On 18 February 1895, the Marquess left his calling card at Wilde's club, the Albemarle, inscribed: "For Oscar Wilde, posing somdomite [sic]".[Notes 5] Wilde, egged on by Douglas and against the advice of his friends, initiated a private prosecution against Queensberry, who was arrested on a charge of criminal libel: as sodomy was then a crime, Queensberry's note amounted to a public accusation that Wilde had committed a felony. Queensberry could avoid conviction for libel only by demonstrating that his accusation was in fact true.
The libel trial became a cause célèbre as salacious details of Wilde's private life with Taylor and Douglas began to appear in the press. A team of private detectives had directed Queensberry's lawyers, led by Edward Carson QC, to the world of the Victorian underground. Wilde's association with blackmailers and male prostitutes, cross-dressers and homosexual brothels was recorded, and various persons involved were interviewed, some being coerced to appear as witnesses, since they too were accomplices to the crimes Wilde was accused of.
The trial opened on 3 April 1895 amongst scenes of near hysteria both in the press and the public galleries. The extent of the evidence massed against Wilde forced him to declare meekly, "I am the prosecutor in this case". Wilde's lawyer, Sir Edward George Clarke, opened the case by pre-emptively asking Wilde about two suggestive letters Wilde had written to Douglas, which the defence had in its possession. He characterised the first as a "prose sonnet" and admitted that the "poetical language" might seem strange to the court but claimed its intent was innocent. Wilde stated that the letters had been obtained by blackmailers who had attempted to extort money from him, but he had refused, suggesting they should take the £60 offered, "unusual for a prose piece of that length". He claimed to regard the letters as works of art rather than as something to be ashamed of.
Carson cross-examined Wilde on how he perceived the moral content of his works. Wilde replied with characteristic wit and flippancy, claiming that works of art are not capable of being moral or immoral but only well or poorly made, and that only "brutes and illiterates," whose views on art "are incalculably stupid", would make such judgements about art. Carson, a leading barrister at the time, diverged from the normal practice of asking closed questions. Carson pressed Wilde on each topic from every angle, squeezing out nuances of meaning from Wilde's answers, removing them from their aesthetic context and portraying Wilde as evasive and decadent. While Wilde won the most laughs from the court, Carson scored the most legal points. In seeking to justify Lord Queensberry's description of Wilde as a poseur, he allowed Wilde to strike poses, which the latter did.
Carson then moved to the factual evidence and questioned Wilde about his acquaintances with younger, lower-class men. Wilde admitted being on a first-name basis and lavishing gifts upon them, but insisted that nothing untoward had occurred and that the men were merely good friends of his. Carson repeatedly pointed out the unusual nature of these relationships and insinuated that the men were prostitutes. Wilde replied that he did not believe in social barriers, and simply enjoyed the society of young men. Then Carson asked Wilde directly whether he had ever kissed a certain servant boy, Wilde responded, "Oh, dear no. He was a particularly plain boy – unfortunately ugly – I pitied him for it." Carson pressed him on the answer, repeatedly asking why the boy's ugliness was relevant. Wilde hesitated, then for the first time became flustered: "You sting me and insult me and try to unnerve me; and at times one says things flippantly when one ought to speak more seriously."
In his opening speech for the defence, Carson announced that he had located several male prostitutes who were to testify that they had had sex with Wilde. On the advice of his lawyers, Wilde dropped the prosecution. Queensberry was found not guilty, as the court declared that his accusation that Wilde was "posing as a Somdomite" [sic] was justified, "true in substance and in fact." Under the Libel Act 1843, Queensberry's acquittal rendered Wilde legally liable for the considerable expenses Queensberry had incurred in his defence, which left Wilde bankrupt
The Crown vs Wilde
After Wilde left the court, a warrant for his arrest was applied for on charges of sodomy and gross indecency. Robbie Ross found Wilde at the Cadogan Hotel, Knightsbridge with Reginald Turner; both men advised Wilde to go at once to Dover and try to get a boat to France; his mother advised him to stay and fight like a man. Wilde, lapsing into inaction, could only say, "The train has gone. It's too late." Wilde was arrested for "gross indecency" under Section 11 of the Criminal Law Amendment Act 1885, a term meaning homosexual acts not amounting to buggery (an offence under a separate statute). At Wilde's instruction, Ross and Wilde's butler forced their way into the bedroom and library of 16 Tite Street, packing some personal effects, manuscripts, and letters. Wilde was then imprisoned on remand at Holloway where he received daily visits from Douglas.
