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Oscar Wilde wrote "I don't defend my conduct, I explain it," when he was imprisoned in Reading Gaol in 1895 for his violation of England's stringent laws against homosexuality. Wilde's nototious liaison with the Marquess of Queensberry's son, Lord Alfred Douglas ("Bosie"), had so inflamed the Marquess that he made public attacks on Wilde's character and morals. In return, Wilde sued for slader, an action which, to Wilde's bitter astonishment, led to a series of scandalous trials and convictions. From his cell in ...
Oscar Wilde wrote "I don't defend my conduct, I explain it," when he was imprisoned in Reading Gaol in 1895 for his violation of England's stringent laws against homosexuality. Wilde's nototious liaison with the Marquess of Queensberry's son, Lord Alfred Douglas ("Bosie"), had so inflamed the Marquess that he made public attacks on Wilde's character and morals. In return, Wilde sued for slader, an action which, to Wilde's bitter astonishment, led to a series of scandalous trials and convictions. From his cell in prison, Oscar Wilde wrote De Profundis, the detailed and unsparing revelation of his love and tragedy.
With a major feature film biography scheduled for release and the current tremendous success of the long-running play Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde, the text of this remarkable document with the Hart-Davis notes is uniquely relevant. This volume alone provides the entire content of De Profundis; W.H. Auden's famous essay in The New Yorker further sets the stage.
Preface by Richard Ellmann
De Profundis is a kind of dramatic monologue, which constantly questions and takes into account the silent recipient's supposed responses. Given the place where it was written, Wilde might have been expected to confess his guilt. Instead he refuses to admit that his past conduct with young men was guilty, and declares that the laws by which he was condemned were unjust. The closest he comes to the subject of homosexuality is to say, impenitently, that what the paradox was for him in the realm of thought, sexual deviation was in the realm of conduct. More than half of De Profundis is taken up by his confession, not of his own sins, but of Bosie's. He evokes two striking images for that young man. One is his favorite passage from Agamemnon, about bringing up a lion's whelp inside one's house only to have it run amok. Aeschylus compared it to Helen, Wilde to Douglas. The other is Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, who have no realization of Hamlet's tragedy, being "the little cups that can hold so much and no more."
The main theme of self-recrimination is that he did not break with Bosie. But his letter is an attempt to restore relations. And while he admits to "weakness," he explains the weakness as due to his affection, good nature, aversion to scenes, incapacity to bear resentment, and desire to keep life comely by ignoring what he considered trifles. His weakness was strength. The gods, he has discovered, make instruments to plague us out of our virtues as well as our vices.
Wilde acknowledges that along with good qualities, he was "the spendthrift of my own genius." But he passes quickly over this defect, and those that attend it. Much of De Profundis is an elegy for lost greatness. As he whips his own image, he cannot withhold his admiration for what that image was. Elegy generates eulogy. He heightens the pinnacle from which he has fallen:
I was a man who stood in symbolic relations to the art and culture of my age. I had realised this for myself at the very dawn of my manhood, and had forced my age to realise it afterwards. . . . Byron was a symbolic figure, but his relations were to the passion of his age and its weariness of passion. Mine were to something more noble, more permanent, of more vital issue, of larger scope.
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 colours of things: there was nothing I said or did that did not make people wonder: I took the drama, the most objective form known to art, and made it as personal a mode of expression as the lyric or the sonnet, at the same time that I widened its range and enriched its characterisation: drama, novel, poem in rhyme, poem in prose, subtle or fantastic dialogue, whatever I touched I made beautiful in a new mode of beauty: to truth itself I gave what is false no less than what is true as its rightful province, and showed that the false and the true are merely forms of intellectual existence. I treated Art as the supreme reality, and life as a mere mode of fiction: I awoke the imagination of my century so that it created myth and legend around me: I summed up all systems in a phrase, and all existence in an epigram.
1. Richard Ellmann suggests that De Profundis is a love letter, above all else. Does De Profundis follow the conventional form of a love letter? In what specific ways does De Profundis read like a love letter? In what ways does it differ? What makes it romantic?
2. Examine the letter's structure and define its different parts. Do Wilde's style and tone remain consistent throughout?
3. In De Profundis, Wilde recognizes numerous ironies regarding the circumstances of his imprisonment, most notably that he himself is imprisoned after suing Queensberry for slander. What other ironies (or paradoxes) does Wilde point out? What role does irony play in the letter? Why might Wilde choose to speak in these terms?
4. Do you think Wilde is a reliable narrator? How might his memories of Bosie be influenced by his imprisonment? Do you find his criticism of Bosie fair? Why or why not?
5. Throughout De Profundis, Wilde compares Alfred Douglas to numerous literary figures, from the lion's whelp in Agamemnon to Hamlet's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. What, if anything, do these figures have in common? How are they different? Compare the different contexts in which Wilde alludes to these figures.
6. What sort of freedom awaits Wilde upon his release? How does he aim to live?
7. Dante's Inferno is one of the texts to which Wilde frequently alludes in De Profundis. Examine the different contexts in which he quotes from Inferno. What similarities, if any, can you find? Why do you think Wilde quotes from Dante so often?
8. Discuss Wilde's invocation of Christ as both a literary and a historical figure. Whatquality of Christ does Wilde most admire? Why does Wilde call Christ the first individual in history? In what ways is Christ like an artist, according to Wilde? Richard Ellmann refers to this section as the letter's climax. Would you agree? Why or why not?
9. After providing a withering critique of Alfred Douglas's behavior, Wilde turns his criticism on himself, claiming, "I must say to myself that neither you nor your father, multiplied a thousand times over, could possibly have ruined a man like me: I ruined myself and that nobody, great or small, can be ruined except by his own hand." Examine the reasons he gives for writing this. Do you agree with his claim?
10. Toward the end of the letter, Wilde writes, "A man whose desire is to be something separate from himself, to be a Member of Parliament, or a successful grocer, or a prominent solicitor, or a judge, or something equally tedious, invariably succeeds in being what he wants to be. That is his punishment. Those who want a mask have to wear it." What is the price Wilde has paid for this knowledge? Is this something he could have understood in this youth? Why or why not?