This is the original manuscript of Oscar Wilde’s De Profundis; a long, harrowing letter written to his lover Lord Alfred Douglas, whose dysfunctional relationship with his father Wilde blamed for his trial and imprisonment from 1895–97.
‘De Profundis’ is Latin for ‘from the depths’; it comes from the first line of Psalm 130 of the penitential Psalms: ‘Out of the depths have I cried unto thee, O Lord’. The writer E. V. Lucas (1868–1938) claimed to have suggested the title; Wilde had suggested ‘Epistola: In Carcere et Vinculis’, meaning ‘Letter: In Prison and in Chains’.
During Wilde’s time in Reading Gaol, there was a change in prison leadership from Colonel Henry Isaacson (1842–1915) to Major James Nelson (1859–1914). Nelson allowed Wilde greater access to books and paper; Wilde would later call him ‘the most Christlike man I ever met’. Wilde could not bring himself to write a play in these conditions; instead he concentrated on the more typical prison genre of the letter, and worked on it between December 1896 and March 1897.
To Wilde’s biographer Richard Ellmann, the ‘most important thing about De Profundis is that it is a love letter’; despite its occasional arrogance and understandable lapses in structure, ‘one of the greatest, and the longest, ever written’. It could be seen as a dramatic monologue from Wilde to Douglas – a long, public address in which Douglas’s responses are assumed.
As an autobiographical attempt to understand the nature of his own life and work, De Profundis also reflects brilliantly on art, love, forgiveness, the significance of Christ, and Wilde’s own character and failings. Sometimes it mimics the humility of Christ, others it returns to an older arrogance:
I was a man who stood in symbolic relations to the art and culture of my age. I had realised this for myself at the very dawn of my manhood, and had forced my age to realise it afterwards […]
Throughout, we see Wilde’s gift for a pithy, insightful statement, but sobered by suffering:
Most people live for love and admiration. But it is by love and admiration that we should live.
The critic Isobel Murray has argued that the letter shows the influence of Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882), an American poet whose books had been on the first list Wilde had requested to read in prison.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the text is often savagely critical of Alfred Douglas, and accordingly, Wilde’s executor Robert Ross (1869–1918) and others feared being sued for libel if they published it in its entirety.
The edition published in 1905 removed all reference to Douglas. In 1909, Ross gave this manuscript to the British Library (then the British Museum) on the condition that it was not made public for fifty years. In 1913, however, it was read in from as part of a libel case Douglas had brought against the writer Arthur Ransome (1884–1967), who had just published Oscar Wilde: a Critical Study.
After Douglas's death Wilde’s son Vyvyan Holland (1886–1967) published the full text of De Profundis (1949) from a transcript copy; but when Rupert Hart-Davis (1907–99) compared this version with the British Museum/British Library manuscript, he spotted inaccuracies and published a full version in 1962.