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De Profundis (version 2)

I write this account of the mode of my being transferred here simply that it should be realised how hard it has been for me to get anything out of my punishment but bitterness and despair.  I have, however, to do it, and now and then I have moments of submission and acceptance.  All the spring may be hidden in the single bud, and the low ground nest of the lark may hold the joy that is to herald the feet of many rose-red dawns.  So perhaps whatever beauty of life still remains to me is contained in some moment of surrender, abasement, and humiliation.  I can, at any rate, merely proceed on the lines of my own development, and, accepting all that has happened to me, make myself worthy of it.

People used to say of me that I was too individualistic.  I must be far more of an individualist than ever I was.  I must get far more out of myself than ever I got, and ask far less of the world than ever I asked.  Indeed, my ruin came not from too great individualism of life, but from too little.  The one disgraceful, unpardonable, and to all time contemptible action of my life was to allow myself to appeal to society for help and protection.  To have made such an appeal would have been from the individualist point of view bad enough, but what excuse can there ever be put forward for having made it?  Of course once I had put into motion the forces of society, society turned on me and said, ‘Have you been living all this time in defiance of my laws, and do you now appeal to those laws for protection?  You shall have those laws exercised to the full.  You shall abide by what you have appealed to.’  The result is I am in gaol.  Certainly no man ever fell so ignobly, and by such ignoble instruments, as I did.

The Philistine element in life is not the failure to understand art.  Charming people, such as fishermen, shepherds, ploughboys, peasants and the like, know nothing about art, and are the very salt of the earth.  He is the Philistine who upholds and aids the heavy, cumbrous, blind, mechanical forces of society, and who does not recognise dynamic force when he meets it either in a man or a movement.

People thought it dreadful of me to have entertained at dinner the evil things of life, and to have found pleasure in their company.  But then, from the point of view through which I, as an artist in life, approach them they were delightfully suggestive and stimulating.  The danger was half the excitement. . . . My business as an artist was with Ariel.  I set myself to wrestle with Caliban. . . .

A great friend of mine—a friend of ten years’ standing—came to see me some time ago, and told me that he did not believe a single word of what was said against me, and wished me to know that he considered me quite innocent, and the victim of a hideous plot.  I burst into tears at what he said, and told him that while there was much amongst the definite charges that was quite untrue and transferred to me by revolting malice, still that my life had been full of perverse pleasures, and that unless he accepted that as a fact about me and realised it to the full I could not possibly be friends with him any more, or ever be in his company.  It was a terrible shock to him, but we are friends, and I have not got his friendship on false pretences.

Emotional forces, as I say somewhere in Intentions, are as limited in extent and duration as the forces of physical energy.  The little cup that is made to hold so much can hold so much and no more, though all the purple vats of Burgundy be filled with wine to the brim, and the treaders stand knee-deep in the gathered grapes of the stony vineyards of Spain.  There is no error more common than that of thinking that those who are the causes or occasions of great tragedies share in the feelings suitable to the tragic mood: no error more fatal than expecting it of them.  The martyr in his ‘shirt of flame’ may be looking on the face of God, but to him who is piling the faggots or loosening the logs for the blast the whole scene is no more than the slaying of an ox is to the butcher, or the felling of a tree to the charcoal burner in the forest, or the fall of a flower to one who is mowing down the grass with a scythe.  Great passions are for the great of soul, and great events can be seen only by those who are on a level with them.

* * * * *

I know of nothing in all drama more incomparable from the point of view of art, nothing more suggestive in its subtlety of observation, than Shakespeare’s drawing of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.  They are Hamlet’s college friends.  They have been his companions.  They bring with them memories of pleasant days together.  At the moment when they come across him in the play he is staggering under the weight of a burden intolerable to one of his temperament.  The dead have come armed out of the grave to impose on him a mission at once too great and too mean for him.  He is a dreamer, and he is called upon to act.  He has the nature of the poet, and he is asked to grapple with the common complexity of cause and effect, with life in its practical realisation, of which he knows nothing, not with life in its ideal essence, of which he knows so much.  He has no conception of what to do, and his folly is to feign folly.  Brutus used madness as a cloak to conceal the sword of his purpose, the dagger of his will, but the Hamlet madness is a mere mask for the hiding of weakness.  In the making of fancies and jests he sees a chance of delay.  He keeps playing with action as an artist plays with a theory.  He makes himself the spy of his proper actions, and listening to his own words knows them to be but ‘words, words, words.’  Instead of trying to be the hero of his own history, he seeks to be the spectator of his own tragedy.  He disbelieves in everything, including himself, and yet his doubt helps him not, as it comes not from scepticism but from a divided will.

