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.