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Myth and Biblical Imagery in De Profundis

Mythe et imaginaire biblique dans De Profundis
Ignacio Ramos Gay
p. 182-205


De la même façon que le théâtre de boulevard français représente la base thématique de la composition des comédies de société d’Oscar Wilde, l’imaginaire biblique doit être considéré comme une source d’inspiration essentielle pour des reformulations ultérieures dans son œuvre, caractérisées par l’influence et la subversion de textes originaux. Le but de cet article est d’analyser la dualité qui oscille entre la création littéraire et les contraintes vitales dans De Profundis, à partir d’une interprétation de la légende biblique en tant qu’expression artistique de la résignation et du désespoir de l’auteur. Le passage progressif de l’aveu épistolaire à l’incarnation personnelle des idéaux moraux met en évidence la recréation subjective de Wilde de son idéal du Christ ainsi que la construction d’un nouveau « je », articulé sur un processus d’épuration intérieure fondé sur des paramètres bibliques. L’Écriture Sainte devient alors aussi bien le moyen que l’expression de la transition unitive s’opérant entre le dramaturge et le mythe, entraînant la renaissance de l’auteur et de son inspiration.

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Index chronologique :

19th century / XIXe siècle
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  • 1  For the influence of French plays upon Wilde’s society comedies, see Cook (1928), Schwarz (1933), (...)
  • 2  Oscar Wilde’s work and biography reveal a profound francophilia that contrasts with his Irish orig (...)
  • 3  Wilde’s subterfuges to vehicle subversive meanings through conventional structures have been deepl (...)
  • 4  On the French sources of Wilde’s Salomé, see Gaddis Rose (1967), Gilbert (1983), Hudson-Jones (198 (...)
  • 5  According to Kerry Powell, the language choice of Salomé represented a ruse the aim of which was t (...)

1Oscar Wilde’s literary work displays an intimate and deep insight into the biblical culture of his time both from an artistic standpoint and as a resort to overcome a particular dramatic situation. As for the former perspective, the biblical imagery is regarded as a profuse fanciful source for subsequent creative re-formulations. Just as Wilde’s society comedies reflect a perennial alteration between influence and subversion of French boulevard drama popularised by Augier, Sardou, Labiche, Dumas fils and Feydeau1, Holy Scripture constitutes the germ for his stylistic recreation bringing up to date mythical legend. In this sense, Oscar Wilde’s biblical allegory, Salomé (1891) reveals an inventive oscillation referring simultaneously to its original sources and to the playwright’s personal reading of the Gospels. An author split between his Irish origins, his English audience and characters, and his French artistic ideals and literary identity2, Wilde wrote Salomé less as an instrument to revive a biblical episode than as a vehicle to transpose subversive meanings onto the stage3. Salomé is a tribute to the French literary tradition from which it originally derived4 but also, as Kerry Powell stated in 1990, a channel to elude censorship5. The fact that it was written in French is symptomatic of a profound desire to encompass two different periods—classicism and modernism—within a perfect artistic unity, by which divine sources were updated by means of a modernising linguistic approach. Furthermore, the choice of the language granted Wilde a niche amongst the Parisian Bohème he aspired to, by reconciling the divinity of a sacred legend and modern drama.

  • 6  See NeilSammells, Wilde Style. The Plays and Prose of Oscar Wilde, Harlow: Longman, 2000.

2The systematic resorting to biblical imagery stands thus in Wilde’s dramatic work as an artistic methodology referring to a peculiar philosophy of composition focusing on the notion of style6. Independently of accusations of plagiarism, numerous critics have analysed Wilde’s plays and poems as original rewritings of his contemporaries’ works. Both the hellenising tendency displayed in his poetry, and the evident francophilia of his pieces, testify to the author’s determination to embody and resuscitate his private fetish classics, dissolving the borders between fiction and reality. This same role of previous fiction, necessary to the recreation of his own self, is evident throughout De Profundis, the basis for regenerating his persona being the legendary imagery of Scripture.

  • 7  Rupert Hart-Davis (ed.), Oscar Wilde. De Profundis, New York: Avon, 1964, 4. (Hereafter De Profund (...)

3Nevertheless, from an ethical standpoint, Wilde’s use and embodiment of biblical metaphors constitute a subterfuge intended to overcome social ostracism as much as loneliness, lack of affection, poverty and frustration. His experience in prison, the physical space where the letter (or epistle) was originally written, represents a penitent reality transmuted into a work of art shown to the audience—embodied in Alfred Douglas (Bosie), the addressee of the love letter—through words and acts. Wilde’s incarceration reveals a moral evolution in his vital fiction identifying the playwright with his epistolary creation to the extent that he is reduced to his words. Even if contemporary critics have questioned Wilde’s sincerity in his letter, detecting in it just a further pose—Auden considers him “an actor, a performer”7—, his inner expansion towards the aesthetics of humility and ascetism, as derived from his personal reading of the Bible, transforms his embodiment of mythical episodes into a paradigm of true theological progress of the self. As Laver puts it,

  • 8  JamesLaver, Oscar Wilde, Harlow: Longman/ The British Council, 1954, 25.

it is impossible for any unprejudiced person to read it without being deeply moved. And the complete text displays, with a clarity which was never possible before, the essential goodness of Wilde in spite of his faults and the fundamental baseness, selfishness and ingratitude of Lord Alfred Douglas8.

4This article examines the alternating duality between literary creation and vital necessity in De Profundis, the use and reformulation of biblical imagery being the artistic expression of resignation and despair. The progressive shift that can be observed throughout the whole letter, from the intimate confessions of Wilde to his addressee, to his more abstract incarnation of moral values and ideals, manifests the initial schism of the author, split between his artistic and human conditions. Furthermore, Wilde’s personal and whimsical figuration of Christ unmasks the graduated assumption of a new self constructed on biblical grounds by means of a process of inner depuration. Holy Scripture is the medium and the expression—through Wilde’s subjective rewriting of it—of the unitive transition taking place between the playwright and the myth, leading to the dual rebirth of his own self and the work of art embodied both in the letter and in his life. De Profundis is thus a love epistle whose initial addressee is Alfred Douglas and which will evolve into a personal confession to his audience and to the divinity itself as represented in the poet. During this process of evolution, his vita nuova, based on humility, charity and faith, is to be understood as an artistic tribute to his conversion.

  • 9 De Profundis, op. cit., 145.
  • 10  SheridanMorley, Oscar Wilde, New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1976, 138.
  • 11  NeilSammells, op. cit., 1-2.
  • 12  De Profundis, op. cit., 43.
  • 13  The letter was written from Reading Gaol between January and March 1897. Curiously enough, it was (...)

5Wilde’s approach to the Bible is controversial and contradictory. Since his time in Oxford, he had felt the attraction of Roman Catholicism’s imagination. His interpretation of the Word of God is not that of a religious believer but of a man in despair, looking for a fictional creation that will help him out of his present situation through Art. The Gospels are continuously referred to owing to their overwhelming allegoric power: “in reading the Gospels […] I see this continual assertion of the imagination as the basis of all spiritual and material life”9. At a physical level, the actual fact of writing provided him with an entertaining activity which relieved him of his boredom, fury and frustration in prison. In this sense, Sheridan Morley asserts that the last six months of his incarceration “were infinitely the most pleasant”10. On the other hand, at a symbolic level, his magnificent self-narration recreates his desire to characterize himself, revealing the superiority of Art to life. As Sammell states, “the letter is not simple ‘truth-telling’ or penitent confessional. It is a strategy for survival in which Wilde tells more stories about himself, takes on new roles, summons his resources, in the hope of climbing from the depths and of moving forward”11. And we should add, “through writing”, for his aesthetic concern is present from the very conception of the letter-writing process. As he wrote to his friend Robert Ross from Reading in April 1897, displaying his instructions regarding the publishing process of the epistle, he wanted its copy “to be done not on tissue paper but on good paper such as is used for plays”12. Wilde was obviously aware of the literary quality of his confession, as rather than a simple love letter, he had conceived it as a means of transcending confinement through artistic sublimation. This is shown by the fact that Ross, following Wilde’s orders, had two copies made of the letter, and although Douglas was the original addressee, Bosie was just sent one of them13. Moreover, exactly as Wilde foresaw, time increased the value of his confession, conferring on it the status of a literary production. As Anne Varty puts it, the letter has emerged as a capital text in his literary work,

  • 14 De Profundis, op. cit., 208. Some critics argue that, intuitively, Wilde had a feeling that his sta (...)

a major exercise in literary autobiography, unique in form and the conditions of its production, but ranking with other nineteenth-century achievements in the genre such as Cardinal John Newman’s Apologia Pro Vita Sua (1864) and John Stuart Mill’s Autobiography14.

