Great Books Written in Prison: Essays on Classic Works from Plato to Martin Luther King, Jr. (2015)

Epistle from Prison:
Oscar Wilde’s De Profundis
[Epistola in Carcere et Vinculis]

Joseph J. Portanova


The circumstances surrounding Oscar Wilde’s imprisonment and the writing of De Profundis are perhaps the most singular of any in this volume. Ultimately, he was incarcerated as part of Victorian England’s policing of sexual behavior. It would seem, however, that this was a situation he might have avoided had he not first pursued a lawsuit of his own—against the man who then became the accuser in his criminal case. Regardless of the possible hubris that may have brought Wilde to prison, the experience was intense and horrific. De Profundis, a letter written to his former lover, covers literary ground from poetry to prayer. It is not hard to point to Wilde’s imprisonment as the beginning of the end of his career; and possibly of his life. Given these circumstances, it is ironic that the first complete publication of De Profundis—in the early 1960s—was part of a revival of interest in Wilde and his work.—J.W.R.

Background: Oscar Wilde, Lord Alfred Douglas, and the Marquess of Queensberry

During his American lecture tour of 1882, Oscar Wilde (1854–1900) visited a prison in Lincoln, Nebraska. He remarked, “Poor sad types of humanity…. Little whitewashed cells, so tragically tidy, but with books in them. In one I found a translation of Dante…. Strange and beautiful it seemed to me that the sorrow of a single Florentine in exile should, hundreds of years afterwards, lighten the sorrow of some common prisoner in a modern gaol” (Wilde, Letters 166). Wilde could not have imagined that years later he would be reading Dante in a prison cell and writing his own account of a spiritual journey through a personal Hell.

Wilde’s American tour was a triumph (Elmann 158–60). He had left England as a minor poet, and returned as a celebrity. He soon established a reputation in many literary genres: short stories, essays, the novel, and drama. The subject of same-sex desire/homosexuality in his novel The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890–1891) raised questions about the author’s moral character (M. Holland, Trial 39, 77–78, 81, 220–22).1 This conflation of author and work was not entirely incorrect. In 1891 the thirty-six-year-old Wilde met Lord Alfred (“Bosie”) Douglas, the twenty-year-old son of the Marquess of Queensberry. Douglas was captivated by Wilde’s wit, Wilde by Douglas’ beauty. This relationship placed Wilde in the middle of a family quarrel, and ultimately led to his imprisonment.

John Sholto Douglas, the Ninth Marquess of Queensberry, was best known for establishing the Queensberry rules for fighting. Fighting also was part of his family life. As Ellmann noted, Queensberry was not “a simple brute. In fact, he was a complex one. Insofar as he was brutal, he practiced a rule-bound brutality” (387–88). At first charmed by Wilde, Queensberry became hostile when he heard rumors of the nature of the relationship between Douglas and Wilde. Queensberry was already concerned about his eldest son, Lord Drumlanrig, who was said to be involved in a homosexual relationship with a prominent politician (M. Holland, Trial xviii–xix).

While his lawyers would later attempt to portray him as a concerned father, his family situation was hardly ideal. Sibyl, Marchioness of Queensberry and mother of Lord Alfred Douglas, had won a divorce case from the Marquess of Queensberry in 1887 on grounds of adultery. Douglas, who like his father had a temper, was frequently at odds with Queensberry and was not above deliberately baiting him. The more his association with Wilde annoyed his father, the more Douglas flaunted it. Queensberry’s middle son Percy tended to side with his Douglas against their father (Ellmann 405, 418; H. Hyde, Lord 66). As the judge at Wilde’s trial stated in his summation to the jury, “Lord Alfred’s family seems to be a house divided against itself” (H. Hyde, Trials 263).

The Marquess forbade his son from associating with Wilde—when Douglas refused, Queensberry harassed Wilde. Wilde felt persecuted, and found it difficult to write. In June of 1894 Queensberry appeared at Wilde’s home with a prizefighter and threatened the author. Wilde threw Queensberry and his associate out. On February 14th of the following year, Queensberry was prevented from attending the opening of Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, which the Marquess had planned to disrupt with a basket of vegetables that he intended to throw at the stage. On February 18, 1895, Queensberry left a visiting card at the private gentlemen’s club to which Wilde belonged inscribed “To Oscar Wilde posing [as a] somdomite” (In his anger, or out of ignorance, Queensberry misspelled “sodomite”).

