The Ballad of Reading Gaol Today

As I read The Ballad of Reading Gaol, it’s dark and hopeless tone struck me. It still has Wilde’s trademark playfulness when it comes to language, but it takes on darker and more somber undertones. It actually reminded me of And Still you Expect Greatness, which is a volume of poetry produced by Michigan prisoners who participate in the Prison Creative Arts Project sponsored by the University of Michigan. I first read this volume of poems when I was thirteen or so, and I have come back to it several times since. I was struck by how similar the tone of the poems in the volume had to Wilde’s work, even though they were separated by over a century. I was even surprised to find a poem that sampled from The Ballad of Reading Gaol that I had forgotten about.

However, one poem really stood out to me in terms of matching Wilde’s style, Buried Alive by Calvin Westerfield:

                            O’ wicked blocks of cement so pale,

              Defiantly make four walls a cell,

              Affix dense bars diverse hands will try,

              Lasting steel mold tombs where hope will die.

                             Conscious corpse to ponder days gone pass,

              The smell of summer’s fresh cut grass,

              That passion once felt of her embrace,

              Abandonment has not took its place.

                            Heartbreak pained to scale a bob-wired cage,

              Pure desperation replaced by rage!

                            Come view the body while it’s still warm,

              Lonely heart in the eye of the storm.

              Souls stolen by lost degenerate thoughts,

              Liberty denied but just-us bought.

                            Few will survive in their names alone,

              Etched in the bricks of immortal stone.

                            O’ wicked blocks, my captors – so pale,

              Great minds will die in these evil cells,

              Where two men share a hell and pure hate thrives,

              To coexist while buried alive.

Both poems describe the physical bleakness of prison, and address themes of death in prison as well as relationships with other prisoners. Particularly, “To coexist while buried alive” reminds me of Wilde’s “open grave” which “gaped for living thing” and meant that “Some prisoner had to swing” (888-9). It is saddening to see how similar these two poems are, as it speaks to how little things have changed.

Wilde and Christ

What surprised me most about reading De Profundis is how Wilde portrays himself as a Christ-like figure. Wilde suffered a great deal while in prison, and as we read in this letter to Bosie, he goes through a significant emotional and spiritual journey. Wilde draws a lot of parallels between himself and Christ, and this identification seems to be a way to give his suffering meaning. 

One parallel between Wilde and Christ was Wilde’s forgiveness of Bosie, even though Bosie may not have appreciated his forgiveness at the time. Although Wilde spends a majority of the letter disparaging Bosie’s actions, he feels like the only thing he can do is forgive Bosie. Although Wilde states that he’s forgiving Bosie for his own sake to unburden his soul, he also states, “I cannot allow you to go through life bearing in your heart the burden of having ruined a man like me…I must take the burden from you and put it on my own” (1017). The sentiment of taking Bosie’s burden for his own really stood out to me and brought to mind Christ taking on the burden of humanity’s sins. Even though humanity caused Jesus to suffer, He had to take on their sins to save them. He forgives them. In a similar way, Wilde takes on Bosie’s sins and suffers for them. Wilde identifying with Christ in this way may have given his suffering meaning while in prison. 

Another way Wilde identifies with Christ is by portraying Christ as a romantic artist. Wilde views Christ’s life as a romantic tragedy. Christ’s ideals were too radical for the rigid Philistines of the time, and He suffered because of that. Wilde states, “All great ideas are dangerous. That is what Christ’s creed admits of no doubt. That is the true creed I don’t doubt myself” (1037). Like Christ, Wilde’s ideas of Love and Beauty were too great to be accepted by the “British Philistines,” as Wilde so calls them. Wilde views Christ as having suffered for the ultimate ideal of Art. Since Wilde also feels as if he’s suffering due to ideas presented in his art, he could take comfort in Jesus doing the same. 

Wilde’s spiritual journey was one of the most interesting aspects of De Profundis, and it’s fascinating to see how faith played a part in getting him through his experiences in prison.

