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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,...

(This entire section contains 1497 words.)

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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 his experience, immediately after his release, he showed courage in writing letters to defend a discharged warder and to plead for decent treatment of child prisoners. Perhaps he could have played a prominent role in prison reform had not exile intervened; yet it is difficult to see Wilde in that role unless he really meant what he said inDe Profundis. As it was, events showed that this epistle belonged to the realm of art and not to life.

Wilde’s request to have the letter copied by Ross showed that he thought of it as art, his “letter to the world.” The covering letter to Ross described his three intentions: He would explain, not defend, his past; describe his spiritual and mental crisis in prison; and outline his future plans. The aptness of Ross’s title from Psalm 130 is obvious, but the work is not so much the salvation of a lost soul as it is Wilde’s artistic equivalent of this, the groping toward an artistic resolution of the paradox that the pursuit of beauty leads to the ugliness of Reading Gaol. The past is covered mostly in the longer first half of the letter, in reproaches to Lord Alfred Douglas, which were at least somewhat merited but relevant only if Wilde recognized Lord Alfred as the alter ego of that past and not of the future. This failure to interpret his past life as a work of art indicates the failure of the remaining portion of the letter, printed in Ross’s edition of 1908.

This general section of De Profundis is in two related parts. The first states Wilde’s reliance on the paradox that art is life, life art; his problem is to see the art in his present situation, which he sums up in the word “sorrow.” If he really feels sorrow, then sorrow must be artistic or of artistic value; he decides that his art (that is, life) lacked the dimension of shadow (that is, sorrow), and his present sorrow must have been intended for the purpose of improving his art. If Wilde can transpose his prison sentence into an aspect of art, then his paradox holds good. There is evidence in the letters of his friends that he did just this soon after his release, when he wittily described Reading Gaol as an enchanted castle, complete with ogres, dungeons, and devices of torture.

The second part of this section then plays with an artistic creation or symbol of sorrow: the Man of Sorrows, by which Wilde indicated himself, Christ, and all people to the limited extent that he could be interested in anyone but himself. He pursues the Christian analogy daringly to argue not that he is Christ but that Christ (like Wilde) was the supreme artist of life. He had the imagination to feel the sufferings of a leper without being that leper, while at the same time Christ preserved his individuality. Similarly, his sympathetic imagination and artistry compelled him to turn himself into an artistic symbol of the truth about life: the Man of Sorrows. Wilde is thus not serving a prison sentence; as an artist, he is creating an artistic (that is, symbolic) statement about life. In this way he is able to absorb the most “sorrowful” experience of his life, the half-hour he stood on the center platform at Clapham Junction on his way to Reading Gaol and endured the mockery of the populace.

Having accomplished this artistic stroke (and advised Lord Alfred as a fellow poet to do likewise), Wilde proposes the two subjects on which he would like now to write. The first, the presentation of Christ as the forerunner of the Romantic movement in life, was largely covered in his previous outrageous analogy; its extension here leads him to the proposition that the sinner is as near a perfect human as humans can know because, in repenting, he can actually alter his past; thus he is the artist of the present and of the past.

The second subject, the life of art considered in relation to conduct of life, is much more the nub of Wilde’s attitude to his past and his future. As he admits, everybody will simply point to Reading Gaol as the logical conclusion of the artistic life as Wilde practiced it. He dodges the logic by three lofty assertions. He is now so much the repentant sinner that he can even pity those who mocked him at Clapham Junction; that it was reliance on the Philistines (that is, the original legal action he instituted against Queensbury) that brought him to Reading Gaol; that the supreme concern of the artist is what he says of himself, not what others say. His own statements, Wilde asserts, must be the truth because what he says will be an artistic creation.

Thus Wilde’s perverse reading of the obvious analogies in the Christian story made him miss its whole point of sacrifice (though he considers he was sacrificed for Lord Alfred) and confirms his original paradox, absolves him from all blame, and nullifies the whole meaning of Reading Gaol. The artist has triumphed over his real situation but only at the cost of life itself.