The Libel Trial of Queensberry; The Trials of Oscar Wilde for Gross Indecency

Disturbed at his home, at the theatre, and at his private club, Wilde decided that legal means were needed to end this persecution by Queensberry. Wilde, with Douglas’ encouragement, prosecuted the Marquess for libel. It was an unfortunate and foolish decision, considering Wilde’s relationship with not only Douglas but also many other young men. Queensberry’s lawyer, Edward Carson, argued that “sodomite” was justified, and questioned Wilde concerning his letters to Douglas and his literary works. Carson prepared to produce in court other young men whom Wilde had entertained. Fearing that their testimony might lead to Wilde’s arrest for Gross Indecency, Wilde’s lawyer withdrew the libel charge. Queensberry was acquitted (M. Holland, Trial 280–283; H. Hyde, Trials 144–45).

The Marquess now gave the state prosecutor evidence against Wilde. Gross Indecency was a relatively new crime. Sodomy between males had been punishable in England by death, which in 1861 was changed to ten years to life imprisonment at hard labor. The Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1885 was intended to protect women by raising the age of consent. An addendum (Section 11) to this act also changed the penalties for sexual acts between males. It replaced the term “sodomy” with the vague term “gross indecency,” and reduced the penalty to one day to two years’ imprisonment, with or without hard labor. Because the term was vague, and punished acts committed in private on the testimony of one of the participants, it became known as the “blackmailers’ charter” (Halsall; M. Holland, Trial xxxvii).

On the evening of Queensberry’s acquittal, Wilde was arrested. From the start of the trial the press was against Wilde and portrayed Queensberry as a concerned father (H. Hyde Trials 156). Various young men testified to indecencies Wilde committed with them. Their testimony was somewhat tainted by the fact that most were prostitutes and blackmailers (H. Hyde, Trials 174–76, 207–12; Ellmann 475). Wilde denied all charges, and the trial ended with the jury unable to agree. Wilde was released on bail, but the hostility of the public resulted in the end of his book sales and the closing of his plays, cutting off all income. Creditors auctioned off his possessions (H. Hyde Trials 164–66, 217–19). Some, including Carson, disputed the necessity of a second trial (H. Hyde Trials 223–24). Others claimed that Queensberry had blackmailed the government concerning a homosexual scandal (Gagnier 339, 353–54, 354n6). The evidence against Wilde at his second trial (May 22 to 25, 1895) was the same, but the prosecution was relentless and the judge unsympathetic. After the jury convicted Wilde, Justice Wills shocked the court with his harsh sentence: “It is the worst case I have ever tried … you … have been the centre of a circle of extensive corruption of the most hideous kind among young men … I shall … pass the severest sentence that the law allows. In my judgment it is totally inadequate” (H. Hyde, Trials 239–40, 262–72; Ellmann 474–78). His justification was his “utmost sense of indignation at the horrible charges….” Wills had certainly seen worse crimes, but gave the maximum sentence: two years in solitary confinement at hard labor (H. Hyde, Trials 273; Ellmann 477–78).

Oscar Wilde in Prison: The Writing of De Profundis

Wilde’s imprisonment destroyed his career, bankrupted him, and quite likely led to his early death. He served his sentence in three prisons: Pentonville (May 25–July 4, 1895; May 18–19, 1897), Wandsworth (July 4–November 20, 1895), and Reading Prison (Reading Gaol/Jail) (November 20, 1895–May 18, 1897). The British prison system at this time was designed to punish rather than to rehabilitate. The food was deliberately inadequate; the labor monotonous. Conversation with other prisoners was forbidden. No personal property was allowed in the ill-ventilated, poorly-lit cells. One letter could be sent and received every three months. Books were limited to religious texts for two months, and afterwards a single book a week from the small prison library. Punishment was frequent and often arbitrary. Insanity was a danger for prisoners in solitary (Gagnier 336–40). The food produced constant diarrhea. The plank beds produced insomnia. Visitors were allowed only four times a year, locked in cages opposite the prisoners three or four feet away (Wilde, Letters 1045–49; Hyde, Trials 163). A special exception was granted to Constance Wilde, who was allowed to visit her husband in his cell to inform him of his mother’s death (Ellmann 492–98).2

Wilde’s deteriorating condition led to an investigation. As a result, in June of 1895 he was visited by Richard Haldane, a member of parliament who knew him. Haldane obtained permission for him to receive books not available in the prison library, and recommended that Wilde write about his prison experience. His situation again improved after James Nelson became Governor of Reading (summer, 1896) (Wilde, Letters 652n1, 653n2, 854, 982–83; Bristow 29; Rose xxxiv–xxxv). Nelson allowed Wilde writing materials, and gave him permission to write a long letter to Douglas. Wilde began the letter in January of 1897, and finished it in March of the same year. This was a book-length epistle, which Wilde called the “Epistola: In Carcere et Vinculis” [Letter/Epistle: In Prison and in Chains] (Wilde, Letters 683n1, 780–83). His literary executor, Robert Ross, later titled it De Profundis [Out of the Depths], from Psalm 130: “Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord” (Wilde, Letters 510–11; Bristow 29). It is by this name that it is known today.

