De Profundis (letter)

De Profundis (Latin: "from the depths") is an epistle written by Oscar Wilde during his imprisonment in Reading Gaol, to Lord Alfred Douglas. During its first half Wilde recounts their previous relationship and extravagant lifestyle which eventually led to Wilde's conviction and imprisonment for gross indecency. He indicts both Lord Alfred's vanity and his own weakness in acceding to those wishes. In the second half, Wilde charts his spiritual development in prison and identification with Jesus Christ, whom he characterises as a romantic, individualist artist.

Wilde wrote the letter between January and March 1897; close to the end of his imprisonment. Contact had lapsed between Douglas and Wilde and the latter had suffered from his physical labour and emotional isolation. A new warden thought that writing might be more cathartic than prison labour. Wilde's work was closely supervised and he was not allowed to send the letter, but took it with him upon release. Whereupon he entrusted the manuscript to Robert Ross, with instructions to have it copied twice:one to be sent to the author himself and the other to Douglas. Ross published the letter in 1905, five years after Wilde's death, giving it the title "De Profundis" from Psalm 130. It was an incomplete version, excised of its autobiographical elements; various editions gave more text until 1962 when the complete and correct version appeared in a volume of Wilde's letters.




Oscar Wilde in New York in 1882; by 1897 he had lost much weight after a year and a half in prison.

In 1892 Wilde began an intimate friendship with Lord Alfred Douglas, a young, vain aristocrat. As the two grew closer, family and friends on both sides urged Wilde and Douglas to lessen their contact. Lord Alfred's father, the Marquess of Queensberry, often feuded with his son over the topic. Especially after the death of his eldest son, the Viscount Drumlanrig, Queensberry privately accused them of improper acts and threatened to cut off Lord Alfred's allowance. When they refused, he began publicly harassing Wilde. In early 1895 Wilde had reached the height of his fame and success with his plays An Ideal Husband and The Importance of Being Earnest on stage in London. When Wilde returned from holidays after the premieres, he found Queensberry's card at his club with the inscription: "For Oscar Wilde, posing somdomite [sic]".[1][Notes 1]

Unable to bear further insults, and encouraged by Lord Alfred (who wanted to attack his father in every possible way), Wilde sued Queensberry for criminal libel. Wilde withdrew his claim as the defence began, and the Judge ruled that Queensberry's accusation was justified. The Crown promptly issued a warrant for his arrest and he was charged with gross indecency with other men under the Labouchere Amendment in April 1895. The trial was the centre of public discussion as details of Wilde's consorts from the working class became known. Wilde refused to admit wrongdoing and the jury were unable to reach a verdict. At the retrial Wilde was sentenced to two years' imprisonment, to be held to hard labour.[2]


He was imprisoned in Pentonville, Wandsworth and Reading Prisons, where the poor food, manual labour, and harsh conditions greatly weakened his health.[3] He quickly began suffering from hunger, insomnia and disease.[4] He was visited in Pentonville by R.B.S Haldane, a liberal, reforming MP, whom he had known before. Haldane championed his case and arranged for access to religious, educational and historical books.[5] In Wandsworth he collapsed in the Chapel and burst his right ear drum, an injury that would later contribute to his death. He spent two months recovering in the infirmary.[6] Friends arranged for him to be transferred to Reading Prison, where he was prescribed lighter duties and allowed to spend some time reading, but not writing.[6] Depressed, he was unable to complete even these duties, and under Colonel Isaacson, the strict Warden of Reading Prison, Wilde became caught in a series of harsh punishments for trivial offences, which he was then punished again for failing to complete.[7]

Wilde, still loving Lord Alfred, became upset as contact from him lapsed, then annoyed when he learned that Lord Alfred planned to publish his letters without permission and dedicate poems to him unasked. He wrote to friends immediately, forbidding the first and refusing the latter.[8] Wilde still maintained his belief that the Queensberrys owed him a debt of honour arising from his bankruptcy trial.[9]