6Wilde’s interest in the Bible lies in its power to evoke and, thus, to rewrite his actual experience in prison by means of imagination, the aim of which is to reach salvation. In an interview given during his imprisonment, he evoked its originality and beauty. As Sherard recalls,

  • 15  “Wilde’s God” in E. H. Mikhail (ed.), Oscar Wilde. Interviews and Recollections, London, Basingsto (...)

“Do you know”, he [Wilde] said suddenly, “the Bible is a wonderful book. How beautifully artistic the little stories are! Adam and his wife alone in the beautiful garden, where they could have enjoyed all the pleasures of life by simply obeying the laws. But he refuses to become a machine, and so eats the apple—I also, would have eaten the apple—and in consequence is expelled15”.

  • 16 De Profundis, op. cit., 122.
  • 17 Ibid., 128.

7Wilde’s objective was not an escapist one, as he regarded his present confinement as corollary to his penitence and self renewal. This was the reason why the playwright aimed at drawing a positive learning from his experience. In the epistle, after reproaching Bosie and himself for his fate, he adopts abnegated stoicism: “I have to make everything that has happened good to me […] each and all of these things I have to transform into a spiritual experience. There is not a single degradation of the body which I must not try and make into spiritualising of the soul”16. Rather than fleeing from reality, Wilde uses it from an aesthetically religious point of view to reconfigure his condition. Theology and pious belief are out of place as in numerous instances he alludes to the lack of any educational properties in religious institutions and clergymen derived from them. Lacking any knowledge in suffering and pain, he associates priests with “people who use phrases without wisdom17”, whose words are devoid of any experience in the matter. Similarly, Wilde’s friend, Robert Harborough Sherard, reproduces the playwright’s own words stating his perennial refusal to join any specific religion, as that would suppose an ethical mutilation and a moral subjugation:

  • 18  “Wilde’s God”, in E. H. Mikhail (ed.), op. cit., 338-339.

When I go out from here I should like to find a quiet, nice little Church, I shouldn’t in the least mind what its denomination was so long as it had a nice, simple-minded and good-hearted clergyman, one who had religion within himself and did not preach somebody else’s formulas, a man who thought of the sinner more than the stipend. I can never belong to any of the conventional forms of religion, but I should like to be able to extract the good there may be in all18.

8Wilde himself constantly denied a religious retreat:

  • 19  De Profundis, op. cit., 121.

religion does not help me. The faith that others give to what is unseen, I give to what one can touch, and look at. My Gods dwell in temples made with hands, and within the circle of actual experience is my creed made perfect and complete”19.

  • 20  Ibidem.
  • 21 Ibidem.

9Thus, Wilde suggests that, rather than originating in God, religion is just another of man’s creations: “Agnosticism should have its ritual no less than faith. It has shown its martyrs, it should reap its saints, and praise God daily for having hidden Himself from man”20. Consequently, understanding of religion is just as a temporal extension of man within society. Instead, Wilde proposed, as a source of any religion, hedonistic materialism based upon artistic enrapture. Its beauty and its believers’ faith should derive from its being an artistic human product: “Its symbols must be of my own creating. Only that is spiritual which makes its own form. If I may not find its secret within myself, I shall never find it”21. Wilde’s approach to religion is therefore not a strict, conventional one. On the contrary, his absorption of religious concepts and imagery reflects a heterogeneous perspective. His standpoint does not manifest a critical angle but a personal consumption of the religious motifs, as displayed in the most luminous passages of the Gospels. Wilde confessed his merely artistic interest in the Bible to his friend Robert Sherard in the following words:

  • 22  “Wilde’s God”, in E. H. Mikhail (ed.), op. cit., 338.

In nearly every chapter you can find something so intensely interesting that one pauses to wonder how it all came to be written. The Psalms of David; the Song of Solomon—how grand it is! And the story of Daniel; all appeal to me as a lover of language, and as a lover of Art. And if I am delighted with the Old Testament imagery I am charmed with the New. Christ, Paul and most of the other characters in the book have for me a singular fascination22.

  • 23  RichardEllmann provides a comprehensive list of Wilde’s multiple readings during his imprisonment (...)
  • 24  See De Profundis, op. cit. for fuller references to all the authors Wilde quoted, the most importa (...)

10Wilde was a master in reading and in reformulating, and the Gospels were part of his sources and inspiration, just as much as Shakespeare or Aristotle. In the same way that his society comedies are but elaborate reconstructions of French boulevard vaudevilles, comedies and melodramas, his prose works are made up of quotes drawn from his innumerable readings. De Profundis is sprinkled with numerous references taken from Wilde’s preferred classic and contemporary authors23. Quotes range from Euripides’ Iphigenia in Tauris to Swinburne’s Before Parting, as well as numerous excerpts drawn from Walter Pater’s essays, amongst many others24. They all haunt Wilde’s speech, which displays a homage to those authors he considered twin souls of his suffering and of his work.

  • 25  For a comprehensive account of Wilde’s quotations from the Bible, see De Profundis, op. cit. and I (...)
  • 26  Owing to his vast knowledge of Greek, Wilde even included corrections of the translations of the B (...)
  • 27  De Profundis, op. cit., 97.
  • 28 Ibid., 135.
  • 29 Ibid., 144.
  • 30 Ibid., 186-187.
  • 31  Only in rare instances does Wilde acknowledge his sources, such as when he reproduces the Song of (...)
  • 32 Ibid., 54.
  • 33 Ibid., 55.

11Similarly, references to the Gospels abound in the text. The title itself, given by Robert Ross, De Profundis, “from the depths”, refers to the title of one of the penitential psalms, “De profundis clamavi ad te, Domine” (Ps 130) in Jerome’s Latin version. Just as with the other sources, Wilde appropriates biblical passages without quotation marks, assuming the role of the author so that the reader cannot track down the primary origins of his work25. Extracts from Scripture in English and in Greek26 abound particularly during the second part of the letter, i. e. when describing his interpretation of Christ. De Profundis thus reproduces passages from Kings 22:34—“I reminded myself that you meant no evil, to me at any rate: I set myself to think that you had but drawn a bow at a venture, and that the arrow had pierced a King between the joints of the harness”27—, Mark 5:9—“the suffering of those who are Legion and whose dwelling is among the tombs”28—, John 3:8— “Christ says that they are like the wind that ‘bloweth where it listeth and no man can tell whence it cometh or whither it goeth”29 —, John 10:11 and 14; Luke 11:5-8:—“justice comes knocking daily at his door; and at night-time the friend, in whose heart there is no real friendship, yields at length to his friend “because of his importunity”30. The lack of any formal textual mark revealing the provenance of Wilde’s words encourages the confusion between Wilde’s and the Bible’s discourse, promoting the blasphemous identification of his word and the Word of God. As he does not, on a general basis, point to the authorship by naming the apostles, they are all treated as a whole, subjugated to the Word of Christ31. For Wilde, in his attempt to identify himself with the divinity throughout the assumption of its discourse, meant to reproduce Christ’s word and not that of His followers. Furthermore, the style replicates the aphorisms and epigrams that abound in the Bible, establishing the conceptual boundaries of religious concepts such as good and evil according to his own aesthetics throughout imperative statements such as “one should be thankful that there is any fault of which one can be unjustly accused”32 or “the supreme vice is shallowness”33. Wilde’s ontology imitates the Bible’s through an emulation of its discourse. His categorical definitions of complex religious notions have the intention of expressing his access to supreme knowledge thanks to his transcendental experience in prison.

