“Epistola: in Carcere et Vinculis”: The Downfall of Oscar Wilde (Presentation)

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Lord Alfred Douglas: A Tainted Relationship

Oscar Wilde and Lord Alred Douglas
Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas

Wilde’s relationship with Lord Alfred Douglas began in the Spring of 1892, and resulted in an ongoing affair which caused Wilde’s ruin (385). Wilde’s relationship with Alfred Douglas was an amorous relationship which proved fidelity through economic rather than sexual means, as Douglas drove Wilde to ‘acquisition’ other young men. Wilde repeatedly paid Douglas’s debts and supported him, leading ultimately to bankruptcy.  This relationship formed the seed for the later obscenity trials which ruined Wilde.

May 23, 1895 Newspaper with a Headline describing the Verdict of the April Indecency trial. Alfred Taylor was another man who facilitated Wilde's relationships with multiple young men.
May 23, 1895 Newspaper Headline

Alfred’s father, John Douglas, ninth Marquess of Queensberry, warred with his son through Wilde, blaming their gay relationship for ‘Bosie’s’ reckless behavior. Queensberry blamed Wilde for Douglas’s failures at Oxford University, and he quickly began to attack Wilde through letters and public acts  (404). Ultimately, he filed an obscenity charge in order to punish Wilde for his ‘indecent’ acts with Alfred. Queensberry charged Wilde with 15 counts of sodomy involving 12 boys, 10 of whom were named (443). Libel action suit was held on 3 April 1895, and Wilde ultimately lost, condemning him to two years hard labor.

Prison Life

Throughout the process of the trial and ultimate sentence, Wilde served time in five different prisons in the British system. During the trial, Wilde was held in Holloway and Newgate Prisons, before being transferred for his sentence to three different institutions: Pentonville, Wandsworth, and finally Reading Goal (Gagnier 340).

Reading Prison
Reading Goal Prison

Although conditions fluctuated slightly between these different systems, the prison theory behind them was largely the same: solitary confinement and unproductive hard labor. Wilde was kept in a 13x7x9 cell, and was forced to observe a very tightly regimented schedule: “6 a.m. clean cell;  7, porridge and brown bread; exercise for an hour, oakum picking until noon; dinner of bacon, beans, bread, potatoes (cold meat once a week); 12:30-6 oakum picking; tea or gruel and 8 ounces bread; 7 p.m. lights out…One letter could be sent and received per quarter, but letters were allowed for the ‘purpose of enabling [prisoners] to keep up a connection with their respectable friends and not that they may be kept informed of public events.’ No books were allowed the first month” (George Ives qtd. in Gagnier 340). The labor of oakum picking involved unrolling lengths

Male prisoners picking oakum in separate stalls at Holloway Prison 1862.
Male prisoners picking oakum in separate stalls at Holloway Prison 1862.

of rope to remove parts that were rotten or damaged. In De Profundis, Wilde writes of his prison experience, saying: “I have got to make everything that has happened to me good for me. The plank-bed, the loathsome food, the hard ropes shredded into oakum till one’s finger-tips grow dull with pain, the menial offices which each day begins and finishes, the harsh orders that routine seems to necessitate” (1020). The prison officials also ordered that Wilde was not to talk to any other prisoners, and that he be kept in solitary confinement in his cell. Solitary confinement ultimately led Wilde to fear insanity.

A Curious Publication: The Multiplicity of the ‘Original’

After his two petitions for a reduction of his sentence in July and November 1896 were denied at Reading Goal Prison, Wilde finally pled insanity and was ultimately given materials to write De Profundis  (Gagnier 441).

Petition to Reading Prison for release
Petition for release from Reading Prison

As Regenia Gagnier writes: “Wilde pleaded a fear of mental breakdown and decline of literary capability, and the physicians observed that his prose style was too lucid, orderly and polished to cause apprehension on those scores….Yet he was granted books and writing materials, that he “might be free to produce,” (Gagnier 341).

