Writing From Out of the Depths – Oscar Wilde’s De Profundis*

“It is tragic how few people ever ‘possess their souls’ before they die.”


In May 1895, Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde began his prison sentence. Wilde, arrested on charges of indecency, and convicted of “committing acts of gross indecency with certain male persons” was sentenced to two years hard labor. The “love that dare not speak its name” became a source of deep regret for Wilde, not because of what it was, but because of what it became. The passion for youth and beauty that had inspired Wilde had run unchecked and had flung him into ruin. Wilde took on full culpability writing, “I ruined myself, and nobody great or small can be ruined except by his own hand.” (32).

Wilde was transferred from Pentonville to Wandsworth before finally being sent to Reading, where he began writing De Profundis.

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31st edition published 1915

Wilde spent three months crafting his personal manifesto. He was permitted to write during the day, surrendering the pages to the warden at night, and having them returned to him the next morning.

In a letter to his friend Robert Ross, dated April 1, 1857, Wilde wanted Ross and others to understand why he wrote it. Wilde wanted to make certain his intentions were not seen as a defense of his behavior, but rather an explanation.  Wilde was in a sense documenting the “evolution of (his) character and intellectual attitude towards life.” (11). He wanted to make certain Ross knew he would not emerge from the prison walls the same man as when he entered them.

Upon his release, Wilde gave Ross the epistle, who had two copies made. One of those copies was sent to Lord Alfred Douglas, (though Douglas claimed he never saw more than a few quotes from it), the man Oscar had written it for and who had been the source of Wilde’s catastrophic ruin. Fate, however, is a funny thing as Douglas himself was imprisoned in 1924 and would pen his own volume of poems titled In Excelsis (in the highest) while incarcerated. 

Douglas and Wilde

There is a desperation in De Profundis as if Wilde suspected he would not be long for the world. Having lost his family and all his possessions, Wilde opened his soul and allowed it to bleed onto the page.

De Profundis, (out of the depths) is a work overflowing (perhaps too much at times) with elegant, fluid lines where Wilde muses about love, art, forgiveness, and humility and the romanticism of Christ.  It is also Wilde’s self-reflection, full of anxious and despairing prose where Wilde, wrapped firmly in the arms of depression, bares his soul, “seeking a fresh mode of self-realization,” and “acknowledging the value of humility” (37).  However, what De Profundis really is, is Wilde’s acceptance of his fate. He realized he was up against an opponent, even his wit could not defeat; he was losing the war with himself. Or was he?

Wilde wrote, “I had lost my name, my position, my happiness, my freedom, my wealth. I was prisoner and pauper…I saw then that the only thing for me was to accept everything. Since then-curious as it will no doubt sound- I have been happier.” (71).   Wilde believed, or so his writings indicate, that the only truth was truth to oneself, to one’s nature. Conformity was the ultimate prison sentence. The true sense of freedom could only come from defiance of morality imposed by society, in favor of loyalty to the self.  The new-found liberation of his soul caused Wilde to consider that it “may be worthwhile going to prison,” (93), despite its miseries or perhaps because of them.

“Suffering is one very long moment.” (21), and suffer, Wilde did.  Wilde was subjected to hard labor, illness, injury, oscar-wildeand humiliation, “…in prison tears are a part of every day’s experience.” (103). But Wilde’s arrogance sustained him and it was those tears that emboldened Oscar to write. It was not that prison made him a better person, but rather made him a stronger opponent against cruelty.    For all that Wilde lost, what he kept was the very thing that defined him, his art.

A self-proclaimed “Lord of Language” Wilde never lost sight of his strength. Society may have stripped his pride, but it could not strip his genius. Wilde was determined to make happiness, no matter how humble, his objective. Even if it meant being on his own. Wilde wrote “I can be perfectly happy by myself. With freedom, flowers, books and the moon, who could not be perfectly happy?” (98).

In 1898, after his release, Wilde published his final poem, “The Ballad of Reading Gaol.” Instead of being published under his name, it was published under his prison number, C.3-3. Wilde would die two years later in a Paris hotel room at the age of 46.

Wilde’s cell


*The edition I am reviewing is from 1915 and was published in London by Methuen & Co. LTD, and includes additional text from Wilde in the form of letters. It is edited and does not contain the complete text. The reason being that Douglas was still alive and Ross wanting to avoid a lawsuit, had all mentions of Douglas removed. An expanded, yet still incomplete version was published in 1949.  The complete text was first published in 1962.