Oscar Wilde.

De profundis online

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Copyright, 1905



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For a long time considerable curi-
osity has been expressed about the
manuscript of De Profundis, which
was known to be in my possession, the
author having mentioned its existence
to many other friends. The book re-
quires little introduction, and scarcely
any explanation. I have only t6 re-
cord that it was written by my friend
during the last months of his im-
prisonment, that it was the only work
he wrote while in prison, and the last
work in prose he ever wrote. (The Bal-
lad of Reading Gaol was not composed
or even planned until he had regained
his liberty.) In sending me instruc-

vi preface

tions with regard to the publication,
of De Profundis, Oscar Wilde wrote:

**/ don't defend my conduct. I ex-
plain it. Also there are in my letter
certain passages which deal with my
mental development 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 still stand by me, and have affection
for me, to know exactly in what mood
and manner I hope to face the world.
Of course, from one point of view, I
know that on the day of my release I
shall be merely passing from one prison
into another, and there are times when
the whole world seems to me no larger
than my cell, and as full of terror for me.
Still I believe that at the beginning God
made a world for each separate man.

preface vii

and in that world, which is within us,
one should seek to live. At any rate
you will read those parts of my letter
with less pain than the others. Of
course I need not remind you how fluid
a thing thought is with me — with us all
— and of what an evanescent substance
are our emotions made. Still I do see
a sort of possible goal towards which,
through art, I may progress.

''Prison life makes one see people and
things as they really are. That is why
it turns one to stone. It is the people
outside who are deceived by the illusions
of a life in constant motion. They re-
volve with life and contribute to its un-
reality. We who are immobile both see
and know.

''Whether or not the letter does good
to narrow natures and hectic brains, to
W£ it has done good. I have 'cleansed

viii preface

my bosom of much perilous stuff.' I
need not remind you that mere ex-
pression is to an artist the suprem£ and
only mode of life. It is by utterance
that we live. Of the many, many things
for which I have to thank the Governor
there is none for which I am more grate-
ful than for his permission to write fully
to you, and at as great a length as I de-
sire. For nearly two years I have had
within a growing burden of bitterness,
much of which I have now got rid. On
the other side of the prison wall there
are some poor black, soot-besmirched
trees which are just breaking out into
buds of an almost shrill green. I know
quite well what they are going through.
They are -finding expression.''

I ventiire to hope that this fragment,
which renders so vividly, perhaps pain-

preface ix

fully, the effect of social debacle and
imprisonment on a highly intellectual
and artificial nature, will give many
readers a different impression of the
witty and delightful writer from any
they may have hitherto received.

Robert Ross.


. . . Suffering is one very long mo-
ment. We cannot divide it by seasons.
We can only record its moods, and
chronicle their return. With us time
itself does not progress. It revolves.
It seems to circle round one centre of
pain. The paralysing immobility of
a life every circimistance of which is
regulated after an unchangeable pat-
tern, so that we eat and drink and lie
down and pray, or kneel at least for
prayer, according to the inflexible laws
of an iron formula: this immobile
quality, that makes each dreadful day
in the very minutest detail like its
brother, seems to communicate itself

2)e iProtunMs

to those external forces the very-
essence of whose existence is cease-
less change. Of seed time or harvest,
of the reapers bending over the corn, or
the grape gatherers threading through
the vines, of the grass in the orchard
made white with broken blossoms or
strewn with fallen fruit: of these we
know nothing, and can know nothing.
For us there is only one season, the
season of sorrow. The very sun and
moon seem taken from us. Outside,
the day may be blue and gold, but
the light that creeps down through the
thickly -muffled glass of the small, iron-
barred window beneath which one sits
is grey and niggard. It is always
twilight in one's cell, as it is always
twilight in one's heart. And in the
sphere of thought, no less than in the
sphere of time, motion is no more.

De IProtunMs

The thing that you personally have
long ago forgotten, or can easily forget,
is happening to me now, and will
happen to me again to-morrow. Re-
member this, and you will be able to
understand a little of why I am writing,
and in this manner writing. . . .

