How Oscar Wilde’s prison sentence changed him.
Max Nelson is writing a series on prison literature. Read the previous entry, on writers who found God from behind bars, here.
The first time Oscar Wilde saw the inside of a prison, it was 1882—thirteen years before he’d serve the famous criminal sentence that produced De Profundis, his 55,000-word letter to his lover Lord Alfred Douglas. Financially pressed and known primarily as a public speaker—by then he had only published a thin volume of poems—he’d committed to a nine-month lecture tour of America. During his stop in Lincoln, Nebraska, he and the young literature professor George Woodberry were taken to visit the local penitentiary. The warden led them into a yard where, Wilde later wrote the suffragist journalist Helena Sickert, they were confronted by “poor odd types of humanity in striped dresses making bricks in the sun.” All the faces he glimpsed, he remarked with relief, “were mean-looking, which consoled me, for I should hate to see a criminal with a noble face.”
By 1889, Wilde’s judgments about prison had become less snobbish, if no less flippant. Reviewing a volume of poetry by Wilfred Blunt “composed in the bleak cell of Galway Gaol,” he agreed with the book’s author that “an unjust imprisonment for a noble cause strengthens as well as deepens the nature.” And yet the idea that prison was basically common, a strengthening exercise for the lower classes, still attracted him as a dark, wicked opportunity to conflate the awful with the trivial. As late as 1894, he could have the mischievous, debt-ridden Algernon insist midway through The Importance of Being Earnest that “I am really not going to be imprisoned in the suburbs for dining in the West End.” When Algernon hears from a threatening solicitor that “the gaol itself is fashionable and well-aired; and there are ample opportunities of taking exercise at certain stated hours of the day,” he answers indignantly: “Exercise! Good God! No gentleman ever takes exercise.”
Early in De Profundis, Wilde admiringly quotes his old Oxford don Walter Pater to the effect that “failure is to form habits,” and his own class snobberies were appropriately inconstant and unpredictable. Fastidious in his own dress and decorative taste, he could be ruthless at sizing up a person’s cultural capital. (“My heart was turned by the eyes of the doomed man,” he is said to have quipped after asking one of the death-row inmates in Nebraska about his reading habits, “but if he reads The Heir of Redclyffe it’s perhaps as well to let the law take its course.”) At points in De Profundis, he presents his association with young, working-class male prostitutes as a kind of moral and creative lapse, a bout of slumming that distracted him from the free practice of his art: “I let myself be lured into long spells of senseless and sensual ease … I surrounded myself with the smaller natures and meaner minds.”
And yet elsewhere, he casts himself as a Christ figure condemned by “the British Philistine” for the same reason the Pharisees condemned Jesus: fraternizing with the allegedly disreputable and low. “Christ mocked at the ‘whited sepulchre’ of respectability,” Wilde writes in the long dissertation on the gospels, two-thirds of the way through De Profundis. “He treated worldly success as a thing absolutely to be despised … He looked on wealth as an encumbrance to a man.” If Wilde’s habit of taking handsome grooms and valets to dine at expensive, discerning restaurants was a way of indulging in “sensual ease,” it was just his way of affronting—as he claims Christ affronted—“the tedious formalisms so dear to the middle-class mind.” His, he would maintain in certain moods, was a mind of such nobility as to be free of petty class prejudices. No doubt the irony of mobilizing Victorian England’s fine-grained class rhetoric in defense of what the court called his “acts of gross indecency with other men persons” was not lost on Wilde. “I did not know it,” Wilde replied during one of his trials when asked if he knew what common jobs the brothers Charles and William Parker worked, “but if I had I should not have cared. I didn’t care twopence what they were. I liked them. I have a passion to civilize the community.”
Wilde may have considered working-class male escorts like the Parkers noble enough to civilize the community, but his closest romantic associations were with fellow artists and intellectuals. For the full decade leading up to his trial, condemnation, and two-year imprisonment for “gross indecency,” he was the center of gravity for a handful of figures who shone brightly in their own right. The art critic Robert Ross, who became Wilde’s first literary executor and one of his few stalwart lifelong friends; the poet John Gray, whose verse output arguably outranks Wilde’s own; and the feckless, alluring, hot-tempered Douglas all campaigned to be accepted as gay men with a consistency and directness that Wilde never entirely matched. When he spoke about what Douglas famously called “the love that dare not speak its name,” it was often in parables and fairy stories, the tone of which he’d soaked up from his Irish parents’ artistic interest in their country’s folklore. When he defended the love in question, it was usually in its idealized, chaste Platonic form. (“It is beautiful, it is fine, it is the noblest form of affection,” he insisted during a rousing speech in his first trial.) When he reflected cryptically on it in a 1886 letter to his young companion Harry Marillier, it was in a resoundingly ambivalent, searching key:
You too have the love of things impossible … Sometime you will find, even as I have found, that there is no such thing as a romantic experience; there are romantic memories, and there is the desire of romance—that is all … And, strangely enough, what comes of all this is a curious mixture of ardour and indifference. I myself would sacrifice everything for a new experience, and I know there is no such thing as a new experience at all. I think I would more readily die for what I do not believe in than what I hold to be true. I would go to the stake for a sensation and be a skeptic to the last!
In those lines, you can hear Wilde discovering a tone far from the snide, pithy one on which he relied in Nebraska. It would eventually become the tone of De Profundis.
