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De Profundis (version 2)

Behind joy and laughter there may be a temperament, coarse, hard and callous.  But behind sorrow there is always sorrow.  Pain, unlike pleasure, wears no mask.  Truth in art is not any correspondence between the essential idea and the accidental existence; it is not the resemblance of shape to shadow, or of the form mirrored in the crystal to the form itself; it is no echo coming from a hollow hill, any more than it is a silver well of water in the valley that shows the moon to the moon and Narcissus to Narcissus.  Truth in art is the unity of a thing with itself: the outward rendered expressive of the inward: the soul made incarnate: the body instinct with spirit.  For this reason there is no truth comparable to sorrow.  There are times when sorrow seems to me to be the only truth.  Other things may be illusions of the eye or the appetite, made to blind the one and cloy the other, but out of sorrow have the worlds been built, and at the birth of a child or a star there is pain.

More than this, there is about sorrow an intense, an extraordinary reality.  I have said of myself that I was one who stood in symbolic relations to the art and culture of my age.  There is not a single wretched man in this wretched place along with me who does not stand in symbolic relation to the very secret of life.  For the secret of life is suffering.  It is what is hidden behind everything.  When we begin to live, what is sweet is so sweet to us, and what is bitter so bitter, that we inevitably direct all our desires towards pleasures, and seek not merely for a ‘month or twain to feed on honeycomb,’ but for all our years to taste no other food, ignorant all the while that we may really be starving the soul.

I remember talking once on this subject to one of the most beautiful personalities I have ever known: a woman, whose sympathy and noble kindness to me, both before and since the tragedy of my imprisonment, have been beyond power and description; one who has really assisted me, though she does not know it, to bear the burden of my troubles more than any one else in the whole world has, and all through the mere fact of her existence, through her being what she is—partly an ideal and partly an influence: a suggestion of what one might become as well as a real help towards becoming it; a soul that renders the common air sweet, and makes what is spiritual seem as simple and natural as sunlight or the sea: one for whom beauty and sorrow walk hand in hand, and have the same message.  On the occasion of which I am thinking I recall distinctly how I said to her that there was enough suffering in one narrow London lane to show that God did not love man, and that wherever there was any sorrow, though but that of a child, in some little garden weeping over a fault that it had or had not committed, the whole face of creation was completely marred.  I was entirely wrong.  She told me so, but I could not believe her.  I was not in the sphere in which such belief was to be attained to.  Now it seems to me that love of some kind is the only possible explanation of the extraordinary amount of suffering that there is in the world.  I cannot conceive of any other explanation.  I am convinced that there is no other, and that if the world has indeed, as I have said, been built of sorrow, it has been built by the hands of love, because in no other way could the soul of man, for whom the world was made, reach the full stature of its perfection.  Pleasure for the beautiful body, but pain for the beautiful soul.

When I say that I am convinced of these things I speak with too much pride.  Far off, like a perfect pearl, one can see the city of God.  It is so wonderful that it seems as if a child could reach it in a summer’s day.  And so a child could.  But with me and such as me it is different.  One can realise a thing in a single moment, but one loses it in the long hours that follow with leaden feet.  It is so difficult to keep ‘heights that the soul is competent to gain.’  We think in eternity, but we move slowly through time; and how slowly time goes with us who lie in prison I need not tell again, nor of the weariness and despair that creep back into one’s cell, and into the cell of one’s heart, with such strange insistence that one has, as it were, to garnish and sweep one’s house for their coming, as for an unwelcome guest, or a bitter master, or a slave whose slave it is one’s chance or choice to be.

And, though at present my friends may find it a hard thing to believe, it is true none the less, that for them living in freedom and idleness and comfort it is more easy to learn the lessons of humility than it is for me, who begin the day by going down on my knees and washing the floor of my cell.  For prison life with its endless privations and restrictions makes one rebellious.  The most terrible thing about it is not that it breaks one’s heart—hearts are made to be broken—but that it turns one’s heart to stone.  One sometimes feels that it is only with a front of brass and a lip of scorn that one can get through the day at all.  And he who is in a state of rebellion cannot receive grace, to use the phrase of which the Church is so fond—so rightly fond, I dare say—for in life as in art the mood of rebellion closes up the channels of the soul, and shuts out the airs of heaven.  Yet I must learn these lessons here, if I am to learn them anywhere, and must be filled with joy if my feet are on the right road and my face set towards ‘the gate which is called beautiful,’ though I may fall many times in the mire and often in the mist go astray.

