning that the law had stripped him of rights to his children, cutting away his final connection to social particularity: “We are doomed to be solitary, while our sons still live” (DP, 35).
As a prisoner, and more broadly as one who suffers, Wilde is excluded from the pleasures that accompany the fulfillment of individual desires, but he gains access to the universal of human existence: our shared unhappy fate. The still, sad music of humanity, as Wordsworth phrased it, is our existence together, and Wilde can hear it better where he is no longer a dazzling exception. “There is not a single wretched man in this wretched place along with me who does not stand in symbolic relation to the very secret of life,” Wilde writes. “For the secret of life is suffering” (DP, 57).
Wilde refuses to let this insight shake his individualism, however. He even claims that imprisonment has strengthened his self-reliance by tearing away the chains of material necessity: sleeping in fields would be enough “provided I had love in my heart. The external things in life seem of no importance to me now. You can see to what intensity of individualism I have arrived—or am arriving rather, for the journey is long, and ‘where I walk there are thorns’” (DP, 41).
Where I walk there are thorns; Where there is sorrow there is holy ground; Far off, like a perfect pearl, one can see the city of God: lest his language give the impression that he has found religion, Wilde offers a secular claim to the language of ritual: “agnosticism should have its ritual no less than faith. It has sown its martyrs, it should reap its saints, and praise God daily for having hidden himself from man. But whether it be faith or agnosticism, it must be nothing external to me. Its symbols must be of my own creating. Only that is spiritual which makes its own form” (DP, 43-44).
The idea that makes its own form is a dream for which Wilde finds a ready analogue in art. The logic of art, as Wilde describes it, pulls things towards the unity of form and meaning that makes them their own assurance of truth. Art is the conversion of the imaginary into real existence; it is also a way of infusing matter with spirit. This process Wilde must bring to his own experiences. “There is not a single degradation of the body which I must not try and make into a spiritualizing of the soul,” he says. “To deny one’s own experiences is to put a lie into the lips of one’s own life. It is no less than a denial of the soul” (DP, 45-46). These are standards that apply not only to the individual, however. The fault of the legal system is to slight its responsibilities to convicts after their punishment ends; the fault of society is to shun former prisoners as one avoids a guilty secret, as Wilde predicts will happen to him after his release: “I can claim on my side that if I realize what I have suffered, society should realize what it has inflicted on me; and that there should be no bitterness or hate on either side” (DP, 49).
Wilde’s criteria of art find an ideal practitioner in Christ. Borrowing from Walter Pater, Wilde praises “Christ’s intense and flamelike imagination” (DP, 66). Pater meant that we should foster consciousness of every moment, and this in Wilde’s view Christ did: he was alive to the moment, always responding to it, always fulfilling his spirit. That he sees Christ as no divine Wilde makes clear, but he finds in Christ a supreme exemplar of grace: “Indeed, that is the charm of Christ, when all is said: he is just like a work of art. He does not really teach one anything, but by being brought into his presence one becomes something” (DP, 94). Wilde would be happy if the Church conceived of its office as that of the keeper of a sublime pageant (DP, 70).
Wilde’s pride in himself as an individualist requires him to find reasons for his admiration of Christ that subvert standard beliefs. “To turn an interesting thief into a tedious honest man was not his aim,” he remarks; elsewhere, “To live for others as a definite self-conscious aim was not his creed. It was not the basis of his creed. When he says, ‘Forgive your enemies,’ it is not for the sake of the enemy, but for one’s own sake that he says so, and because love is more beautiful than hate” (DP, 92, 74).
No ideas but in things: for Wilde that is Christ’s conception of the beautiful (DP, 77). Christ’s actions are beautiful because they give figure and form to his ideas. The repentance of the sinner is beautiful because it transforms action into the lineaments of the soul: in a verb that Wilde consistently literalizes, the sinner “realizes” what he has done. Perhaps most appealing for one kept in constant reminder of the reasons for his punishment, this process might strip the sinner of reason for regret; the mistakes of the past become the soil for new growth. As the soul changes, so does the meaning of the events that led to this state. Repentance is “the means by which one alters one’s past” (DP, 93).
The beauty of this process is why—one imagines Wilde giving a hard look to his readers on the other side of the vice laws as he says this—Christ prefers sinners to the pious. The sinner is the chrysalis of a mysterious and fascinating metamorphosis. To follow metamorphosis as a principle of life is to take a dangerous path, of course, since making a goal of self-realization requires not knowing the destination. Then again, knowing the destination is more dangerous still. “A man whose desire is to be something separate from himself,” Wilde says, “to be a Member of Parliament, or a successful grocer, or a prominent solicitor, or a judge, or something equally tedious, invariably succeeds in being what he wants to be. That is his punishment. Those who want a mask have to wear it” (DP, 95).
What emerges in the final measure from Wilde’s text is his sheer will, his determination to make from abjection itself the material for aesthetic transformation—on one side a heartening gesture of faith in the enduring grace of art, and on the other side a reminder, as a reflection of the condition he endeavors to flee, of the depth of his unhappiness: “It will force on me the necessity of again asserting myself as an artist, and as soon as I possibly can. If I can produce only one beautiful work of art I shall be able to rob malice of its venom, and cowardice of its sneer, and to pluck out the tongue of scorn by the roots” (DP, 50).
Wilde gave the manuscript to Ross on the day of his release in 1897. His philosophy of acceptance did not seal off his disquiet any more than other such works rest their writers. “I need say that my task does not end there,” he writes in De Profundis. “It would be comparatively easy if it did. There is much more before me. I have hills much steeper to climb, valleys much darker to pass through” (DP, 42). As his final years would make clear, De Profundis is not a declaration of certitude but a fragile foundation erected against the bottomlessness of human life.
1 Wilde framed the text as a letter to Alfred Douglas, and Ross sent a copy to Douglas upon Wilde’s release; however, wider publication was always part of the plan. During the initial period of publication Ross concealed Douglas’s involvement from the public, partly because Douglas treated litigation as a personal sport. See Ellmann, Oscar Wilde (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1988): 510-16.
2 Oscar Wilde, ed. Robert Ross, De Profundis (G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1909): 26. Hereafter cited as DP, with page number.
3 “Who never ate his bread in sorrow,
Who never spent the midnight hours
Weeping and waiting for the morrow,—
He knows ye not, ye heavenly powers.”
See DP, 54.