12In addition, Wilde’s parables are obvious replicas of Holy Scripture in their style and their New Testament wavelength. Rather than a theological debate, Wilde sought in them a stylistic transcription of the biblical manner, sustained by his own paradoxes and inversions. Just as his dandy characters invert society’s commands through linguistic aphorisms, Wilde’s parables are built upon provoking inversions and astonishing final punches. French novelist André Gide recalls some that Wilde used to relate during his soirées in Paris:

When Jesus returned to Nazareth, Nazareth was so changed that He no longer recognized His city. The Nazareth in which He had lived had been full of lamentations and tears; this city was full of bursts and laughter and singing. And Christ, entering the city, saw slaves loaded with flowers hastening toward the marble stairway of a house of white marble. Christ entered the house, and at the rear of a room of jasper He saw lying on a regal couch a man whose disheveled hair was entwined with red roses and whose lips were red with wine. Christ approached him, touched him upon the shoulder and said, ‘Why leadest thou this life?’ The man turned about, recognized Him and replied, ‘I was a leper; Thou hast healed me. Why should I lead another life?’

‘Christ went out of that house. And lo! In the street he beheld a woman whose face and garments were painted, and whose feet were shod with pearls; and behind her walked a man whose coat was of two colours and whose eyes were laden with desire. And Christ approached the man, touched him upon the shoulder and said, ‘Why dost thou follow that woman and regard her thus?’ The man, turning about, recognized Him and replied, ‘I was blind; Thou hast healed me. What should I do otherwise with my sight?’

‘And Christ approached the woman. ‘The road which you follow’, He said to her, ‘is that of sin; wherefore follow it?’ The woman recognized Him and laughingly said to Him, ‘The road which I follow is a pleasing one and Thou hast pardoned me all my sins’.

‘Then Christ felt His heart full of sadness and wished to leave that city. But as He was leaving it, He saw at length beside the moats of the city a youth who was weeping. Christ approached him, and touching his locks, said to him, ‘My friend, wherefore weepest thou?’

  • 34  André Gide, “In Memoriam”, in E. H. Mikhail (ed.), op. cit., 293.

The youth lifted up his eyes, recognized Him, and replied, ‘I was dead and Thou hast raised me up; what should I do otherwise with my life?’34.

13Wilde’s parables are rich in biblical imagery. His aim is twofold. On the one hand, religious iconography provides him with an intimate connection with the Word of God and thus, they adopt the theological authority of a divine text. On the other, as the parable progresses, Wilde uses its structure to veil and reproduce his subversive personal doctrine and consequently, to demystify Christian belief and canon. The crescendo arrangement of the parables aims at provoking a burst of laughter as much as an ethical questioning of the most solid religious principles by means of defamiliarisation, bringing the ethics of pagan naturalism and Christian idealism face to face. As Gide relates, Wilde was essentially a skilled storyteller who would not hesitate to resort to blatant blasphemy together with theatricality for his audience’s sake:

  • 35 Ibidem.

“Would you like me to tell you a secret? Wilde began another day […] a secret […] but promise me not to tell it to anyone […] Do you know why Christ did not love His mother?” This was spoken into my ear, in a low voice and as if ashamedly. He paused a moment, grasped my arm, drew back, and then, bursting into laughter, said, “It’s because she was a virgin!”35.

14 In a certain sense, Wilde’s resorting to biblical metaphors was just a continuation of a nineteenth-century romantic trend. Numerous poets and playwrights had previously recurred to the figure of Christ so as to transpose in their recreation of Him their titanic frustration and their need for inner expansion. In his long poem Queen Mab, P. B. Shelley described God as, “A vengeful, pitiless, and almighty fiend,/ Whose mercy is a nickname for the rage/ Of tameless Tygers hungering for blood”. Similarly, French poet Lamartine had energetically declaimed in “Le désespoir” against those who expected grace from Providence, describing divinity as a devilish persecutor: « Malheureux ! Sa bonté de son œuvre est absente / Vous cherchez votre appui ?, l’Univers vous présente Votre persécuteur []». Like Lamartine, Victor Hugo metonymically denominated divinity the “skies”:

Lugubre immensité ! Profondeurs redoutées ! / Tous sont là, les Satans comme les Prométhées, / Ténébreux océans ! / Cieux, vous êtes l’abîme où tombent les génies, / Oh ! Combien l’œil au fond des brumes infinies / Aperçoit des géants !

15But it was Alfred de Vigny who, in “Le mont des oliviers,” recreated the image of God in a most poetic manner. Far from a colossal being, Vigny emphasises His essential loneliness and His identity with His creation—mankind—for both are deprived of any divine assistance: « Alors il était nuit, et Jésus marchait seul, / Vêtu de blanc ainsi qu’un mort au linceul […] / Puis regarde le ciel en appelant : “Mon Père !” / Mais le ciel reste noir, et Dieu ne répond pas ». For Romantic poets, God is the ultimate challenge, but also a source of ethical authority and artistic perfection. The image of God, either as a being with whom the poet identifies, or against whom he struggles, constitutes a sublimation of art leading to artistic excellence and thus, according to the romantic imagination, to truth. As Keats puts it in his “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” “Beauty is truth, truth beauty—that is all/ Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”

  • 36 De Profundis, op. cit., 121.
  • 37 Ibid., 144.

16Aestheticism, rather than theological precepts, represents truth. The biblical imagery transcends its being a mere instrument for literary composition to become a vehicle of truthfulness, stating the essential identity of artistic imagination and life, and the indissoluble reciprocity between art and religion. As Wilde asserts, “everything to be true must become a religion”36. Wilde delves into Scripture so as to obtain salvation from his present situation through Art, and as such, the thoughtful and reiterative reading of Holy Scripture must be identical to the laborious work of the artist: “At Christmas I managed to get hold of a Greek testament, and every morning, after I have cleaned my cell and polished my tins, I read a little of the Gospels, a dozen verses taken by chance anywhere. It is a delightful way of opening the day”37. Reading the Bible is a personal obligation feeding his need for spiritualism but mostly for hope and salvation. Rather closer to Candide’s « il faut cultiver notre jardin » than to devotional inspection, Wilde’s disciplinary approach to Scripture is conceived as an antidote to depression, leading to pleasure. Though arbitrary—as its lesson can be drawn from any of its texts and can be indiscriminately applied to any aspect of Wilde’s personal experience—, his reading is grasped as a mandatory assignment permitting him to inhabit an imaginary microcosm. His recreation of the Gospels is, therefore, private and capricious, subjugated to his own needs. There is no distortion of the original Word but just a selected account of the legend which is meant to harmonise with his new self and reality.

17Wilde’s arbitrary use of the Bible is corollary to its interpretation. His whole existence in prison is filtered through his reiterative comprehension of the universe according to the mythical imagery. This is the reason why his perspective of regeneration is to come through his reliving the biblical images in his own self. So as to accomplish his purifying rebirth, Wilde needs to struggle against his metaphoric representation of Evil, following the Bible’s Manichean conception of Man on Earth. De Profundis thus reproduces the threefold path necessary to reach transcendentalism, according to Christian mysticism, corresponding to body, soul and spirit: the Purgative, the Illuminative and the Unitive aspects.

  • 38  JohnStokes, Oscar Wilde, Harlow: Longman/ The British Council, 1978, 44.
  • 39  De Profundis, op. cit., 132.
  • 40 Ibid., 118.
  • 41 Ibid., 107.

