If you know something of his personal life then even more so, and if you are just aware of the occasional light-hearted, amusing or heartbreaking piece of work by Wilde, then I would still suggest taking a glimpse at De Profundis.
It is his life and emotions stripped bare to the reader. An inner and outer dialogue of such depth, which is hard to equal on a fictional level for a writer. He opens all his locked doors and shares every painful insight. Why? To understand why he is being punished, to try and equate his crime to something feasible in his mind.
‘the silence, the solitude, the shame—each and all of these things I have to transform into a spiritual experience’
De Profundis is a rare detailed literary description of the inner thoughts of a man, in this case Oscar Wilde, being punished for his sexuality. Sent to prison for having the audacity to love and have a physical relationship with a man.
Reason does not help me. It tells me that 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.
Contrary to popular belief Wilde was arrested on indecency charges and not sodomy per se, although sodomy was proven during both trials. Eventually he was sentenced to two years hard labour. Oscar struggled between hiding and denying his sexuality, whilst simultaneously seeking some semblance of public acceptance for homosexuality.
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 realising what I am that I have found comfort of any kind.
To regret one’s own experiences is to arrest one’s own development. To deny 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.
If I can produce only one beautiful work of art I shall be able to rob malice of its venom, and cowardice of its sneer, and to pluck out the tongue of scorn by the roots.
After the initial self-pity and doubt follows a deep introspection about his relationship with Christ. Wilde goes back to the beginning, the history and the teachings of the gospel. Interpreting word for word, phrase by phrase and page by page.
There is something so unique about Christ. Of course just as there are false dawns before the dawn itself, and winter days so full of sudden sunlight that they will cheat the wise crocus into squandering its gold before its time, and make some foolish bird call to its mate to build on barren boughs, so there were Christians before Christ. For that we should be grateful. The unfortunate thing is that there have been none since.
He seemed to be seeking the correlation between the words and the actions of man based on those words. Of course the reality is there is huge divide between the two.
Each man interprets the words of Christ, although technically they are the words of observers, through their own frame of reference.
In turns this means they interpret the words to mean what they want them to. Their bigotry and hatred confirmed by the Lord himself, could there be any higher validation. It makes the whole concept of Christians a farce.
John 13:34-35 A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
Unless of course someone decides something you do, say or are is a sin, then you’re up shit creek when it comes to being accepted by a Christian. Perhaps this is why Wilde sought acceptance in the origins of his faith.
It were wiser still to say that behind sorrow there is always a soul. And to mock at a soul in pain is a dreadful thing. It should be realised how hard it has been for me to get anything out of my punishment but bitterness and despair
Oscar is still reeling from the reaction of the people around him, during the transport to prison his guards made him stand in the midst of a jeering crowd for over an hour.
He ponders their behaviour and their pleasure in his pain. Just how important it is for him to be accepted for his real self, as opposed to the person society wants him to be, becomes evident in the following quote:
A great friend of mine—a friend of ten years’ standing—came to see me some time ago, and told me that he did not believe a single word of what was said against me, and wished me to know that he considered me quite innocent, and the victim of a hideous plot. I burst into tears at what he said, and told him that while there was much amongst the definite charges that was quite untrue and transferred to me by revolting malice, still that my life had been full of perverse pleasures, and that unless he accepted that as a fact about me and realised it to the full I could not possibly be friends with him any more, or ever be in his company. It was a terrible shock to him, but we are friends, and I have not got his friendship on false pretences.
He wants his friends to like him for who he really is and not for who they want him to be. The words above speak of a final acceptance of self. Yes this is who I am. I must love myself first, regardless of what society will have me believe.
Society, as we have constituted it, will have no place for me, has none to offer; 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.
His final paragraph speaks of the healing he needs to do after being in prison. Oscar feels as if society will never find a place for him, as a homosexual, which means he will always have to hide a part of himself to be accepted.
After being released from prison, Oscar spent the last three years of his life in exile, and died at the age of 45. I wonder what he would have thought of the 21st century. How he would have revelled in being accepted as a whole by society.
Don’t preach acceptance, tolerance and love if you are incapable of it. Don’t use the fictional words of a book of hearsay to justify hatred. Glass houses my friends, they are ever so fragile when others are tossing the rocks and you’re on the receiving end and definitely a large portion of pot-kettle-black.
Download De Profundis, Short Stories, Selected Prose, The Happy Prince and other Tales by Oscar Wilde free at the Internet Archive or De Profundis, A House of Pomegranates, The Picture of Dorian Gray, The Canterville Ghost or The Nightingale and the Rose at Feedbooks. Alternatively you can listen to The Ballad of Reading Goal, De Profundis, The Duchess of Padua or The Fisherman and his Soul at Librivox.
Read Wilde About Oscar, The Happy Prince, The Metamorphosis, Storm over Warlock, A Treasure Trove of Poetry, Love is Strange, Bela Lugosi vs The East-Side Kids, Chaney’s Phantom, What Katy Did, Hans Christian Andersen, The Art of War by Machiavelli or Ghosts Without Experience right here on the blog.
Update: I am adding links to Oscar Wilde, His Life and Confessions by Frank Harris thanks to John Cooper of Oscar Wilde in America,who was kind enough to make me aware of the fact that:
Please note that the version of De Profundis linked is not the full version, as it has all of Wilde’s personal references expurgated. The full version does not exist online and can only be read in book form in the Complete Letters. You can get a sense of the the missing text, including the start of the letter here: https://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/w/wilde/oscar/harris/appendix2.html
Oscar Wilde, His Life and Confessions can also be downloaded at the Internet Archive.