Wilde's friends continued pressing for better conditions and, in 1897, Major Nelson, of a more progressive mind, replaced Col. Isaacson as Warden. He quickly visited Wilde and offered him a book from his personal library, the sympathy bringing Wilde to tears.[10] Soon Wilde requested lists of books, returning to Ancient Greek poets and Christian theology, and studying modern Italian and German, though it was Dante's Inferno that held his attention.[11]

Wilde was granted official permission to have writing materials in early 1897, but even then under strict control: he could only see one page at a time and write letters to friends and his solicitor. Wilde decided to write to Douglas, and in it discuss the last five years they had spent together -- creating an autobiography of sorts.[12] Wilde spent January, February, and March 1897 writing his letter. Textual analysis of the manuscript shows that Nelson probably relaxed the stringent rules, allowing Wilde to see the papers together:three of the sheets are of relatively fair copy, suggesting they were entirely re-written, and most do not end with a full-stop.[12] Wilde requested that he might send the letter to Lord Alfred Douglas or Robert Ross, which the Home Office denied, but he was permitted to take it with him on release.[13] Wilde never revised the work after he left prison.[14]

Structure and content

Lord Alfred Douglas, to whom De Profundis is addressed

HM Prison, Reading
Dear Bosie,
After long and fruitless waiting I have determined to write to you myself, as much for your sake as for mine, as I would not like to think that I had passed through two long years of imprisonment without ever having received a single line from you, or any news or message even, except such as gave me pain...

First part: Wilde's account of time with Douglas

Wilde's work was written as a prose letter on twenty sheets of prison paper. It contains no formal divisions (save paragraphs) and is addressed and signed off as a letter. Scholars have distinguished a noticeable change in style, tone and content in the latter half of the letter, when Wilde addresses his spiritual journey in prison.[15] In the first part, Wilde examines the time he and Lord Alfred had spent together, from 1892 until Wilde's trials in the Spring of 1895. He examines Lord Alfred's behaviour and the detrimental effect that Douglas exercised over his work and recounts Lord Alfred's constant demands on his attention and hospitality. Poignancy builds throughout this section as Wilde details the expenses of their sumptous dinners and hotel-stays, many costing over £1,000 and culminates in an account of Douglas's rage in Brighton whilst Wilde was ill. Though he was a constant presence at Wilde's side their relationship was intellectually sterile.[16] Throughout Wilde's self-accusation is that he acceded to these demands instead of placing himself within quiet, intellectual company dedicated to the contemplation of beauty and ideas, but instead succumbed to an "imperfect world of coarse uncompleted passions, of appetite without distinction, desire without limit, and formless greed".[17] This passage concludes with Wilde offering his forgiveness to Douglas. He repudiates Lord Alfred for what Wilde finally sees as his arrogance and vanity; he had not forgotten Douglas's remark, when he was ill, "When you are not on your pedestal you are not interesting."[18]

Second part: Christ as a romantic artist

The second part of the letter traces Wilde's spiritual growth through the physical and emotional hardships of his imprisonment. Wilde introduces the greater context making a typically grandiose claim "I was one who stood in symbolic relations to the art and culture of my age".[19] Briefly sketching his ascendancy and dominance of the literary and social scenes in London, he contrasts his position then and accompanying pleasure, with that of his now and the pain he is in. Pleasure and success are an artifice, he says, while pain wears no mask. He turns to humility as a remedy, and identifies with the prisoners as a whole. [20]

Wilde uses a quotation from Isaiah, to introduce his Christian theme: "He is despised and rejected of men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief and we hid our faces from him." Though Peter Raby acknowledges the "obvious relevance" of this quotation to Wilde's situation it does not necessitate the comparison with Christ implicit in his description of Robert Ross doffing his hat to Wilde after his conviction.[21] Wilde adopts Jesus of Nazareth as a symbol of western kindness and eastern serenity and as a rebel-hero of mind, body and soul.[22] Though other romantics had discussed Jesus in an artistic terms, Wilde's conception is the most radical. He moves methodically toward this conclusion: his earlier antinomian attitude is re-iterated and he finds no recompense in traditional morality. Though Wilde loved the beauty of Religion, he dismissed it now as a source of solace, saying "My Gods dwell in temples made with actually hands". Reason was similarly lacking: Wilde felt that the law had convicted him unjustly. Instead Wilde reworked his earlier doctrine of the appreciation of experience, all of it must be accepted and transformed, whatever its origin. Wilde declared he would actively accept sorrow and discover humility , be happy and appreciate developments in art and life.[23]

He also felt redemption and fulfillment in his ordeal, realising that his hardship had filled the soul with the fruit of experience, however bitter it tasted at the time.

