On 19 May 1897 Oscar Wilde was released from prison, after two years of hard labour, and sailed that evening for France. He never returned to England.
In the 1890s Wilde, at his literary peak, had developed a strong bond with Lord Alfred Douglas, the youngest son of the ninth Marquess of Queensberry, who felt outraged by their relationship and decided to expose the writer by leaving his calling card at Wilde’s club, addressed to “Oscar Wilde, posing somdomite”(!)
Against this friends’ advice, the playwright decided to sue the Marquess for defamation but Queensberry was found not guilty, as the court declared that his accusation was justified.
When the writer left Court, the authorities issued a warrant for his arrest on charges of sodomy and gross indecency.
During that trial, which began on 26 April 1895, Wilde gave a memorable speech about “the love that dare not speak its name” to justify his relations.
“The love that dare not speak its name” in this century is such a great affection of an elder for a younger man as there was between David and Jonathan, such as Plato made the very basis of his philosophy, and such as you find in the sonnets of Michelangelo and Shakespeare. It is that deep spiritual affection that is as pure as it is perfect. It dictates and pervades great works of art, like those of Shakespeare and Michelangelo, and those two letters of mine, such as they are. It is in this century misunderstood, so much misunderstood that it may be described as “the love that dare not speak its name”, and on that account of it I am placed where I am now. It is beautiful, it is fine, it is the noblest form of affection. There is nothing unnatural about it. It is intellectual, and it repeatedly exists between an older and a younger man, when the older man has intellect, and the younger man has all the joy, hope and glamour of life before him. That it should be so, the world does not understand. The world mocks at it, and sometimes puts one in the pillory for it.”
The trial ended with the jury unable to reach a verdict, but three weeks later, Wilde was retried.
Wilde could easily have fled to France to escape conviction, he “did not want to be a coward and a deserter” and decided “it was nobler and more beautiful to stay.” Therefore, he remained and was sentenced for twenty-five “counts of gross indecency and conspiracy to commit gross indecency”.
This criminal trial began on 21 May and he was found guilty of all charges and was given the maximum sentence allowed for the crime, two years of hard labour.
On 25 May 1895, he was taken to prison. First, he was sent to Newgate Prison in London, then he spent some months in Pentonville Prison, where the hard labour to which he had been sentenced consisted of many hours of picking oakum (unravelling the fibres of old navy ropes into strands alone in his cell). Next, he went to Wandsworth Prison in London where he collapsed from illness and hunger damaging his right ear drum, an injury that later contributed to his death from cerebral meningitis, in 1900. After spending some time in the infirmary, in November he was transferred to Reading Gaol, 30 miles west of London, a Home Office decision, seemingly taken to reduce the chances of him dying while in prison. On the railway platform there was a crowd that mocked him and spat on him.
He spent the remainder of his sentence there, addressed and identified only as “C.3.3”, the occupant of the third cell on the third floor of C ward. Here he penned his meditation, “De Profundis”, a long letter written to “Bosie” (Lord Alfred Douglas), between January and March 1897, when he finally was given the possibility of writing. Each page was taken away when completed, and only when he was released from prison, he was permitted to read it over and take it with him.
HM Prison, Reading
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 pain …
[Carcere di Sua Maestà, Reading
dopo lunga e sterile attesa ho deciso di scriverti io, tanto per il tuo bene quanto per il mio, poiché non vorrei pensare d’essere passato attraverso due lunghi anni di prigionia senza mai ricevere un solo rigo da te, una qualsiasi notizia, un semplice messaggio, tranne quelli che mi portarono dolore…]