A week later, I am transferred here.
Three more months go over and my
mother dies. No one knew how deeply
I loved and honoured her. Her death
was terrible to me; but I, once a lord
of language, have no words in which
to express my anguish and my shame.
She and my father had bequeathed me
a name they had made noble and
honoured, not merely in literature, art,
archaeology, and science, but in the
public history of my own country, in
its evolution as a nation. I had dis-
graced that name eternally. I had

2)c IprotunMs

made it a low b5rword among low
people. I had dragged it through the
very mire. I had given it to brutes
that they might make it brutal, and
to foes that they might turn it into a
synonym for folly. What I suffered
then, and still suffer, is not for pen to
write or paper to record. My wife,
always kind and gentle to me, rather
than that I should hear the news from
indifferent lips, travelled, ill as she was,
all the way from Genoa to England
to break to me herself the tidings of
so irreparable, so irredeemable, a loss.
Messages of sympathy reached me from
all who had still affection for me. Even
people who had not known me person-
ally, hearing that a new sorrow had
broken into my life, wrote to ask that
some expression of their condolence
should be conveyed to me. , . .

2)e protunMB

Three months go over. The calendar
of my daily conduct and labour that
hangs on the outside of my cell door,
with my name and sentence written
upon it, tells me that it is May. ...

Prosperity, pleasure, and success,
may be rough of grain and common in
fibre, but sorrow is the most sensitive
of all created things. There is nothing
that stirs in the whole world of thought
to which sorrow does not vibrate in
terrible and exquisite pulsation. The
thin beaten-out leaf of tremulous gold
that chronicles the direction of forces
the eye caimot see is in comparison
coarse . It is a wound that bleeds when
any hand but that of love touches it,
and even then must bleed again, though
not in pain.

Where there is sorrow there is holy
ground. Some day people will realise

S)e iProtunMs

what that means. They will know

nothing of life till they do. and

natures like his can realise it. When
I was brought down from my prison to
the Court of Bankruptcy, between two

policemen, waited in the long

dreary corridor that, before the whole
crowd, whom an action so sweet and
simple hushed into silence, he might
gravely raise his hat to me, as, hand-
cuffed and with bowed head, I passed
him by. Men have gone to heaven
for smaller things than that. It was
in this spirit, and with this mode of
love, that the saints knelt down to
wash the feet of the poor, or stooped
to kiss the leper on the cheek. I have
never said one single word to him
about what he did. I do not know
to the present moment whether he is
aware that I was even conscious of his

De profunMs

action. It is not a thing for which one
can render formal thanks in formal
words. I store it in the treasure-
house of my heart. I keep it there as
a secret debt that I am glad to think
I can never possibly repay. It is
embalmed and kept sweet by the
myrrh and cassia of many tears. When
wisdom has been profitless to me,
philosophy barren, and the proverbs
and phrases of those who have sought
to give me consolation as dust and
ashes in my mouth, the memory of
that little, lovely, silent act of love has
unsealed for me all the wells of pity:
made the desert blossom like a rose,
and brought me out of the bitterness
of lonely exile into harmony with the
wounded, broken, and great heart of
the world. When people are able to
understand, not merely how beautiftd

8 H)c IPtotunMs

's action was, but why it meant so

much to me, and always will mean so
miuch, then, perhaps, they will realise
how and in what spirit they should
approach me. . . .

The poor are wise, more charitable,
more kind, more sensitive than we
are. In their eyes, prison is a tragedy
in a man*s life, a misfortune, a casu-
alty, something that calls for sym-
pathy in others. They speak of one
who is in prison as of one who is ''in
trouble " simply. It is the phrase they
always use, and the expression has the
perfect wisdom of love in it. With
people of our own rank it is different.
With us, prison makes a man a pariah.
I, and such as I am, have hardly any
right to air and sim. Our presence
taints the pleasures of others. We are
unwelcome when we reappear. To re-

De iProtunMs

visit the glimpses of the moon is not for
us. Our very children are taken away.
Those lovely links with humanity are
broken. We are doomed to be soli-
tary, while our sons still live. We
are denied the one thing that might
heal us and keep us, that might bring
balm to the bruised heart, and peace
to the soul in pain. . . .