I wanted to eat of the fruit of all the trees in the garden of the world... And so, indeed, I went out, and so I lived. My only mistake was that I confined myself so exclusively to the trees of what seemed to me the sun-lit side of the garden, and shunned the other side for its shadow and its gloom.[24]

Simon Critchley argues that the major element of De Profundis is self realisation. Wilde, having lost everything dear to him, does not accuse external forces, justified as this might have been, but rather absorb his hardships through the artistic process into a spiritual experience.[25]

Style and themes

Though a letter, at 50, 000 words long De Profundis becomes a sort of dramatic monologue which considers Douglas's supposed responses.[26] Wilde's previous prose writing had assumed a flippant, chatty style, which he again employed in his comic plays. In prison Wilde was disconnected from his audiences, which Declan Kiberd called possibly his harshest punishment. He characterises Wilde as an Irish critic of English social mores ultimately silenced for his polemics, he reports that while convalescing in the sick-bay, Wilde entertained his fellow-patients and carers with stories and wit until the authorities placed a warder beside his bed.[27]

In a preface to the 1912 edition, published as a popular edition by Methuen, Robert Ross, Wilde's literary executor, published an extract from Wilde's instructions to him which included the author's own summation of the work:

I don't defend my conduct. I explain it. Also in my letter there are several passages which explain my mental development while in prison, and the inevitable evolution of my character and intellectual attitude towards life that has taken place, and I want you and others who stand by me and have affection for me to know exactly in what mood and manner I face the world. Of course, from one point of view, I know that on the day of my release I will merely be moving from one prison into another, and there are times when the whole world seems to be no larger than my cell, and as full of terror for me. Still at the beginning I believe that God made a world for each separate man, and within that world, which is within us, one should seek to live.[28]

According to Kiberd, Wilde follows Christ's individualist theme of self-perfection into a testing new zone: prison. Wilde, who had always looked to test English society's hypocrisies declined the opportunity to flee to France.[29] Kiberd places Wilde within the long tradition of prison writing by Irish republician prisoners. When Wilde wanted to criticise the penal system after release, he contacted Michael Davitt, an Irish political reformer who had himself been imprisoned in England.[27]

Publication history

Robert Ross in 1911. He was Wilde's literary executor and oversaw the publication of De Profundis.

On his release, Wilde gave the manuscript to Ross with the putative title Epistola: In Carcere et Vinculis ("Letter: In Prison and in Chains"),[30] instructing him to make two typed copies, one for Lord Alfred and the other for Wilde himself. Due to its length, Ross could not have it fully typed until August.[31]

In 1905, Ross published the letter with the title "De Profundis", expurgating all references to the Queensberry family. This edition would go through eight printings in next three years, including de luxe editions.[32] The title, meaning "from the depths", comes from Psalm 130. (In 1924, Lord Alfred served six months in prison for libel against Winston Churchill. During his sentence, he wrote a sonnet sequence entitled In Excelsis ("from the heights"), intending to mirror Wilde's letter.)[30]

A second, slightly expanded version of De Profundis appeared in Wilde's Collected Works published by Ross in 1908, also including three other letters Wilde wrote from Reading and his two letters to The Editor of the Daily Chronicle after his release.[33] Ross then donated the manuscript to the British Museum on the understanding that it would not be made public until 1960.