Redemptive Nature

One aspect that I did not expect to see in De Profundis is Wilde’s appreciation for nature. I remember reading “The Decay of Lying” earlier this semester, which featured a dialogue between Cyril and Vivian, Wilde’s two sons. Wilde writes through Cyril that “what art really reveals to us is Nature’s lack of design, her curious crudities, her extraordinary monotony, her absolutely unfinished condition” (970). Variety is seen through Art rather than Nature, residing in the fantastical imagination that Wilde constantly calls forth. However, we have all seen how Wilde has shifted his views toward many things in De Profundis. And one of those things is nature.

            When living in a prison cell, confined and lacking mobility, Nature is much more sought after by Wilde. He still has books (paid for by Robbie), and even if sorrow has stolen many things from him, he still returns to his true love of Art and how imagination and self-realization feed into that. But he does not have Nature. He is much more aware of the space he is living in (a prison cell) and the physical tasks he has to complete, such as scrubbing the floor of his cell. While we once stated in class that Wilde’s plays take place in some utopia setting, not quite Britain, De Profundis undeniably grounds him in the physical location of his prison cell in Reading Gaol. Wilde plans to go to a “little seaside village” after his release, where “the sea… [will wash] away the stains and wounds of the world” (954). Nature takes on a redemptive quality in this light. Instead of having monotony and an unfinished condition, Wilde believes that people have forgotten the “uses of any single thing” and how “Water can cleanse” (954). Of course, this reminded me of holy water and Christianity, as De Profundis directly concerns itself with the religion. Still, I argue that Wilde’s physical confinement made him ground himself into more of the physicality of everyday life, everyday Nature. Wilde is going to come back to a society after his imprisonment that has sneered, mocked, and punished him at every turn. But he will be able to form his own society and community, and Nature will welcome him with open, cleansing arms.      

Going on Trial as an Act of Defiance 

Our last class made me think about the idea of the courtroom as the theater and Wilde’s demeanor while on trial.

The courtroom has many times been referred to as a theatrical setting, with the aspects of storytelling and drama playing into the workings of a trial. This particularly applies to highly publicized trials, such as Wilde’s. His was the “trial of the century,” and a condemnation of Wilde in the sense of his sexuality and his work. It was a serious matter for his reputation, and more importantly his life. But, as we saw from Gross Indecency by Moises Kaufman, Wilde was not so serious while testifying. He still used his wit to poke fun or when giving answers to the judge/prosecutor. We knew Wilde had an affinity for using this wit based on the characters he wrote in his stories, but why would Wilde not take a more somber tone for his own trial for gross indecency?

And added to this question, as we have discussed before, in some ways Wilde has written his own demise into existence through his stories, particularly with The Importance of Being Earnest. He seems to predict his fate, which prompts interesting ideas about predestination, but also makes me think that Wilde knew that, because his feelings were criminalized, that his sexual actions were unignorable and could lead to his downfall. But, even if he knows this, and then it comes to semi-fruition with the trial, what made him choose to go to the trial rather than leave the country?

I think that Wilde stayed in England based on a series of unfortunate events but had a witty demeanor during the trial because he had a lot to prove to Bosie’s dad and to the people of high society. His status as an outsider, whether through his Irishness or his sexuality, made it so he had to work to fit in. And, I think he was determined to stand up for himself against Bosie’s father, who tried to shame him into exile. Wilde worked hard to build a successful career and good reputation for himself, and given his status as an outsider, it was important to keep that. Part of that reputation was his wit and cleverness, two things that were maintained during the trials. If Wilde were serious in demeanor, I think the people who were trying to criminalize him for his actions would have won in a different sense.

Inherent class divides

Class differences have been a recurring theme in Wilde’s work. For example, in The Importance of Being Earnest, Lady Bracknell advises Jack to acquire some relations. Despite Jack’s wealth and ease in conforming to high-class society, he cannot change his nature without obtaining the proper lineage. This idea of class predestination, so to speak, appears again in De Profundis. Wilde paints class as something inherent in determining one’s character, sensibilities, and abilities.

