The Latin phrase ‘De profundis’ means ‘From the depths’, and for Oscar Wilde, who wrote a long, protracted letter by this name from his prison cell at Reading, England, the depths were those of agonised despair.
The famously flamboyant Irish playwright, novelist and poet had lived an exorbitant life of deliberate excess for many years and was acclaimed for his dazzling repartee and vivid writing. His idiosyncratic novel The Picture of Dorian Gray celebrates his delight in beauty, youth and hedonistic excess with a protagonist who is clearly based upon himself.
But Wilde was ostentatiously gay in a Victorian London that applauded (some of) his colourful successes while simultaneously, and hypocritically, condemning any hint of scandal or impropriety.
So when, in 1895, he was found guilty of “gross indecency” as a result of a homosexual relationship with another young man, Lord Alfred Douglas, he was sentenced to two years’ imprisonment with hard labour.
During his imprisonment in Reading Gaol he was exposed to a side of life he had never before experienced – ferocious, unforgiving, deprived and psychologically destructive – and it was this that led him into deep depression and despondency. He was eventually permitted to write a letter (just one sheet of paper per day) to Alfred Douglas, his erstwhile partner whom he called ‘Bosie’, outlining his misery and sense of abject abandonment. Each sheet of paper was taken away, undelivered, at the end of the day and not returned to him until his release. This letter eventually became the desperate cry from the depths of his soul that we now know as De Profundis.
If you attended one of last week’s magnificent piano recitals at the St Andrew’s Drill Hall by Joanna Wicherek, based on Wilde’s words set to the music of Frederic Rzewski, you know it was something truly exceptional. Called De Profundis – Prolongations of Silence, it started me thinking again of Wilde’s most famous poem, ‘The Ballad of Reading Gaol’.
This is a long rhyming poem in ballad form that explores the special agonies of incarceration that actual prisoners feel when deprived of their freedom (and sometimes their lives) but it also alludes to the psychological ‘imprisonment’ that many of us experience when reduced to wretchedness by the circumstances of our own lives. Here is a very short extract where Wilde muses on the state of mind of a man condemned to hang for killing his wife:
Dear Christ! the very prison walls
Suddenly seemed to reel,
And the sky above my head became
Like a casque of scorching steel;
And, though I was a soul in pain,
My pain I could not feel.
I only knew what hunted thought
Quickened his step, and why
He looked upon the garish day
With such a wistful eye;
The man had killed the thing he loved
And so he had to die.
Yet each man kills the thing he loves
By each let this be heard,
Some do it with a bitter look,
Some with a flattering word,
The coward does it with a kiss,
The brave man with a sword!
(From The Nation’s Favourite Poems, BBC, 1996)
The larger-than-life Oscar Wilde died in 1900, a broken and diminished man, three years after his release from prison, aged 46.