Little known by many readers of fiction, Oscar Wilde’s searing, heart-breaking, and introspective letter to his lover, Lord Alfred Douglas, made The Guardian’s 2011 list of the 100 greatest non-fiction books, because it is truly great. Although Wilde is famous for The Picture of Dorian Gray and his more successful plays, including The Importance of Being Earnest and Salome, De Profundis embodies an intense sense of emotional, physical and spiritual loss. Written during the time Wilde spent imprisoned in Reading Gaol (Jail), the letter details the history of a tumultuous relationship. It is typical of a letter we have all written, whether by pen or in our minds, in that the composer regrets things he cannot take back. It shows signs of the hand of an impeccable writer in detail, fluidity, and device throughout its ninety-six pages.
From the start, the reader is drawn in and falls helplessly into the moment and surroundings that Wilde found himself in when he wrote the letter. The emotions: empathy and guilt-he hopes to elicit from Douglas cause a chain reaction that only worsens as he makes a well-organized case for how and why their relationship failed him and continues to do so. Words that come difficultly for most people flow for Wilde. He describes his pain and troubled relationship with poetical phrases such as ‘lie in loneliness’ and ‘ancient affection.’ The author expresses sadness and regret, not by merely stating these facts, rather he discusses reasons for his feelings and ideas. Upon reflection, he has several points of dissatisfaction, not only with Douglas, but in his own actions and decisions.
Douglas has betrayed and forsaken Wilde in many important ways. From publishing private letters and dedicated poems written by Wilde, publicly acting outing and causing ‘empassioned’ scenes Wilde terms as “ethical degradation,”selfishly refusing to allow Wilde time to work on his writing, to the most damaging-causing him financial ruin and leading him to prison. Wilde analyses both of their roles in these matters. In addition; and, perhaps most importantly, he considers the lessons the experiences taught him.
Although Wilde recognizes that Douglas’ faults and actions caused him pain and ruin, he is quick to acknowledge much of the blame belongs to him. In a stunning passage about the day Wilde took a letter to the police station for Douglas that eventually lead to his imprisonment, he reflects on the possibility that some of his problems were of his own doing:
“I had always thought that my giving up to you in small things meant nothing: that when a great moment arrived I could re-assert my will-power in its natural superiority. It was not so. At the great moment my will-power completely failed me. In life there really is no great or small thing. All things are of equal value and of equal size. My habit due to indifference chiefly at first-of giving up to you everything had become insensibly part of my nature. Without my knowing it, it had stereotyped my temperament to one permanent and fatal mood. That is why, in the subtle epilogue to the first edition of his essays, Pater says that ‘Failure is to form habits.’ When he said it the dull Oxford people thought the phrase was a mere willful inversion of the somewhat wearisome text of Aristotelian Ethics, but there is a wonderful, a terrible truth hidden in it. I had allowed you to sap my strength of character, and to me the formation of a habit had proved to be not Failure meillrely but Ruin(985).”
As though outlining the ways in which Douglas took advantage of his weaknesses were not enough evidence of his despair, after Wilde delivers this sequence of lines, somehow the knife cuts deeper. In the spirit of true artist, Wilde cannot not leave his letter without the imprints of his contemporaries and predecessors. This aspect of the text adds even more its creativity and beauty.
Love letters from a failed relationship are almost always filled with regret and disillusionment. They are one of the most intimate forms of writing. The letter is meant for one person, yet it can only show a singular perspective of a relationship. There is an innate mystery attached- another side that can never be seen nor heard. Wilde’s presence is titanic, and accurate or not, so is Douglas’. While reading the letter, one thought resonated for me as an outsider: Did Douglas really love Wilde, or was his love unrequited? As in all exceedingly well written non-fiction texts, De Prodfundis draws the reader in, and it leads he or she to wonder about the lives of the people on the pages.
Final Rating: 5 out of 5 Stars
For more information:
De Profundis for free on Project Gutenberg
my review of The Picture of Dorian Gray
The Complete Works of Oscar Wilde : the short story “Pen, Pencil, and Poison” is my favorite