In March 1897, Oscar Wilde, from his gaol cell in Reading took to the pen and paper (20 sheets only) to write to Lord Alfred Douglas. The letter was never allowed to be sent, but Wilde did take it with him when he left, depositing it before his death with a friend, entrusted to get a copy to Douglas and one for posterity. Entitled De Profundis, the letter was published posthumously. The title taken from a latin religious reference (Psalm 130: “From the depths, I have cried out to you, O Lord;”) . This letter is freely available in the public domain here. However later editions (still not out of copyright in the US, have quite a bit more details relating to the earlier sections of the letter where Wilde directly addresses Lord Alfred Douglas.
The first parts of the letter to Douglas ascribe the relative faults, the sorrows which the excesses of action and material luxury had been brought, mostly thoughtlessly, into their lives, “lured into long spells of senseless and sensual ease … surrounded myself with small natures and the meaner minds”. His downfall, Wilde owns, was of his own making entirely and not out of keeping with the ways of gods and men. After all that has gone there were :
greater number of things in my life for which I was never indicted at all. And as the gods are strange, and punish us for what is good and humane in us as much as for what is evil and perverse, I must accept the fact that one is punished for the good as well as for the evil that one does. I have no doubt that it is quite right one should be.
There is no attempt to share blame, or rail against the laws and norms of a society that would lock up a man for so little. “This pitiless indictment I bring without pity against myself. Terrible as was what the world did to me, what I did to myself was far more terrible still.” Its a very philosophical position that by the end that Wilde had got to. But this phlegmatic attitude was a hard won perspective on his situation.
I was no longer the captain of my soul, and did not know it. I allowed pleasure to dominate me. I ended in horrible disgrace. There is only one thing for me now, absolute humility
I am terribly interested in this idea that humility might be a path that brought Wilde through an extraordinarily difficult time in his life. Indeed the letter writes of unadulterated, terrible, heavy sadness. In the first 3 months of his prison sentence Wilde’s much beloved mother died. This sorrow was heavily heart felt: “Her death was terrible to me; but I, once a lord of language, have no words to express my anguish and my shame”. His contact with Douglas during his incarceration was non-existent. He is lambasted, his reputation is denigrated publicly. Wilde has some friends, but within the confines of prison he is socially and emotionally isolated. And, at least initially over the first 12 months, Wilde is prevented from access to books and any writing materials.
… when I rejoiced in the idea that my sufferings were to be endless, I could not bear them to be without meaning. Now I find hidden somewhere away in my nature something that tells me that nothing in the whole world is meaningless, and suffering least of all. That something hidden away in my nature, like a treasure in a field, is Humility
Wilde talks of an epiphany, and piece of self realisation brought on by his extreme position. And its this theme of overcoming of a great sadness, a great piece of personal failure not identified until hubris and fortune laid its trap; indeed there is an admirable acceptance; a humility in the acceptance of that now lowly position in life that is the cornerstone of so much that is grand in this letter
When wisdom has been profitless to me, philosophy barren, and the proverbs and phrases of those who have sought to give me consolation as dust and ashes in my mouth, the memory of that little, lovely silent act of love has unsealed for me all the wells of pity; made the desert blossom like a rose, brought me out of the bitterness of lonely exile into harmony with the wounded, broken, and great heart of the world
The latter parts of the letter turn very metaphoric and spiritual and are written with Wilde’s analytic thoughts on Christ as individualist, Christ with an artist’s soul, displaying the empathy for those in pain, and an intellectual appreciation of beauty. This focus on the persona of Christ is understandable given the life and times, the themes of art and cultural metaphor and wisdom that Wilde would associate with his own life and times. Indeed he would probably have seen some surface similiarities of being sanctioned and sentenced by a fickle civilisati0n that moved so quickly from society darling to infamous outcast.
Desire, at the end, was a malady, or a madness, or both. I grew careless of the lives of others. I took pleasure where it pleased me, and passed on. I forgot that every little action of the common day makes or unmakes character, and that therefore what one has done in the secret chamber one has some day to cry aloud on the housetop
Here there are some echoes of that concept of a transparent life. One must give ones’ expectation of privacy away prior to the committing of deed and word if shame of its arriving in company from a later unexpected source is to be avoided.
Wilde is far more recognisable in the waxing lyrical relying much on the imagery of cosmological nature, religious metaphor which provides a rich heritage interwoven in the history of art. And I leave you with my favourite excerpt from Wilde wherein he talks of his departure from his place of imprisonment and his return to civilisation and society, and to walking again with nature under direction from the sun and wind:
I may hide, and secret valleys in whose silence I may weep undisturbed. She will hang the night with stars so that I may walk abroad in the darkness without stumbling, and send the wind over my footprints so that none may track me to my hurt: she will cleanse me in great waters, and with bitter herbs make me whole