Of all this Guildenstern and Rosencrantz realise nothing.  They bow and smirk and smile, and what the one says the other echoes with sickliest intonation.  When, at last, by means of the play within the play, and the puppets in their dalliance, Hamlet ‘catches the conscience’ of the King, and drives the wretched man in terror from his throne, Guildenstern and Rosencrantz see no more in his conduct than a rather painful breach of Court etiquette.  That is as far as they can attain to in ‘the contemplation of the spectacle of life with appropriate emotions.’  They are close to his very secret and know nothing of it.  Nor would there be any use in telling them.  They are the little cups that can hold so much and no more.  Towards the close it is suggested that, caught in a cunning spring set for another, they have met, or may meet, with a violent and sudden death.  But a tragic ending of this kind, though touched by Hamlet’s humour with something of the surprise and justice of comedy, is really not for such as they.  They never die.  Horatio, who in order to ‘report Hamlet and his cause aright to the unsatisfied,’

‘Absents him from felicity a while,
And in this harsh world draws his breath in pain,’

dies, but Guildenstern and Rosencrantz are as immortal as Angelo and Tartuffe, and should rank with them.  They are what modern life has contributed to the antique ideal of friendship.  He who writes a new De Amicitia must find a niche for them, and praise them in Tusculan prose.  They are types fixed for all time.  To censure them would show ‘a lack of appreciation.’  They are merely out of their sphere: that is all.  In sublimity of soul there is no contagion.  High thoughts and high emotions are by their very existence isolated.

* * * * *

I am to be released, if all goes well with me, towards the end of May, and hope to go at once to some little sea-side village abroad with R--- and M---.

The sea, as Euripides says in one of his plays about Iphigeneia, washes away the stains and wounds of the world.

I hope to be at least a month with my friends, and to gain peace and balance, and a less troubled heart, and a sweeter mood.  I have a strange longing for the great simple primeval things, such as the sea, to me no less of a mother than the Earth.  It seems to me that we all look at Nature too much, and live with her too little.  I discern great sanity in the Greek attitude.  They never chattered about sunsets, or discussed whether the shadows on the grass were really mauve or not.  But they saw that the sea was for the swimmer, and the sand for the feet of the runner.  They loved the trees for the shadow that they cast, and the forest for its silence at noon.  The vineyard-dresser wreathed his hair with ivy that he might keep off the rays of the sun as he stooped over the young shoots, and for the artist and the athlete, the two types that Greece gave us, they plaited with garlands the leaves of the bitter laurel and of the wild parsley, which else had been of no service to men.

We call ours a utilitarian age, and we do not know the uses of any single thing.  We have forgotten that water can cleanse, and fire purify, and that the Earth is mother to us all.  As a consequence our art is of the moon and plays with shadows, while Greek art is of the sun and deals directly with things.  I feel sure that in elemental forces there is purification, and I want to go back to them and live in their presence.

Of course to one so modern as I am, ‘Enfant de mon siècle,’ merely to look at the world will be always lovely.  I tremble with pleasure when I think that on the very day of my leaving prison both the laburnum and the lilac will be blooming in the gardens, and that I shall see the wind stir into restless beauty the swaying gold of the one, and make the other toss the pale purple of its plumes, so that all the air shall be Arabia for me.  Linnaeus fell on his knees and wept for joy when he saw for the first time the long heath of some English upland made yellow with the tawny aromatic brooms of the common furze; and I know that for me, to whom flowers are part of desire, there are tears waiting in the petals of some rose.  It has always been so with me from my boyhood.  There is not a single colour hidden away in the chalice of a flower, or the curve of a shell, to which, by some subtle sympathy with the very soul of things, my nature does not answer.  Like Gautier, I have always been one of those ‘pour qui le monde visible existe.’

Still, I am conscious now that behind all this beauty, satisfying though it may be, there is some spirit hidden of which the painted forms and shapes are but modes of manifestation, and it is with this spirit that I desire to become in harmony.  I have grown tired of the articulate utterances of men and things.  The Mystical in Art, the Mystical in Life, the Mystical in Nature this is what I am looking for.  It is absolutely necessary for me to find it somewhere.

All trials are trials for one’s life, just as all sentences are sentences of death; and three times have I been tried.  The first time I left the box to be arrested, the second time to be led back to the house of detention, the third time to pass into a prison for two years.  Society, as we have constituted it, will have no place for me, has none to offer; but Nature, whose sweet rains fall on unjust and just alike, will have clefts in the rocks where I may hide, and secret valleys in whose silence I may weep undisturbed.  She will hang the night with stars so that I may walk abroad in the darkness without stumbling, and send the wind over my footprints so that none may track me to my hurt: she will cleanse me in great waters, and with bitter herbs make me whole.


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