De Profundis is a complex and unusual work, in some ways a genre unto itself. Attempts at categorization show how its contradictions have puzzled critics. It has been called a love letter, resistance against prison life, punishment of Douglas, a hymn to suffering, individualism, and Christ, and a rehabilitation. It has also been called a self-serving mythology, an apologia and confession, a movement from adoration of Douglas’ physical body to adoration of Christ’s spiritual body, a refusal to reform, a repudiation of his former life, an affirmation of his former life, and a cynical comedy aimed at deceiving society.3 That cogent arguments could be made for such apparently contradictory categories, and combinations of these categories, indicates its complexity. That Wilde himself was able to combine apparently contradictory ideas has been noted by scholars. Perhaps classification is too limiting: this essay will illustrate some of its aspects through analysis of selected themes.

Lord Alfred Douglas in De Profundis

First, there is the description of Lord Alfred Douglas. This theme begins the text, and is continued throughout the work. This ranges from what sounds like elevated concern for the welfare of his soul to complaints about his debts (emotional, intellectual, ethical and financial) to Wilde. It is harsh, and often unfair. Douglas is described as shallow, utterly incapable of feeling for others (Wilde, Letters 687). His literary and intellectual accomplishments are belittled (Wilde, Letters 685, 692–93, 702–03). His scenes and abusive letters make it impossible for Wilde to write. Wilde attempts to leave him about every three months, but is drawn back by letters, tears and threats of suicide (Wilde, Letters 691–92, 695, 700–01).4 Financial debts are relentlessly catalogued, including estimates of weekly and daily expenses (Wilde, Letters 688–89, 703–04, 713, 767–68, 775). Douglas consumes Wilde’s life: “Having made your own of my genius, my will-power, and my fortune, you required, in the blindness of an inexhaustible greed, my entire existence” (Wilde, Letters 690). He is blamed for Wilde’s conviction, and for his bankruptcy (Wilde, Letters 690–91, 702–04, 775–76).

Douglas treats the imprisoned Wilde horribly. Others offer condolences to Wilde for his mother’s death, but Douglas does not write. When Wilde does hear about him, it is that he is intending to publish Wilde’s private letters. But he sends no more letters to Wilde. The letter begins with a complaint about Douglas’ silence. Wilde repeats this towards the end of the work, suggesting that Douglas reply with a letter of his own and including the instructions “Address the envelope to ‘The Governor, H.M. Prison, Reading’” (Wilde, Letters 778). This is written by a disappointed lover, and while some accusations are fair many are distorted or untrue. Douglas alone did not bankrupt Wilde, nor was he responsible for Wilde’s relations with other young men. He had been discouraged by the Governor from communicating with Wilde, which explains some of Douglas’ silence (Wilde, Letters 684n1).

Wilde’s De Profundis goes beyond recrimination and blame to produce an autobiography of his tragedy. There are elements in the portrait of Douglas that make him a sinister figure, if not an anti–Christ. If Wilde represents the world of art and intellect, Douglas is flesh and appetite: “Your interests were merely in your meals and moods. Your desires were simply for … ordinary or less ordinary pleasures” (Wilde, Letters 687). Douglas’ lack of responsibility is called his “creed” (Wilde, Letters 764–65). Douglas and Queensberry are like the guards who cast dice for Christ’s garments: “In your hideous game of hate together, you had both thrown dice for my soul” (Wilde, Letters 709). His attempt to publish Wilde’s letters is called “a sacrilege” (Wilde, Letters 717).

Wilde recalls the doxology (“Through Him, with Him, in Him”) of the Christian mass in describing Douglas’ role in his imprisonment: “It was through you, for you, and by you that I was there” (Wilde, Letters 710). He echoes the language of the Confessional (“in what I have done and what I have failed to do”): “By your actions and by your silence, by what you have done and by what you have left undone, you have made every day of my long imprisonment still more difficult” (Wilde, Letters 728). Douglas finally is a false Christ, who transubstantiates bread and water but not into body and blood: “The very bread and water of prison fare you have by your conduct changed. You have rendered the one bitter and the other brackish to me. The sorrow you should have shared you have doubled, the pain you should have sought to lighten you have quickened to anguish” (Wilde, Letters 728). Douglas is portrayed as the opposite of Christ, who was the consoling Paraclete (Comforter).

