De Profundis | Study Guide

Oscar Wilde

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De Profundis | Quotes


The real fool, such as the gods mock or mar, is he who does not know himself.

Oscar Wilde

"De Profundis" is famous for reviewing and analyzing the contentious relationship between Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas, also known as Bosie. At the same time, much of the long letter is a self-examination in which Wilde discusses his own faults and his desire to improve himself. He sees gaining insight on himself as critical to overcoming the suffering he has gone through in his relationship with Bosie and during his time in prison.


But we who live in prison ... have to measure time by throbs of pain.

Oscar Wilde

Oscar Wilde is vocal about the harsh reality of the prison experience in England during the late Victorian era. In his case confinement meant hard labor as well as isolation. Under such conditions the two years he had spent in prison at the time of writing "De Profundis" seemed especially long. Wilde remarks that he counted time in terms of the pain he felt not to sentimentalize the experience but to forefront the suffering he experienced and which later in the letter he writes is critical to his growth as a person and artist.


The gods are strange. It is not our vices only they make instruments to scourge us.

Oscar Wilde

Oscar Wilde expresses that many people of his time saw prisoners as degenerate and admits that he himself had once held that view. He feels that the path which led him to prison started with his indulgence of Bosie's whims out of the love he felt for his former partner. Through his self-examination in prison, Wilde has come to realize that people can be punished for their good intentions and not just their flaws and mistakes.


In you hate was always stronger than love.

Oscar Wilde

Oscar Wilde writes to express his love for Bosie despite the public scandal, trial, and bankruptcy Wilde had been dragged through as a result of his relationship with Bosie. Wilde states that Bosie's character was the polar opposite of his own and expresses disbelief that Bosie ever truly loved him. He painfully states that Bosie was more interested in flaunting their relationship to get back at Bosie's father John Douglas.


You scented the chance of a public scandal and flew to it.

Oscar Wilde

Writing retrospectively from prison, Oscar Wilde comes to believe that Bosie's actions were motivated by his love of drama and fueled by his selfishness. Wilde even suggests that Bosie encouraged him to start a libel lawsuit against Bosie's father John Douglas to fan the flames of scandal rather than out of a genuine concern for Wilde. Bosie's actions even after Wilde's imprisonment were disingenuous, according to Wilde. He cites Bosie's article in a French magazine defending Wilde as an example because he feels the article is so generic that it proves Bosie does not really care deeply about Wilde.


If I go into prison without love what will become of my soul?

Oscar Wilde

Oscar Wilde mentions that he has been advised to forget himself upon arriving at prison and to forget that he was ever in prison once he is released. He rejects this advice and continues to think about his actions and his relationship with Bosie. Yet Wilde refuses to feel hatred toward Bosie in spite of all that has happened because he fears that hatred will corrupt him. Instead Wilde chooses to accept his suffering so that he can also continue to love.


Sins of the flesh are nothing ... Sins of the soul alone are shameful.

Oscar Wilde

Oscar Wilde was imprisoned because sexual acts between men were illegal at the time in Britain, and the court found sufficient evidence that Wilde and Bosie had been romantically involved. While he accepts his prison sentence, Wilde does not believe that his wrongdoing was related to anything physical. He declares instead that his mistakes were due to his morally poor choices in allowing Bosie to distract him from his true calling as an artist. He vows to not let himself become overcome by hatred in prison because that will cause him to commit further "Sins of the soul."


Suffering is one very long moment.

Oscar Wilde

The time Oscar Wilde has spent in prison has been harsh and lengthy. Solitary confinement means many hours alone. The hard labor he and his fellow prisoners are forced to do has been physically exhausting. As an artist Wilde has suffered from the severe restrictions on what he can read or write in prison. Nevertheless, he refuses to see his sentence as a sequence of many individual woes but rather embraces it all as one long opportunity to transform.


I don't write this letter to put bitterness into your heart, but to pluck it out of mine.

Oscar Wilde

"De Profundis" is filled with many criticisms of Bosie but Oscar Wilde insists that his intentions are sincere. His time in prison has caused him to reflect on his many faults and mistakes and hopes that he can encourage Bosie to change by laying them out all of his friend's wrongdoings. Wilde also views his meditations on suffering as a way to purge any feelings of malice that would otherwise fill his heart with hatred for Bosie.


My gods dwell in temples made with hands.

Oscar Wilde

The second half of "De Profundis" specifically raises Jesus Christ as Oscar Wilde's model of transformation through suffering, but Wilde rejects simple applications of religion, morality, or reason as the path for him to overcome what he has gone through. Wilde considers art the highest calling and uses a metaphor to express that art's values are contained in works created by people rather than principles or rules that stand outside of them.


I see a far more intimate and immediate connection between the true life of Christ and the true life of the artist.

Oscar Wilde

Oscar Wilde draws a comparison between Jesus Christ and artists on the basis of suffering. According to Wilde's interpretation of Christ's story, Christ achieved the ability to be the spiritual salvation of humanity because he bore his persecution, execution, and other suffering purely. Wilde writes that artists have the opportunity to reach a higher level by similarly accepting suffering and allowing it to transform them into creators who are more sensitive and aware. The comparison Wilde makes is startling because it casts the deified figure of Christ in humanistic terms.


Christ's place indeed is with the poets.

Oscar Wilde

Oscar Wilde takes his comparison between Jesus Christ and artists even further when he explicitly writes that Christ is the highest of poets. Wilde presents Christ as such because he regards Christ as intensely self-aware, and he believes that all artists must sharpen their ability to be self-reflective. Wilde also praises Christ's ability to vividly imagine the fate of all humankind. According to Wilde, imagination is a chief faculty of poets and also one that Bosie lacked.


For him there were no laws: there were exceptions merely.

Oscar Wilde

Jesus Christ as interpreted by Oscar Wilde was the supreme individualist who pursued his beliefs and goals by working outside of established principles and guidelines. Christ accepted the consequences when his individualism was attacked, and yet he never backed down. Wilde similarly presents himself as an individualist driven to pursue exceptions. In the midst of the strict social structures of Victorian Britain, Wilde proudly pursued his own modes of life and art that diverged from accepted norms.


A pedestal may be a very unreal thing. A pillory is a terrific reality.

Oscar Wilde

In "De Profundis" Oscar Wilde acknowledges that he had had significant artistic and popular success prior to his imprisonment. He reviews his achievements as a writer, but prison has made him wary of popular praise which is alluded to in his reference to the pedestal. Wilde realizes that praise turned to scorn as soon as he was put on trial and so he has begun to concentrate on less fickle things. He praises his suffering which included time with his head and hands stuck in a pillory. He argues that the suffering has enabled him to reach a higher level as an artist and person.


The sea ... washes away the stains and wounds of the world.

Oscar Wilde

"De Profundis" contains a few brief passages in which Oscar Wilde imagines what life after his release from prison will be like. At the close of the letter, he mentions that he wants to visit a quiet seaside town as a way to achieve peace and restoration. The sea can metaphorically remove Wilde's past. Wilde writes to Bosie that he would like to meet him in this small seaside town, become reacquainted, and begin not simply over again but as better people than before.

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