Events moved quickly and his prosecution opened on 26 April 1895. Wilde pleaded not guilty. He had already begged Douglas to leave London for Paris, but Douglas complained bitterly, even wanting to take the stand; however he was pressed to go and soon fled to the Hotel du Monde. Fearing persecution, Ross and many other gentlemen also left the United Kingdom during this time. Under cross examination Wilde was at first hesitant, then spoke eloquently:
Charles Gill (prosecuting): What is "the love that dare not speak its name?"
Wilde: "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."
This response was, however, counterproductive in a legal sense as it only served to reinforce the charges of homosexual behaviour. The trial ended with the jury unable to reach a verdict. Wilde's counsel, Sir Edward Clarke, was finally able to agree bail. The Reverend Stewart Headlam put up most of the £5,000 bail, having disagreed with Wilde's treatment by the press and the courts. Wilde was freed from Holloway and, shunning attention, went into hiding at the house of Ernest and Ada Leverson, two of his firm friends. Edward Carson approached Frank Lockwood QC, the Solicitor General and asked "Can we not let up on the fellow now?" Lockwood answered that he would like to do so, but feared that the case had become too politicised to be dropped.
The final trial was presided over by Mr Justice Wills. On 25 May 1895 Wilde and Alfred Taylor were convicted of gross indecency and sentenced to two years' hard labour. The judge described the sentence, the maximum allowed, as "totally inadequate for a case such as this," and that the case was "the worst case I have ever tried". Wilde's response "And I? May I say nothing, my Lord?" was drowned out in cries of "Shame" in the courtroom.
When first I was put into prison some people advised me to try and forget who I was. It was ruinous advice. It is only by realising what I am that I have found comfort of any kind. Now I am advised by others to try on my release to forget that I have ever been in a prison at all. I know that would be equally fatal. It would mean that I would always be haunted by an intolerable sense of disgrace, and that those things that are meant for me as much as for anybody else - the beauty of the sun and moon, the pageant of the seasons, the music of daybreak and the silence of great nights, the rain falling through the leaves, or the dew creeping over the grass and making it silver - would all be tainted for me, and lose their healing power, and their power of communicating joy. To regret one's own experiences is to arrest one's own development. To deny one's own experiences is to put a lie into the lips of one's own life. It is no less than a denial of the soul.
Wilde was imprisoned first in Pentonville and then Wandsworth prisons in London. The regime at the time was tough; "hard labour, hard fare and a hard bed" was the guiding philosophy. It wore particularly harshly on Wilde as a gentleman and his status provided him no special privileges. In November he was forced to attend Chapel, and there he was so weak from illness and hunger that he collapsed, bursting his right ear drum, an injury that would later contribute to his death. He spent two months in the infirmary.
Richard B. Haldane, the Liberal MP and reformer, visited him and had him transferred in November to HM's Prison, Reading, 30 miles west of London. The transfer itself was the lowest point of his incarceration, as a crowd jeered and spat at him on the platform. Now known as prisoner C. 3.3 he was not, at first, even allowed paper and pen but Haldane eventually succeeded in allowing access to books and writing materials. Wilde requested, among others: the Bible in French, Italian and German grammars, some Ancient Greek texts, Dante's Divine Comedy, En Route, Joris-Karl Huysmans's new French novel about Christian redemption; and essays by St Augustine, Cardinal Newman and Walter Pater.
Between January and March 1897 Wilde wrote a 50,000-word letter to Douglas, which he was not allowed to send, but was permitted to take with him upon release. In it he coldly examines his life with Douglas leading up to his demise, repudiating him for what Wilde finally sees as his arrogance and vanity: he had not forgotten Douglas's remark, when he was ill, "When you are not on your pedestal you are not interesting." Wilde blamed himself, though, for the ethical degradation of character that he allowed Douglas to bring about on him and took responsibility for his own fall, "I am here for having tried to put your father in prison." The first half concludes with Wilde's forgiving Douglas, for his own sake as much as Douglas'. The second half of the letter traces Wilde's spiritual journey of redemption and fulfilment through his prison reading. He realised that his ordeal had filled the soul with the fruit of experience, however bitter it tasted at the time.
...I wanted to eat of the fruit of all the trees in the garden of the world... 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.
On his release, he gave the manuscript to Ross, who may or may not have carried out Wilde's instructions to send a copy to Douglas (who later denied having received it). De Profundis was partially published in 1905, its complete and correct publication first occurred in 1962 in The Letters of Oscar Wilde.