18The pursuit of holiness implies an interior physical purging, based upon corporeal discipline and suffering. In John Stokes’ words, “in prison Wilde endured the most extreme mental and physical discomfort”38. Wilde’s kneeling when cleaning his cell, as well as his fasting and strenuous physical work are meant to represent progress towards purification. Such a painful atmosphere dominated by “failure, disgrace, poverty, sorrow, despair, suffering and tears39”, together with hunger, insomnia, disease—he was suffering from chronic diarrhoea and had a perforated eardrum owing to an accident in the chapel—, and the frustration at the progressive loss of any material and intellectual properties, constitute a step forward to salvation. As Wilde describes it, “I have passed every mood of suffering40”, implicitly and proudly announcing his advance towards a new stage in his misery. His own moral and physical resistance to and savouring of pain, at least as it is revealed in his fiction, is directed towards his redemption: “Where there is Sorrow there is holy ground […] It was in this spirit, and with this mode of love that the saints knelt down to wash the feet of the poor, or stooped to kiss the leper on the cheek”41. The praying position of his body, kneeling before the world and the Father (Eph 3:14) is symmetrical to his forgiving those who have led him to the present situation. However, the addressee of the letter is not the Marquess of Queensberry, Bosie’s father, but the person who encouraged Wilde to start the proceedings against him, that is, Douglas himself. In fact, the letter is a melancholic and agonistic sign from one who has been ignored, disdained and forgotten by his beloved:

  • 42 Ibid., 53.

Dear Bosie,
After long and fruitless waiting I have determined to write to you myself, as much for your sake as for mine, as I would not like to think that I had passed through two long years of imprisonment without ever having received a single line from you, or any news or message even except such as gave me pain42.

19Douglas is thus, primarily, an object of love, steadily evolving into an ambiguous personification of evil and miserliness, which reflects Wilde’s emotional complexities towards him.

  • 43 Ibid., 4.

20Wilde’s charitable attitudes imply exonerating Douglas from his acts as a result of Love towards the miser and the Experience of Knowledge. Just like his views on religion, his words on this matter are equivocal and contradictory. While Wilde keeps on providing him with personal exculpation, Bosie emerges in the letter as the most accurate impersonation of Satan. Auden describes him as “a vicious, gold-digging, snobbish, anti-Semitic, untalented little horror for whom no good word can be said43”, and Christopher Nassaar associates him with the biblical personification of evil. As Nassar puts it,

  • 44  ChristopherNassaar, Into the Demon Universe. A Literary Exploration of Oscar Wilde, op. cit., 148.

rejecting Christianity and locating both his heaven and his hell on this earth, he [Wilde] mythologizes his world, turning it into a fantastic religious universe. He creates for himself a private Satan—Lord Alfred Douglas—and a private Christ, devoid of supernatural attributes and seen as the supreme artist and the first Romantic44.

  • 45  De Profundis, op. cit., 62.
  • 46 Ibid., 75.

21Bosie is constantly perceived with fear and terror by Wilde. In his presence, his judgement forsook the playwright, and “terror took its place”45. Further on, Bosie loses his human features turning into a sort of dehumanised living being ruled by his appetites, close to a wild beast: “when I lifted up my head from the pillow in which I had buried it, you were still there, and with brutality of laughter and hysteria of rage you moved suddenly towards me. A sense of horror came over me”46. Douglas seems an animate creature that has lost his rationalising faculties. In his relationship with the poet, words are substituted by savage sounds, turning him into an untamed and barbaric animal. His ferocious and uncontrollable violence makes him a beast Wilde has had to flee from in order not to jeopardise his life:

  • 47 Ibid., 76.

All I know is that a feeling of utter horror had come over me, and that I had felt that unless I left the room at once, and got away, you would have done, or tried to do, something that would have been, even to you, a source of lifelong shame47.

  • 48 Ibid., 82.

22Bosie embodies the biblical dimension of the “incubus”48, an attribute Wilde puts down to his father as a twin soul of the son.

  • 49 Ibid., 96.
  • 50 Ibidem.
  • 51 Ibid., 56.
  • 52 Ibid., 66.
  • 53 Ibid., 62.
  • 54 Ibid., 58.
  • 55 Ibid., 57.
  • 56 Ibid., 59.
  • 57 Ibid., 63.
  • 58  References to homosexuality are absolutely omitted in the letter, but less as a sign of his subjug (...)
  • 59 De Profundis, op. cit., 55.

23Within the biblical microcosm constructed by Wilde in prison, Bosie is portrayed as the embodiment of all the capital sins, just as much as Wilde represents the antagonism of them all in a sort of complementary Manichean universe ruled by belligerent, opposed forces: “I had given you my life, and to gratify the lowest and most contemptible of all human passions, Hatred and Vanity and Greed, you had thrown it away”49. He declares him his enemy, “such an enemy as no man ever had”50. First, wrath seems to be his perennial mood, as stimulated by artificial paradises and a sign of inherited “temperament”, derived from his father, with whom Wilde identifies Bosie. Father and son are just the same person owing to their perennial hatred. Moreover, Douglas’s pride constitutes a violation of God’s first command by which men are to love God above all things—“you were proud, and quite naturally so, of being the intimate friend of an artist so distinguished”51. Bosie’s behaviour is directly meant to worship and idolize himself. His envy is a result of that, as never would he love anyone else but himself, constantly demanding Wilde’s attention, and while being incapable of assuming the playwright’s need to work and exist for himself—“I required rest and freedom from the terrible strain of your companionship”52—thus displaying a greedy attitude that was to destroy their relationship—“Having made your own of my genius, my willpower, and my fortune, you required, in the blindness of an inexhaustible greed, my entire existence”53. His gluttony was extreme as far as drink, goods and food were concerned. As Wilde states, “your [interests were merely in your meals and moods. Your desires were simply for amusements, for ordinary or less ordinary pleasures. They were what your temperament needed, or thought it needed for the moment”54. The same voraciousness can be applied to his erratic and impulsive demands for Wilde’s attention—“your incapacity of being alone: your nature so exigent in its persistent claim on the attention and time”55—that was reciprocated by not a single sign of gratefulness—“you demanded without grace and received without thanks”56. Wilde’s business was reduced “merely to pay[ing] his hotel expenses57”, and even on a sexual level—utterly omitted by Wilde in his letter58—to transmitting his lust. Finally, Douglas’s most fatal flaw is his lack of imagination—which for Wilde is a synonym of human death just as much as its presence reveals the sublimation of divinity—as exhibited in his sloth: “You had been idle at your school, worse than idle at your university”59.

  • 60 Ibid., 63.
  • 61 Ibid., 85.
  • 62 Ibid., 104.
  • 63  AnneVarty, op. cit., 210.

24Bosie incarnates a menacing and destructive figure for Wilde. As the playwright puts it, “ethically, you had been still more destructive to me than you had been artistically”60. However, rather than a diabolic being, his attributes are those of a nineteenth century vampire more than those of Milton’s Satan. Both during their relationship and during Wilde’s imprisonment, Douglas absorbed Wilde’s attention and creativity. Bosie’s contempt for and neglect of Wilde during his time in prison made the playwright recall his past, reconfigure it under his current sorrow, and identify it with his present. Time thus dissolves when he remembers Douglas’s friendship, for what Wilde thought his past had been seems to have disappeared in the face of present events. His will being subjugated to the young man’s, Wilde’s reminiscences of their friendship are “the shadow that walks with me here”61. His inability to rid himself of his recollections makes Wilde’s past, present and future overlap under a constant involution. In Wilde’s words, “to me it seems to have occurred, I will not say yesterday, but today. Suffering is one long moment […] with us time does not progress. It revolves. It seems to circle round one centre of pain”62. Douglas’s demonic properties increase with the realisation that he is Wilde’s source of inspiration. Despite the rich descriptions reproaching and condemning his attitude towards the playwright, Douglas’s threat persists as he exerts a deep fascination, which could be regarded as a sadomasochistic recreation of Wilde’s past through his present suffering. For, even when remembering with disdain and anger his bygone days, his past subjugation to Bosie’s capricious will, Wilde obtains a narcissistic gratification. In this sense, Anne Varty conceives the letter as a pleasant recreation the aim of which is to exorcise his past, as he “relives the life of extravagant pleasure from the perspective of pain it brought him”63. Wilde describes in the following words his ambiguous memories of Bosie’s companionship, juxtaposing antagonistic images while savouring the remembrance:

  • 64 De Profundis, op. cit., 86.

