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De Profundis (Latin: "from the depths") is an epistle written by Oscar Wilde during his imprisonment in Reading Gaol, to Lord Alfred Douglas. During its first half Wilde recounts their previous relationship and extravagant lifestyle which eventually led to Wilde's conviction and imprisonment for gross indecency. He indicts both Lord Alfred's vanity and his own weakness in acceding to those wishes. In the second half, Wilde charts his spiritual development in prison and identification with Jesus Christ, whom he characterises as a romantic, individualist artist. Wilde wrote the letter between January and March 1897, close to the end of his imprisonment. Contact had lapsed between Douglas and Wilde and the latter had suffered from his physical labour and emotional isolation; a new warden thought that writing might be more cathartic than prison labour. Wilde's work was closely supervised and he was not allowed to send the letter, but took it with him upon release, whereupon he entrusted the manuscript to an ex-lover, the journalist Robert Ross, with instructions to have two copies made: one to be sent to the author himself and the other to Douglas. Ross published the letter in 1905, five years after Wilde's death, giving it the title "De Profundis" from Psalm 130. It was an incomplete version, excised of its autobiographical elements; various editions gave more text until 1962 when the complete and correct version appeared in a volume of Wilde's letters. In 1892 Wilde began an intimate friendship with Lord Alfred Douglas, a young, vain aristocrat. As the two grew closer, family and friends on both sides urged Wilde and Douglas to lessen their contact. Lord Alfred's father, the Marquess of Queensberry, often feuded with his son over the topic. Especially after the death of his eldest son, the Viscount Drumlanrig, Queensberry privately accused them of improper acts and threatened to cut off Lord Alfred's allowance. When they refused, he began publicly harassing Wilde. In early 1895 Wilde had reached the height of his fame and success with his plays An Ideal Husband and The Importance of Being Earnest on stage in London. When Wilde returned from holidays after the premieres, he found Queensberry's card at his club with the inscription: "For Oscar Wilde, posing somdomite sic]." Unable to bear further insults, and encouraged by Lord Alfred (who wanted to attack his father in every possible way), Wilde sued Queensberry for criminal libel. Wilde withdrew his claim as the defence began, and the Judge ruled that Queensberry's accusation was justified. The Crown promptly issued a warrant for his arrest and he was charged with gross indecency with other men under the Labouchere Amendment in April 1895. The trial was the centre of public discussion as details of Wilde's consorts from the working class became known. Wilde refused to admit wrongdoing and the jury were unable to reach a verdict. At the retrial Wilde was sentenced to two years' imprisonment, to be held to hard labour.
About the Author
Oscar Fingall O'Flahertie Wills Wilde was born in Dublin in 1854. He was educated at Trinity College, Dublin and Magdalen College, Oxford where, a disciple of Pater, he founded an aesthetic cult. In 1884 he married Constance Lloyd, and his two sons were born in 1885 and 1886. His novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891), and social comedies Lady Windermere's Fan (1892), A Woman of No Importance (1893), An Ideal Husband (1895), and The Importance of Being Earnest (1895), established his reputation. In 1895, following his libel action against the Marquess of Queesberry, Wilde was sentenced to two years' imprisonment for homosexual conduct, as a result of which he wrote The Ballad of Reading Gaol (1898), and his confessional letter De Profundis (1905). On his release from prison in 1897 he lived in obscurity in Europe, and died in Paris in 1900.