Life is more mystery than misery

(or at least, that's what I like to think)

De profundis, a very personal long letter from prison by Oscar Wilde.

De profundis  ( epistola: in carcere et vinculis) is a pretty long letter of more than 150 pages, written in 1897 by Oscar Wilde to his lover, Alfred Douglas, while the author was in the prison of Reading (United Kingdom).

Wilde met Douglas, the third son of the Marquess of Queensberry, when he was in the pinnacle of his career, just after The Picture of Dorian Gray was published. He was already married to Constance Lloyd and had two children (Cyril, born in 1885 and Vyvyan, born in 1886) when the poet Lionel Johnson introduced him to Alfred Douglas – named Bosie by his family and friends: a 22-year-old classical languages’ student in the Oxford Magdalene College.  The quite trivial relationship became something more when Douglas asked Wilde to help him with a blackmail case at the College, which Wilde handed to his lawyer, whom paid off the blackmailer to silent him about a supposed compromising letter. Later on, Wilde met with Douglas mother, Lady Queensberry, whom advised him to stay away from his son, as she described him as a vain and spendthrift person. Wilde didn’t care much for the advise at the time, and it wasn’t until it was too late that he found that Lady Queensberry was right about Douglas, who started to show himself as a spoiled, egotistic and bad-tempered brat who always asked for money, great dinners at the Savoy and Wilde’s company whether it suited the author or not.

Oscar Wilde and Alfred Douglas, summer of 1893.

De profundis is Wilde’s reflection about this turbulent relationship, a letter full of honest regret, an account of every and each of Bosie’s act of rudeness, and a detailed chain of the events that triggered the sentence that sent Wilde to prison for his homosexuality among other things. The letter has the depth of a personal diary and the authenticity of a true biographic document, written by a Oscar Wilde that has become a very different person, completely away from the image of that funny chatty host that invited artists, intellectuals and young gentlemen to succulent dinners at the Savoy that most of us had probably formed. The letter has three different themes that make it very interesting to read. One of them is the relationship’s story with Douglas, with a constant bitterness against Douglas and his selfish attitude, even after Wilde had been incarcerated, as he never went to visit him or even write him a single letter. The other two are his self-reflections about the change in himself, as he understands that he has hit rock bottom and, after all the desperation, frustration and darkness process he’s gone through, he describes himself as different person, far from all the trivial luxuries that he once adored:

“Suffering is one long moment. We cannot divide it by seasons. We can only record its moods, and chronicle their return. With us time itself does not progress. It revolves. It seems to circle round one centre of pain. The paralyzing immobility of a life every circumstance of which is regulated after an unchangeable pattern, so that we eat and drink and lie down and pray, or kneel at least for prayer, according to the inflexible laws of an iron formula: this immobile quality, that makes each dreadful day in the very minutest detail like its brother, seems to communicate itself to those external forces the very essence of whose existence is ceaseless change. Of seed-time or harvest, of the reapers bending over the corn, or the grape gatherers threading through the vines, of the grass in the orchard made white with broken blossoms or strewn with fallen fruit: of these we know nothing and can know nothing. For us there is only one season, the season of Sorrow. The very sun and moon seem taken from us. Outside, the day may be blue and gold, but the light that creeps down through the thickly muffled glass of the small iron-barred window beneath which one sits is gray. It is always twilight in one’s cell, as it is always twilight in one’s heart. And in the sphere of thought, no less than in the sphere of time, motion is no more. The thing that you personally have long ago forgotten, or can easily forget, is happening to me now, and will happen to me again to-morrow. Remember this, and you will be able to understand a little of why I am writing, and in this manner writing.”

As an art lover, the third constant theme in this letter is the author and his relationship with art, and although he shows his bitterness about Douglas’ influence in this aspect:  “I blame myself without reserve for my weakness. It was merely weakness. One half-hour with Art was always more to me than a cycle with you. Nothing really at any period of my life was ever of the smallest importance to me compared with Art. But in the case of an artist, weakness is nothing less than a crime, when it is a weakness that paralyses the imagination”, he seems eager to begin new literary works with the new life he imagines outside prison.

Upon his release, Wilde wrote “The Ballad of Reading Gaol,” a poem that reflected the agony he experienced in prison, which was published shortly before Constance’s death in 1898. In spite his bitterness about Bosie, the two of them reunited briefly, but Wilde mostly spent the last three years of his life wandering Europe, staying with friends and living in cheap hotels. Sadly, he didn’t write anything else as it seemed he was unable to rekindle his creative fires, until he died of meningitis on November 30, 1900.

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One comment on “De profundis, a very personal long letter from prison by Oscar Wilde.

  1. Pingback: Book Review | ‘The House of Pomegranates’ by Oscar Wilde « Wordly Obsessions

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