After such a litany of evil, one would think that Wilde would reject Douglas. Yet Wilde cannot stop thinking about him, and while the thoughts are negative they are focused upon Douglas: “the memory of our friendship is the shadow that walks with me here: that seems never to leave me: … it follows me into the prison-yard and makes me talk to myself as I tramp round: each detail that accompanied each dreadful moment I am forced to recall” (Wilde, Letters 706). One suspects, in spite of the language used, that not all the memories Wilde relived were negative or even chaste. He describes the letter in highly emotional terms: “You must take it as it stands, blotted in many places with tears, in some with the signs of passion or pain, and make it out as best you can, blots, corrections and all” (Wilde, Letters 770). Wilde reminds Douglas that their relationship is the letter’s main subject: “I have now written, and at great length, to you in order that you should realise what you were to me before my imprisonment, during those three years’ fatal friendship: what you have been to me during my imprisonment … and what I hope to be to myself and to others when my imprisonment is over” (Wilde, Letters 769–70). He suggests that Douglas reflect on his actions: “I have had to look at my past face to face. Look at your past face to face. Sit down quietly and consider it” (Wilde, Letters 775). This implies a kind of sharing between them: as Wilde contemplates his past in his cell, Douglas will sit quietly and consider his past. The shared past will unite them in isolation and contemplation.

This reunion will not only be spiritual. Wilde discusses how they will meet when he is released (Wilde, Letters 776). The setting will be a romantic one of his choosing: “when the June roses are in all their wanton opulence, I will … meet you in some quiet foreign town like Bruges, whose grey houses and green canals and cool still ways had a charm for me, years ago” (Wilde, Letters 778). To meet, both must change their names, as the friends in Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest change theirs: “For the moment you will have to change your name … just as my name … will have to be abandoned” (Wilde, Letters 778). In the play, the name change was through baptism and for love. Wilde mentions sorrow and humility in their meeting, but also love: “there is a … chasm between us now, the chasm of Sorrow: but to Humility there is nothing that is impossible, and to Love all things are easy” (Wilde, Letters 778). Wilde ends his letter with a complaint about Douglas’ silence, yet again speaks of the power of love. “I waited month after month to hear from you. Even if I had … shut the doors against you, you should have remembered that no one can possibly shut the doors against Love for ever…. There is no prison in any world into which Love cannot force an entrance” (Wilde, Letters 778–79). Wilde has come full circle, and suggests that their friendship may begin again: “Perhaps we have yet to know each other” (Wilde, Letters 779). Wilde offers, finally, “to teach” Douglas “something much more wonderful, the meaning of Sorrow, and its beauty” (Wilde, Letters 780). The letter ends with an invitation rather than a rejection.

Autobiography, Fantasy and Tragedy

Wilde’s description of his own life and career also has an element of fantasy. As Gagnier noted, this is at least in part a prisoner’s reconstruction of a past in opposition to prison life (335, 341, 349). Wilde says, “I had genius, a distinguished name, high social position, brilliancy … I made art a philosophy, and philosophy an art … there was nothing I said or did that did not make people wonder: … whatever I touched I made beautiful in a new mode of beauty: … I awoke the imagination of my century so that it created myth and legend around me: I summed up all systems in a phrase, and all existence in an epigram” (Wilde, Letters 729). His ruin seems deliberate: “Tired of being on the heights I deliberately went to the depths in the search for new sensations. What the paradox was to me in the sphere of thought, perversity became to me in the sphere of passion” (Wilde, Letters 730). Even his fall brings with it a kind of greatness: “I have come … from a sort of eternity of fame to a sort of eternity of infamy” and “in the lowest mire of Malebolge I sit between Gilles de Retz and the Marquis de Sade” (Wilde, Letters 691, 734).5

Wilde’s opinion of his “crime” is interesting. Although “perversity” is part of his downfall, his reason tells him “the laws under which I am convicted are wrong and unjust laws, and the system under which I have suffered a wrong and unjust system” (Wilde, Letters 732). He describes his relations with young men in a heroic (if Freudian) manner:

They … were delightfully suggestive and stimulating. It was like feasting with panthers. The danger was half the excitement. I used to feel as the snake-charmer must feel when he lures the cobra to stir … and makes it spread its hood at his bidding, and sway to and fro in the air…. They were to me the brightest of gilded snakes. Their poison was part of their perfection…. To entertain them was an astounding adventure. Dumas père, Cellini, Goya, Edgar Allan Poe, or Baudelaire, would have done just the same [Wilde, Letters 758–59].

What, then, was he guilty of? Only this: “At the end I had to come forward, on your behalf, as the champion of Respectability in conduct, of Puritanism, in life, and of Morality in Art. Voilà où mènent les mauvais chemins! [See where the bad roads lead]” (Wilde, Letters 758–59). Homosexuality is not to blame for his downfall. For Wilde, the road to respectability and morality is the road to ruin.