This New Life, as through my love of Dante I like sometimes to call it, is of course no new life at all, but simply the continuance, by means of development, and evolution, of my former life.  I remember when I was at Oxford saying to one of my friends as we were strolling round Magdalen’s narrow bird-haunted walks one morning in the year before I took my degree, that I wanted to eat of the fruit of all the trees in the garden of the world, and that I was going out into the world with that passion in my soul.  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.  Failure, disgrace, poverty, sorrow, despair, suffering, tears even, the broken words that come from lips in pain, remorse that makes one walk on thorns, conscience that condemns, self-abasement that punishes, the misery that puts ashes on its head, the anguish that chooses sack-cloth for its raiment and into its own drink puts gall:—all these were things of which I was afraid.  And as I had determined to know nothing of them, I was forced to taste each of them in turn, to feed on them, to have for a season, indeed, no other food at all.

I don’t regret for a single moment having lived for pleasure.  I did it to the full, as one should do everything that one does.  There was no pleasure I did not experience.  I threw the pearl of my soul into a cup of wine.  I went down the primrose path to the sound of flutes.  I lived on honeycomb.  But to have continued the same life would have been wrong because it would have been limiting.  I had to pass on.  The other half of the garden had its secrets for me also.  Of course all this is foreshadowed and prefigured in my books.  Some of it is in The Happy Prince, some of it in The Young King, notably in the passage where the bishop says to the kneeling boy, ‘Is not He who made misery wiser than thou art’? a phrase which when I wrote it seemed to me little more than a phrase; a great deal of it is hidden away in the note of doom that like a purple thread runs through the texture of Dorian Gray; in The Critic as Artist it is set forth in many colours; in The Soul of Man it is written down, and in letters too easy to read; it is one of the refrains whose recurring motifs make Salome so like a piece of music and bind it together as a ballad; in the prose poem of the man who from the bronze of the image of the ‘Pleasure that liveth for a moment’ has to make the image of the ‘Sorrow that abideth for ever’ it is incarnate.  It could not have been otherwise.  At every single moment of one’s life one is what one is going to be no less than what one has been.  Art is a symbol, because man is a symbol.

It is, if I can fully attain to it, the ultimate realisation of the artistic life.  For the artistic life is simply self-development.  Humility in the artist is his frank acceptance of all experiences, just as love in the artist is simply the sense of beauty that reveals to the world its body and its soul.  In Marius the Epicurean Pater seeks to reconcile the artistic life with the life of religion, in the deep, sweet, and austere sense of the word.  But Marius is little more than a spectator: an ideal spectator indeed, and one to whom it is given ‘to contemplate the spectacle of life with appropriate emotions,’ which Wordsworth defines as the poet’s true aim; yet a spectator merely, and perhaps a little too much occupied with the comeliness of the benches of the sanctuary to notice that it is the sanctuary of sorrow that he is gazing at.

I see a far more intimate and immediate connection between the true life of Christ and the true life of the artist; and I take a keen pleasure in the reflection that long before sorrow had made my days her own and bound me to her wheel I had written in The Soul of Man that he who would lead a Christ-like life must be entirely and absolutely himself, and had taken as my types not merely the shepherd on the hillside and the prisoner in his cell, but also the painter to whom the world is a pageant and the poet for whom the world is a song.  I remember saying once to André Gide, as we sat together in some Paris café, that while meta-physics had but little real interest for me, and morality absolutely none, there was nothing that either Plato or Christ had said that could not be transferred immediately into the sphere of Art and there find its complete fulfilment.

Nor is it merely that we can discern in Christ that close union of personality with perfection which forms the real distinction between the classical and romantic movement in life, but the very basis of his nature was the same as that of the nature of the artist—an intense and flamelike imagination.  He realised in the entire sphere of human relations that imaginative sympathy which in the sphere of Art is the sole secret of creation.  He understood the leprosy of the leper, the darkness of the blind, the fierce misery of those who live for pleasure, the strange poverty of the rich.  Some one wrote to me in trouble, ‘When you are not on your pedestal you are not interesting.’  How remote was the writer from what Matthew Arnold calls ‘the Secret of Jesus.’  Either would have taught him that whatever happens to another happens to oneself, and if you want an inscription to read at dawn and at night-time, and for pleasure or for pain, write up on the walls of your house in letters for the sun to gild and the moon to silver, ‘Whatever happens to oneself happens to another.’

