Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
The eighty-page manuscript of this letter rests in the British Museum. It was written in Reading Gaol on prison paper during the last months, from January to March, of Oscar Wilde’s two-year sentence for “unnatural practices,” or homosexuality. It was addressed to Lord Alfred Douglas, but when Wilde was not allowed to send it from prison he handed it to his friend Robert Ross the day after he was released on May 19, 1897, with instructions to type a copy and send the original to Lord Alfred, who always claimed he never received it. Part of the work was first published under Ross’s title, De Profundis, in 1905 and again in 1908. A typescript was given by Ross to Vyvyn Holland, Wilde’s younger son, who published it in 1949. Rupert Hart-Davis demonstrated that this first complete edition contained hundreds of errors, and he published the manuscript after it was released by the British Museum from the fifty-year restriction Ross placed on it when he deposited the manuscript in 1909. As a letter, it becomes the center of the definitive edition of Wilde’s letters; in the shorter form edited by Ross it is both an apologia and a literary essay. Nevertheless, in its entirety it has a unity and a unique value as Wilde’s testament to his life as an artist.
Since it is cast in the form of an epistle, the work needs some contextual reference to Wilde’s life and works before and after his imprisonment and the composition of the letter. The...
(The entire section is 1497 words.)
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