di Joshua Sinclair
At this time of the year, just a few days before Christmas, my thoughts usually gravitate to Oscar Wilde (strange, I know!) and the famous letter he wrote from his jail cell at Reading Goal. The letter was to his lover, Lord Alfred Douglas, the son of John Douglas, the 9th Marquess of Queensbury who set the standard for the modern rules of boxing. It was due to his homosexual relationship with Lord Alfred that he was tried in a London court and sentenced to two years in jail at the infamous Reading Goal.
Audrey Bernstein, Oscar Wilde (2019)
At the beginning of his sentence at Reading, Wilde suffered greatly since it was forbidden for him to write, and that punishment for a writer like Wilde was the worst of all possible tortures. Then, in January of 1897, when Wilde had little more than four months to serve, he came up with an ingenious idea. While nothing in the prison regulations allowed prisoners to write plays or novels or essays, inmates had permission to write letters. Indeed, Wilde himself had written to solicitors and to the Home Office, or in limited quantities to friends, but his letters were inspected, and the writing materials removed as he finished. But the regulations did not specify how long a letter should be. And if a letter were not finished, then the prisoner, it was supposed, could be allowed take it with him when he left the prison.
Thus Wilde, alone in his cell, was given pen and ink every day. What he wrote was removed each evening and then, it seems, handed back to him in the morning, or parts were given back to him to revise. Since “De Profundis” was in the form of a long letter, it would be his property when he was free.
Yervand Kochar, De Profundis
It took him three months to write this “letter” …and while the UK courts had found him to be immoral, this letter (which he entitled De Profundis from the first words of Psalm 130) is a witness to this great man’s profound and heartfelt Christian morality.
I have taken the liberty of editing the letter to reveal a few of its more salient sunlit rays of wisdom. It ranks, I believe, with the greatest Christian writers, on the level of an Augustine, a Thomas or a John of the Cross, as a landmark in mystical theology.“I see a far more intimate and immediate connection between the true life of Christ and the true life of the artist; and I take a keen pleasure in the reflection that long before sorrow had made my days her own and bound me to her wheel I had written in THE SOUL OF MAN that he who would lead a Christ-like life must be entirely and absolutely himself, and had taken as my types not merely the shepherd on the hillside and the prisoner in his cell, but also the painter to whom the world is a pageant and the poet for whom the world is a song. I remember saying once to André Gide, as we sat together in some Paris café, that while metaphysics had but little real interest for me, and morality absolutely none, there was nothing that either Plato or Christ had said that could not be transferred immediately into the sphere of Art and there find its complete fulfilment.
“Nor is it merely that we can discern in Christ that close union of personality with perfection which forms the real distinction between the classical and romantic movement in life, but the very basis of his nature was the same as that of the nature of the artist—an intense and flamelike imagination. He realized in the entire sphere of human relations that imaginative sympathy which in the sphere of Art is the sole secret of creation. He understood the leprosy of the leper, the darkness of the blind, the fierce misery of those who live for pleasure, the strange poverty of the rich…[he believed that] whatever happens to another happens to oneself, and if you want an inscription to read at dawn and at night-time, and for pleasure or for pain, write up on the walls of your house in letters for the sun to gild and the moon to silver, ‘Whatever happens to oneself happens to another.’
“Christ’s place indeed is with the poets…More than anyone else in history he wakes in us that temper of wonder to which romance always appeals. There is still something to me almost incredible in the idea of a young Galilean peasant imagining that he could bear on his own shoulders the burden of the entire world; all that had already been done and suffered, and all that was yet to be done and suffered: the sins of Nero, of Caesar Borgia, of Alexander VI., and of him who was Emperor of Rome and Priest of the Sun: the sufferings of those whose names are legion and whose dwelling is among the tombs: oppressed nationalities, factory children, thieves, people in prison, outcasts, those who are dumb under oppression and whose silence is heard only of God; and not merely imagining this but actually achieving it, so that at the present moment all who come in contact with his personality, even though they may neither bow to his altar nor kneel before his priest, in some way find that the ugliness of their sin is taken away and the beauty of their sorrow revealed to them.
“I had said of Christ that he ranks with the poets. That is true. Shelley and Sophocles are of his company. But his entire life also is the most wonderful of poems. For ‘pity and terror’ there is nothing in the entire cycle of Greek tragedy to touch it…
“…is there anything that, for sheer simplicity of pathos wedded and made one with sublimity of tragic effect, can be said to equal or even approach the last act of Christ’s passion. The little supper with his companions, one of whom has already sold him for a price; the anguish in the quiet moon-lit garden; the false friend coming close to him so as to betray him with a kiss; the friend who still believed in him, and on whom as on a rock he had hoped to build a house of refuge for Man, denying him as the bird cried to the dawn; his own utter loneliness, his submission, his acceptance of everything; and along with it all such scenes as the high priest of orthodoxy rending his raiment in wrath, and the magistrate of civil justice calling for water in the vain hope of cleansing himself of that stain of innocent blood…
“…the crucifixion of the Innocent One before the eyes of his mother and of the disciple whom he loved; the soldiers gambling and throwing dice for his clothes; the terrible death by which he gave the world its most eternal symbol; and his final burial in the tomb of the rich man, his body swathed in Egyptian linen with costly spices and perfumes as though he had been a king’s son.
‘Yet the whole life of Christ…is really an idyll, though it ends with the veil of the temple being rent, and the darkness coming over the face of the earth, and the stone rolled to the door of the sepulcher. One always thinks of him as a young bridegroom with his companions, as indeed he somewhere describes himself; as a shepherd straying through a valley with his sheep in search of green meadow or cool stream; as a singer trying to build out of the music the walls of the City of God; or as a lover for whose love the whole world was too small. His miracles seem to me to be as exquisite as the coming of spring, and quite as natural. I see no difficulty at all in believing that such was the charm of his personality that his mere presence could bring peace to souls in anguish, and that those who touched his garments or his hands forgot their pain; or that as he passed by on the highway of life people who had seen nothing of life’s mystery, saw it clearly, and others who had been deaf to every voice but that of pleasure heard for the first time the voice of love…
“And above all, Christ is the most supreme of individualists. It is man’s soul that Christ is always looking for. He calls it ‘God’s Kingdom,’ and finds it in everyone. He compares it to little things, to a tiny seed, to a handful of leaven, to a pearl. That is because one realizes one’s soul only by getting rid of all alien passions, all acquired culture, and all external possessions, be they good or evil.
Mary Sparrow, Hidden treasure
“It is tragic how few people ever ‘possess their souls’ before they die…Most people are other people. Their thoughts are someone else’s opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation. Christ was not merely the supreme individualist, but he was the first individualist in history. People have tried to make him out an ordinary philanthropist or ranked him as an altruist with the scientific and sentimental. But he was really neither one nor the other. Pity he has, of course, for the poor, for those who are shut up in prisons, for the lowly, for the wretched; but he has far more pity for the rich, for the hard hedonists, for those who waste their freedom in becoming slaves to things, for those who wear soft raiment and live in kings’ houses. Riches and pleasure seemed to him to be really greater tragedies than poverty or sorrow…
“When he says, ‘Forgive your enemies,’ it is not for the sake of the enemy, but for one’s own sake that he says so, and because love is more beautiful than hate. In his own entreaty to the young man, ‘Sell all that thou hast and give to the poor,’ it is not of the state of the poor that he is thinking but of the soul of the young man, the soul that wealth was marring…it is a loving acceptance of oneself…
“As Baudelaire cried to God—
‘O Seigneur, donnez moi la force et le courage
De contempler mon corps et mon coeur sans dégoût.’