Each detail that accompanied each dreadful moment I am forced to recall: there is nothing that happened in those ill-starred years that I cannot recreate in that chamber of the brain which is set apart for grief or for despair: every strained note of your voice, every twitch and gesture of your nervous hands, every bitter word, every poisonous phrase comes back to me: I remember the street or river down which we passed, the wall or woodland that surrounded us, at what figure on the dial stood the hands of the clock, which way went the wings of the wind, the shape and colour of the moon 64.

  • 65 Ibid.,18.

25Whatever he wrote of Bosie, Wilde never regretted having met him and even sought a future reunion. Despite his successive requests for loneliness, Wilde was well aware of his need for Douglas in order to compose. Bosie served him as a muse, and despite the fact he represented a constant distraction from his Art, it was during their friendship that Wilde wrote his best pieces. As Auden states, perhaps Bosie “had nothing to do with this, but perhaps he did, if only by forcing Wilde to earn money to support him”65.

  • 66 Ibid., 63.

26De Profundis mirrors this dependence of the writer on his muse. Wilde’s contradictory statements reflect his fascination for evil, as it is incarnated in Bosie, and the realisation of its destructiveness. Wilde assumes his pugnacious duality when recognising his undermining addiction. Having reached a mystic illuminative phase and rediscovered the reason for his present suffering, the playwright resorts to the Bible in an artistic attempt to plead for salvation and for freedom from his obsessive dependence. “My habit” he writes, “of giving up to you in everything had become insensibly a real part of my nature”66. Wilde accesses knowledge when discovering that his purgative fight should not be directed towards Bosie, but towards himself.

  • 67  RichardEllmann, op. cit., 482.
  • 68  NeilSammells, op. cit., 1.
  • 69  De Profundis, op. cit., 118.
  • 70 Ibid., 1.
  • 71 Ibid., 118.

27Together with love, scorn and resentment, De Profundis is a letter displaying an overwhelming feeling of guilt and self-castigation. Wilde constantly puts the blame on himself not because of the act for which he was prosecuted, but for his incapacity and weakness to perform and lead an actual individualistic life. Richard Ellmann observes that, given the fact that the letter was written under conditions of confinement, “Wilde might have been expected to confess his guilt” but instead “refuses to admit that his past conduct with young men was guilty, and declared that the laws by which he was condemned were unjust”67. Moreover, Neil Sammells states that Wilde’s feeling of guilt originates in his having been lured by Douglas into a life of “senseless pleasure”68. Sammells’s argument implies an identification of the religious condemnation of sensuality and Wilde’s new doctrine. However, Wilde’s feeling of guilt does not derive from his permanent passion for forbidden amusements but from his inability to assume for himself the constraints of necessity. The playwright repeatedly claims his right to relish enjoyments of any kind: “What the paradox was to me in the sphere of thought, perversity became to me in the sphere of passion”69. Not once did Wilde admit his guilt before “the unjust laws” which placed him in gaol. As he endlessly and proudly asserted, “I am one of those who are made for exceptions, not for laws”. Sammells’s interpretation of Wilde’s words appropriates Victorian society’s condemnation of his acts. For the critic, Wilde performs a denunciation of his appetites, of his perennial “pursuit of new sensations” that “took him from the heights to the depths”70. Wilde certainly blames himself, but not as a disapproval of his craving inclinations but rather as an understanding of desire as an essential exigency that finally turned pleasure into “a malady, or madness, or both”71. Wilde denounces not the object of his passions but his addictive needs, as embodied in Douglas. Bosie represents the ambiguous link between necessity and pleasure, the enigmatic necessity for freedom and the controversial need for joy. His need of his presence constitutes an inescapable constraint annihilating his individualism.

  • 72 Ibid., 117.
  • 73 Ibid., 122.

28In this sense, De Profundis is not a letter addressed to Douglas but to Wilde himself, as a means of exonerating himself from past guilt. As Wilde acknowledges, “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”72. Wilde’s mystic illumination of his fault derives from his recognising himself as a sinner for his pleasure, sin and pleasure being two overlapping categories: “I was so typical a child of my age that in my perversity, and for the perversity’s sake, I turned the good things of my life to evil, and the evil things of my life to good”73. The Bible’s teaching by which Wilde supposedly replaced pleasure by sorrow, humility and love represents a refuge in his own self, as a means of evading his necessity for otherness. Wilde’s vita nuova constitutes a determination to seclude himself from the world of emotional addictions, De Profundis having to be construed as a farewell letter to the world. His new, personal religion contemplates Love as its foundational pillar, but Love for himself as a way to retrieve his individuality.

  • 74 Ibid., 61.
  • 75 Ibid., 99.
  • 76 Ibid., 105.
  • 77 Idem.
  • 78 Ibid., 122.

29This is the reason why Wilde, a supreme egotist, blames himself throughout the epistle, as Bosie’s fellowship deprived him of his individualism: “the basis of character is will-power, and my will-power became absolutely subject to yours”74. Wilde’s capital sin was to permit his own dispossession of the self, i.e. the loss of his uniqueness. His suffering in prison is identical to that provoked by Douglas, as in Reading, the artist was despoiled of his individuality as a means of putting to death his artistic expression. Oscar was in fact known as ‘C3.3’, after the number of his cell, which was the third along on the third landing of C block, and it was under that name that he published the Ballad of Reading Gaol. Wilde was thus denuded of his name, and reduced to “a figure and letter of a little cell in a long gallery, one of a thousand lifeless numbers, as of a thousand lifeless lives”75. Identified with the mass, during his incarceration the playwright has “no words”76 in which to express his “anguish and shame”77. Not being able to express himself, the artist has been divested of his identity, his new task being to regain himself: “when I first was put into prison some people advised me to try and forget who I was. It was ruinous advice. It is only by realising what I am that I have found comfort of any kind”78. Wilde’s time in prison became a means of asserting his self, rather than eradicating it. He did not want to reject or to deny his own past. On the contrary, assertion was achieved through reliving his experiences.

  • 79 Ibid., 116.
  • 80 Ibid., 125.
  • 81  RichardEllmann, op. cit., 482.
  • 82  AnneVarty, op. cit., 210.

30Consequently, Wilde’s letter is a supreme work of pseudo-apology and personal vindication. His whole purifying process is meant to conquer both his self and persona again, after having been torn between his antagonistic desires and his subjugation to Douglas. Reconciliation is to come through purgation and recognition of his fault, looking for his own approval of himself: “I don’t write this letter to put bitterness into your heart, but to pluck it out of mine. For my own sake I must forgive you”79. He “must learn to be happy”80. In this sense, Wilde’s request for forgiveness is not addressed to society or religion but to himself, the truth being found within his inner soul. It is not in the Bible that he seeks refuge or redemption. The Bible is just a way to reach his own inner self. The formal structure of the letter reinforces this interpretation: rather than a dialogue between two lovers, the epistle is shaped as a dramatic monologue “which constantly questions and takes into account the silent recipient’s supposed responses”81. Motivated by Douglas’s silence during the two years of imprisonment, De Profundis is “a conversation met with silence82”, the addressee of which is its own author.

31The Bible and the biblical imagery are attempts to recuperate the writer’s own self by acquiring the status of divinity, for God is, according to Wilde’s subjectivity, the supreme expression of uniqueness. Having been deprived of his extraordinary individuality, its recovery implies his identification with the superlative icon by means of an interior metamorphosis. The playwright reaches thus the unitive mystical phase: the biblical imagery bridges the gap between society and him. In the fictional recreation of his new self, Wilde resorts to popular metaphors so that his new character can be understood by the mass of people.

32Numerous critics have analysed the influence of Wilde’s subjective representation of Christ upon the configuration of his new self in prison. Wilson Knight, quoting Hesketh Pearson, even attributes to Byron Wilde’s parallelism with Christ as a sign of moral superiority:

  • 83  “Christ and Wilde”, in Richard Ellmann (ed.), Oscar Wilde. A Collection of Critical Essays, Englew (...)