Christ’s place indeed is with the poets.  His whole conception of Humanity sprang right out of the imagination and can only be realised by it.  What God was to the pantheist, man was to Him.  He was the first to conceive the divided races as a unity.  Before his time there had been gods and men, and, feeling through the mysticism of sympathy that in himself each had been made incarnate, he calls himself the Son of the one or the Son of the other, according to his mood.  More than any one else in history he wakes in us that temper of wonder to which romance always appeals.  There is still something to me almost incredible in the idea of a young Galilean peasant imagining that he could bear on his own shoulders the burden of the entire world; all that had already been done and suffered, and all that was yet to be done and suffered: the sins of Nero, of Caesar Borgia, of Alexander VI., and of him who was Emperor of Rome and Priest of the Sun: the sufferings of those whose names are legion and whose dwelling is among the tombs: oppressed nationalities, factory children, thieves, people in prison, outcasts, those who are dumb under oppression and whose silence is heard only of God; and not merely imagining this but actually achieving it, so that at the present moment all who come in contact with his personality, even though they may neither bow to his altar nor kneel before his priest, in some way find that the ugliness of their sin is taken away and the beauty of their sorrow revealed to them.

I had said of Christ that he ranks with the poets.  That is true.  Shelley and Sophocles are of his company.  But his entire life also is the most wonderful of poems.  For ‘pity and terror’ there is nothing in the entire cycle of Greek tragedy to touch it.  The absolute purity of the protagonist raises the entire scheme to a height of romantic art from which the sufferings of Thebes and Pelops’ line are by their very horror excluded, and shows how wrong Aristotle was when he said in his treatise on the drama that it would be impossible to bear the spectacle of one blameless in pain.  Nor in Æschylus nor Dante, those stern masters of tenderness, in Shakespeare, the most purely human of all the great artists, in the whole of Celtic myth and legend, where the loveliness of the world is shown through a mist of tears, and the life of a man is no more than the life of a flower, is there anything that, for sheer simplicity of pathos wedded and made one with sublimity of tragic effect, can be said to equal or even approach the last act of Christ’s passion.  The little supper with his companions, one of whom has already sold him for a price; the anguish in the quiet moon-lit garden; the false friend coming close to him so as to betray him with a kiss; the friend who still believed in him, and on whom as on a rock he had hoped to build a house of refuge for Man, denying him as the bird cried to the dawn; his own utter loneliness, his submission, his acceptance of everything; and along with it all such scenes as the high priest of orthodoxy rending his raiment in wrath, and the magistrate of civil justice calling for water in the vain hope of cleansing himself of that stain of innocent blood that makes him the scarlet figure of history; the coronation ceremony of sorrow, one of the most wonderful things in the whole of recorded time; the crucifixion of the Innocent One before the eyes of his mother and of the disciple whom he loved; the soldiers gambling and throwing dice for his clothes; the terrible death by which he gave the world its most eternal symbol; and his final burial in the tomb of the rich man, his body swathed in Egyptian linen with costly spices and perfumes as though he had been a king’s son.  When one contemplates all this from the point of view of art alone one cannot but be grateful that the supreme office of the Church should be the playing of the tragedy without the shedding of blood: the mystical presentation, by means of dialogue and costume and gesture even, of the Passion of her Lord; and it is always a source of pleasure and awe to me to remember that the ultimate survival of the Greek chorus, lost elsewhere to art, is to be found in the servitor answering the priest at Mass.

Yet the whole life of Christ—so entirely may sorrow and beauty be made one in their meaning and manifestation—is really an idyll, though it ends with the veil of the temple being rent, and the darkness coming over the face of the earth, and the stone rolled to the door of the sepulchre.  One always thinks of him as a young bridegroom with his companions, as indeed he somewhere describes himself; as a shepherd straying through a valley with his sheep in search of green meadow or cool stream; as a singer trying to build out of the music the walls of the City of God; or as a lover for whose love the whole world was too small.  His miracles seem to me to be as exquisite as the coming of spring, and quite as natural.  I see no difficulty at all in believing that such was the charm of his personality that his mere presence could bring peace to souls in anguish, and that those who touched his garments or his hands forgot their pain; or that as he passed by on the highway of life people who had seen nothing of life’s mystery, saw it clearly, and others who had been deaf to every voice but that of pleasure heard for the first time the voice of love and found it as ‘musical as Apollo’s lute’; or that evil passions fled at his approach, and men whose dull unimaginative lives had been but a mode of death rose as it were from the grave when he called them; or that when he taught on the hillside the multitude forgot their hunger and thirst and the cares of this world, and that to his friends who listened to him as he sat at meat the coarse food seemed delicate, and the water had the taste of good wine, and the whole house became full of the odour and sweetness of nard.

Renan in his Vie de Jesus—that gracious fifth gospel, the gospel according to St. Thomas, one might call it—says somewhere that Christ’s great achievement was that he made himself as much loved after his death as he had been during his lifetime.  And certainly, if his place is among the poets, he is the leader of all the lovers.  He saw that love was the first secret of the world for which the wise men had been looking, and that it was only through love that one could approach either the heart of the leper or the feet of God.

And above all, Christ is the most supreme of individualists.  Humility, like the artistic, acceptance of all experiences, is merely a mode of manifestation.  It is man’s soul that Christ is always looking for.  He calls it ‘God’s Kingdom,’ and finds it in every one.  He compares it to little things, to a tiny seed, to a handful of leaven, to a pearl.  That is because one realises one’s soul only by getting rid of all alien passions, all acquired culture, and all external possessions, be they good or evil.

I bore up against everything with some stubbornness of will and much rebellion of nature, till I had absolutely nothing left in the world but one thing.  I had lost my name, my position, my happiness, my freedom, my wealth.  I was a prisoner and a pauper.  But I still had my children left.  Suddenly they were taken away from me by the law.  It was a blow so appalling that I did not know what to do, so I flung myself on my knees, and bowed my head, and wept, and said, ‘The body of a child is as the body of the Lord: I am not worthy of either.’  That moment seemed to save me.  I saw then that the only thing for me was to accept everything.  Since then—curious as it will no doubt sound—I have been happier.  It was of course my soul in its ultimate essence that I had reached.  In many ways I had been its enemy, but I found it waiting for me as a friend.  When one comes in contact with the soul it makes one simple as a child, as Christ said one should be.

It is tragic how few people ever ‘possess their souls’ before they die.  ‘Nothing is more rare in any man,’ says Emerson, ‘than an act of his own.’  It is quite true.  Most people are other people.  Their thoughts are some one else’s opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation.  Christ was not merely the supreme individualist, but he was the first individualist in history.  People have tried to make him out an ordinary philanthropist, or ranked him as an altruist with the scientific and sentimental.  But he was really neither one nor the other.  Pity he has, of course, for the poor, for those who are shut up in prisons, for the lowly, for the wretched; but he has far more pity for the rich, for the hard hedonists, for those who waste their freedom in becoming slaves to things, for those who wear soft raiment and live in kings’ houses.  Riches and pleasure seemed to him to be really greater tragedies than poverty or sorrow.  And as for altruism, who knew better than he that it is vocation not volition that determines us, and that one cannot gather grapes of thorns or figs from thistles?

To live for others as a definite self-conscious aim was not his creed.  It was not the basis of his creed.  When he says, ‘Forgive your enemies,’ it is not for the sake of the enemy, but for one’s own sake that he says so, and because love is more beautiful than hate.  In his own entreaty to the young man, ‘Sell all that thou hast and give to the poor,’ it is not of the state of the poor that he is thinking but of the soul of the young man, the soul that wealth was marring.  In his view of life he is one with the artist who knows that by the inevitable law of self-perfection, the poet must sing, and the sculptor think in bronze, and the painter make the world a mirror for his moods, as surely and as certainly as the hawthorn must blossom in spring, and the corn turn to gold at harvest-time, and the moon in her ordered wanderings change from shield to sickle, and from sickle to shield.

But while Christ did not say to men, ‘Live for others,’ he pointed out that there was no difference at all between the lives of others and one’s own life.  By this means he gave to man an extended, a Titan personality.  Since his coming the history of each separate individual is, or can be made, the history of the world.  Of course, culture has intensified the personality of man.  Art has made us myriad-minded.  Those who have the artistic temperament go into exile with Dante and learn how salt is the bread of others, and how steep their stairs; they catch for a moment the serenity and calm of Goethe, and yet know but too well that Baudelaire cried to God—

‘O Seigneur, donnez moi la force et le courage
De contempler mon corps et mon coeur sans dégoût.’

Out of Shakespeare’s sonnets they draw, to their own hurt it may be, the secret of his love and make it their own; they look with new eyes on modern life, because they have listened to one of Chopin’s nocturnes, or handled Greek things, or read the story of the passion of some dead man for some dead woman whose hair was like threads of fine gold, and whose mouth was as a pomegranate.  But the sympathy of the artistic temperament is necessarily with what has found expression.  In words or in colours, in music or in marble, behind the painted masks of an Æschylean play, or through some Sicilian shepherds’ pierced and jointed reeds, the man and his message must have been revealed.