He does not spare the society that put him in prison: when he turned to its laws for protection against Queensberry society turned its laws against Wilde. He has no use for people’s lack of imagination: “People point to Reading Gaol, and say, ‘There is where the artistic life leads a man.’ Well, it might lead one to worse places. The more mechanical people … always know where they are going, and go there…. A man whose desire is to be … a Member of Parliament, or a successful grocer, or a … solicitor, or a judge, or something equally tedious, invariably succeeds in being what he wants to be. That is his punishment” (Wilde, Letters 753). Society places people in prison and then abandons them upon their release. Wilde contrasts the kindness of the poor, for whom prison is an occasion for sympathy, with the cruelty of his own class, which makes a former prisoner a pariah (Wilde, Letters 728).

Prison, Revelation and Redemption

The prison itself becomes a character as well as a setting in Wilde’s narrative. It creates its own reality, and confirms existence: for prisoners “Suffering … is the means by which we exist, because it is the only means by which we become conscious of existing; and the remembrance of suffering in the past is necessary to us as the warrant, the evidence, of our continued identity” (Wilde, Letters 696). As Gagnier has noted (335, 341–42) this is part of a prisoner’s necessary reconstruction of the world outside. For Wilde, memory is re-creation: “There is nothing that happened in those ill-starred years that I cannot recreate in that chamber of the brain which is set apart for grief or for despair: every strained note of your voice, every twitch and gesture of your nervous hands, every bitter word, every poisonous phrase comes back to me” (Wilde, Letters 706). That the re-creation is not entirely true is immaterial: memory, justification, and literary effect are one. In this passage, Wilde recalls an earlier description of Queensberry’s “twitching hands”; while his insistent memory of Douglas recalls an earlier vision of the Marquess’ face that haunted Wilde in court (Wilde, Letters 758). Time itself is without meaning: it moves in circles like the useless exercise in the prison yard. The world moves on, but for the prisoner the past is the present:

With us time itself does not progress. It revolves. It seems to circle round one centre of pain…. 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 grey…. It is always twilight in one’s cell, as it is always midnight 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 … is happening to me now, and will happen to me again tomorrow [Wilde, Letters 720].

This drives Wilde to despair: at Wandsworth he wants to die, and at Reading plans to commit suicide on the day of his release (Wilde, Letters 735).

Then there is a change, which Wilde ascribes to his spiritual conversion: “The plank-bed, the loathsome food, the hard ropes shredded into oakum till one’s fingertips grow dull with pain … the silence, the solitude, the shame…. There is not a single degradation of the body which I must not try and make into a spiritualising of the soul” (Wilde, Letters 732). This also follows an improvement in conditions by Governor Nelson. Regulations are still observed, but the spirit behind them has changed. Wilde begins to appreciate kindnesses he has received. When he is allowed white bread to eat for the first time, the experience is Eucharistic: “I carefully eat whatever crumbs may be left on my tin plate, or have fallen on the rough towel that one uses as a cloth … and do so not from hunger … but simply in order that nothing should be wasted of what is given to me. So one should look on love” (Wilde, Letters 749). Prison has become revelation.

What exactly the revelation consists of is the subject of debate. This being Wilde, it is hard to pin down what exactly he is talking about: Greek paganism, Christianity, Nature, or some aesthetic combination of them all. The first hint of Wilde’s redemption through nature comes with Robert Ross’ act of kindness at the bankruptcy court. Here, as Wilde was transferred from prison to the Court past a mocking crowd, Ross raised his hat to Wilde in a silent salute. The memory of this kindness “unsealed … the wells of pity, made the desert blossom like a rose, and brought me out of the bitterness of lonely exile into harmony with the wounded, broken and great heart of the world” (Wilde, Letters 723). Wilde’s spiritual journey is described in natural terms: “I have hills far steeper to climb, valleys much darker to pass through” (Wilde, Letters 731–32). He looks forward to the spring of his release from prison, when lilac and laburnum will be in bloom (Wilde, Letters 777). Nature will bring healing and refuge:

Society, as we have constituted it, will have no place for me … but Nature, whose sweet rains fall on unjust and just alike, will have clefts in the rocks where 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 [Wilde, Letters 777–78].

For Wilde those who understood nature best were the Greeks, who “…loved the trees for the shadow that they cast, and the forest for its silence at noon” (Wilde, Letters 776–77). The influence of his Classical education is clear, as he refers to Euripides, Aristotle, Socrates, Plato, Aeschylus, and Sophocles (Wilde, Letters 688, 690, 702, 740, 742–43, 745–48, 752, 776). He speaks of the “pomp of the Latin line or the richer music of the vowelled Greek,” and quotes Greek directly on several occasions (Wilde, Letters 685, 688, 776).

