De Profundis

Structure and content

HM Prison, Reading Dear Bosie, After long and fruitless waiting I have determined to write to you myself, as much for your sake as for mine, as I would not like to think that I had passed through two long years of imprisonment without ever having received a single line from you, or any news or message even, except such as gave me pain ...

First part: Wilde's account of time with Douglas

Wilde's work was written as a prose letter on twenty sheets of prison paper. It contains no formal divisions (save paragraphs) and is addressed and signed off as a letter. Scholars have distinguished a noticeable change in style, tone and content in the latter half of the letter, when Wilde addresses his spiritual journey in prison.[16] In the first part, Wilde examines the time he and Lord Alfred had spent together, from 1892 until Wilde's trials in the spring of 1895. He examines Lord Alfred's behaviour and its detrimental effect on Wilde's work, and recounts Lord Alfred's constant demands on his attention and hospitality. Poignancy builds throughout this section as Wilde details the expenses of their sumptuous dinners and hotel-stays, many costing over £1,000; it culminates in an account of Douglas's rage in Brighton whilst Wilde was ill. Though he was a constant presence at Wilde's side, their relationship was intellectually sterile.[17] Throughout Wilde's self-accusation is that he acceded to these demands instead of placing himself within quiet, intellectual company dedicated to the contemplation of beauty and ideas, but instead succumbed to an "imperfect world of coarse uncompleted passions, of appetite without distinction, desire without limit, and formless greed".[16] This passage concludes with Wilde offering his forgiveness to Douglas. He repudiates him for what Wilde finally sees as his arrogance and vanity; he had not forgotten Douglas's remark, when he was ill, "When you are not on your pedestal you are not interesting."[18]

Second part: Christ as a romantic artist

The second part of the letter traces Wilde's spiritual growth through the physical and emotional hardships of his imprisonment. Wilde introduces the greater context, making a typically grandiose claim: "I was one who stood in symbolic relations to the art and culture of my age",[19] though he later writes, in a more humble vein, "I have said of myself that I was one who stood in symbolic relations to the art and culture of my age. There is not a single wretched man in this wretched place along with me who does not stand in symbolic relation to the very secret of life. For the secret of life is suffering." Briefly sketching his ascendancy and dominance of the literary and social scenes in London, he contrasts his past position and the attendant pleasure with his current position and the pain it brings. Pleasure and success are an artifice, he says, while pain wears no mask. He turns to humility as a remedy, and identifies with the other prisoners.[20]

Wilde uses a quotation from Isaiah to introduce his Christian theme: "He is despised and rejected of men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief and we hid our faces from him." Though Peter Raby acknowledges the "obvious relevance" of this quotation to Wilde's situation, he argues that the line does not necessitate the comparison with Christ implicit in his description of Robert Ross doffing his hat to Wilde after his conviction.[20] Wilde adopts Jesus of Nazareth as a symbol of western kindness and eastern serenity and as a rebel-hero of mind, body and soul.[21] Though other romantics had discussed Jesus in artistic terms, Wilde's conception is the most radical. He moves methodically toward this conclusion: his earlier antinomian attitude is re-iterated and he finds no recompense in traditional morality. Though Wilde loved the beauty of religion, he dismissed it now as a source of solace, saying "My Gods dwell in temples made with hands". Reason was similarly lacking: Wilde felt that the law had convicted him unjustly. Instead Wilde reworked his earlier doctrine of the appreciation of experience, all of it must be accepted and transformed, whatever its origin. Wilde declared he would actively accept sorrow and discover humility, be happy and appreciate developments in art and life.[22]

He also felt redemption and fulfillment in his ordeal, realising that his hardship had filled the soul with the fruit of experience, however bitter it tasted at the time:

I wanted to eat of the fruit of all the trees in the garden of the world ... And so, indeed, I went out, and so I lived. My only mistake was that I confined myself so exclusively to the trees of what seemed to me the sun-lit side of the garden, and shunned the other side for its shadow and its gloom.[23]

Simon Critchley argues that the major element of De Profundis is self-realisation. Wilde, having lost everything dear to him, does not accuse external forces, justified as this might have been, but rather absorb his hardships through the artistic process into a spiritual experience.[24]


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