Horst Schroeder

The ‘Definitive’ Edition of Oscar Wilde’s De Profundis

At the beginning of this year Wilde’s long letter to Douglas, commonly known as De Profundis, was at long last published in the Oxford English Texts series, the declared aim of which is ‘to establish an authoritative (and perhaps definitive) text of each of Wilde’s works’ (Ian Small, ed., p. 1).

To achieve this objective, as the editor rightly says, it is first of all important ‘to lay all the relevant texts and the pertinent textual evidence in front of readers in order to enable them to navigate through the difficulties which that material raises’ (ibid.). As regards De Profundis, ‘the number of documents (or texts) in question’ is, in the opinion of the editor, fortunately ‘relatively small’ (ibid.), consisting of the manuscript at the British Library, Ross’s editions of 1905 and 1908, a typescript at the William Andrews Clark Library, and Vyvyan Holland’s edition of 1949 (which serves as the base-text of the new edition).

This seems to me an unjustified restriction of the available ‘textual evidence’ as it overlooks the vital clues which are contained in the four editions of Wilde’s letter brought out by the German critic and translator Max Meyerfeld (1875 – 1940). To show this, I will discuss each of these editions in detail. Finally, I will draw my own conclusions from the ‘textual evidence’ as it presents itself to me.



‘De Profundis / Aufzeichnungen und Briefe aus dem Zuchthause in Reading,’ Die neue Rundschau (Berlin), vol. XVI, no. 1 (January 1905), pp. 86 – 104; no. 2 (February 1905), pp. 163 – 191.

First (incomplete) publication of De Profundis, to which are added extracts from four letters which Wilde wrote from prison to Robert Ross, viz. the letters of 6 April 1897 (misdated 6 January 1896), 10 March 1896, November 1896 (misdated 6 April 1896), and 1 April 1897. – Ornamental initials and other designs by the artist Emil Rudolf Weiss (1875 – 1942), whose art nouveau work exercised a considerable influence on German book illustration.

The edition proper is preceded by the following note, written in English: ‘This is the only work written by Oscar Wilde in Prison. The manuscript was sent by him to Robert Ross, with a letter authorising him to publish it at his discretion. These extracts have been made by Robert Ross and entrusted to Dr. Max Meyerfeld for translation into German. No copy or transcript in English must be taken. The English and American copyright being retained by Robert Ross, the literary executor of Oscar Wilde. The Copyright for Germany is given by Robert Ross to Dr. Max Meyerfeld on the understanding that no transcript in English is to be taken therefrom.” - Preceding the four letters is another note, again written in English: ‘These copies have been taken for the sole use of Dr. Max Meyerfeld. No other English transcript is to be made. The copyright for England and America being retained by Robert Ross.’

As for Meyerfeld’s introduction, the following passages are of particular interest: ‘Wilde had spent about twenty months of his sentence of two years imprisonment when he set about to revive the Oscar Wilde of former times, the brilliant “King of Life,” in the splendour of his glory in order to place beside him the man purified by sorrow, who saw a “vita nuova” rising before him … In the twilight of his prison cell Wilde wrote down the distressing confessions of his autobiography … De Profundis moves us to the depths of our souls. A thrilling poem which stands a good chance to survive most of Oscar Wilde’s other works. And its outer form remains a miracle. These sentences, chased in polished prose, rich in antitheses and thirsting for the beauty of language, were written by someone who had long been forbidden to use pen and paper, who had not even been allowed to speak, whose “silence was heard only of God.” … There was no reason to bring out an annotated edition: what would have been unintelligible to the German reader, I have tried to explain by occasional small additions to the text. [There are in fact, however, only three such additions: “Sandford and Merton” (CL [Complete Letters] 719) reads “Sandford and Merton, our children’s book heroes” (MM [Max Meyerfeld] 88), Pater’s “Marius the Epicurean” (CL 740) becomes “his novel Marius the Epicurean” (MM 104), and the phrase “in The Ancient Mariner” (CL 747) is enlarged to “in Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner.” (MM 169)] Before long some scholar will fall upon the work anyway … Robert Ross, Wilde’s literary executor, deserves our sincerest thanks for having brought himself to hand over this document of his friend to the public. In England publication of it is impossible at the moment, will perhaps be impossible for all eternity. Therefore we rejoice all the more that Ross thought fit to present us with this delightful gift. Shakespeare has become a German classic; Lord Byron has found a home here; why shouldn’t we offer it to the exiled Oscar Wilde?’