His repeated mention of “the gods” seems like paganism. They have given Wilde his genius and career; they influence his relationship with Douglas and mock traditional ideas of wisdom (Wilde, Letters 685, 701, 729, 732). He mentions Apollo and other deities by name more often than he names Christian saints. Nonetheless, he finds the Greek deities too cruel: “The curved brow of Apollo was like the sun’s disc crescent over a hill at dawn, and his feet were as the wings of the morning, but he himself had been cruel to Marsyas and had made Niobe childless” (Wilde, Letters 746). Most importantly, the Greeks did not believe that the past could be changed—Wilde believed that repentance was “the means by which one alters one’s past” (Wilde, Letters 752). Wilde rejects classical Paganism, but it is not clear what he would replace it with: “The faith that others give to what is unseen, I give to what one can touch, and look at … I feel as if I would like to found an order for those who cannot believe: The Confraternity of the Fatherless one might call it, where on an altar, on which no taper burned, a priest, in whose heart peace had no dwelling, might celebrate with unblessed bread and a chalice empty of wine” (Wilde, Letters 732).

The image of Christ is complex in De Profundis, and is closely linked to the image of Wilde himself. This does not necessarily make it less sincere as a religious meditation and text, but it does raise some questions concerning the connection between the Christ of De Profundis and Christianity. Wilde states that except for St. Francis of Assisi, there have been no Christians since Christ (Wilde, Letters 753). Wilde identifies Christ’s opponents as Philistines, whom he sees as the Jews and the British: “In their heavy inaccessibility to ideas, their dull respectability, their tedious orthodoxy, their worship of vulgar success, their entire preoccupation with the gross materialistic side of life, and their ridiculous estimate of themselves and their importance, the Jew of Jerusalem in Christ’s day was the exact counterpart of the British Philistine of our own” (Wilde, Letters 751). Wilde’s is a Hellenized, not a Jewish, Christ. He claims that the Greek gospels are the exact words of Christ, who “like the Irish peasants of our day,” was “bilingual, and … Greek was the ordinary language … all over Palestine…. Charmides might have listened to him, and Socrates reasoned with him, and Plato understood him” (Wilde, Letters 748–49). Wilde sees in the responses of the servitor at Mass “the ultimate survival of the Greek chorus” (Wilde, Letters 743). Christ fulfills and surpasses the ancient Greek ideas: his personality is “infinitely greater than that any made by myth or legend” (Wilde, Letters 746). Wilde’s Christ is entirely mortal. His miracles are attributed not to the power of God, but to the “charm of his personality,” so that “his mere presence could bring peace to souls in anguish … and men whose dull unimaginative lives had been but a mode of death rose as it were from the grave when he called them” (Wilde, Letters 743).

Above all, the Christ of De Profundis is an individualist, a poet and an artist (Wilde, Letters 740). His life is a poem that surpasses Greek tragedy, his suffering a theme for art beyond compare (Wilde, Letters 742, 746). Wilde sees himself, the romantic, in Jesus: “I see in Christ not merely the essentials of the supreme romantic type, but all the accidents, the wilfulnesses even, of the romantic temperament also. He was the first person who ever said to people that they should live ‘flower-like’ lives” (Wilde, Letters 750). Wilde had said earlier in the letter that he was “made for exceptions, not for laws”; he similarly describes Christ: “For him there were no laws: there were exceptions merely” (Wilde, Letters 732, 751). Wilde provides a voice for those in prison, just as Christ is a voice for those “who are dumb under oppression and ‘whose silence is heard only of God’” (Wilde, Letters 746).6 Christ, like Wilde, goes beyond standards of morality. He is not interested in reforming people, or even relieving suffering. He does not wish to “turn an interesting thief into a tedious honest man…. But in a manner not yet understood of the world he regarded sin and suffering as being in themselves beautiful, holy things, and modes of perfection” (Wilde, Letters 752).

This Wildean Christ is described in terms that combine the themes of nature, the Greeks, the artist, and Wilde himself. He speaks the language of Plato and Socrates, yet unlike the Greeks knows that a sinner can change the past through repentance—something the Olympian gods themselves could not do (Wilde, Letters 749, 752). His miracles seem “as exquisite as the coming of Spring, and quite as natural” (Wilde, Letters 743). Wilde and Christ know humility, yet preach the virtues of nature and of Hellenism. As an artist and an individualist, Christ realizes, as Wilde does, that “Things, also, are in their essence what we choose to make them…. ‘Where others,’ says Blake, ‘see but the Dawn coming over the hill, I see the sons of God shouting for joy’” (Wilde, Letters 779).7 Ultimately, Wilde saves himself: or rather Christ saves Wilde, because Wilde saves Wilde.