In 1913, the entire letter was read to the court after Douglas sued Arthur Ransome for libel, and parts published in the London Press.[34] Douglas testified that he had received the letter from Ross, but after reading Ross's cover note threw it in the fire unread. He later claimed that he had never received the package at all.[35] Observers reported that Douglas could not bear it when he learned that the letter was addressed to him and heard its full contents.[36] Ross quickly brought out another edition: The Suppressed Portion of "De Profundis", to claim the copyright on Wilde's work. It contained about half of the complete text.[37]

In 1949, Wilde's son Vyvyan Holland published the full text, but used a faulty typescript bequeathed to him by Ross. Ross's typescripts had contained several hundred errors, including typist's mistakes, his own emendations, and other omissions.[38]

In 1960, Rupert Hart-Davis examined the manuscript in the library of the British Museum, and produced a new, corrected text from it which was published in The Letters of Oscar Wilde in 1962. He wrote that:[39]

In July Ruth and I had the excitement of being the first people to see the original manuscript of Oscar’s longest, best, and most important letter De Profundis, which had been given to the British Museum by Robbie Ross with a fifty-year ban on anyone’s seeing it, so as to make sure Lord Alfred Douglas never saw it. To our delight, we found that the published versions were wildly inaccurate, so our version in The Letters was the first accurate text in print.

The British Museum published a facsimile of the original manuscript in 2000.[40]

in 2005, Oxford University Press published Volume 2 of "The Complete Works of Oscar Wilde". In this volume, entitled "De Profundis; 'Epistola: In Carcere et Vinculis'", editor Ian Small tried to "to establish an authoritative (and perhaps definitive) text" of Wilde's prison letter. The volume also aimed to "present the complete textual history of one of the most famous love letters ever written"[41]. German academic Horst Schroeder has compared the previously published typescripts of the text to German translations that were published in the first quarter of the 20th century and were prepared by Max Meyerfeld from typescripts he had received from Robert Ross. Based on his findings Schroeder has argued that, due to the large amount of typing errors and unauthorised changes, no previously published typescript of the text (including the 1949 Holland edition) was suitable as a base text and that only the British Museum manuscript is "what really matters"[42].


G.S. Street, who had earlier been an intellectual opponent of the decadents, had two impressions of De Profundis "that it was poignantly touching, the other it was extraordinarily and profoundly interesting."[43] Street dismissed contemporary complaints that the letter lacked sincerity, this was just a manifestation of those who opposed Wilde's graceful writing style.[44]

Max Beerbohm, an old friend of Wilde's, wrote a signed review, "A Lord of Language" for Vanity Fair. He described the writing in De Profundis as having achieved the perfect grace of Wilde's earlier work and that Wilde had remained a detached artist of words, concluding: "We see him here as the spectator of his own tragedy. His tragedy was great. It is one of the tragedies that will always live on in romantic history."[45]

T.W.H. Crosland, a journalist and friend of Douglas after Wilde's death, negatively reviewed De Profundis in 1912.[46] He strongly criticised Ross's editing, but claimed the entire document was even more morally bankrupt than the published version. "A blacker, fiercer, falser, craftier, more grovelling or more abominable piece of writing never fell from a mortal pen" he wrote in an introduction.[47]

A version abridged by Merlin Holland was performed by Corin Redgrave in 2000 at the Royal National Theatre in London. It was revived in 2008.[48]

See also


  • Holland, Merlin & Rupert Hart-Davis: The Complete Letters of Oscar Wilde (2000). US edition: Henry Holt and Company LLC, New York. ISBN 0-8050-5915-6. UK edition: Fourth Estate, London. ISBN 978-1-85702-781-5. (This is an expanded version of the 1962 book The Letters of Oscar Wilde edited by Rupert Hart-Davis; both versions contain the text of the British Museum manuscript).



  • Ellmann, Richard (1988). Oscar Wilde. New York: Vintage Books. ISBN 9780394759845. 
  • Holland, ed (2000). The Complete Letters of Oscar Wilde. New York: Henry Holt and Co. ISBN 0-8050-5915-6. 
  • Kiberd, D. (2000) Irish Classics Granata ISBN 1862074593
  • Raby, Peter (1988) Oscar Wilde: A Critical Study
  • Mason, Stuart (1914; new ed. 1972) Bibliography of Oscar Wilde. Rota pub; Haskell House Pub ISBN 0838313787
  • Wilde, Oscar (1996). De Profundis. Mineola, NY: Dover. ISBN 0486293084. 