The lore surrounding Wilde’s writing of De Profundis follows that Wilde wrote the work on twenty folio sheets of blue prison paper, receiving one sheet a day. As the Governor of Reading Goal wrote, “Each sheet was carefully numbered before being issued and withdrawn each evening at locking and placed before me in the morning with the usual papers” (qtd. in Complete Letters 683). The process of writing one sheet a day has been questioned by many literary historians, who have written that several sheets appeared to be fair copies and that only two of the twenty sheets of writing ended with a complete sentence (683). This shows that prison guards may have been more lenient with Wilde, allowing him to write several sheets at a  time. Wilde wrote to his friend and former lover Robert Ross (referred to in De Profundis as Robbie) before his release, telling him to publish the letter.  The letter to Robbie, dated 1 April 1897, reads as follows:

“My dear Robbie, I send you, in a roll separate from this, my letter to Alfred Douglas, which I hope will arrive safe. As soon as you…have read it, I want you to have it carefully copied for me…I want you to be my literary executor after my death, and to have complete control over my plays, books and papers….When you have read the letter you will see the psychological explanation of a course of conduct that from the outside seems a combination of absolute idiocy with vulgar bravado….Of course from one point of view I know that on the day of my release I shall be merely passing form one prison into another, and there are times when the whole world seems to me no larger than my cell, and as full of terror for me….As regards the mode of copying:…I think that the only thing to do is to be thoroughly modern, and to have it type-written…I wish the copy to be done not on tissue paper but on good paper such as is used for plays, and a wide rubricated margin should be left for corrections…it may be spoken of as the Epistola: In Carcere et Vinculis. (780-782).”

Despite his wishes, prison officials rejected Wilde’s plea for his work to be sent to Robbie April 1,and refused to release the material until his own release.  Wilde therefore handed the letter personally to Ross after his release on May 19, 1897.

Out of this material, Robert Ross published an abridged version in 1905. This version of the document removed much of the importance of Lord Alfred Douglas from the letter, removing the first 28 pages of the work and instead focusing on Wilde’s description of his prison-life and hardship.   Ross later wrote that he abridged the document in order to match the public mood of the times, as he wrote that “Wilde’s name unfortunately did not bring very agreeable memories to English ears: his literary position, hardly recognized even in the zenith of his successful dramatic career, had come to be ignored by Mr. Ruskin’s countrymen, unable to separate the man and the artist” (“A Prefatory Dedication” iv).

1904 Publication of De Profundis by Robert Ross
1904 Publication of De Profundis by Robert Ross

In Ross’s subsequent  version in 1908, he included more of the original, claiming that public opinion was more responsive to a positive image of Wilde, as “English critics have shown themselves ready to estimate the writer, whether favorably or unfavorably, without emphasizing their natural prejudice against his later career” (vi). The introduction to the 1908 edition does not mention Alfred Douglas by name, and Ross simply states that “it is cast in the form of a letter to a friend not myself;” The identity of Lord Alfred Douglas was undoubtably hidden in order to lessen the continued memory of Wilde’s scandal.

Further reprints of the text came after a copy of the ‘original’ manuscript was freed from the British Library, by Wilde’s son Vyvyan Holland. This new version was  published 1949, and is the copy which the “Complete Works of Oscar Wilde” uses.  This text is based off a carbon copy of the original which Robert Ross made initially (Small 2). This version itself was proven to have many inaccuracies to the manuscript, which was later printed by Sir Rupert Hart-Davis in 1962.
Link to a page of the manuscript: http://news.bbc.co.uk/media/images/58491000/jpg/_58491441_oscarwildetolordalfreddouglas.jpg

Although all of these different versions differ, scholars have not determined whether any of them constitute an ‘original’ version of the work (2). Similarly, it is impossible to know whether the unedited original is the ‘accurate’ work due to its own inconsistencies. As J.M. Guy writes in “Wilde’s “De Profundis” and Book History: Mute Manuscripts,” “There is no agreement about what might be said to constitute the original print context of De Profundis, since few scholars will concede that the first extant “reproducible” work of that title, brought out in 1905 by Robert Ross and Methuen, has Wilde’s full authority. In this respect, the label “original” is most usually taken to refer to the manuscript held in the British Library and which, it can be argued, Wilde “intended” to make reproducible (if not exactly public) in some limited sense, even if, as we will see, there is no concrete evidence as to whether those intentions were carried out” (421-422).

Analysis and Discussion Questions

1. Wilde says in the first passage that Douglas “passed from Romance to Realism.” In De Profundis itself, Wilde mixes elements of realism, such as his prison conditions and his relationship with Douglas, with a more ‘Romantic’ tone as he evokes philosophical concepts such as art, imagination, sorrow, and Christ in order to come to terms with his prison experience. How should Wilde’s text be read, as a prison writing, love letter, autobiography, or philosophical writing? Should the biographical information included in the text be taken as fact, or is Alfred Douglas’s conduct more multidimensional, just as De Profundis is? Would it gain more critical attention if the work was split into  texts to reflect the fluctuations between letter to Alfred Douglas, commentary on prison life, and philosophical text?
2. Wilde is very particular about exact locations, time periods, and people’s names. Furthermore, he seems to describe things in a routine. For example, he writes on page 1009: “All this took place in the early part of November of the year before last…With us time itself does not progress. It revolves. It seems to circle round one centre of pain. The paralyzing immobility of a life, every circumstance of which is regulated after an unchangeable pattern, so that we eat and drink and walk…according to the inflexible laws of an iron formula…A week later, I am transferred here. Three more months go over and my mother dies.” Do these specific periods of time of weeks and three months show Wilde’s changed perceptions based on prison time? Since Wilde often stayed at a particular prison for three months at a time, can we see other examples of prison life showing through the work? Are Wilde’s recollections of specific dates an indication of his struggle with sanity?
3. Wilde continually indicates the connection between himself as an Artist and his Art. Wilde claims that “an artist, and especially an artist as I am, one, that is to say, the quality of whose work depends on the intensification of personality, requires for the development of his art the companionship of ideas” (981). He also tells Douglas that “while you were with me you were the absolute ruin of my Art, and in allowing you to stand persistently between Art and myself I give to myself shame and blame in the fullest degree” (982-983). Can we separate art from Wilde the Artist? Wilde also states that he “was a man who stood symbolic relations to the art and culture of my age” (1017). Did Wilde’s personality almost become a piece of art on its own, as “Art is a symbol, because man is a symbol” (1026)? Does this work show that for Wilde, life and art must coexist, and should we still examine Wilde’s works with a heavily biographical approach?
4. Wilde often talks about Imagination as the main way to cope with his psychological and physical taxations at prison. As he says on 1059, “Time and space, succession and extension, are merely accidental conditions of Thought. The Imagination can transcend them, and move in a sphere of ideal existences. Things, also, are in their essence what we choose to make them. A thing is, according to the mode in which one looks at it.” Does Wilde’s commitment to the imagination as a creative force relate to any other decadent ideals, such as the Truth of Masks? How do other characters in Decadent literature, such as Des Esseintes, construct their reality through imagination?
5. Wilde discusses Sorrow at many points in the text, specifically relating to his prison experience and to his shame over his downfall. In this regard he writes that “behind Sorrow there is always Sorrow. Pain, unlike Pleasure, wears no mask. Truth in Art is not any correspondence between the essential idea and the accidental existence; it is not the resemblance of shape to shadow, or of the form mirrored in the crystal to the form itself…Truth in Art is the unity of the thing with itself: the outward rendered expressive of the inward: the soul made incarnate: the body instinct with spirit. For this reason there is no truth comparable to Sorrow” (1024). Does Wilde’s conception of Sorrow as ultimate Truth indicate a shift in Wilde’s philosophy from that of Masks and the truth of the surface, to a unification of ‘essential’ and ‘resemblance’?


Ellmann, Richard. Oscar Wilde. New York: Knopf, 1988. Print.

Gagnier, Regenia. “”De Profundis as Epistola: In Carcere Et Vinculis”: A Materialist Reading of Oscar Wilde’s Autobiography.”      Criticism 26.4 (1984): 335-54.JSTOR. Web. 26 Feb. 2014. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/23110543>.

Guy, Josephine M. “Wilde’s “De Profundis” And Book History: Mute Manuscripts.” English Literature In Transition, 1880-1920 55.4 (2012): 419-440. Academic Search Premier. Web. 4 Mar. 2014.

Wilde, Oscar, and Merlin Holland. Complete Works of Oscar Wilde. Glasgow: HarperCollins, 2003. Print.

Wilde, Oscar. “Introduction.” De Profundis ; ‘Epistola: In Carcere Et Vinculis’ Ed. Ian Small. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2005. N. pag. Print.

Wilde, Oscar, Merlin Holland, and Rupert Hart-Davis. The Complete Letters of Oscar Wilde. London: Fourth Estate, 2000. Print.

Wilde, Oscar. “A Prefatory Dedication.” De Profundis. Ed. Robert Ross. New York: Knickerbocker, 1909. Iii-Ix. Print.

Written by Nora

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