Wilde After Prison; De Profundis After Wilde

While he was writing De Profundis, Wilde referred to it as “the most important letter of my life, as it will deal ultimately with my future mental attitude towards life, with the way in which I desire to meet the world again” (Wilde, Letters 678). He was not allowed to send it to Douglas from prison, but the prison authorities gave it to Wilde upon his release. Wilde then gave Ross the manuscript and told him to have two typed copies made before sending Douglas the original. Wilde’s description (written in prison) mixes humor with Roman Catholic religious ceremony:

The lady type-writer might be fed through a lattice in the door like the Cardinals when they elect a Pope, till she comes out on the balcony and can say to the world “Habet Mundus Epistolam” [The World Has an Epistle]; for indeed it is an Encyclical Letter, and as the Bulls of the Holy Father are named from their opening words, it may be spoken of as the “Epistola: In Carcere et Vinculis” [Epistle: In Prison and in Chains] [Wilde, Letters 782].

Ross ultimately sent a typed copy to Douglas and kept the original. As for Wilde, he does not mention De Profundis in his letters after his release from prison. He and Douglas reunited, but were soon separated: by legal threats from both families, by financial difficulties, and perhaps by the inability to reconstruct the past (Wilde, Letters 880, 898, 933n1). Wilde’s imitation of Christ did not, in later life, extend to poverty: “Like dear St. Francis of Assisi, I am wedded to Poverty: but in my case the marriage is not a success: … I see no beauty in her hunger and her rags” (Wilde, Letters 1145). He remained plagued with financial worries until his death.

Wilde did not repent of his love for Douglas, or for that matter his love of other young men: “A patriot put into prison for loving his country loves his country, and a poet in prison for loving boys loves boys. To have altered my life would have been to admit that Uranian love [homosexuality] is ignoble. I hold it to be noble—more noble than other forms” (Wilde, Letters 1019, 1019n3).8 He continued to have affairs with young men after his release from prison. If society thought prison would teach him a lesson, it was mistaken: “the world is angry because their punishment has had no effect. They wished … to say ‘We have done a capital thing for Oscar Wilde: by putting him in prison we have put a stop to his friendship with Alfred Douglas and all that that implies.’ But now they find that they … did not influence me, they simply ruined me, so they are furious” (Wilde, Letters 993). Wilde wrote letters advocating prison reform, and finished The Ballad of Reading Gaol, his last literary work. Apparently he never returned to De Profundis.

Wilde died in 1900, possibly of cerebral meningitis (the cause of death is still a matter of debate). Ross published selections from the work in 1905, adding more excerpts in 1908. These deleted any references to Douglas, or any indication that it was addressed to him. When Ross and Douglas became enemies (largely over Ross’ position as Wilde’s literary executor) Ross donated the manuscript to the British Museum with the condition that it remain sealed until 1960 (Wilde, Letters 683n1; H. Hyde, Lord 150, 183; M. Hyde 211–13). The public at the time saw De Profundis primarily as a religious text, from the passages published. The work’s popularity was the beginning of the revival of interest in Wilde, and of the rehabilitation of his reputation as a writer—based on an incomplete edition that disguised the nature of his work, an irony he might have appreciated (H. Hyde, Trials 315–16; V. Holland 270).

In 1907 Ross showed the typed copy to Wilde’s son Vyvyan Holland, who when he read the full text “began to appreciate it at its true value and to understand what an amazing piece of work it is” (179). The public would not know of the complete work until 1913, when Douglas unsuccessfully sued Arthur Ransome and his publisher for libel. Ransome had written Oscar Wilde: A Critical Study, which suggested that Douglas was to blame for Wilde’s imprisonment, and that he deserted him after this. De Profundis was subpoenaed as evidence (H. Hyde, Lord 186). Douglas protested that Ross had deceived him. He was unaware of “any connection between the letter you sent me in 1897 (which I destroyed after first reading the first half dozen lines) and the book” (H. Hyde, Lord 183). This contrasts with his statements that he never received De Profundis. His claim that “Wilde, after his release from prison, only once referred to the letter … and on that occasion he implored me to forgive him for having written it” is unconfirmed by other evidence and seems unlikely (H. Hyde, Lord 183).

The public did not see the complete text of De Profundis until 1949, when Vyvyan Holland published Ross’ typed copy. When the manuscript was opened in 1960, Wilde’s work was first published exactly as he had written it (M. Hyde 213). If not for Wilde’s and Ross’ foresight De Profundis might not have survived at all. The text has created much critical controversy, but it illuminates Wilde’s thought and character as perhaps no other of his works does. As a meditation on life, on prison, and on the confinement society imposes upon the artist, it is an eloquent and important document. It criticizes the legal and social persecution of love between men, “the love that dare not speak its name” (H. Hyde, Trials 200–01).9 As a love letter, and a synthesis of Wilde’s beliefs (and doubts) it is unique. The work, like Wilde, escapes simple definitions: it combines his suffering, homosexuality, Christianity, Paganism, humor and wit, with a description of his tempestuous relationship with Douglas. De Profundis may have been a letter written in Carcere et Vinculis (in prison and in chains), but through it Wilde transcended the bonds of scandal and imprisonment to create a powerful and original meditation on life, love, religion, and same-sex desire.


