Realism and Romance: Between Protestantism and Catholicism in Wilde’s Final Writings

  • Jarlath Killeen
Part of the Palgrave Studies in Nineteenth-Century Writing and Culture book series (PNWC)


This chapter will look at Oscar Wilde’s final works: the fascinating prison letter he wrote to Lord Alfred Douglas, which was initially published with the title De Profundis, and The Ballad of Reading Gaol, Wilde’s last poem. After briefly describing the textual history of the prison letter, I will outline the analyses of scholars who have looked closely at it before going on to detail my own reading. In prison, and deprived of both an oral culture and a sufficient literary life, Wilde fell back on sole consumption of the King James Bible. This dependence on sola scriptura faith led him further along the road toward liberal Protestant thought than he had ever ventured before. His prison letter demonstrates a growing dependence on the methodology of the Higher Criticism of the Bible, and Wilde constructs a thoroughly secular and humanist life of Jesus of Nazareth. However, despite this being, in my opinion, the most ‘Protestant’ work that Wilde ever wrote, its ideological commitments to liberalism are undercut by its ‘Catholic’ moments. This undermining occurs because, while becoming more dependent on Protestant notions of a text-based faith, he also began to empathise more and more with the Pope as he too was a ‘prisoner’ (in the Vatican), the victim of secular forces in the outside world. At certain moments the letter becomes a papally inspired encyclical celebrating the rituals of nature Wilde witnessed in a folk-Catholic Mayo as a child.


Fairy Tale Textual History Prison Life Oral Culture Original Letter 
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  1. 1.
    Although Ian Small, in his new edition of De Profundis (part of the authoritative Complete Works from Oxford University Press), suggests that it may have been written prior to January 1897 (The Complete Works of Oscar Wilde, vol. 2, De Profundis; Epistola: In Carcere et Vinculis, ed. Ian Small (Oxford: Clarendon, 2005)).Google Scholar
  2. 6.
    Ian Small, ‘Love-Letter, Spiritual Autobiography, or Prison Writing? Identity and Value in De Profundis’, Wilde Writings: Contextual Conditions, ed. Joseph Bristow (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2003), 86–100.Google Scholar
  3. 9.
    See Elaine Scarry for a study of the effects of The Body in Pain: the Making and Unmaking of the World (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985).Google Scholar
  4. 12.
    For the importance of orality to Wilde, see Deirdre Toomey, ‘The Story Teller at Fault: Oscar Wilde and Irish Orality’, Wilde the Irishman, ed. Jerusha McCormack (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998), 24–35.Google Scholar
  5. 13.
    Quoted in Edwin Hodder, The Life and Work of the Seventh Earl of Shaftesbury, K. G., 3 vols (London: Cassell, 1887), vol. 3, 164.Google Scholar
  6. 21.
    Owen Chadwick, A History of the Popes, 1830–1914 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998), 220.Google Scholar
  7. 23.
    Eamonn Duffy, Saints and Sinners: a History of the Popes (New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 1997), 228.Google Scholar
  8. 25.
    Aubrey De Vere, Irish Odes and other poems (New York: The Catholic Publication Society, 1869), 159–60.Google Scholar
  9. 30.
    The most recent reading of the event argues that it did not happen in this way at all. Merlin Holland and Rupert Hart-Davis point out that Stewart Headlam claimed that Wilde simply asked him to send for a Jesuit priest to engage in the religious discussion that they were having in the house, and that ‘it is implausible that Wilde would have considered exchanging one form of confinement for another’. Letters, 842. At the moment neither view has been accepted as authoritative, although Professor Owen Dudley Edwards tells me that he believes Headlam’s version of events has more evidence to back it up, as Wilde had other friends waiting to see him. That Wilde could act impulsively, without giving due notice to his friends’ opinions, however, was well demonstrated in the weeks leading up to his trial. I find the version given above more persuasive, especially since Wilde’s letters while in prison indicated a fear of the outside world. See also Horst Schroeder, Additions and Corrections to Richard Ellmann’s Oscar Wilde, 2nd edn (Braunschweig: privately published, 2002), 187. Schroeder also believes that the story is a ‘jest’ or a ‘myth’ invented by Ada Leverson, 191.Google Scholar
  10. 32.
    ‘Preface’ to the Poems in the Collins’ Complete Works of Oscar Wilde, ed. Merlin Holland (Glasgow: Collins, 1999), 739–43 (742).Google Scholar
  11. 33.
    See Coakley, Oscar Wilde, 210–11; Norman Page, ‘Decoding The Ballad of Reading Gaol’, Rediscovering Oscar Wilde, ed. C. George Sandalescu (Gerrards Cross: Colin Smythe, 1994), 305–11. Lucy McDiarmaid, ‘Oscar Wilde’s Speech from the Dock’, The Wilde Legacy, ed. Eiléan Ní Chuileanáin (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2003), 113–35.Google Scholar
  12. 34.
    Karen Alkalay-Gut, ‘ “The Thing He Loves”: Murder as Aesthetic Experience in The Ballad of Reading Gaol’, Victorian Poetry 35 (1997), 349–66.Google Scholar
  13. 37.
    William E. Buckler, ‘Oscar Wilde’s “chant de cygne”: The Ballad of Reading Gaol in Contextual Perspective’, Victorian Poetry 28: 3–4 (1990), 33–41 (41 footnote 2).Google Scholar
  14. 38.
    Lady Wilde, Notes on Men, Women and Books: Selected Essays (London: Ward and Downey, 1891), 183.Google Scholar
  15. 39.
    Seamus Deane, Strange Country: Modernity and Nationhood in Irish Writing since1790 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997), 72.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Jarlath Killeen 2005

Authors and Affiliations

  • Jarlath Killeen
    • 1
  1. 1.University of KeeleUK

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