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 prison sentence marked the end of his marriage, his income, and his life in England; thereafter he lived in exile as Sebastian Melmoth. One link with the past, however, was not broken: the association with Lord Alfred Douglas. Wilde’s return to the young man, the cause of his imprisonment, divorce, and bankruptcy, and to the kind of associates whose evidence had convicted him, seems to invalidate the promise to lead a new life with which De Profundis closes. Wilde claimed, however, that while, on one hand, the conditions of exile, disgrace, and penury drove him to those acquaintances, on the other, they were the creations of his art and not the conditions of his life. Wilde’s one conviction was that he was an artist, and he doggedly transposed the terms of life and art. His term for the new life was Dante’s La vita nuova (c. 1292). Similarly, Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890) was to be the parable of his life; it was more true to his life because of its artistry than was his biography. The strain of maintaining this paradox ended his life three years after his release and finished his writing career shortly after the composition of De Profundis. The resolution of the paradox is the intention of the long letter.
This epistle is therefore connected both with Wilde’s biography (in which sense it is autobiography) and with his literary canon. In the letter, he suggests that his sentence and fate are “prefigured” in works such as The Picture of Dorian Gray. The immediate artistic fruits of the “new life” are the two letters to the Morning Chronicle and The Ballad of Reading Gaol (1898), his only writing after De Profundis; parts of the last amount to a prose poem falling somewhere between the prose of the two letters and poetry of the ballad, Wilde’s longest and most effective poem. The two letters are included in Ross’s 1908 edition and show plainly the real conditions under which De Profundis was written. Wilde sums them up as constant hunger, diarrhea from the rotten food, and insomnia from the diarrhea and the plank bed in his cell. His description of prison life is vivid and awful; out of...
(The entire section is 1497 words.)