Max Nelson in Paris Review:
The first time Oscar Wilde saw the inside of a prison, it was 1882—thirteen years before he’d serve the famous criminal sentence that produced De Profundis, his 55,000-word letter to his lover Lord Alfred Douglas. Financially pressed and known primarily as a public speaker—by then he had only published a thin volume of poems—he’d committed to a nine-month lecture tour of America. During his stop in Lincoln, Nebraska, he and the young literature professor George Woodberry were taken to visit the local penitentiary. The warden led them into a yard where, Wilde later wrote the suffragist journalist Helena Sickert, they were confronted by “poor odd types of humanity in striped dresses making bricks in the sun.” All the faces he glimpsed, he remarked with relief, “were mean-looking, which consoled me, for I should hate to see a criminal with a noble face.”
…“You came to me to learn the Pleasure of Life and the Pleasure of Art,” Wilde tells Douglas in the letter’s lovestruck last sentence. “Perhaps I am chosen to teach you something much more wonderful, the meaning of Sorrow, and its beauty.” After De Profundis, Wilde published only the long poem “The Ballad of Reading Gaol” and two letters to the Daily Chronicle advocating for specific reforms designed to mitigate the “cruelties of prison life.” He died at forty-six, broke, despondent, and—at the last minute—baptized. He had lived extravagantly, suffered greatly, defended his wounded pride to the end, and hit, in De Profundis, upon a lavish, full harmony of words.