In May 1895, at the height of his literary career, the Irish poet and playwright Oscar Wilde was arrested and charged with ‘acts of gross indecency with other male persons’. Convicted at the Old Bailey, he became a bankrupt outcast overnight, and was sentenced to two years’ imprisonment with hard labor. Before he was released from Reading prison, Wilde wrote a long letter to his former lover, Lord Alfred Douglas, which was later published as De Profundis. In it, Wilde expressed his feelings about his own situation. He also expressed his changing feelings for Douglas, whose father, the Marquis of Queensberry, had spearheaded the Establishment’s attack on Wilde.
Penguin Classics has republished the letter along with Wilde’s prison writings and his classic protest against the inhumanity of the death penalty, The Ballad of Reading Gaol. Wilde firmly believed that the laws under which he had been convicted were ‘wrong and unjust laws’. De Profundis is an expression of his effort to transcend his physical degradation and to maintain his integrity as a human being, even as he struggled to deal with Douglas’s indifference. Wilde’s refusal to reject his own lived experience shows the resilience of his spirit under the worst conditions imaginable:
When first I was put into prison some people advised me to try and forget who I was. It was ruinous advice. It is only by realizing what I am that I have found comfort of any kind. Now I am advised by others to try on my release to forget that I have ever been in a prison at all. I know that would be equally fatal. It would mean that I would be always haunted by an intolerable sense of disgrace, and that those things that are meant as much for me as for anyone else – the beauty of the sun and the moon, the pageant of the seasons, the music of daybreak and the silence of great nights, the rain falling through the leaves, or the dew creeping over the grass and making it silver – would all be tainted for me, and lose their healing power and their power of communicating joy. To reject 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. For just as the body absorbs things of all kinds, things common and unclean no less than those that the priest or a vision has cleansed, and converts them into swiftness or strength, into the play of beautiful muscles and the molding of fair flesh, into the curves and colors of the hair, the lips, the eye: so the Soul, in turn, has its nutritive functions also, and can transform into noble moods of thought, and passions of high import, what in itself is base, cruel, and degrading: nay more, may find in these its most august modes of assertion, and can often reveal itself most perfectly through what was intended to desecrate or destroy.
– Catherine Vigier, Zeteo contributing Writer
Oscar Wilde, De Profundis and Other Prison Writings. Edited with an introduction by Colm Tóibín. London, Penguin Classics, 2013.
Photo: Oscar Wilde in 1882. Source: Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain