De Profundis

Publication history

On his release, Wilde unburdened himself of the manuscript by giving it to Robbie Ross, with the putative title Epistola: In Carcere et Vinculis ("Letter: In Prison and in Chains"),[30] Ross and Reggie Turner met the exiled Wilde on the ferry from England at Dieppe on 20 May 1897. The manuscript comprised eighty close-written pages on twenty folio sheets of thin blue prison paper. Ross was instructed to make two typed copies, one for Wilde himself, and to send the original to Lord Alfred. However, fearing that Douglas would destroy the original, Ross sent him a copy instead (Douglas said at the 1913 Ransome libel trial that he burnt the copy he was sent without reading it).[31] Due to its length, Ross could not have it fully typed until August.[32]

In 1905, Ross published the letter with the title "De Profundis", expurgating all references to the Queensberry family. This edition would go through eight printings in next three years, including de luxe editions.[33] The title, meaning "from the depths", comes from Psalm 130, "From the depths, I have cried out to you, O Lord;". In 1924, when Lord Alfred served six months in prison for libel against Winston Churchill, he wrote a sonnet sequence entitled In Excelsis ("from the heights"), intentionally mirroring Wilde's letter.[30]

A second, slightly expanded, version of De Profundis appeared in the edition of Collected Works of Wilde published by Ross between 1908 and 1922. Also included were three other letters Wilde wrote from Reading Prison and his two letters to the editor of the Daily Chronicle written after his release.[34] Ross then donated the manuscript to the British Museum on the understanding that it would not be made public until 1960. The manuscript is now in the British Library.[35]

In 1913 the unabridged text was read in court. In 1912 Arthur Ransome had published Oscar Wilde: a critical study. Douglas sued Ransome for libel, and the case went to the High Court in April 1913. Ransome’s counsel (Campbell) had the unabridged De Profundis read to the High Court. While the full text "was so inconsistent as to be quite unreliable as evidence of anything except Wilde's fluctuating state of mind while in prison .... the endless text, read out by Campbell’s junior, bored the jury and further irritated the judge. They rebelled, and the reading was broken off; but the unalterable impression that it left in everybody’s mind was that Bosie was, in Labouchere's words, a young scoundrel and that he had ruined his great friend." [36] Douglas testified that he had received the letter from Ross, but after reading Ross's cover note threw it in the fire unread. He later claimed that he had never received the package at all.[37] Observers reported that Douglas could not bear it when he learned that the letter was addressed to him and heard its full contents. Once during the reading he simply disappeared, and was roundly rebuked by the judge.[38] Parts of the text were published subsequently in the London papers.[39] Ross quickly brought out another edition: The Suppressed Portion of "De Profundis", to claim the copyright on Wilde's work. It contained about half of the complete text.[39]

In 1949, Wilde's son Vyvyan Holland published the full text, but used a faulty typescript bequeathed to him by Ross. Ross's typescripts had contained several hundred errors, including typist's mistakes, his own emendations, and other omissions.[14]

In 1960, Rupert Hart-Davis examined the manuscript in the library of the British Museum, and produced a new, corrected text from it which was published in The Letters of Oscar Wilde in 1962. He wrote that:[40]

In July Ruth and I had the excitement of being the first people to see the original manuscript of Oscar's longest, best, and most important letter De Profundis, which had been given to the British Museum by Robbie Ross with a fifty-year ban on anyone's seeing it, so as to make sure Lord Alfred Douglas never saw it. To our delight, we found that the published versions were wildly inaccurate, so our version in The Letters was the first accurate text in print.

The 1962 Hart-Davis edition is currently still in print in the expanded version of the book titled The Complete Letters of Oscar Wilde, which was published in New York and London in 2000. The British Library published a facsimile of the original manuscript in 2000.[41]

In 2005, Oxford University Press published Volume 2 of The Complete Works of Oscar Wilde. In this volume, entitled De Profundis; 'Epistola: In Carcere et Vinculis', editor Ian Small tried "to establish an authoritative (and perhaps definitive) text" of Wilde's prison letter. The volume also aimed to "present the complete textual history of one of the most famous love letters ever written".[42] According to Thefreelibrary.com, Ian Small "creates an 'eclectic text' based on Vyvyan Holland's 1949 text into which he has collated and interpolated material from the manuscript. There has been some reordering and the omission of 1000 words, here included in square brackets".[43]

German academic Horst Schroeder has, however, compared the previously published typescripts of the text to German translations that were published in the first quarter of the 20th century and were prepared by Max Meyerfeld from typescripts he had received from Robert Ross. Based on his findings Schroeder argues that, due to the large amount of typing errors and unauthorised changes, no previously published typescript of the text (including the 1949 Holland edition) is suitable as a base text and that only the British Museum manuscript (the 1962 Hart-Davis edition) is "what really matters."[44]


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