Resemblances to Christ are clear in Wilde’s Byronic love of children, his egotism blended with humility, his repartee, his utter lack of malice, his forgiveness and Timonlike generosity […] his magnanimity, his refusal to save himself, and patient endurance of shame. His record of kindly actions is as high as Byron’s […]; his fight for removing the hideous wrongs of children in prison alone […], when set against the system, leaves no question as to Wilde’s moral superiority over the society that condemned him. Long before his own fall, he had like Christ a natural sympathy with all outcasts […]. His natural friendliness for the rough and low from his American tour onwards is recorded again and again. Active criminals were rapidly affected by his courteous and kindly reception […] and what he wrote of Christ was true of himself […]. Naturally he made friends in prison. A warder, named Martin, at Reading Gaol wrote of him: “what that poet was before he went to prison I care not. What he may have been after he left prison I know not. One thing I know, however, that while in prison he lived the life of a saint, or as near that holy state as poor mortal can ever hope to attain” […] Vincent O’Sullivan received the same impression: “if terrible sufferings courageously borne, the enduring of dire injustice and reviling without complaint, be matter of saintliness, then Wilde was a saint”83.

  • 84  Oscar Wilde, The Collected Works of Oscar Wilde, Ware: Wordsworth Editions, 1998, 133.
  • 85 Ibidem.

33Wilde the prisoner and Wilde’s subjective representation of Christ share Humility, Pain, Love and Forgiveness as pillars of their doctrine, as they emerge as Revelations of a creative aim. In a teacher-like attitude, and as a result of their knowledge of mankind, both display a profound sympathy towards sinners. The similarities extend to their own times. Wilde’s emphasis on Christ’s repudiation of hypocrisy in Judaea can be reasonably applied to British Philistinism. Nevertheless, contrary to the humility he preaches throughout the letter, the identity between Christ and Wilde is based upon an intellectual and artistic aristocracy that denies his previous humbleness. His supremacy resides in his superlative individuality. As he recalls having written in the Soul of Man Under Socialism, “he [who] would lead a Christ-like life must be entirely and absolutely himself”84. As a consequence, Wilde perceives an intimate connection between “the true life of Christ and the true life of the artist”85. Owing to his magnificent imagination, Christ is regarded as the “supreme Artist.” His being is absolutely separated from the rest of the humanity.

  • 86  RichardEllmann, op. cit., 452.
  • 87  “Wilde’s God”, in E. H. Mikhail (ed.), op. cit., 338.

34Wilde’s morality in De Profundis is not that of “passive resignation” and “no resistance”86 but once again that of fight through words. Wilde’s letter is a subversive, profane and blasphemous exercise dominated by the same egocentrism as may be found in his society comedies. As he declared in a conversation with Robert Sherard, “to be a supreme Artist […] one must first be a supreme Individualist”87. Both in De Profundis and in The Soul of Man Under Socialism, Wilde claims the need to be oneself in order to reach perfection. His doctrine despises socialism as a means of subjugating the individual to the mass. On the contrary, he demands a spiritual aristocracy against any democratic and levelling attitude emanating from weakness. Christian references have to be related to the Hellenic and Francophile allusions that abound in his prose and dramatic writings. The Bible is the means of producing a unitive transition with the character he adores, thus reproducing once again a recreation, a rebirth of a character. De Profundis, is addressed to Lord Alfred Douglas not only as a regretful evidence of his vita nuova, but also a means of exorcising reality and of assuming an artistic recreation of the self following biblical paradigms and preaching. Despite his numerous contradictions, Wilde’s figuration as an embodiment of martyrdom—a real suffering and castigation—, provides him with the moral attributes of Christendom, and reinforces once again his incarnation and identification with his work. Being the man impossible to distinguish from the character, Wilde’s autobiographical letter constitutes the final incarnation of his lifelong artistic creation and expresses his last stand as the biblical passion of Christ. His understanding, learning and rewriting of the biblical imagery is thus a means of recreating Christ in himself and of adopting the image of his myth. Wilde reproduces throughout his letter the influence of mystical poetry, just as it has been displayed by Spanish mystics such as San Juan de la Cruz and Santa Teresa de Jesús. In doing so, three different phases are recreated so as to achieve his identification with God. This ultimate attempt embodies an exact antithesis to the model a hostile society expected of him.

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BECKSON Karl, Oscar Wilde. The Critical Heritage, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1970.

BIRD Alan, The Plays of Oscar Wilde, London: Vision Press Limited, 1977.

CLAYWORTH Anya (ed.) Oscar Wilde. Selected Journalism, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.

CLIVE H. P., “Oscar Wilde first meeting with Mallarmé”, French Studies, Vol. 24, 1970, 145-149.

COOK H. L.,French Sources of Wilde’s Picture of Dorian Gray”, The Romanic Review, Vol. 19,1928, 25-34.

DONOHUE Joseph, “Salomé and the Wildean Art of Symbolist theatre”, Modern Drama, Vol. 1, n° 37, 1994, 84-103.

ELLMANN Richard (ed.), Oscar Wilde. A Collection of Critical Essays, Englewood Cliffs: N.J. Prentice Hall, 1969.

ELLMANN Richard, Oscar Wilde, London: Hamilton, 1987.

ELTIS Sos, “Anarchism, Feminism and Socialism in the Plays of Oscar Wilde”, Doctoral Dissertation, Oxford University (Bodleian), 1993.

ELTIS Sarah, Revising Wilde: Society and Subversion in the Plays of Oscar Wilde, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996.

GADDIS ROSE Marylin, “The Daughters of Herodias in Herodiade, Salomé and A Full Moon in March,” Comparative Drama, nº1, 1967, 172-181.

GILBERT Elliot L., “Tumult of images: Wilde, Beardsley and Salomé,” Victorian Studies, Vol. 26, nº2, 1983, 133-160.

HART-DAVIS Rupert (ed.), Letters of Oscar Wilde, London: Hart-Davis, 1962.
---, Oscar Wilde. De Profundis, New York: Avon, 1964.
---, More Letters of Oscar Wilde, London: Murray, 1985.

HARTLEY Kelver, Oscar Wilde. L’influence française dans son œuvre, Paris : Librairie du Recueil Sirey, 1935.

HUDSON-JONES Anne and Karen KINGSLEY, “Salomé in Late Nineteenth-Century French Art and Literature”, Studies in Iconography, 1983, 107-127.

LAVER James, Oscar Wilde, Harlow: Longman/ The British Council, 1954.

MIKHAIL E. H., “The French Influences on Oscar Wilde’s Comedies”, Revue de Littérature Comparée, nº 42, 1968, 220-233.

MIKHAIL E. H. (ed.), Oscar Wilde. Interviews and Recollections, London, Basingstoke: Macmillan Press Ltd, 2 vols., 1979.

MORLEY Sheridan, Oscar Wilde, New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1976.

NASSAAR Christopher, Into the Demon Universe. A Literary Exploration of Oscar Wilde, London and New Haven: Yale University Press, 1974.

PAUL Charles B., PEPPER Robert D., “The Importance of Reading Alfred: Oscar Wilde’s Debt to Alfred de Musset,” Bulletin of the New York Public Library, Vol. 75, 1971, 506-542.

POWELL Kerry, Oscar Wilde and the Theatre of the 1890’s, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

RAAFAT Zeinad Mohamed, “The Literary Indebtedness of Wilde’s Salome to Sardou’s Theodora,” Revue de Littérature Comparée, nº400, 1966, 453-466.

RAMOS GAY Ignacio, « Du conte au théâtre. La translation du mythe de Salomé de Flaubert à Oscar Wilde », in PALACIOS Concepción (ed.), El Relato Corto Francés del Siglo XIX, y su recepción en España, Murcia: Servicio de Publicaciones de la Universidad de Murcia, 2003, 303-329.
---, “French Female Forerunners of Oscar Wilde’s Aventurières,” Reinterpretations of English, Essays on Literature, A Coruña: Universidade da Coruña, 2004, 305-314.
---, Oscar Wilde y el teatro de boulevard francés, Valencia: Universidad de Valencia, 2007.

RODEN Frederick R. (ed.), Oscar Wilde Studies, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.

SAMMELLS Neil, Wilde Style. The Plays and Prose of Oscar Wilde, Harlow: Longman, 2000.

