While imprisoned in Reading Gaol from 1895 to 1897 for homosexual practices, Oscar Wilde wrote "De Profundis", an impassioned letter to his lover, Lord Alfred Douglas. In the first section of the letter, Wilde records his relationship with Douglas in merciless detail; he rails against his lover’s selfishness and extravagance, accuses him of being the agent of Wilde’s destruction, and turns a cold eye on his own behaviour. The letter’s tone changes from bitterness to resignation as Wilde acknowledges his own responsibility for his fate and extends a hopeful offer for a renewed, calmer friendship.
First published in 1905 by an arrangement between Oscar Wilde and Robert Ross, who visited Wilde at Reading and later became his literary executor, "De Profundis" is a curious document: part apologia, part aesthetic discourse, part religious testimonial, part retort to religion, a letter that addresses a private recipient and was written for public view, but that despite these layers of performance has a strange inward quality; in reality this is a letter from Wilde to himself.
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The text is from the 1913 Methuen & Co. edition. Note that later editions of De Profundis contained more material.
De Profundis was written by Oscar Wilde during his imprisonment in Reading Gaol. It takes the form of a 50,000 word open letter written to Lord Alfred Douglas, his erstwhile lover.
Wilde was not allowed to send the letter while still a prisoner, but was allowed to take it with him at the end of his sentence. On his release, he gave the manuscript to Robbie Ross, who may or may not have carried out Wilde's instructions to send a copy to Douglas (who later denied having received it). Ross published an expurgated version of the letter (about a third of it) in 1905 (four years after Wilde's death), expanding it slightly for an edition of Wilde's collected works in 1908, and then donated it to the British Museum.
. . . Suffering is one very long moment. We cannot divide it by seasons. We can only record its moods, and chronicle their return. With us time itself does not progress. It revolves. It seems to circle round one centre of pain. The paralysing immobility of a life every circumstance of which is regulated after an unchangeable pattern, so that we eat and drink and lie down and pray, or kneel at least for prayer, according to the inflexible laws of an iron formula: this immobile quality, that makes each dreadful day in the very minutest detail like its brother, seems to communicate itself to those external forces the very essence of whose existence is ceaseless change. Of seed-time or harvest, of the reapers bending over the corn, or the grape gatherers threading through the vines, of the grass in the orchard made white with broken blossoms or strewn with fallen fruit: of these we know nothing and can know nothing.
For us there is only one season, the season of sorrow. The very sun and moon seem taken from us. Outside, the day may be blue and gold, but the light that creeps down through the thickly-muffled glass of the small iron-barred window beneath which one sits is grey and niggard. It is always twilight in one’s cell, as it is always twilight in one’s heart. And in the sphere of thought, no less than in the sphere of time, motion is no more. The thing that you personally have long ago forgotten, or can easily forget, is happening to me now, and will happen to me again to-morrow. Remember this, and you will be able to understand a little of why I am writing, and in this manner writing. . . .
A week later, I am transferred here. Three more months go over and my mother dies. No one knew how deeply I loved and honoured her. Her death was terrible to me; but I, once a lord of language, have no words in which to express my anguish and my shame. She and my father had bequeathed me a name they had made noble and honoured, not merely in literature, art, archaeology, and science, but in the public history of my own country, in its evolution as a nation. I had disgraced that name eternally. I had made it a low by-word among low people. I had dragged it through the very mire. I had given it to brutes that they might make it brutal, and to fools that they might turn it into a synonym for folly. What I suffered then, and still suffer, is not for pen to write or paper to record. My wife, always kind and gentle to me, rather than that I should hear the news from indifferent lips, travelled, ill as she was, all the way from Genoa to England to break to me herself the tidings of so irreparable, so irremediable, a loss. Messages of sympathy reached me from all who had still affection for me. Even people who had not known me personally, hearing that a new sorrow had broken into my life, wrote to ask that some expression of their condolence should be conveyed to me. . . .
Three months go over. The calendar of my daily conduct and labour that hangs on the outside of my cell door, with my name and sentence written upon it, tells me that it is May. . . .
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