De Profundis / Aufzeichnungen und Briefe aus dem Zuchthaus in Reading, Berlin: S. Fischer 1905. [Title page and initial letters by Walter Tiemann.]

Publication of the preceding title in book form. (S. Fischer was also the publisher of Die neue Rundschau.) The book was published on 11 February 1905 or shortly before. (See Börsenblatt für den Deutschen Buchhandel [Leipzig], vol. 72, 11 February 1905, p. 1452.) Thus it was about two weeks earlier than the English edition, which was published on 23 February 1905. (Mason’s remark that the German book edition was ‘later in the year’ is not correct.) The book ran into eight editions before the year was out. In 1906 the ninth and tenth editions appeared, to be followed by the eleventh to thirteenth editions in 1907. – Walter Tiemann (1876 – 1951) was one of the pioneers of modern book and fount design in Germany.

The book edition is by and large identical with the periodical publication. The following differences, however, should be observed: first, the note, written in English and asserting Robert Ross’s copyright, is transferred to the free endpaper. Second, the ‘Preface,’ dated ‘January 1905,’ while echoing strongly the introduction of Die neue Rundschau, concludes with the remarks: ‘When the work was entrusted to me, publication in England had not yet been considered. Since then, however, due to the uncertain complicated legal situation, it has proved to be necessary to bring out an English edition. The latter will take nothing away from the authentic value of the German one: we were in the position to publish the work first, and we produce it as completely as possible, whereas the English edition had to put up with many a cut and had to do without the letters, which offer the best commentary on Wilde’s notes from prison.’ Third, with regard to the text, a handful of errors have been corrected; but there are also a substantial number of minor revisions (in particular tenses and spelling).

Though well aware of the existence of Meyerfeld’s two editions of 1905, the international world of learning has regrettably not paid much attention to them, most probably because present-day scholars, not sufficiently familiar with German any more, have allowed themselves to be lulled into a false sense of security, assuming that the deficiencies of the English edition of 1905 had been made good by Ross in his enlarged edition of 1908. But the matter is more complicated.

Let it be remembered that when Ross entrusted Meyerfeld with the copy-text for his edition in 1904, Ross himself had not yet considered publication in English. Small wonder then that Meyerfeld’s text is very often much closer to the original manuscript, whereas Ross’s edition – quite apart from the numerous omissions of whole paragraphs – shows a great number of last minute redactions and, respectively, slips. Here are some of these textual differences: ‘My wife, at that time kind and gentle to me’ (CL 721 / MM 4): for ‘at that time’ Ross has ‘always’ [RR 14]); ‘we eat and drink and walk and lie down and pray’ (CL 720 / MM 2): italicised phrase omitted by Ross [RR 11]); ‘as it is always midnight in one’s heart’ (CL 720 / MM 3): for ‘midnight’ Ross has ‘twilight’ [RR 13]); ‘the gold cloth of Dorian Gray’ (CL 740 / MM 41): for ‘the gold cloth’ Ross has ‘the texture’ [RR 66]); etc.

Of course Meyerfeld could not be more faithful to the original manuscript than the copy-text which he had been given. So in contrast to the manuscript (cf. CL 754), but in accordance with Ross, Meyerfeld used a comma, where the manuscript shows an exclamation mark: ‘What an ending, what an appalling ending’ (MM 74 / RR 122); Ross’s misreading of the alliterative phrase ‘heal us and help us’ (CL 728) is likewise echoed by Meyerfeld (MM 11 / RR 20), as is Ross’s slip over the phrase ‘they are merely channels’ (CL 748: Ross and Meyerfeld have ‘really’ instead of ‘merely’ [RR 98 / MM 60]); etc.

Now and then, of course, Meyerfeld tripped up on his copy-text himself. But only in a few instances did he take the liberty to ‘emend’ it. The most remarkable is his use of the singular form where Wilde had used the plural in his discussion of Hamlet: ‘The dead have come armed out of the grave to impose on him a mission at once too great and too mean for him.’ (CL 772; cf. MM 88).


De Profundis. Neue deutsche Ausgabe, Berlin: S. Fischer 1909.

Enlarged and revised version of the book edition of 1905, retaining its numeration: 14th – 16th ed. 1909; 17th – 18th ed. 1912; 19th ed. 1914; 20th ed. 1916; 21st ed. 1917; 22nd – 25th ed. 1919; 26th – 29th ed. 1920; 30th – 33rd ed. 1922; 34th – 35th ed. 1926. – Contents: [1] Dedication to the German Editor (a verbatim reprint [in English] of the ‘Prefatory Dedication to Dr. Max Meyerfeld’ of Ross’s edition of 1908); [2] Introduction (dated 31 August 1908, perhaps on purpose to give the undertaking the appearance of being an answer to Ross’s edition, whose ‘Prefatory Dedication’ was dated 31 August 1907); [3] Epistola: In Carcere et Vinculis (the new title decided upon by Meyerfeld for Wilde’s letter to Douglas); [4] Four Letters from Reading Gaol to Robert Ross (as in the edition of 1905 but with the dates corrected); [5] Explanatory Notes.

If the English speaking world had at least been aware of the existence of Meyerfeld’s periodical and book editions of De Profundis published in 1905, his ‘neue deutsche Ausgabe’ seems to have passed them by completely. Even Mason does not mention it. And yet, a mere look at the Introduction would already have shown how ‘pertinent’ it is:

‘It had long been my wish to bring out De Profundis in a new German version; but I decided to wait until the publication of the Collected Edition of the Works of Oscar Wilde, because I expected from it considerable additions and, above all, the definitive text.

My translation …, which was based on a typewritten copy, differed from the English edition … quite considerably, in particular with regard to structure and occasionally also with regard to wording. There were two advantages which it unquestionably had over the text of the English edition: it often reproduced – there could be no doubt about it – the original more faithfully, and it was more comprehensive.

In 1905 Robert Ross, the poet’s literary executor, had to show consideration for the general opinion in England. Wilde’s name was still disgraced, and it was difficult to predict how the British public would receive this most personal work of the outcast. Therefore it was advisable either to omit delicate passages or to tone them down … And the success, which was beyond all expectations, has proved Ross right: De Profundis was enthusiastically received, as no other work of the author had been received during his lifetime, and it has since been translated into all major European languages.

Thereupon Ross was justified in incorporating an enlarged De Profundis into the oeuvre of Oscar Wilde’s which was being edited under his direction … Not only have the passages been added [with a few exceptions, it should be noted] which, though they had been published in Germany, had been suppressed in England for the sake of Mrs Grundy, but some others, hitherto unknown, have been added as well so that the document, as it presents itself now, has to be regarded as the editor’s definitive text. Since Ross is the sole literary executor of his friend, he is the highest authority.

Though De Profundis has now become more comprehensive, it is still far, far from being complete … The way things are in England we could not get the text in its entirety and will not get it in the foreseeable future … In Germany we are fortunately less trammelled in these respects. I was under no such restrictions and therefore did not have any scruples in producing the full names wherever I could fill in dashes or could guess initials. [There is one misidentification, though, when Meyerfeld suggested the name of Holman where it should have been that of Hargrove. (CL 652 / MM 126.)] The English will hardly give me any thanks for it; in spite of this I thought it my duty to conceal nothing.

Nor could I bring myself round to accept the text of the English Collected Edition throughout, much though I tried to in general. By making an exact comparison of Ross’s edition and my copy-text, I often reached the conclusion that my text represents what Wilde has actually written, whereas Ross, certainly motivated by the best intentions, occasionally thought it necessary to undertake some small revisions. There are not many such revisions, and they are not too significant. Still, it seems to me important enough … to point this out.

Only now that the work has been identified as a letter, will we be able to see it in the right perspective. De Profundis – or what we like to call De Profundis – is a letter …: a letter from Oscar Wilde in Reading Gaol to his friend Lord Alfred Douglas; a very long letter, it is true, of eighty closely written pages, but a letter nevertheless with all its characteristics. And that its writer regarded it as such is shown by the title which he suggested himself: Epistola: in Carcere et Vinculis. Since Wilde selected it himself, I determined to stick to it, though the title De Profundis has already become established. For this volume as a whole I have therefore accepted the title as given by Ross, but with regard to the text proper, usually called De Profundis, I have reverted to Wilde’s original title Epistola.

When Oscar Wilde began writing the letter, he did not think of publication. It was a private letter of “changing, uncertain moods.” Only gradually, as Wilde regained pleasure in creating, some plan developed, whereas the beginning is altogether incoherent. And when this former art of creation revived, the thought probably emerged to regard the letter not only as an intimate discussion with the addressee but to let a few selected friends in on part of its content. But so much is certain: publication was not thought of at the beginning. This should never be forgotten when one wants to form an opinion of the work …’

The most exciting piece of information contained in this Introduction is no doubt the identification of Douglas as the addressee of Wilde’s letter – i.e. some years before the British public became aware of it in the Ransome trial. Not surprisingly, the identification had some manifest textual consequences; for where Ross either kept a tactful silence or tried to evade the issue by using dashes or generalisations, Meyerfeld did not shrink back. Thus we have: ‘You knew, none better, how deeply I loved and honoured her.’ (CL 721 / MM 3: RR 32: ‘No one knew …’) ‘Yet, when all is said, surely you might have been able to understand … that … it would have been more interesting to me to hear from you than to learn that Alfred Austin was trying to bring out a volume of poems …’ (CL 726 / MM 10: in Ross’s edition dashes used instead of the personal pronoun [RR 39]). ‘I must say to myself that neither you nor your father, multiplied a thousand times over, could possibly have ruined a man like me: that I ruined myself.’ (CL 729 / MM 14: the italicised passage omitted by Ross [RR 43]). ‘Freedom, pleasure, amusements, a life of ease have been your lot.’ (CL 756 / MM 100: the whole sentence omitted by Ross [RR 138]).

Though Meyerfeld, then, showed himself unafraid on this vital issue, there are a handful of instances of minor importance where he revised his text of 1905 according to the example set by Ross. Thus the sentence ending ‘and in this manner writing’ and the sentence beginning ‘A week later’ are now likewise distanced from one another by elision marks (MM 3 / RR 32; cf. CL 720 f.). ‘Her death was so terrible to me that I have no words …’ now reads ‘Her death was terrible to me; but I have no words …’ (MM 3 / RR 32; cf. CL 721). ‘Three more months’ become ‘Three months’ (MM 5 / RR 34; cf. CL 721); etc. On the other hand, he refused – very sensibly, I think – to accept the new reading ‘Confraternity of the Fatherless’ (CL 732 / RR 54 and n.) and retained the collocation ‘Confraternity of the Faithless’ (MM 24 and 160n.).

Last but not least a few words on Meyerfeld’s Explanatory Notes: they are of a very high quality, considering the time, and in many instances anticipate the excellent notes of Holland and Hart-Davis, so much so in fact that in all these instances the references to ‘H & H-D’ in the present ‘definitive’ edition might just as well be replaced by references to ‘MM’ – the initials with which Meyerfeld signed his articles in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung and other newspapers.

A very last word: the Explanatory Notes offered Meyerfeld the opportunity to do without the additions to the text which, as mentioned above, had occasionally been thought necessary in 1905.


Epistola: In Carcere et Vinculis, Berlin: S. Fischer 1925.

‘Unabridged first edition [ungekürzte Urausgabe], authorised by the heirs of Oscar Wilde,’ preceding Vyvyan Holland’s edition of ‘the first complete and accurate version’ by no less than twenty-four years. – 2nd – 6th ed. 1925; 7th – 10th ed. 1925; 11th – 13th ed. 1929.

If the silence with which the academic community responded to Meyerfeld’s ‘neue deutsche Ausgabe’ is already astounding, its failure to notice his ‘ungekürzte Urausgabe’ – not to mention Vyvyan Holland’s strange silence over it – simply beggars description, the more so since, on the eve of publication, Meyerfeld had told the New York Times at length the story of his involvement with Wilde’s letter from Reading Gaol to Alfred Douglas: ‘“While in prison he wrote a kind of apology for his life, a manuscript amounting to about forty-five thousand words, now in the hands of his literary executor.” So it was stated in the third supplementary volume of the Dictionary of National Biography, which appeared in 1901 … I remember well how I read that notice for the first time in the Reading Room of the British Museum in London and how I immediately felt the desire to learn more about what the prisoner of Reading Gaol had written there. Impelled by that purpose, I got into communication with the writer of the short notice in the Dictionary of National Biography – Thomas Seccombe …, and he referred me to Robert Ross, Wilde’s executor …, since all his information had come from this source … And thus it came about that it was I who first published that which the world knows as De Profundis (Ross supplied this title) in the January and February, 1905, issues of the Neue Rundschau … Immediately after publication in the Berlin magazine it appeared as a book in German. Nor was the English edition long delayed … The fact that the book was written in the form of a letter was disclosed nowhere: for the purpose of keeping this concealed, Ross, whose tact and skill cannot be too highly praised, even did not refrain here and there from making slight alterations. For instance, he would substitute in place of a quite personal “you” the more general phrase “my friends,” and introduce other similar slight alterations, to say nothing of transposing sections of considerable length. He drew aside the veil a bit later when he enriched De Profundis with “additional matter” on the occasion of its appearance in the thirteen-volume edition of the Complete Works of Oscar Wilde, published by Methuen & Co. at London in 1908 … This excerpt from De Profundis, which Ross said would be final, was the basis for my new German version, published in 1909, and I felt no qualms at lifting the veil even more … Thus German readers at least knew the truth as far back as 1909; and to English readers it was no longer a secret … The son of Oscar Wilde has [now] turned over to me, in order that it may be published in German, the complete manuscript of De Profundis, of which only about two-fifths were known before. Here, then, is an instance of something hitherto almost unknown – the publication in translation, before it appears in the language in which it was originally written, of a work which, even before its appearance, has won celebrity …’ (‘De Profundis Appears in Full,’ New York Times, 21 December 1924).