I must say to myself that I ruined
myself, and that nobody great or small
can be ruined except by his own hand.
I am quite ready to say so. I am
trying to say so, though they may not
think it at the present moment. This
pitiless indictment I bring without pity
against myself. Terrible as was what
the world did to me, what I did to
myself was far more terrible still.

I was a man who stood in symbolic
relations to the art and culture of my

lo Be iProtunMs

age. I had realised this for myself at
the very dawn of my manhood, and had
forced my age to realise it afterwards.
Few men hold such a position in their
own lifetime, and have it so acknow-
ledged. It is -usually discerned, if dis-
cerned at all, by the historian, or the
critic, long after both the man and his
age have passed away. With me it
was different. I felt it myself, and
made others feel it. Byron was a sym-
bolic 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. But I let myself be lured
into long spells of senseless and sensual
ease. I amused myself with being a
"flaneur, a dandy, a man of fashion. I

2)e protuuMs


surrounded myself with the smaller
natures and the meaner minds. I be-
came the spendthrift of my own genius,
and to waste an eternal youth gave me
a curious joy. Tired of being on the
heights, I deliberately went to the
depths in the search for new sensation.
What the paradox was to me in the
sphere of thought, perversity became
to me in the sphere of passion. Desire,
at the end, was a malady, or a madness,
or both. I grew careless of the lives
of others. I took pleasure where it
pleased me, and passed on. I forgot
that every little action of the common
day makes or unmakes character, and
that therefore what one has done in the
secret chamber one has some day to
cry aloud on the housetop. I ceased to
be lord over myself. I was jio longer
the captain of my soul, and did not

12 2)c protunMs

know it. I allowed pleasure to domin-
ate me. I ended in horrible disgrace.
There is only one thing for me now,
absolute humility.

I have lain in prison for nearly two
years. Out of my nature has come
wild despair ; an abandonment to grief
that was piteous even to look at;
terrible and impotent rage ; bitterness
and scorn; anguish that wept aloud;
misery that could find no voice ; sorrow
that was dumb. I have passed through
every possible mood of suffering. Bet-
ter than Wordsworth himself I know
what Wordsworth meant when he

" Suffering is permanent, obscure, and dark.
And has the nature of infinity."

But while there were times when I re-
joiced in the idea that my sufferings

De iProtunMs 13

were to be endless, I could not bear
them to be without meaning. Now
I find hidden somewhere away in my
nature something that tells me that
nothing in the whole world is meaning-
less, and suffering least of all. That
something hidden away in my nature,
like a treasure in a field, is Humility.

It is the last thing left in me, and
the best: the ultimate discovery at
which I have arrived, the starting-
point for a fresh development. It has
come to me right out of myself, so I
know that it has come at the proper
time. It could not have come before,
nor later. Had any one told me of it,
I would have rejected it. Had it been
brought to me, I would have refused it.
As I found it, I want to keep it. I
must do so. It is the one thing that
has in it the elements of life, of a new

14 Be iProfunMs

life, a Vita Nuova for me. Of all things
it is the strangest. One cannot acquire
it, except by surrendering everything
that one has. It is only when one has
lost all things, that one knows that
one possesses it.

Now I have realised that it is in me,
I see quite clearly what I ought to do ;
in fact, must do. And when I use
such a phrase as that, I need not say
that I am not alluding to any external
sanction or command. I admit none.
I am far more of an individualist than
I ever was. Nothing seems to me of
the smallest value except what one
gets out of oneself. My nattire is seek-
ing a fresh mode of self-realisation.
That is all I am concerned with. And
the first thing that I have got to do
is to free myself from any possible
bitterness of feeling against the world.

