I spent an enthralling couple of hours last night reading Oscar Wilde’s exquisitely honest and moving essay about his time in prison – De Profundis. Written at the time of his release it describes both the horror of his time in prison and the deeper understanding of life he has gained from his experience. As he says “to become a deeper man is the privilege of those who suffer”.
In De Profunids Wilde bears his soul in humility because it is only in humility that he can accept the horror of what has happened to him. A horror which results from the grinding tedium of prison life, its exclusion of all the beauties of the natural world and as much for Wilde the humiliation and shame of his position. Prison drains an individual of feeling – “The most terrible thing about it is not that it breaks the heart – hearts are meant to be broken – but that it turns one’s heart to stone.”
Wilde is also haunted by a deep sense that, while, as we would agree, the world has treated him badly at a basic level he himself is responsible for sowing the seeds of his own destruction. “I turned the good things of my life to evil and the evil things of my life to good”.
For most of his time in prison Wilde has been lost in a very deep grief but he is desperate in the end to make some settlement with what has happened to him. “But while there were times when I rejoiced in the idea that my sufferings were to be endless, I could not bear for them to be without meaning.”
The meaning Wilde finds in the concept of humility. This for him is deeper than repentance and involves the frank acceptance of all that has happened to him. This he sees as the ultimate duty of an artist and is determined that he makes as much of drinking from the well of sorrow as he has, at other times, of drinking from the well of pleasure.
De Profundis has a strong dose of religion. Wilde, if not a believer, is always religious and sees much in the personality of Christ in the Gospels which aligns with his vision of humility. He sees Christ not as a moralist trying to control other peoples’ lives but as doctor of the soul who enables people to master their own natures and achieve enlightenment.
Some of the most beautiful parts of the essay relate to his observations of some of the simple kindnesses his has been shown. He speaks passionately about the man who showed a small sign of respect while he was standing at his lowest ebb outside the Court of Bankruptcy in the full horror of his prison garb. “Men have gone to heaven for smaller things than that.”
Finally Wilde has some observations about the role which prison plays in society which still resonate over a hundred years later. He cannot believe in its reforming quality – it is too brutalising an agent for that. Prison for Wilde is abandonment by society “It abandons him (a prisoner) at the very moment when it’s highest duty towards him begins”.
Only in humility does Wilde find some sense of peace and De profundis is as a powerful piece of writing as you will find.