SANDULESCU C. Georges, Rediscovering Oscar Wilde, Gerrards Cross: Colin Smythe, 1994.

SCHWARZ H. Stanley, “The Influence of Dumas Fils on Oscar Wilde,” The French Review, Vol. 7, nº1, 1933, 5-25.

SEVERI Rita, « Oscar Wilde, la Femme Fatale and the Salomé Myth », in BALAKIAN Anna, WILHELM James., FOKKEMA Douwe Wessel, SMITH Edward, GUILLEN Claudio, ESCHER Peggy, Proceedings of the Xth Congress of the International Comparative Literature Association, New York: Garland, Vol. II, 1985, 485-463.

SOUFFRIN Eileen, « La Rencontre de Wilde et Mallarmé », Revue de Littérature Comparée, Vol. 33, 1959, 529-535.

STOKES John, Oscar Wilde, Harlow: Longman / The British Council, 1978.

SMALL Ian, The Complete Works of Oscar Wilde, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.

VARTY Anne, A Preface to Oscar Wilde, London and New York: Longman, 1998.

WILDE Oscar, Collected Works of Oscar Wilde, Ware: Wordsworth Editions, 1998.

WORTH Katherine, Oscar Wilde, London: Macmillan, 1983.

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1  For the influence of French plays upon Wilde’s society comedies, see Cook (1928), Schwarz (1933), Hartley (1935), Roditi (1947), Souffrin (1959), Mikhail (1968), Raafat (1966, 1970, 1971), Clive (1970), Paul & Pepper (1971), Bird (1977), Severi (1985), Powell (1990), Eltis (1993, 1996), and Ramos Gay (2004, 2007). Accusations of plagiarism were frequent at the time, and in many instances Wilde was considered a mere imitator, adapter and plagiarist of French dramatic plots. Not only his contemporaries but also later critics highlighted his debt to French novelists and playwrights. In an article entitled “The Seven Arts,” published in Puck, November 28th, 1924, the American critic James Gibbon Huneker pointed out the innumerable connections between Wilde’s work and that of coetaneous writers as follows: “His Dorian Gray, apart from the inversion element, is poor Huysmans’s—just look into that masterpiece, A Rebours; not to mention Poe’s tale, The Oval Portrait; while Salomé is Flaubert in operetta form—his gorgeous Herodias watered down for uncritical public consumption […]. The plays are fascinating as fireworks, and as remote from human interest. Perhaps I’m in error, yet, after reading Pater, Swinburne, Rosetti, Huysmans, I prefer them to the Wilde imitations, strained as they are through his very gay fancy” (in KarlBeckson, Oscar Wilde. The Critical Heritage, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1970, 343-344). Wilde defended himself from these imputations with originality. In a letter to Reginald Turner, Max Beerbohm recalls an episode where Wilde boasted about his predilection for usurping other writers’ texts: “Speaking of plagiarism the other day, Oscar said: ‘Of course I plagiarise. It is the privilege of the appreciative man. I never read [Gustave] Flaubert’s Tentation de St. Antoine without signing my name at the end of it. Que voulez-vous? All the Best Hundred Books bear my signature in this manner’” (in Frederick R. Roden (ed.), Oscar Wilde Studies, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004, 11). Despite the abundant comparatist studies on the annexation carried out by Wilde of his contemporaries’ works, imitation and plagiarism in his dramaturgy reveal a philosophy of composition by which stylistic reformulation confers on the work a brand-new dimension transcending its prequel. Wilde defends this point of view when stating: “It is only the unimaginative who ever invents. The true artist is known by the use of what he annexes, and he annexes everything” (Oscar Wilde, “Olivia at the Lyceum”, Dramatic Review, 30 May 1885, in Anya Clayworth (ed.) Oscar Wilde. Selected Journalism, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004, 54). Furthermore, his reliance on French drama has to be interpreted not only as a means of reproducing successful theatrical patterns but as a tribute to the literary tradition he admired. This is Joseph Bristow’s opinion when he declares, “does it matter that Wilde ransacked English and French literature for epigrams that continue to provoke much laughter in our time? I scarcely think that we need to condemn him outright for such brazen appropriations of other writers’ works. Even if current disputes about intellectual property can be traced to the heated debates about copyright that raged when Wilde rose to short-lived fame, it remains moot if his literary pilfering was a criminal act. […] Can his abundant appropriations be categorized as theft? At what point do we stop asserting Wilde’s seemingly energizing originality whose achievements can look avant-garde and start picturing him as a derivative writer whose recycled phrases belong to a larger pattern of borrowed plots? Such questions, I think, barely lessen the value of his writings. Instead, they point in various ways to significant aspects of his methods of composition, his insubordinate perception of artistic ownership, and his means of emphasizing his affiliation with specific literary traditions” (Joseph Bristow, “Biographies,” in Frederick R. Roden (ed.), Oscar Wilde Studies, op. cit., 11). On Wilde as plagiarist, see Merlin Holland “Plagiarist or Pioneer” (in C. GeorgesSandulescu, Rediscovering Oscar Wilde, Gerrards Cross: Colin Smythe, 1994).

2  Oscar Wilde’s work and biography reveal a profound francophilia that contrasts with his Irish origins. In this sense, his statements when his play Salomé was banned reflect his regarding France as a land of moral freedom for the artist, as opposed to limitation and constraint in England. TheEra described Wilde’s words on June 2nd 1892 in the following terms: “The prohibition of his play, Salomé, by the Lord Chamberlain has, it seems, cut Mr. Oscar Wilde to the heart, and he has expressed his intention to part with an ungrateful country, and have himself naturalised as a Frenchman. He is reported as follows: ‘Yes, my resolution is deliberately taken: since it is impossible to have a work of art performed in England, I shall transfer myself to another fatherland, of which I have long been enamoured. There is but one Paris, voyez-vous, and Paris is France. It is the abode of artists; nay, it is la ville artiste. I also adore your beautiful language. To me, there are only two languages in the world, French and Greek. Here people are essentially anti-artistic and narrow-minded. Now, the ostracism of Salomé will give you a fair notion of what people here consider venal and indecorous. To put on the stage any person or persons connected with the Bible is impossible’. Mr Wilde proposes to produce Salomé in Paris, with Sarah Bernhardt in the principal role.” Paris exerted a strong fascination upon British playwrights, who considered it the epitome of Art where the Artist could achieve full personal development. As Wilde stated, “the French were charming to me all the time, and produced my play Salomé, and wrote about me as a living artist, but the English denied me even the barren recognition one gives to the dead” (Rupert Hart-Davis (ed.), More Letters of Oscar Wilde, London: Murray, 1985, 147). His threat to abandon the country and obtain French citizenship was later confirmed. In 1897, immediately after being released from prison, Wilde left England never to return, settling on the northern coast of France (Dieppe), and subsequently in Berneval-sur-Mer. Wilde finally died in Paris in 1900, reproducing the fate of his fictional character, Bunbury, in The Importance of Being Earnest.

3  Wilde’s subterfuges to vehicle subversive meanings through conventional structures have been deeply analysed by critics. Christopher Nassaar’s study offers an original interpretation of his plays as a veil to conceal, under the external shape of a society comedy, socially seditious contents. The critic particularly refers to A Woman of No Importance (1893) as an insurgent and undercover rewriting of Salomé including incestuous allegories: “A Woman of No Importance is a unique play; it is the only comedy the decadent movement ever produced. The funniest joke of the play, however, is one that only Oscar Wilde and his closest friends must have enjoyed at the time: Wilde had given the Victorians Salomé once again, this time in the guise of a comedy with a large sentimental streak. The Victorians, failing to penetrate the façade and recognize the play’s demonic content, applauded, and Wilde found himself a famous playwright. And not injustly so. The play is a good and challenging one, with definite Freudian overtones. A stage production that brings out its demonic content—perhaps by providing it with heavily suggestive garden setting— may prove very interesting indeed” (ChristopherNassaar, Into the Demon Universe. A Literary Exploration of Oscar Wilde, London and New Haven: Yale University Press, 1974, 122).