  1. ^ Queensberry's handwriting was almost indecipherable: The hall porter initially read "ponce and sodomite", but Queensberry himself claimed that he'd written "posing 'as' a sodomite", an easier accusation to defend in court. Merlin Holland concludes that "what Queensberry almost certainly wrote was "posing somdomite [sic]", (Holland (2004:300))


  1. ^ Holland (2004:300)
  2. ^ Sentencing Statement of Justice Wills. Criminal Trial Transcript Page, University of Missouri-Kansas Law School. Retrieved 22 April 2010.
  3. ^ Ellmann (1988:451)
  4. ^ Ellmann (19988:454)
  5. ^ Ellmann (1988:456)
  6. ^ a b Ellmann (1988:465)
  7. ^ Ellmann (1988:465-466)
  8. ^ Ellmann (1988:460)
  9. ^ Ellmann (1988:)
  10. ^ Ellmann (1988:467)
  11. ^ Ellmann (1988:478)
  12. ^ a b Ellmann (1988:479)
  13. ^ Holland/Hart-Davis (2000:683)
  14. ^ Raby (1988:140)
  15. ^ Raby (1988:135)
  16. ^ Raby (1988:134)
  17. ^ Raby (1988:135)
  18. ^ (De Profundis) Holland/Hart-Davis, (2000:700)
  19. ^ Raby (1988:135,6)
  20. ^ Raby (1988:136)
  21. ^ Raby (1988:136)
  22. ^ Kiberd (2000:330)
  23. ^ Raby (1988:137)
  24. ^ (De Profundis) Holland/Hart-Davis, (2000:739).
  25. ^ Critchley, Simon Oscar Wilde's faithless Christianity The Guardian 15 January 2009. Retrieved 16 November 2010
  26. ^ Ellmann (1988:)
  27. ^ a b Kiberd (2000:335)
  28. ^ Robert, Ross, Preface to De Profundis, by Oscar Wilde. Metheun & Co. Ltd., 36 Essex St., London, WC. 06 April 1912
  29. ^ Kiberd (2000:334)
  30. ^ a b "How De Profundis got its name", Dexter, G. The Daily Telegraph, 15 June 2008. Retrieved 23 February 2010.
  31. ^ Ellmann (1988:496)
  32. ^ Mason (1976:454)
  33. ^ Mason (1976:453)
  34. ^ Mason (1976:456)
  35. ^ Ellmann (1988:497)
  36. ^ Ellmann (1988:552)
  37. ^ Mason (1976:456)
  38. ^ Holland/Hart-Davis (2000:683)
  39. ^ Hart-Davis, Rupert (1998) [First ed. published]. Halfway to Heaven: Concluding memoirs of a literary life. Stroud Gloucestershire: Sutton. p. 57. ISBN 0-7509-1837-3. 
  40. ^ Wilde, Oscar. De Profundis : a facsimile / introduction by Merlin Holland London : British Library, 2000. Ltd Ed. 495 copies
  41. ^ "The Complete Works of Oscar Wilde -- Description", Oxford University Press, April 2005. Retrieved 23 August 2011.
  42. ^ "The ‘Definitive’ Edition of Oscar Wilde’s De Profundis", Schroeder, H.], July 2005. Retrieved 23 August 2011.
  43. ^ G.S. Street, The Outlook magazine, (4 March 1905) xv 294-5; Beckson (1970:252)
  44. ^ Beckson (1970:253)
  45. ^ Max Beerbohm, "A Lord of Language", 2 March 1905 Vanity Fair, cxxiii 349 Beckson (1970:251)
  46. ^ Beckson (1970:322)
  47. ^ Backson (1970:323)
  48. ^ "De Profundis - Productions - National Theatre"

External links

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