2)e protunbts 15

I am completely penniless, and abso-
lutely homeless. Yet there are worse
things in the world than that. I am
quite candid when I say that rather
than go out from this prison with
bitterness in my heart against the
world, I would gladly and readily beg
my bread from door to door. If I got
nothing from the house of the rich I
would get something at the house of
the poor. Those who have much are
often greedy; those who have little
always share. I would not a bit mind
sleeping in the cool grass in summer,
and when winter came on sheltering
myself by the warm close -thatched
rick, or under the pent-house of a great
barn, provided I had love in my heart.
The external things of life seem to me
now of no importance at all. You
can see to what intensity of individual-

i6 De protunMs

ism I have arrived — or am arriving
rather, for the journey is long, and
''where I walk there are thorns.'*

Of course I know that to ask alms
on the highway is not to be my lot, and
that if ever I lie in the cool grass at
night-time it will be to write sonnets
to the moon. When I go out of

prison, R will be waiting for me

on the other side of the big iron-studded
gate, and he is the symbol, not merely
of his own affection, but of the affec-
tion of many others besides. I believe
I am to have enough to live on for
about eighteen months at any rate, so
that if I may not write beautiful books,
I may at least read beautiful books;
and what joy can be greater? After
that, I hope to be able to recreate my
creative faculty.

But were things different; had I not

De iProtunbis 17

a friend left in the world; were there
not a single house open to me in pity;
had I to accept the wallet and ragged
cloak of sheer penury: as long as I
am free from all resentment, hardness,
and scorn, I would be able to face the
life with much more calm and con-
fidence than I would were my body in
purple and fine linen, and the soul
within me sick with hate.

And I really shall have no difficulty.
When you really want love you will
find it waiting for you.

I need not say that my task does not
end there. It would be comparatively
easy if it did. There is much more
before me. I have hills far steeper to
climb, valleys much darker to pass
through. And I have to get it all out
of myself. Neither religion, morality,
nor reason can help me at all.

i8 Be iProtunOts

Morality does not help me. I am a
born antinomian. I am one of those
who are made for exceptions not for
laws. But while I see that there is noth-
ing wrong in what one does, I see that
there is something wrong in what one
becomes. It is well to have learned that.

Religion does not help me. The
faith that others give to what is un-
seen, I give to what one can touch,
and look at. My gods dwell in temples
made with hands ; and within the circle
of actual experience is my creed made
perfect and complete: too complete,
it may be, for like many or all of those
who have placed their heaven in this
earth, I have found in it not merely
the beauty of heaven, but the horror
of hell also. When I think about
religion at all, I feel as if I would like
to f otmd an order for those who cannot

H>e protunMs 19

believe : the Confraternity of the Faith-
less, one might call it, where on an
altar, on which no taper burned, a
priest, in whose heart peace had no
dwelling, might celebrate with un-
blessed bread and a chalice empty of
wine. Everything to be true must
become a religion. And agnosticism
should have its ritual no less than
faith. It has sown its martyrs, it
should reap its saints, and praise God
daily for having hidden Himself from
man. But whether it be faith or ag-
nosticism, it must be nothing external
to me. Its symbols must be of my
own creating. Only that is spiritual
which makes its own form. If I may
not find its secret within myself, I
shall never find it: if I have not got
it already, it will never come to me.
Reason does not help me. It tells

20 H>c protunMs

me that the laws tinder which I am
convicted are wrong and unjust laws,
and the system under which I have
suffered a wrong and unjust system.
But, somehow, I have got to make
both of these things just and right to
me. And exactly as in Art one is only
concerned with what a particular thing
is at a particular moment to oneself,
so it is also in the ethical evolution of
one's character. I have got to make
everything that has happened to me
good for me. The plank bed, the
loathsome food, the hard ropes shred-
ded into oakum till one's finger tips
grow dull with pain, the menial offices
with which each day begins and fin-
ishes, the harsh orders that routine
seems to necessitate, the dreadful dress
that makes sorrow grotesque to look
at, the silence, the solitude, the shame

2)e iprotunMs 21

— each and all of these things I have
to transform into a spiritual experience.
There is not a single degradation of the
body which I must not try and make
into a spiritualising of the soul.

