May 19th, 1897 – Oscar Wilde Released from Prison

Today-In-History

After losing his libel case against the Marquess of Queensberry, Oscar Wilde was arrested on charges of sodomy and gross indecency. Wilde was found guilty and sentenced to sentenced to two years in prison.

Trial of Oscar WildeHe was imprisoned first in Pentonville Prison and then Wandsworth Prison in London. Inmates followed a regimen of “hard labour, hard fare and a hard bed”, which wore very harshly on Wilde, accustomed as he was to many creature comforts. His health declined sharply, and in November he collapsed during chapel from illness and hunger. His right ear drum was ruptured in the fall, an injury that later contributed to his death. He spent two months in the infirmary.

Richard B. Haldane, the Liberal MP and reformer, visited him and had him transferred in November to Reading Prison, 30 miles (48 km) west of London. The transfer itself was the lowest point of his incarceration, as a crowd jeered and spat at him on the railway platform. Now known as prisoner C. 3.3 he was not, at first, even allowed paper and pen but Haldane eventually succeeded in allowing access to books and writing materials. Wilde requested, among others: the Bible in French, Italian and German grammars, some Ancient Greek texts, Dante‘s Divine Comedy, Joris-Karl Huysmans‘s new French novel about Christian redemption En Route, and essays by St Augustine, Cardinal Newman and Walter Pater.

Wilde and Alfred

Wilde and Douglas

Between January and March 1897 Wilde wrote a 50,000-word letter to Douglas, which he was not allowed to send, but was permitted to take with him upon release. In reflective mode, Wilde coldly examines his career to date, how he had been a colorful agent provocateur in Victorian society, his art, like his paradoxes, seeking to subvert as well as sparkle. His own estimation of himself was: one who “stood in symbolic relations to the art and culture of my age”. It was from these heights that his life with Douglas began, and Wilde examines that particularly closely, repudiating him for what Wilde finally sees as his arrogance and vanity: he had not forgotten Douglas’s remark, when he was ill, “When you are not on your pedestal you are not interesting.” Wilde blamed himself, though, for the ethical degradation of character that he allowed Douglas to bring about in him and took responsibility for his own fall, “I am here for having tried to put your father in prison.” The first half concludes with Wilde forgiving Douglas, for his own sake as much as Douglas’s. The second half of the letter traces Wilde’s spiritual journey of redemption and fulfilment through his prison reading. He realised that his ordeal had filled his soul with the fruit of experience, however bitter it tasted at the time.

Oscar Wilde Prison Release…I wanted to eat of the fruit of all the trees in the garden of the world… And so, indeed, I went out, and so I lived. My only mistake was that I confined myself so exclusively to the trees of what seemed to me the sun-lit side of the garden, and shunned the other side for its shadow and its gloom.

Upon his release on May 19th, 1897, he gave the manuscript to Ross, who may or may not have carried out Wilde’s instructions to send a copy to Douglas (who later denied having received it). De Profundis was partially published in 1905, its complete and correct publication first occurred in 1962 in The Letters of Oscar Wilde.


 

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