Wilde was released on 19 May 1897, and though his health had suffered greatly, he had a feeling of spiritual renewal. He immediately wrote to the Society of Jesus requesting a six-month Catholic retreat; when the request was denied, Wilde wept. "I intend to be received before long", Wilde told a journalist who asked about his religious intentions. He left England the next day for the continent, to spend his last three years in penniless exile. He took the name "Sebastian Melmoth", after Saint Sebastian, and the titular character of Melmoth the Wanderer; a gothic novel by Charles Maturin, Wilde's great-uncle. Wilde wrote two long letters to the editor of the Daily Chronicle, describing the brutal conditions of English prisons and advocating penal reform. His discussion of the dismissal of Warder Martin, for giving biscuits to an anemic child prisoner, repeated the themes of the corruption and degeneration of punishment that he had earlier outlined in The Soul of Man Under Socialism.
Wilde spent mid-1897 with Robert Ross in Berneval-le-Grand, where he wrote The Ballad of Reading Gaol. The poem narrates the execution of a man who murdered his wife for her infidelity; it moves from an objective story-telling to symbolic identification with the prisoners as a whole. No attempt is made to assess the justice of the laws which convicted them, but rather the poem highlights the brutalisation of the punishment that all convicts share. Wilde juxtaposes the executed man and himself with the line "Yet each man kills the thing he loves". Wilde too was separated from his wife and sons. He adopted the proletarian ballad form, and the author was credited as "C.3.3." He suggested it be published in Reynold's Magazine, "because it circulates widely among the criminal classes – to which I now belong – for once I will be read by my peers – a new experience for me". It was a commercial success, going through seven editions in less than two years, only after which "[Oscar Wilde]" was added to the title page, though many in literary circles had known Wilde to be the author. It brought him a little money.
Although Douglas had been the cause of his misfortunes, he and Wilde were reunited in August 1897 at Rouen. This meeting was disapproved of by the friends and families of both men. Constance Wilde was already refusing to meet Wilde or allow him to see their sons, though she kept him supplied with money. During the latter part of 1897, Wilde and Douglas lived together near Naples for a few months until they were separated by their respective families under the threat of a cutting-off of funds.
Wilde's final address was at the dingy Hôtel d'Alsace (now known as L'Hôtel), in Paris; "This poverty really breaks one's heart: it is so sale, so utterly depressing, so hopeless. Pray do what you can" he wrote to his publisher. He corrected and published An Ideal Husband and The Importance of Being Earnest, the proofs of which Ellmann argues show a man "very much in command of himself and of the play" but he refused to write anything else "I can write, but have lost the joy of writing". He spent much time wandering the Boulevards alone, and spent what little money he had on alcohol. A series of embarrassing encounters with English visitors, or Frenchmen he had known in better days, further damaged his spirit. Soon Wilde was sufficiently confined to his hotel to remark, on one of his final trips outside, "My wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death. One of us has got to go." On 12 October 1900 he sent a telegram to Ross: "Terribly weak. Please come." His moods fluctuated; Max Beerbohm relates how their mutual friend Reginald 'Reggie' Turner had found Wilde very depressed after a nightmare. "I dreamt that I had died, and was supping with the dead!" "I am sure", Turner replied, "that you must have been the life and soul of the party. Turner was one of the very few of the old circle who remained with Wilde right to the end, and was at his bedside when he died.
By 25 November Wilde had developed cerebral meningitis and was injected with morphine, his mind wandering during those periods when he regained consciousness. Robbie Ross arrived on 29 November and sent for a priest, and Wilde was conditionally baptised into the Catholic Church by Fr Cuthbert Dunne, a Passionist priest from Dublin (the sacrament being conditional because of the doctrine that one may only be baptised once — Wilde having a recollection of Catholic baptism as child, a fact later attested to by the minister of the sacrament, Fr Lawrence Fox). Fr Dunne recorded the baptism:
As the voiture rolled through the dark streets that wintry night, the sad story of Oscar Wilde was in part repeated to me....Robert Ross knelt by the bedside, assisting me as best he could while I administered conditional baptism, and afterwards answering the responses while I gave Extreme Unction to the prostrate man and recited the prayers for the dying. As the man was in a semi-comatose condition, I did not venture to administer the Holy Viaticum; still I must add that he could be roused and was roused from this state in my presence. When roused, he gave signs of being inwardly conscious… Indeed I was fully satisfied that he understood me when told that I was about to receive him into the Catholic Church and gave him the Last Sacraments… And when I repeated close to his ear the Holy Names, the Acts of Contrition, Faith, Hope and Charity, with acts of humble resignation to the Will of God, he tried all through to say the words after me.
Wilde was initially buried in the Cimetière de Bagneux outside Paris; in 1909 his remains were disinterred to Père Lachaise Cemetery, inside the city. His tomb was designed by Sir Jacob Epstein, commissioned by Robert Ross, who asked for a small compartment to be made for his own ashes which were duly transferred in 1950. In 2000, Leon Johnson, a multimedia artist, installed a silver prosthesis to replace them.
The epitaph is a verse from The Ballad of Reading Gaol: