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“De Profundis” is a letter written by Oscar Wilde to his former student, friend, and lover Lord Alfred Douglas, whom he refers to as Bosie. He wrote it between January and March 1897, while imprisoned in Reading Gaol for “gross indecency”—i.e., sexual relations with other men. It was not until his release in May of the same year that Wilde was given possession of the letter in full. An abridged version of the letter was published five years after Wilde’s death in 1900 by a former lover and close friend, Robert Ross. Ross titled the letter “De Profundis,” which translates to “from the depths.” The complete, unedited letter would not appear until 1962. “De Profundis,” which recounts Wilde’s tumultuous relationship with Lord Alfred Douglas and his eventual turn to Christ, is ambiguous in terms of genre. Generally speaking, “De Profundis” employs a stream of consciousness which takes on an argumentative nature, critiquing not only Bosie but society as a whole. He delves into larger philosophical dilemmas and pulls from many thinkers, both present and past, formulating a well-thought out and influential letter.
As the letter opens, Wilde has not received a single message from Bosie since his imprisonment. Bosie’s silence has embittered him, and he writes, “as much for [Bosie’s] sake as for [his own], as [he] would not like to think that [he] had passed through two long years of imprisonment without ever having received a single line from [Bosie]” (8). The two shared a friendship that Wilde now laments. The love they once shared has been ruined by “public infamy” and replaced by “loathing, bitterness, and contempt” (8). Wilde cautions Bosie that much of this letter will wound his vanity. He implores his former partner to “read the letter over and over again until it kills your vanity” (8). Wilde tells Bosie that the “supreme vice is shallowness” (8), blaming him for exploiting Wilde’s fame and wealth. Wilde begins to explain how Bosie degraded his art—the very art that facilitated the lavish lifestyle Bosie craved—saying, “[M]y life, as long as you were by my side, was entirely sterile and uncreative” (9). He then adds, “And with but few intervals you were, I regret to say, by my side always” (9). Boise’s codependent behavior became detrimental to Wilde as an artist, as Wilde was unable to create in solitude and constantly endured Bosie’s emotional abuse. Wilde critiques Bosie for his eventual bankruptcy as well and the degradation of his ethics as a whole. Yet Wilde ultimately blames himself for the demise of his art, stating that he was too weak to refuse Bosie any of his desires.
Wilde recounts various fights between the two, such as their disagreement over the correct translation of Salome or the time where Bosie neglected a sick Wilde on his birthday. On various occasions Bosie would ridicule and mock Wilde if Wilde did not submit to his wishes, as Wilde concedes he did time and time again. Wilde portrays Bosie as a self-entitled, emotional, and arrogant boy who constantly and willingly gives into his vices and hedonistic lifestyle. To support this description of Bosie, Wilde appeals to Bosie’s mother, with whom he conversed often. In a letter to Wilde, Bosie’s mother describes her son as vain, hot-headed, and bad with money. Towards the end of “De Profundis,” Wilde critiques Bosie’s mother for shifting the responsibility of disciplining her son onto Wilde, whom she routinely asked to keep her letters a secret from Bosie. Yet despite Bosie’s mother’s inability to confront her son and defend Wilde publicly, it was Bosie’s father who would ultimately ruin Wilde. Bosie had an abusive and unhealthy relationship with his father, and the two exchanged many cruel letters. Bosie became obsessed with having his father thrown in jail, and he insisted on Wilde suing his father for criminal libel.
Wilde poetically describes the degenerative nature of hate in contrast to the healing nature of love:
Love is fed by the imagination, by which we become wiser than we know, better than we feel, nobler than we are: by which we can see Life as a whole: by which, and by which alone, we can understand others in their real as in their ideal relations. Only what is fine, and finely conceived, can feed Love. But anything will feed Hate (19).
Wilde personifies love and hate, a recurring literary device he uses throughout to explain emotions. He frequently defines love as an imaginative act: the ability to see people in their real and their ideal relations, or rather, the ability to sympathize with another’s sorrow as if it were one’s own. It is evident that even after Wilde’s arrest Bosie did not appreciate his feelings, desiring to dedicate his first series of poems to Wilde as well as publish articles about their relationship along with the intimate letters they shared. Wilde tells Bosie that the French papers are far more interested in Wilde than they are in him, his parents’ marriage, and his hatred towards his father.
Wilde recalls the suffering he has endured while in prison. He writes that the pain of seeing his son disgraced sent his mother to an early grave, that his wife is now divorcing him, and that he has lost custody of his eldest, Cyril. Prison has forced Wilde to let go of all previous attachments in life, stripping him of his library, home, and copyrights of his art. Wilde concludes that the only thing he has left is absolute humility, and he advises Bosie, “You had better come down into the dust and learn it [humility] beside me” (29). Wilde writes that he is now on a journey of self-realization and that he must start with ridding himself of all bitterness towards Bosie. At one point, Wilde thought his soul to be ruined beyond repair, but he now realizes that the soul reveals itself “most perfectly through what was intended to desecrate or destroy” (30). Wilde expands on his new view of sorrow, recalling how he previously shunned all feelings of sorrow and failed to understand why anyone would willingly feel pain. Wilde now longs to live so that he can explore sorrow, which is not a mystery but rather a revelation wherein one learns many things. He concludes that there is no truth comparable to sorrow.
Wilde begins to speak on the connection between the life of Christ and the life of the artist. He argues that the nature of Christ is the same as the nature of the artist, both possessing “an intense and flamelike imagination” (34). Wilde continues, “[Christ] understood the leprosy of the leper, the darkness of the blind, the fierce misery of those who live for pleasure, the strange poverty of the rich” (34). Wilde’s depiction of Christ’s nature is identical to his definition of love; Christ fostered an active imagination and as such was able to share in another’s suffering. Wilde claims that Christ is the “leader of all lovers” (35), ultimately making him the supreme and first individualist—that is, the purest example of someone who values the individual human soul for its own sake, separate from material or social trappings. Christ pities those who are slaves to objects and passions and who fill their minds with the opinions of others, much like Bosie.
Wilde writes that if he produces artistic work again, there are two subjects on which and through which he desires to express himself. The first is Christ as the precursor to the Romantic movement, which Wilde defines broadly as any art that flows from the artist’s inner life. The second is the artistic life in its relation to conduct. Wilde concludes by defining both art and Christ as the realizations of themselves in their totality, where the outer form is solely the presentation of the inner meaning. As such, men too must work to realize themselves as individuals: To live an artist’s life is to follow the unfolding of one’s self while recognizing that the self can never be fully known. Wilde asks Bosie if he still does not have the imagination to see what awful tragedy has befallen Wilde after meeting Bosie’s family. Wilde concludes that the greatest psychological error in their relationship was its disproportionality. The very moment they met was the end for Wilde, as Bosie was still “sowing seed” while Wilde was “reaping the harvest” (49).
Wilde says that upon release, he will visit the seaside with his friends. He begins to speak of the Greeks and how they lived with nature and did not merely look at it, write about it, or ponder it. He says that the elemental forces are purifying and that he wishes to live among them. At the end of May, if he feels able, he will arrange a meeting through a mutual friend. He lays out non-negotiable terms for meeting, which include convening in a foreign town and using an alias. Wilde writes that there exists an even larger chasm than before between them, “the chasm of Sorrow: but to Humility there is nothing that is impossible, and to Love all things are easy” (52). He urges Bosie to write back with full freedom and frankness about himself and his life at present.