I want to get to the point when I
shall be able to say quite simply, and
without affectation, that the two great
turning points in my life were when my
father sent me to Oxford, and when
society sent me to prison. I will not
say that prison is the best thing that
could have happened to me; for that
phrase would savour of too great
bitterness towards myself. I would
sooner say, or hear it said of me, that
I was so typical a child of my age, that
in my perversity, and for that perver-
sity's sake, I turned the good things of
my life to evil, and the evil things of
my life to good.

22 2)e iProtunWs

What is said, however, by myself or
by others, matters little. The impor-
tant thing, the thing that lies before
me, the thing that I have to do, if the
brief remainder of my days is not to
be maimed, marred, and incomplete,
is to absorb into my nature all that
has been done to me, to make it part
of me, to accept it without complaint,
fear, or reluctance. The supreme vice
is shallowness. Whatever is realised
is right.

When first I was put into prison
some people advised me to try and
forget who I was. It was ruinous ad-
vice. It is only by realising what I
am that I have found comfort of any
kind. Now I am advised by others to
try on my release to forget that I have
ever been in a prison at all. I know
that would be equally fatal. It would

2)e protunMs 23

mean that I would always be haunted
by an intolerable sense of disgrace, and
that those things which are meant for
me as much as for anybody else — the
beauty of the sun and moon, the
pageant of the seasons, the music of
daybreak and the silence of great
nights, the rain falling through the
leaves, or the dew creeping over the
grass and making it silver — ^would all
be tainted for me, and lose their heal-
ing power and their power of com-
municating joy. To regret one's own
experiences is to arrest one's own de-
velopment. To deny one's own ex-
periences is to put a lie into the lips
of one's own life. It is no less than
a denial of the soul.

For just as the body absorbs things
of all kinds, things common and un-
clean no less than those that the priest


24 2)e protunMs

or a vision has cleansed, and converts
them into swiftness or strength, into
the play of beautiful muscles and the
moulding of fair flesh, into the curves
and colours of the hair, the lips, the
eye; so the soul in its turn has its
nutritive functions also, and can trans-
form into noble moods of thought and
passions of high import what in itself
is base, cruel, and degrading; nay,
more, may find in these its most august
modes of assertion, and can often re-
veal itself most perfectly through what
was intended to desecrate or destroy.

The fact of my having been the
common prisoner of a common gaol I
must frankly accept, and, curious as it
may seem, one of the things I shall
have to teach myself is not to be
ashamed of it. I must accept it as a
punishment, and if one is ashamed of

2)e iprotun^fs 25

having been punished, one might just
as well never have been punished at
all. Of course there are many things
of which I was convicted that I had
not done, but then there are many
things of which I was convicted that I
had done, and a still greater number of
things in my life for which I was never
indicted at all. And as the gods are
strange, and punish us for what is good
and humane in us as much as for what
is evil and perverse, I must accept the
fact that one is punished for the good
as well as for the evil that one does. I
have no doubt that it is quite right one
should be. It helps one, or should help
one, to realise both, and not to be too
conceited about either. And if I then
am not ashamed of my punishment,
as I hope not to be, I shall be able to
think, and walk, and live with freedom.

26 De protunMs

Many men on their release carry their
prison about with them into the air,
and hide it as a secret disgrace in their
hearts, and at length, like poor poisoned
things, creep into some hole and die.
It is wretched that they should have to
do so, and it is wrong, terribly wrong
of society that it should force them to
do so. Society takes upon itself the
right to inflict appalling punishment
on the individual, but it also has the
supreme vice of shallowness, and fails
to realise what it has done. When the
man's punishment is over, it leaves him
to himself; that is to say, it abandons
him at the very moment when its high-
est duty towards him begins. It is
really ashamed of its own actions, and
shuns those whom it has pimished, as
people shun a creditor whose debt they
cannot pay, or one on whom they have

S)e iProtunMs 27

inflicted an irreparable, an irredeem-
able wrong. I can claim on my side
that if I realise what I have suffered,
society should realise what it has in-
flicted on me; and that there should

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