4  On the French sources of Wilde’s Salomé, see Gaddis Rose (1967), Gilbert (1983), Hudson-Jones (1983), Severi (1985), Donohue (1994), and Ramos Gay (2003).

5  According to Kerry Powell, the language choice of Salomé represented a ruse the aim of which was to obtain the Lord Chamberlain’s licence. As Powell puts it, “Salomé’s being written in French was from the first, or at some point became, an elaborate joke on the censorship of the stage and a practical response to the difficulties it presented to a playwright concerned with forbidden subjects” (KerryPowell, Oscar Wilde and the Theatre of the 1890’s, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990, 37).

6  See NeilSammells, Wilde Style. The Plays and Prose of Oscar Wilde, Harlow: Longman, 2000.

7  Rupert Hart-Davis (ed.), Oscar Wilde. De Profundis, New York: Avon, 1964, 4. (Hereafter De Profundis).

8  JamesLaver, Oscar Wilde, Harlow: Longman/ The British Council, 1954, 25.

9 De Profundis, op. cit., 145.

10  SheridanMorley, Oscar Wilde, New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1976, 138.

11  NeilSammells, op. cit., 1-2.

12  De Profundis, op. cit., 43.

13  The letter was written from Reading Gaol between January and March 1897. Curiously enough, it was not Wilde himself but Robert Ross who entitled the epistle De Profundis owing to its biblical imagery. Wilde handed it to Ross the day after his release from prison. There were two copies of the letter, one of which was meant to be sent to Douglas. The original manuscript was to be kept in the British Museum where no one was allowed to see it for fifty years. Initially the letter was not published entirely and it was only in the second half of the twentieth century that the public could access its original version. On the editing process and the manipulations of the original letter throughout the successive editions, see De Profundis, op. cit., 219-221 and AnneVarty, A Preface to Oscar Wilde, London and New York: Longman, 1998, 208.

14 De Profundis, op. cit., 208. Some critics argue that, intuitively, Wilde had a feeling that his stay in prison had annihilated his creativity. His moving to France after his release is to be interpreted as an attempt to recover it. According to Worth, “on the high peak of achievement, Wilde’s career as a playwright closed. The ordeal that followed damaged his creative energy irretrievably. He made sporadic efforts to start new plays or work on those already started but the two long years of silence in prison had as he said kept his soul in bonds and he was never able to break through” (KatherineWorth, Oscar Wilde, London: Macmillan, 1983, 183).

15  “Wilde’s God” in E. H. Mikhail (ed.), Oscar Wilde. Interviews and Recollections, London, Basingstoke: Macmillan Press Ltd, vol. II, 1979, 338.

16 De Profundis, op. cit., 122.

17 Ibid., 128.

18  “Wilde’s God”, in E. H. Mikhail (ed.), op. cit., 338-339.

19  De Profundis, op. cit., 121.

20  Ibidem.

21 Ibidem.

22  “Wilde’s God”, in E. H. Mikhail (ed.), op. cit., 338.

23  RichardEllmann provides a comprehensive list of Wilde’s multiple readings during his imprisonment (RichardEllmann, Oscar Wilde, London: Hamilton, 1987, 456, 477-478). The heterogeneity of genres ranged from St Augustine’s De Civitate Dei and Confessiones to Stevenson’s Treasure Island. Within the rich variety, the presence of religious texts such as a French Bible, and subjective reinterpretations of the Gospels (Renan’s La Vie de Jésus and Les Apôtres) are to be found among the books Wilde ordered his friends to bring him.

24  See De Profundis, op. cit. for fuller references to all the authors Wilde quoted, the most important works being Aristotle’s Poetics and Ethics, Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Othello and A Midsummer’s Night Dream, Wordsworth’s Excursion, Keats’s Sonnet on the Sonnet, Baudelaire’s Les fleurs du mal, Dante’s Divina Comedia, Milton’s Paradise Lost, Arnold’s Empedocles on Etna and Emerson’s Essay on Experience.

25  For a comprehensive account of Wilde’s quotations from the Bible, see De Profundis, op. cit. and IanSmall, The Complete Works of Oscar Wilde, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.

26  Owing to his vast knowledge of Greek, Wilde even included corrections of the translations of the Bible into English, notably Matthew 6:34 and 6:35.

27  De Profundis, op. cit., 97.

28 Ibid., 135.

29 Ibid., 144.

30 Ibid., 186-187.

31  Only in rare instances does Wilde acknowledge his sources, such as when he reproduces the Song of Isaiah (53:3): “He is despised and rejected of men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief: and we hid as it were our faces from him” or the words: his visage was marred more than any man’s, and his form more than the sons of men” (52:14), (De Profundis, op. cit., 142).

32 Ibid., 54.

33 Ibid., 55.

34  André Gide, “In Memoriam”, in E. H. Mikhail (ed.), op. cit., 293.

35 Ibidem.

36 De Profundis, op. cit., 121.

37 Ibid., 144.

38  JohnStokes, Oscar Wilde, Harlow: Longman/ The British Council, 1978, 44.

39  De Profundis, op. cit., 132.

40 Ibid., 118.

41 Ibid., 107.

42 Ibid., 53.

43 Ibid., 4.

44  ChristopherNassaar, Into the Demon Universe. A Literary Exploration of Oscar Wilde, op. cit., 148.

45  De Profundis, op. cit., 62.

46 Ibid., 75.

47 Ibid., 76.

48 Ibid., 82.

49 Ibid., 96.

50 Ibidem.

51 Ibid., 56.

52 Ibid., 66.

53 Ibid., 62.

54 Ibid., 58.

55 Ibid., 57.

56 Ibid., 59.

57 Ibid., 63.

58  References to homosexuality are absolutely omitted in the letter, but less as a sign of his subjugation to the social law than as a liberal understanding of his sexual condition which does not have to be defended against society. As John Stokes observes, “not once in De Profundis does Wilde make homosexuality per se the cause of his suffering, and the attack on Douglas refers less to his sexual conduct than to his inherited temperament” (JohnStokes, op. cit., 44).

59 De Profundis, op. cit., 55.

60 Ibid., 63.

61 Ibid., 85.

62 Ibid., 104.

63  AnneVarty, op. cit., 210.

64 De Profundis, op. cit., 86.

65 Ibid.,18.

66 Ibid., 63.

67  RichardEllmann, op. cit., 482.

68  NeilSammells, op. cit., 1.

69  De Profundis, op. cit., 118.

70 Ibid., 1.

71 Ibid., 118.

72 Ibid., 117.

73 Ibid., 122.

74 Ibid., 61.

75 Ibid., 99.

76 Ibid., 105.

77 Idem.

78 Ibid., 122.

79 Ibid., 116.

80 Ibid., 125.

81  RichardEllmann, op. cit., 482.

82  AnneVarty, op. cit., 210.

83  “Christ and Wilde”, in Richard Ellmann (ed.), Oscar Wilde. A Collection of Critical Essays, Englewood Cliffs: N.J. Prentice Hall, 1969, 147-148.

84  Oscar Wilde, The Collected Works of Oscar Wilde, Ware: Wordsworth Editions, 1998, 133.

85 Ibidem.

86  RichardEllmann, op. cit., 452.

87  “Wilde’s God”, in E. H. Mikhail (ed.), op. cit., 338.

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Ignacio Ramos Gay, « Myth and Biblical Imagery in De Profundis »Revue LISA/LISA e-journal, Vol. V - n°4 | 2007, 182-205.

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Ignacio Ramos Gay

(Castilla-La Mancha, Spain)
Ignacio Ramos Gay is a lecturer at the Department of Modern Languages of the University of Castilla-La Mancha, Spain. His research areas include contemporary comparative drama and the aesthetics of dramatic reception. His doctoral research centred on the theatrical cross-currents between France and England in the nineteenth century, and he is the author of a monograph on the impact of French “minor” genres on Oscar Wilde’s dramaturgy (University of Valencia, 2007). He has published a number of articles examining the influence of French plays and adaptations on the renaissance of English drama at the end of the nineteenth century.

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