The reference to ‘the complete manuscript’ is, of course, a slip and should read ‘a typescript of the complete manuscript’: after all, Meyerfeld had stated himself that ‘Ross had presented the original manuscript in 1909 to the British Museum under the strict injunction that it was not to be published until 1960.’

A collation of Meyerfeld’s edition of 1925 with Vyvyan Holland’s edition of 1949 yields the following results: First, with regard to the new material, Meyerfeld’s text is very close to that of Vyvyan Holland. Second, in a few instances his translation is more faithful to the original, whereas Vyvyan Holland’s text seems to have suffered from careless editing: ‘You wore one out’ (CL 689 / MM 12: VH [Vyvyan Holland] 21: ‘You wore me out’); ‘any other young man (CL 721 / MM 75: VH 66: ‘any other young men’); ‘contempt and scorn either’ (CL 727 / MM 84: VH 74: ‘contempt and scorn’); ‘each and all of these things I have to transform into a spiritual experience’ (CL 732 / MM 95: VH 82: ‘had’); ‘the curves and colours of the hair, the lips, the eye’ (CL 733 / MM 96: VH 83: ‘lids’). Third, in a few instances it is the other way round: ‘To see him “in the dock,” as you used to say’ (CL 709 / VH 51: quotation marks and italicised half-sentence omitted by MM [53]); ‘“possess their souls”’ (CL 744 / VH 98: quotation marks omitted by MM [118]). Fourth, no doubt in order to make his edition look unabridged, Meyerfeld did away with all elision marks, in contrast to Vyvyan Holland (see VH 65, 66, 68, 136); and he had no scruples either to correct the name of the German spa – if his copy text had indeed read ‘Homberg’ (VH 48) – so as to read ‘Bad Homburg’ (MM 49), overdoing things here since it was not until 1912 that ‘Homburg’ became ‘Bad Homburg’ (cf. CL 707). Fifth, as for the material already published by him in 1905 and 1909 respectively, Meyerfeld took it over more or less bodily, while Vyvyan Holland’s edition in this respect reflects Ross’s less comprehensive editions of 1905 and 1908: ‘Things in themselves are of little importance …’ (CL 754 / MM 136: not in VH [112]); ‘Unbeautiful are their lives who do it’ (CL 757 / MM 141: not in VH [116]); ‘And I used to feel bitterly the irony and ignominy of my position …’ (CL 758 / MM 143: not in VH [117]); etc. Sixth, the passage ‘Emotional forces, as I say somewhere in Intentions … only by those who are on a level with them’ has been curiously shifted a bit to the front (MM 160; cf. VH 135 / CL 771 f.), and the passage ‘You think that one can have one’s emotions for nothing … for to the true cynic nothing is ever revealed’ (CL 768 / VH 135 f.) is now altogether missing, though it had been inserted, together with other ‘additional matter’ from Ross, in the ‘neue deutsche Ausgabe’ of 1909 (MM 112 – 114).


From the foregoing observations it would seem to me that neither Vyvyan Holland’s edition of 1949 nor any other edition discussed above is suitable as a base-text for a definitive edition of De Profundis and that the only thing that, in the last analysis, really matters is Wilde’s manuscript.

Berlin, July 2005




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