Oscar Wilde, in his short lifetime, reached a level of accomplishment of which
few could boast. He was the darling of society, and wanted for nothing materially. In 1895, two of his plays were running in two very successful
London productions. Just at the peak of his career, his life plummeted to depths that no one should ever have to suffer. He never recovered, and died
five years later.
Wilde had been having a homosexual affair with Lord Alfred Douglas. When Alfred's father, the Marquess of Queensberry left a card for Wilde at the club which read "For Oscar Wilde, posing somdomite" [sic], Alfred, who didn't get along with his father, urged Wilde to file a libel lawsuit. Unfortunately, Wilde was unable to prove that the accusations of the Marquess were unfounded, and the trial turned in favor of Alfred's father, as many of Wilde's sordid activities (at least perceived so in Victorian England) were made public in court. Wilde was sentenced to two years hard labor, convicted of "gross indecency with other men," (homosexual activity, which was illegal then).
For a person of Wilde's nature—a creative genius and man of society—the time in prison nearly killed him. When he was released, he left London for Paris. There, three years later, he died, destitute.
This has got to be one of the saddest most tragic stories of all famous authors. And reading this letter—De Profundis—from the depths—makes it even more horrible.
And here I must make an important point. When I first began reading it, it was the eBook version I had downloaded from Project Gutenberg. It began mid-paragraph, so I knew something was wrong, and started doing research.
Nearly every copy of this letter for purchase or free is the "expurgated" version—both eBooks and paper books. In 1962, the "unexpurgated" version was released, and this is it, I believe. It is a Dover book, but no longer in print. However, they still sell the eBook version. DO NOT BUY THE EBOOK FROM DOVER. Amazon has it cheaper, but since I refuse to pay for an eBook, I ordered the paper book from Amazon, and it was only $4.68, the best $4.68 I ever spent. I was unable to find any other published unexpurgated version for sale.
The difference between the two is this, and it is significant. While in prison, waiting for Lord Alfred to visit him or even write, which he never did, Wilde wrote him a long, long letter (the Dover book is 92 pages). It begins "Dear Bosie," which is how Lord Alfred was known. It is a scathing account of Alfred's misbehavior, in glaring detail, of the living hell he created in Wilde's life during the years of their relationship. The second part is more about the philosophies Wilde developed while in prison, able to see the folly of his own behavior, and still seeking beauty and art. He also talks a lot about Jesus. All of the personal parts of the letter are omitted in the expurgated version, which leaves only his poetic and philosophical thoughts on art, love, forgiveness, and the lessons he learned from the experience. I cannot imagine why anyone would want to read such an abridged edition. The real interest of this letter is the revealing of the frustrations and disgust Wilde felt while involved with Lord Alfred, and even worse, unable to get rid of him, though he tried. In modern terminology/psychology, it would be called "co-dependency." Most of us have been there at some point in their lives—I know I have, a long time ago, and though it was a heterosexual relationship, the end result was that it was destructive to my creativity. So I read this account of Wilde with immense sympathy, wishing I could go back in time and separate these two so Oscar could get on with his life and success. There is no word for the level of heart-rending that his words will produce for anyone with a sense of compassion.
One of the first things Wilde tells Bosie to do is to read the letter over and over "till it kills your vanity." Then he proceeds to pour out his anger for the mistreatment he suffered, and to point out Bosie's faults.
"Ah! You had no motives in life. You had appetites merely."
"The gutter and things that live in it had begun to fascinate you."
Then he tries to explain the artistic and intellectual differences between the two of them, and their effect on Wilde's life:
"You did not realize that an artist, and especially such an artist as I am, one, that is to say, the quality of whose work depends on the intensification of personality, requires for the development of his art the companionship of ideas, and intellectual atmosphere, quiet, peace and solitude."
He goes on to say that Bosie liked being known as Wilde's friend when he was successful—"the brilliant success of my first nights and the brilliant banquets that followed them."
"but you could not understand the conditions requisite for the production of artistic work."
"as long as you were by my side, I was entirely sterile and uncreative."
Wilde had tried numerous times to break off the relationship, escape, or send Bosie away. At one point he got Bosie's mom to send him out of England because Wilde had plays to complete, which he did until Bosie, uninvited, returned. He continues:
"Your interests were merely in your meals and moods. Your desires were simply for amusements, for ordinary or less ordinary pleasures."
"I blame myself without reserve for my weakness."
Then he goes on to talk about his financial ruin.
"I blame myself for having allowed you to bring me to utter and discreditable financial ruin."