I first noticed this when Wilde spoke of the men who testified against him, who belonged to the lower class. He states: “People thought it dreadful of me to have entertained at dinner the evil things of life, and to have found pleasure in their company. But they, from the point of view through which I, as an artist in life, approached them, were delightfully suggestive and stimulating.” Wilde uses a patronizing tone for these lower-class men, objectifying his dinner guests as merely artistic stimulation. He does not even recognize their humanity, likening them to panthers or cobras while setting himself apart from them as an “artist.” It is not for particular acts that Wilde dehumanizes them- Wilde, after all, welcomed them to dine with him and engaged in homosexual acts himself. In terms of unlawful acts, Wilde is no better off than them. Wilde draws this distinction because they are lower class. He characterizes them as dangerous and rough, as if this is inherent to their class. Wilde additionally asserts that “fishermen, shepherds, ploughboys, and peasants” know nothing of Art. He seems to claim art for the upper class in addition to humanity.

Wilde also makes a class distinction when describing his fellow inmates, mentioning that he is “not one of them.” Even in prison, where Wilde is subjected to the same treatment as his peers, Wilde sets himself apart from the lower classes. There are no advantages to being high class, yet Wilde asserts his class anyway. Again, this goes to show that Wilde does not think of class as something resulting from what you do, but rather who you are, and this distinction is critical in determining what you are worth.

Wilde’s Very Own Jesus Christ

In De Profundis, Wilde writes that, if he were to write again, it would likely be on the subject of, as he says,  “Christ as the precursor of the romantic movement in life.” I’ve always felt that Wilde’s relationship to Christ was an interesting one, specifically in that Wilde seems to be able to view Christ from a purely artistic perspective, as he’s never seemed to mind much care about the possible heresies that may result from such an interpretation. While a more traditional Christian would have tiptoed around a more risqué interpretation of Jesus, and an atheist would have simply avoided interpreting Christ as being any more than a normal man; Wilde is neither, and thus has a rather unique perspective on Jesus’ teachings. I think that Wilde’s interpretation of Jesus as an artist tells us quite a bit about how Wilde views art as a whole, such as how Christ viewed children as examples for the old to follow, and not the other way around. It seems that Wilde (and if you agree with his interpretation, Christ) were somewhat ahead of the curve, as it seems that more and more the older generation is held to the standards of the younger, and not the other way around. It would seem that Wilde, according to both his writings and quotes from his three trials, treasured youth in a very artistic sense, as he seemed to believe that humans were not beings that accrued wisdom and virtue as they aged, but rather that people are born into this world as pure beings, and as they grow older, they become more and more corrupt. In a way, it is something of a mercy that Wilde died as young as he did, as I honestly don’t know if he would have been able to stand growing old.

Christ: The Artist

A life of pleasure will eventually catch up to you. As we know Wilde learned that the hard way, and gave us a complete reflection on the metamorphosis he underwent during his time in prison. De Profundis read very similarly to the sentiments of another imprisoned artist, Dwayne Betts, although he did not begin his artistry until after his release. Both men are painfully aware of the issues of the prison system, but both experienced indescribable growth within the system and dug deep into themselves to become great men. As I worked through the long pages of Wilde’s letter, I could not help but be engrossed in the artistry of his metamorphosis. Even though the frame of his art is inevitably shifted by this change, the ever ostentatious Wilde lives on. His description of Christ as the first true artist and individual put the Bible into a completely new light for me. I began to think about it as a piece of art rather than simply the stories we hear over and over in mass. Comparing himself to Christ may have been a little irreverent, but nonetheless he makes a good point about the importance of viewing Him not only as the Prophet, but the second form of the Creator as well. An artist lives to create and challenge the status quo. Christ was sent down to Earth for that exact purpose. Within the lines of this letter, Wilde is challenging Bosie and the larger audience to see the art in the mundane and the beauty in the ugly parts of life, which is basically the foundation of Christianity. Ideas like these about Christianity intrigue me immensely because it adds a new layer to the religion preached to us from childhood. It invites the audience to interpret these ideas for themselves, instead of simply accepting what we are told in school and at mass. Religion means community, and with a community comes differing perspectives, which invites conversation. Laws are made to be broken, and Wilde is sure to point out how Christ broke did just that.  To go a little bit deeper into the grey area, by doing this, Wilde is also solidifying the idea that religion is art with the Creator as the ultimate artist, giving new meaning to the aesthetes who worship art for art’s sake. If religion becomes art, then it gives them every right to idolize the aesthetic and devote their life to art because the most widespread theology in the world basically does the same thing, according to Wilde. When you boil it down to a simple formula, his words are telling the audience to emulate Christ, but in a different way than normal. He wants the world to be a place for the rule breakers and the freaks because that makes the world worth living in. After enduring two impossible years in prison, Wilde emerges more of an artist than he ever was. His external brilliance now burns brighter then ever on the inside, and he himself is now the art. De Profundis provides the step by step retelling of how to truly know yourself. Wilde desperately wants his special reader to understand this, and though the rest of the world wasn’t in mind when he wrote it, it is a beautiful example for us too. Art is the avenue to find yourself be it through religion, aesthetic, or simple nature. It is there to guide us.