To say that imprisonment helped Wilde develop that tone would be to make the same mistake that Wilde himself made about Wilfred Blunt. Certain passages in De Profundis do seem to credit prison with strengthening and deepening their author’s nature, but only to the extent that, by subjecting him to intolerable, constant, and thoroughgoing misery, it gave him something against which to muster all his creative energies and all his verbal powers. “The important thing,” he writes himself telling Douglas at one of the letter’s turning points, “the thing that lies before me, the thing that I have to do, or be for the brief remainder of my days one 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.”
Wilde wrote De Profundis between January and March of 1897, near the end of his internment in Reading prison. His health had improved slightly since his early time in Pentonville, where he suffered miserably from dysentery and malnutrition. Sentenced to hard labor but ruled too weak for truly back-breaking work, he’d initially been ordered to pick oakum—a mind-numbing job involving the unraveling of rope into strands—alone in his cell. After his transfer to Reading, he was put in charge of distributing books from the prison’s limited library. When he eventually won the right to compose a letter in his cell, it was with the stipulation that each day’s pages be collected at nightfall. (Wilde only had occasional chances to read over the manuscript in full.) These odd restrictions suggest why so many thoughts and phrases—“the supreme vice is shallowness”—recur unchanged throughout De Profundis, but Wilde’s goal was clearly to produce a text that could transcend the circumstances of its production. “As for the corrections and errata,” he writes near the end of the letter in reference to the many edits he made once he had a chance to revise it,
I have made them in order that my words should be an absolute expression of my thoughts … Language requires to be tuned, like a violin; and just as too many or too few vibrations in the voice of the singer or the trembling of the string will make the note false, so too much or too little in words will spoil the message.
At first glance, De Profundis can seem anything but tuned. It is petulant, vindictive, bathetic, indulgent, excessive, florid, massively arrogant, self-pitying, repetitive, showy, sentimental, and shrill, particularly in its first half: a sixty-some-page rebuke directed at Douglas for matching Wilde’s loving devotion (and financial extravagance) with cruelty and indifference. It’s also one of the glories of English prose. Wilde had spent horrible months earlier in his sentence reading Dante and the gospels, and the voice he created on the page in De Profundis was Biblically robust, propulsive, resonant, and rich. Five years after Wilde’s early death, his friend Max Beerbohm marveled in the pages of Vanity Fair that in De Profundis “one does not seem to be reading a written thing.” And yet the long, elaborate sentences that fill the letter announce themselves as the products of a strenuous effort to find just the right string of words for their subject—a search for, as Wilde puts it, “that mode of existence in which soul and body are one and indivisible: in which the outward is expressive of the inward: in which Form reveals.”
In his earlier work, from the 1889 philosophical dialogue “The Decay of Lying” to The Importance of Being Earnest, Wilde treated deception and imposture as virtues. Now he was after a language that would directly embody—in its terse contractions and luxuriant expansions, in its roiling internal rhythms and hard stops, in the music that could result from pairing pithy sentences with intricate ones and setting heavy words against their light counterparts—the turbulent emotional states it described. Early in De Profundis, Wilde remarked that Douglas’s influence over him was “the triumph of the smaller nature over the bigger nature.” One way to read the book is as Wilde’s effort to prove his nobility—his largeness of spirit relative to both the Victorian philistines who sentenced him and the “meaner” young men with whom he spent some of his nights—by creating a voice powerful enough to carry out the triumph on the page he’d failed to carry out over Douglas.
Another, more charitable way to read De Profundis would be to take seriously what Wilde identifies as his own hopes for it. “Perhaps,” he wonders late in the letter,
there may come into my art also, no less than into my life, a still deeper note, one of greater unity of passion, and directness of impulse. Not width but intensity is the true aim of modern art. We are no longer in art concerned with the type. It is with the exception we have to do. I cannot put my sufferings into any form they took, I need hardly say. Art only begins where Imitation ends. But something must come into my work, of fuller harmony of words perhaps, of richer cadences, of more curious colour-effects, of simpler architectural-order, of some aesthetic quality at any rate.
Reading those lines recently, the voice I heard sounded jarringly like Emerson, whom Wilde quotes at one juncture of De Profundis and whose tone I started to hear him channeling throughout the letter. Wilde shares Emerson’s love of epigrammatic sayings. (“Our very dress makes us grotesque. We are zanies of sorrow.”) But he also shares the American writer’s habit of arranging conflicting sentiments in close proximity to one another, his morbid fixation on matters of doom and fate, and his way of creating sentences in which the underlying ground always seems to be shifting dangerously under the reader’s feet.
Prison, it might be fair to say, demanded this sort of writing from Wilde. It forced him to change out the voice of a snobbish aesthete for that of a survivor, that of a sufferer, that of a jilted lover, that of a prophet, and—another Emersonian voice—that of an educator. “You came to me to learn the Pleasure of Life and the Pleasure of Art,” Wilde tells Douglas in the letter’s lovestruck last sentence. “Perhaps I am chosen to teach you something much more wonderful, the meaning of Sorrow, and its beauty.”
After De Profundis, Wilde published only the long poem “The Ballad of Reading Gaol” and two letters to the Daily Chronicle advocating for specific reforms designed to mitigate the “cruelties of prison life.” He died at forty-six, broke, despondent, and—at the last minute—baptized. He had lived extravagantly, suffered greatly, defended his wounded pride to the end, and hit, in De Profundis, upon a lavish, full harmony of words.
Max Nelson’s writings on film and literature have appeared in The Threepenny Review, n+1, Film Comment, and The Boston Review, among other publications. He lives in New York.
Max Nelson is writing a series on prison literature. Read the previous entry, on writers who found God from behind bars, here.