He goes on to speak of Bosie's mother, and the warning she gave Oscar about her son's two greatest faults, vanity and his attitude about money. He says he laughed at the time, because he couldn't imagine the seriousness of these two faults.
"I had no idea that the first would bring me to prison and the second to bankruptcy."
Since Wilde was well-off financially, Bosie assumed he could demand whatever money he wanted, and not for anything special but for food, drink, and entertainment.
"You demanded without grace and received without thanks. You grew to think that you had a sort of right to live at my expense. . ."
He compares this to a former lover, Robert Ross, who was one of the few people to stick by him in prison. He tells of a dinner they shared in Soho, which "cost about as many shillings as my dinners to you used to cost in pounds."
Wilde blames himself for allowing Bosie to use and abuse him so blatantly.
"But most of all, I blame myself for the entire ethical degradation I allowed you to bring on me."
"You wore me out. It was the triumph of the smaller over the bigger nature."
Wilde also laments all the times he had attempted to end the relationship, with Bosie always creating a scene, leaving, then later begging to come back.
"But my fault was, not that I did not part from you, but that I parted from you all too often."
Perhaps one of the worst incidents Wilde recalls is of the two of them at the Grand Hotel at Brighton, where Bosie falls ill with the flu. Oscar is there to wait on him hand and foot, but shortly afterwards, Wilde falls ill, having caught the flu from Bosie, who takes off, and only shows up when he needs money. There were no servants in the suite, and no one to even get Wilde what he needed or take basic care of him. Of course, Wilde believes that this is the final straw, and that he will be able to end the relationship without going back. But again, Bosie manages to undo him. Bosie's comment was:
"When you are not on your pedestal you are not interesting. The next time you are ill, I will go away at once."
When Wilde read the letter from Bosie making that statement, he says, "I felt almost polluted, as if by associating with one of such a nature I had soiled and shamed my life irretrievably." Just at the point when he was determined to break off the relationship for good, a terrible tragedy occurred in Bosie's family: his eldest brother and heir to the title was found dead by gunshot, possibly suicide, although Wilde states that it was found to be accidental. This brother's personality, apparently, was totally unlike Bosie's, a well-loved man who never caused his mother to shed a tear. Of course, with that Wilde once again offers his home, his love, his soul to this miserable creature who had done him so much wrong.
The problem is that, through the passion of this letter, we can surmise that Wilde was a person of great love, compassion, and inner goodness, but not strength of character, which would have forbidden him from allowing anyone to treat him with such abuse. He also recognizes that Bosie's defective character stems from his father:
"Through your father you come of a race, marriage with whom is horrible, friendship fatal, and that lays violent hands on its own life, or on the lives of others."
He continues to go on and on and on, through seemingly every detail of their sordid relationship, and the events that led to Wilde's arrest and conviction. One wonders how this man of the world could possibly have been so weak as to allow this odious little person to absolutely destroy his life. Even though it is heartbreaking to read, it becomes almost surreal, a fate that was destined, and Lord Alfred simply fulfilled the role. The thing is, Wilde knew this, and certainly by the time he wrote this letter from prison, he was able to look back and go through the whole gamut of should'ves and could'ves. He says:
"But indeed, I need not go on further into more instance of the strange doom you seem to have brought on me in all things big or little. It makes me feel sometimes as if you yourself had been merely a puppet worked by some secret and unseen hand to bring terrible events to a terrible issue."
The thing is, there are probably few people who have not gone through this at least once, either in a friendship, a romantic relationship, or with a child or parent. It is only when we become conscious of our own self-destructive patterns that we are able to stop and refuse to allow such abuse ever again. With Wilde, the realization proved to be too late.
Even after all Lord Alfred had done to Wilde, he still cared for him and hoped this long letter would open his eyes to all the damage he had done. (It actually did not, because he spent his life being a real dick, but that's for another review.) Wilde also realizes that he has been used as a dupe in the war between Alfred and his father, of which there was intense hatred on both sides.
Perhaps the most heartbreaking of all is his description of his beautiful belongings seized in the bankruptcy: his books, artworks, collections. And even worse, he knows he could have prevented all this had he been more aggressive during the trial, but he chose to not supply evidence he knew would incriminate his accusers.
"But I said to myself: 'At all costs, I must keep love in my heart. If I go to prison without love, what will become of my soul?'"
"The sins of another were being placed to my account. Had I so chosen, I could on either trial saved myself at his expense, not from shame indeed, but from imprisonment."
(He is referring to Alfred's father and false witnesses.)
