During his imprisonment in Reading, Oscar Wilde wrote a novel length letter of fifty thousand words to his erstwhile vain, young and aristocratic lover Lord Alfred Douglas. It came to be known as “De profundis”, which means ‘from the depths’. The real title that Wilde gave to the letter was “Epistola: In Carcere et Vinculis”.
It’s a strange letter. Poignant, yes, but also the product of a vain man who even in his low decried his fall from the pedestal, even as he accused Lord Alfred, or Bosie as he was called, of it. This in revenge for Bosie’s remark once when Wilde was ill. “When you are not on your pedestal you are not interesting.”
Bosie and Wilde ate and dined across Europe in the most lavish of circumstances with the bill sometimes running up to £1000 even then, so the letter becomes a contrast to the vanity of what had gone before with the state Wilde was in while in prison. And there is a stark change of style.
Wilde is known for his glib wit, his irony, and his quick tongue, but this letter is not that. When the journalist Robert Ross, one of Wilde’s previous lovers, published a heavily edited (and redacted) version of the letter in 1905 he gave the letter the name ‘De profundis’. From the depths. And it is a profound letter that outline the brittle contrast with the inherent depression and the lingering vanity of the author. He writes a lament, from the depths of despair, detailing the fall from societal grace, and then digging the depths of the religion he sought solace in.
Yes, it’s interesting. Even profound.
Suffering is one very 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 paralysing 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 grey and niggard. 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. . . .
A week later, I am transferred here. Three more months go over and my mother dies. No one knew how deeply I loved and honoured her. Her death was terrible to me; but I, once a lord of language, have no words in which to express my anguish and my shame. She and my father had bequeathed me a name they had made noble and honoured, not merely in literature, art, archaeology, and science, but in the public history of my own country, in its evolution as a nation. I had disgraced that name eternally. I had made it a low by-word among low people. I had dragged it through the very mire. I had given it to brutes that they might make it brutal, and to fools that they might turn it into a synonym for folly.
What I suffered then, and still suffer, is not for pen to write or paper to record. My wife, always kind and gentle to me, rather than that I should hear the news from indifferent lips, travelled, ill as she was, all the way from Genoa to England to break to me herself the tidings of so irreparable, so irremediable, a loss. Messages of sympathy reached me from all who had still affection for me. Even people who had not known me personally, hearing that a new sorrow had broken into my life, wrote to ask that some expression of their condolence should be conveyed to me. . . .