1. For the chronology of Wilde’s life, see Rose xiv–xxxix.

2. Constance changed the family name to “Holland” in 1895. Wilde’s son Vyvyan wrote a memoir of his father, while Wilde’s grandson Merlin has edited his grandfather’s works.

3. Love letter: Elmann 515; resistance of prison, punishment of Douglas, hymn of praise to suffering, individualism, and Christ, rehabilitation, mythology: Gagnier 335, 341–47, 349; apologia, confession, adoration of Christ: Roden, Same-Sex 125–26, 145–47; refusal to change, affirmation of former life, cynical comedy: O’Malley176–69 (quoting George Bernard Shaw, Max Beerbohm, and Ellis Hanson).

4. Gagnier notes that the three-month intervals are influenced by the prison schedule (343).

5. In Dante, Inferno XVIII–XXX Malebolge is the circle in Hell for those guilty of Fraud. Gilles de Retz (Rais) was condemned for sodomy and murder of children; De Sade was imprisoned for sexual crimes. Both lived long after Dante’s death so Wilde’s choice of them is a personal one. The lowest depth or tenth bolgia of Malebolge contains notorious liars. Wilde may have in mind one of these, Potiphar’s Wife, who attempted to seduce Joseph and then falsely accused him of attempted rape: Genesis: 39.

6. Wilde quotes himself (Letters 742) as if quoting from scripture.

7. This is Wilde’s version of William Blake’s A Vision of the Last Judgment; inflected by Job 38:7 (Letters, 779n3).

8. Wilde uses the term for homosexuality invented by the sexologist Karl Ulrichs, derived from the Greek “ouranos” (heaven) from Plato’s Symposium. Uranian, or “heavenly” love was used as a replacement for criminalizing and derogatory terms such as “sodomy.”

9. This phrase is from Lord Alfred Douglas’ poem “Two Loves.” Wilde offered a spirited defense of “the love that dare not speak its name” at his first trial for Gross Indecency. He defined it as “a great affection of an elder for a younger man as there was between David and Jonathan, such as Plato made the very basis of his philosophy, and such as you find in the sonnets of Michelangelo and Shakespeare. It is that deep, spiritual affection that is as pure as it is perfect…. It is pure, it is fine, it is the noblest form of affection. There is nothing unnatural about it. It is intellectual” (H. Hyde, Trials 200–01). This was, in typical Wilde fashion, capable of several interpretations. He was on trial for Gross Indecency, a vague term for intimacy between males. His defense of “the love that dare not speak its name” was also vague, perhaps deliberately so. This form of love is described by Wilde as “pure and intellectual” but his love for Douglas was not “pure” in the sense of chaste, and his relationships with the various young men of his acquaintance (including some male prostitutes) was often neither pure nor intellectual. At the trial, the audience reaction was equally ambiguous: “applause … mingled with some hisses” (H. Hyde, Trials 201).

Works Cited

Bristow, Joseph. “Biographies: Oscar Wilde—The Man, the Life, the Legend.” Palgrave Advances in Oscar Wilde Studies. Ed. Frederick Roden. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004. 6–35. Print.

Ellmann, Richard. Oscar Wilde. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1988. Print.

Gagnier, Regenia. “De Profundis as Epistola: In Carcere et Vinculis: A Materialist Reading of Oscar Wilde’s Autobiography.” Criticism 26.4 (1984): 335–54. Print.

Halsall, Paul. “The Law in England, 1290–1885.” People with a History. 1997. Web. 11 Aug. 2011.

Holland, Merlin. The Real Trial of Oscar Wilde. New York: HarperCollins, 2003. Print.

Holland, Vyvyan. Son of Oscar Wilde. London: Robinson, 1999. Print.

Hyde, Harford Montgomery. Lord Alfred Douglas. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1985. Print.

_____. The Trials of Oscar Wilde. New York: Dover, 1973. Print.

Hyde, Mary. Bernard Shaw and Alfred Douglas: A Correspondence. New Haven: Ticknor & Fields, 1982. Print.

O’Malley, Patrick. “Religion.” Palgrave Advances in Oscar Wilde Studies. Ed. Frederick Roden. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004. 167–88. Print.

Roden, Frederick. Palgrave Advances in Oscar Wilde Studies. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004. Print.

_____. Same-Sex Desire in Victorian Religious Culture. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002. Print.

Rose, David. “Chronology.” Palgrave Advances in Oscar Wilde Studies. Ed. Frederick Roden. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004. xiv–xxxix. Print.

Wilde, Oscar. The Complete Letters of Oscar Wilde. Ed. Merlin Holland and Rupert Hart-Davis. New York: Henry Holt, 2000. Print.

_____. Complete Works of Oscar Wilde. New York: HarperCollins, 2008. Print.