It is not until page 36 that we reach the sentence which begins the expurgated version of this letter, and even then, much material is still excluded. At this point, Wilde seems to become more dreamy, poetic, and philosophical, almost as if he is writing an essay for the public rather than a scathing letter to his former lover.
The letter was written from January to March of 1897, shortly before his release from prison. He speaks of how his attitude has changed, how he has learned to accept the suffering he has endured and seeks to learn from it how to be a better person. And he is able to take responsibility for his situation:
"Terrible as was what the world did to me, what I did to myself was far more terrible still."
He looks back on his tremendous success:
"The gods had given me almost everything. I had genius, a distinguished name, high social position, brilliancy, intellectual daring; I made art a philosophy and philosophy an art: I altered the minds of men and the colors of things; there was nothing I said that did not make people wonder."
"But I let myself be lured into long spells of senseless and sensual ease. I amused myself with being a flâneur, a dandy, a man of fashion. I surrounded myself with the smaller natures and the meaner minds."
"I grew careless of the lives of others. I took pleasure where it pleased me and passed on."
Incidentally, Wilde was married at the time of all this, with two children, all of which he lost. His wife divorced him and the children were taken from him.
"I have lain in prison for nearly two years. Out of my nature has come wild despair; an abandonment to grief that was piteous even to look at; terrible and impotent rage; bitterness and scorn; anguish that wept aloud; misery that could find no voice; sorrow that was dumb."
He even says that he had contemplated suicide when he was released, but eventually arrived at a sense of peace, forgiveness, acceptance, and yearning to begin a new life.
He then goes into a long commentary about Jesus. He sees him as the great romantic, and through his life, concludes that "the secret of life is suffering."
(I don't agree with most of his philosophy here, but I think, at least in different times in history, perhaps even now, people are still under the impression that suffering is good, because they believe Jesus suffered.)
He goes on to talk about Jesus and his influence on art, and also says he obtained a copy of the Gospels in Greek which he read while in prison. He was obviously an extremely well educated man, which certainly didn't supply him with much common sense. He says of Jesus:
"Like all poetical natures, he loved ignorant people. He knew that in the soul of one who is ignorant there is always room for a great idea. But he could not stand stupid people, especially those who are made stupid by education . . ."
Then he goes back again to Bosie and the hatred between him and his father, and the talent both had for writing offensive letters. (This entire section is omitted in the expurgated version.) He says:
"I cannot understand why he was to you an exemplar, where he should have been a warning, except that whenever there is hatred between two people there is a bond or brotherhood of some kind."
He also talks about responsibility, and how even Lord Alfred's mother would write to Wilde because she was afraid to deal with her son. Speaking of both Alfred and his mother he says:
"Nobody can shift his responsibilities on to anyone else. They always return ultimately to the proper owner."
I'm not sure they did, in this case. From the brief reading I did on Lord Alfred, he never admitted any wrongdoing, continued to blame Wilde, and distanced himself from him, saying he regretted ever meeting him.
Toward the end, Wilde sums up the problem with their relationship:
"You forced your way into a life too large for you, one whose orbit transcended your power of vision no less than your power of cyclic motion, one whose thoughts, passions and actions were of intense import, of wide interest, and fraught, too heavily indeed, with wonderful or awful consequences."
"Having got hold of my life, you did not know what to do with it. You couldn't have known. It was too wonderful a thing to be in your grasp. You should have let it slip from your hands and gone back to your companions at their play."
Oscar Wilde was release from prison in May, 1897. He died three years later, alone and destitute.
If you are a fan of Wilde, you owe it to yourself to read this book. It is extraordinary. If you are not a fan of Wilde, you should be. What a tragedy, not only for him, but to the literary/theatrical world. One cannot even fathom what else might have come forth from his pen had he turned in a different direction.
And here's an addenda, courtesy of Wikipedia
Lord Alfred actually never read the letter, he apparently burned it. Fortunately, upon Wilde's release, he gave it to his faithful friend Robert Ross, who made a copy, and had sent that to Lord Alfred. But what goes around, comes around, and Bosie had his day in court, the letter read, and a new attitude toward him was that he was "a young scoundrel and that he had ruined his great friend." Incidentally, Lord Alfred spent six months in prison for libel against Winston Churchill.
And back to Robert Ross: he was the one who removed all references of the Queensberry family in the expurgated version. Ross donated the original letter to the British Museum. The Complete Letters of Oscar Wilde (2000) and The Complete Works of Oscar Wilde (2005) both contain the entire letter.
Below: Lord Alfred Douglas and Oscar Wilde.
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