Wilde’s “De Profundis”


A couple of posts ago I wrote a comparison of Emerson and Oscar Wilde and their takes on what constituted sin: “limitation” for Waldo, “stupidity” for Oscar.  At that time I speculated about whether the experience of being in prison would have changed Wilde’s chronic flippancy, and I’m both happy and sad to report that….well, it seems to have.  I’ve reread his De Profundis (From the Depths), and I would encourage you to do the same.  It is as many have noted a remarkable document, and despite some moments of self-pity and score-settling, he is shown as a man who painfully realizes the suffering he has brought upon himself, his family and his friends.

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.

What he discovers through this experience is the value of suffering: “Where there is sorrow, there is holy ground.”  It, along with the strictures of prison life, pare the soul down to its essence, and can either make one permanently bitter, or opened up to a greater sense of self.  Wilde ultimately becomes one of the latter.

And the first thing that I have got to do is to free myself from any possible bitterness of feeling against the world.  I am completely penniless, and absolutely 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.

What seems to change him is his loss of ego; not his individuality, but the sense that it’s all about me.  What makes the change is his discovery of humility.  To recall the topic of the last post, it is the letting go of the adjectives while keeping the noun.  “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.”

I hope you will not settle for my quick recap here, but will get your own copy and read it attentively.  Its long passages on Christ will help you to see him in a new way, and the whole work will open your heart and renew your faith in Beauty.


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