Bosie as a Low-Quality Peer

After reading De Profundis, I was shocked to learn about the extremely toxic and nonreciprocal nature of Wilde’s relationship with Bosie. This chaotic romance/friendship reminded me of a concept from my Economics of Innovations class last year. In the course, I learned about how one’s quality of peers can greatly influence his or her life. A good peer can inspire a friend to reach their fullest potential by sharing knowledge or increasing joint productivity while a low-quality peer provides the opposite effects. I would argue that Bosie is a low-quality peer for Wilde as he helped to destroy his art and career. This negative influence was clearly recognized by Wilde himself when he describes the result of his “unintellectual friendship” (874) as being “intellectually degrading” for Wilde’s art (875). Additionally, Bosie did “not understand the conditions requisite for the production of artistic work” and would hamper Wilde’s artistic process by dragging him to incessant dinners and social outings – instead of giving him the space and time to write (874). A good peer would have faithfully supported Wilde’s artistic process by reinforcing the behaviors/traits that had allowed Wilde to have such great success throughout his career. One the other hand, Bosie was the “absolute ruin of [Wilde’s] Art” (876) partly because “[Bosie’s] interests were merely in [his] meals and moods…[while his] desires were simply for amusements” (876). In this way, Bosie was nowhere near Wilde’s intellectual or creative equal and his distractions did seem to have a sizable negative effect on Wilde (both artistically and financially).  Wilde even appears to define Bosie as a low-quality peer by stating that “ultimately the bond of all companionship…is conversation, and conversation must have a common basis” (880). Here, “a common basis” most likely refers to having intellectual ability as a truly great conversation must be stimulating to both sides. From Wilde’s account, Bosie did not bring much substance or excitement to deeper conversation, which would have not enriched Wilde’s life academically or creatively. If Wilde had spent more time with his higher-quality peers (i.e., other great literary minds), he may have been pushed to reach even greater heights through competition and inspiration; however, Wilde was trapped in this toxic relationship with Bosie, which slowly poisoned his artistic ability until he was eventually thrown into prison.  

De Profundis and Destiny

De Profundis is by far the most raw and emotional of Wilde’s works. The piece is unique in not only its emotional tone but the way Wilde discusses religion. In his scathing letter to Bosie, Wilde touches on many of the themes that occur in his poems and plays; he meditates on God, the meaning of art, the dangers of overindulgence, love, and most significantly, predestination. Out of all of these themes Wilde is the most consistent in his views of predestination. He criticizes Bosie for his abuse and the role he had in his financial ruin, but Wilde recognizes how his own flawed actions brought about his downfall. He says, “I must say to myself that neither you nor your father, multiplied a thousand times over, could possibly have ruined a man like me: that I ruined myself: and that nobody, great or small, can be ruined except by his own hand… Terrible as what you did to me was, what I did to myself was far more terrible still” (1017). Predestination is typically described in a religious context, as a sort of divine prophesy that all events are willed by God, but Wilde maintains the role one has in their own fate.