To the artist, expression is the only mode under which he can conceive life at all.  To him what is dumb is dead.  But to Christ it was not so.  With a width and wonder of imagination that fills one almost with awe, he took the entire world of the inarticulate, the voiceless world of pain, as his kingdom, and made of himself its eternal mouthpiece.  Those of whom I have spoken, who are dumb under oppression, and ‘whose silence is heard only of God,’ he chose as his brothers.  He sought to become eyes to the blind, ears to the deaf, and a cry in the lips of those whose tongues had been tied.  His desire was to be to the myriads who had found no utterance a very trumpet through which they might call to heaven.  And feeling, with the artistic nature of one to whom suffering and sorrow were modes through which he could realise his conception of the beautiful, that an idea is of no value till it becomes incarnate and is made an image, he made of himself the image of the Man of Sorrows, and as such has fascinated and dominated art as no Greek god ever succeeded in doing.

For the Greek gods, in spite of the white and red of their fair fleet limbs, were not really what they appeared to be.  The curved brow of Apollo was like the sun’s disc crescent over a hill at dawn, and his feet were as the wings of the morning, but he himself had been cruel to Marsyas and had made Niobe childless.  In the steel shields of Athena’s eyes there had been no pity for Arachne; the pomp and peacocks of Hera were all that was really noble about her; and the Father of the Gods himself had been too fond of the daughters of men.  The two most deeply suggestive figures of Greek Mythology were, for religion, Demeter, an Earth Goddess, not one of the Olympians, and for art, Dionysus, the son of a mortal woman to whom the moment of his birth had proved also the moment of her death.

But Life itself from its lowliest and most humble sphere produced one far more marvellous than the mother of Proserpina or the son of Semele.  Out of the Carpenter’s shop at Nazareth had come a personality infinitely greater than any made by myth and legend, and one, strangely enough, destined to reveal to the world the mystical meaning of wine and the real beauties of the lilies of the field as none, either on Cithaeron or at Enna, had ever done.

The song of Isaiah, ‘He is despised and rejected of men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief: and we hid as it were our faces from him,’ had seemed to him to prefigure himself, and in him the prophecy was fulfilled.  We must not be afraid of such a phrase.  Every single work of art is the fulfilment of a prophecy: for every work of art is the conversion of an idea into an image.  Every single human being should be the fulfilment of a prophecy: for every human being should be the realisation of some ideal, either in the mind of God or in the mind of man.  Christ found the type and fixed it, and the dream of a Virgilian poet, either at Jerusalem or at Babylon, became in the long progress of the centuries incarnate in him for whom the world was waiting.

To me one of the things in history the most to be regretted is that the Christ’s own renaissance, which has produced the Cathedral at Chartres, the Arthurian cycle of legends, the life of St. Francis of Assisi, the art of Giotto, and Dante’s Divine Comedy, was not allowed to develop on its own lines, but was interrupted and spoiled by the dreary classical Renaissance that gave us Petrarch, and Raphael’s frescoes, and Palladian architecture, and formal French tragedy, and St. Paul’s Cathedral, and Pope’s poetry, and everything that is made from without and by dead rules, and does not spring from within through some spirit informing it.  But wherever there is a romantic movement in art there somehow, and under some form, is Christ, or the soul of Christ.  He is in Romeo and Juliet, in the Winter’s Tale, in Provençal poetry, in the Ancient Mariner, in La Belle Dame sans merci, and in Chatterton’s Ballad of Charity.

We owe to him the most diverse things and people.  Hugo’s Les Misérables, Baudelaire’s Fleurs du Mal, the note of pity in Russian novels, Verlaine and Verlaine’s poems, the stained glass and tapestries and the quattro-cento work of Burne-Jones and Morris, belong to him no less than the tower of Giotto, Lancelot and Guinevere, Tannhäuser, the troubled romantic marbles of Michael Angelo, pointed architecture, and the love of children and flowers—for both of which, indeed, in classical art there was but little place, hardly enough for them to grow or play in, but which, from the twelfth century down to our own day, have been continually making their appearances in art, under various modes and at various times, coming fitfully and wilfully, as children, as flowers, are apt to do: spring always seeming to one as if the flowers had been in hiding, and only came out into the sun because they were afraid that grown up people would grow tired of looking for them and give up the search; and the life of a child being no more than an April day on which there is both rain and sun for the narcissus.


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