I found this to be especially interesting when considering the theme destiny and fortune telling in Lord Arthur Saville’s Crime and “The Harlot’s House.” When discussing these two pieces in class, we talked about how Wilde emphasizes the class differences at play in one’s destiny. Particularly in the case of Lord Arthur, Wilde presents a commentary on the boredom of the upper class. The chiropodist reads Lord Arthur’s palms and foretells his future as a murderer, but Arthur’s ridiculous actions that follow as he attempts to get the act over with serve as a commentary on how he has control of his fate all along. This contrasts with “The Harlot’s House” where the people inside move like “strange mechanical grotesques” and “wire-pulled automatons,” lacking any autonomy or control over their lives (867). In terms of his class status and his views on free will, Wilde falls somewhere between the Lord Arthur and the figures in the poem. He recognizes his level of culpability in his downfall: “Desire, at the end, was a malady, or a madness, or both. I grew careless of the lives of others… I forgot that every little action of the common day makes or unmakes character, and that therefore what one has done in the secret chamber one has some day to cry aloud on the housetops” (1018). While Wilde condemns his former lifestyle of pleasure and decadence, he maintains many of his other life views and expands on his religious life. It’s fascinating reading perhaps his most revealing work and questioning if Wilde has really changed that much or if similar threads can be read in the rest of his works regarding religion and free will.

The Power of Prophecy

It’s hard not to feel the depth of sadness that pervades “De Profundis.” Like we’ve been talking about in class the whole semester, there is a sense of mythologized, perfect tragedy to Wilde’s life in popular culture. “De Profundis,” however, feels like a particularly personal look into that tragedy — it’s not Wilde’s literature made for public consumption at this point, but a reflective space for Wilde to explore and express how he’s changed, the wrongs of his life, the dehumanization of the prison experience, to his abusive lover. One of the most quoted (and misquoted at that) lines that I know of from this piece is the declaration: “with freedom, books, flowers, and the moon, who could not be happy” (1039). Taken out of context, this line prescribes a moving, charming sort of carefree, simple, earthy, artistic appreciation of life.  But that section of the text begins with “If after I go out” (1039), framing Wilde’s new outlook on life by his imprisonment and removal from freedom, books, flowers, and the moon. It’s an ode to what he now recognizes he misses and cannot have, not a light-hearted prescription for how to live life. Taking the particular contexts of Wilde’s writing this letter into account, this letter is a much more intimate space of Wilde’s writing and gives, what feels like, an even more immediate sense of the author than many of his other texts, witticisms, and one-liners, a much deeper appreciation of the deep nuances of his sadness and self-searching. 

One aspect of this text in particular that lends itself to the pervasive sense of tragedy and personal-destruction is Wilde’s attention to prophecy, predestination, and fate throughout the whole work. Wilde’s sense of predestination and prophecy in “De Profundis” is informed by his relationship to art and to his own works. He writes that “Every single work of art is the fulfilment of a prophecy. For every work of art is the conversion of an idea into an image. Every single human being should be the fulfilment of a prophecy.” (1032) Such personal revelations as these make it feel particularly hard to separate Wilde’s works from the tragedy of his life.  Earlier in the letter Wilde writes that he doesn’t regret the life he lived for pleasure, but that a change from that lifestyle was necessary: “I had to pass on. The other half of the garden had its secrets for me also. Of course all this is foreshadowed and prefigured in my art. Some of it is in ‘The Happy Prince’: …. a great deal is hidden away in the note of Doom that like a purple thread runs through the gold cloth of Dorian Gray.” (1026) Wilde was aware of the way his writings spoke to the tragedy his life had become.  It is worthwhile to wonder if Wilde is rereading these tragedies into his works, as we do, because of the way his life turned out, or if it was all truly as inevitable as he seems, in jail, to feel it was — that no matter what a change was going to come, the thread of Doom was inescapable.  If every human being is the fulfillment of a prophecy, it begs the question, what prophecy did Wilde have in mind for himself, what was he fulfilling by his ruin and reform in jail? Was it the destruction of who lived only for art, a narrative many of his works seem to suggest? Or something about the realization of a deep set self-hatred from years of forced sexual masking? Regardless, at the end of the section on foreshadowing in his works, Wilde writes that “Art is a symbol, because man is a symbol” (1026) and there could be no truer words for Wilde’s life and works — that the art became a symbol because the man, the artist, became, or maybe always was, a symbol first.