Wilde’s Inferno: Reading Dante in Reading Gaol

I have just finished reading the 200 or so pages of the recently (well, fairly recently) published Penguin edition of Oscar Wilde’s De Profundis and other prison writings (mostly letters), edited by Colm Toibin. It has been a harrowing, serious and affecting read, which though at times a little repetitive, is nonetheless punctuated by plenty of purple passages of searingly beautiful prose.

De Profundis accounts for the main body of the book’s text. It takes the form of a letter addressed to Wilde’s lover Lord Alfred Douglas (Bosie). Bosie is upbraided throughout the letter for his callousness, frivolity and duplicity over the course of his relationship with Wilde, who himself emerges as a deeply forlorn and tragic figure from his own extended and damning description of Bosie’s behaviour.

The received wisdom is that the letter cannot be read as an accurate account of Wilde’s relationship with Bosie (since it contains, apparently, too many petty, foolish and untrue accusations). What is remarkable about the letter, Toibin thinks, and what makes it (in his estimation) Wilde’s ‘greatest piece of prose-writing’, is the ‘change it marks in Wilde’s imaginative procedures’: the ‘high priest of flippancy and mocking laughter has set himself suddenly and shockingly against shallowness’.


I am far too unread in Wilde to be able to concur with confidence that the serious tone of De Profundis is indeed entirely out of keeping with the tone he had adopted in his previous writing. It is certainly true, though, that De Profundis repeatedly takes aim at shallowness: Wilde at one point produces the memorable aphorism that shallowness is ‘the supreme vice’.

Something that struck me as I read what Wilde had communicated to the outside world during his two year stay in prison was the extent to which he knew he could find in reading books a source of deep consolation while confined in his cell. For his first few months in prison, however, reading had not been possible. This must only have served to sharpen his sense of how empty life could be – and must have been – without it (particularly, of course, within the confines of a small cell and over a course of hard labour).

In a letter sent after 13 months of imprisonment, Wilde wrote to the Home Secretary (no less) that one of the chief causes of the mental suffering he had experienced in jail had been the lack of ‘suitable or sufficient books, so essential to any literary man’. The ‘physical privations’ of jail, he continued, ‘are as nothing compared to the entire privation of literature to one to whom Literature was once the first thing of life’.

A subsequent letter, written 4 months later, indicates that Wilde had, as a result of his initial letter, been granted access to some new books in the now somewhat replenished prison library (he had complained to the Home Secretary of his dissatisfaction with the existing stock). What he liked to do when reading the books that gave him satisfaction, he wrote to a friend, was to take notes from them, copying lines and phrases from poets that spoke to him.

So what sort of reading might a master literary craftsman turn to when at his lowest ebb? Wilde had been able to exert an influence here: when writing to his contacts outside jail, he had given an indication of the sort of book he wished to have accessible to him in the prison library.

Of all the things he chose, the book that stands out before all others as the most important source of inspiration for the incarcerated Wilde is Dante’s epic poem, The Divine Comedy. Indeed the very title of Wilde’s De Profundis itself contains a possible allusion to this text. In the Inferno (the first part of the Divine Comedy), Dante had depicted himself going down to the depths of hell, accompanied by his guide, the Roman epic poet Virgil. Wilde implies that this is a journey he too (like Virgil and Dante) has had to make.

Botticelli’s depiction of Dante’s Inferno

In what ways does Dante speak to Wilde? Part of the answer here is that he speaks to him through the medium of epic poetry, which – by its nature – is a serious, weighty and grand form of writing. What kind of consolation can such writing offer? Without wishing to rely too heavily on my own pretty sketchy knowledge of The Divine Comedy, and indeed of Wilde, I want briefly to hazard an answer to these questions, as I think Wilde gives a profound illustration of how epic poetry, written in the classical tradition, can speak to the heart of the individual.

As I have mentioned, it seems to me that in De Profundis, Wilde seems very clearly to invite his reader(s) to see that he has taken the same sort of route as that which Dante himself follows in the Divine Comedy. He has passed through the depths of personal hell. And, with Dante somehow guiding him, he has managed to find the route upward toward a kind of spiritual awareness. This awareness has consisted in a dramatic and apparently newfound understanding of the reality and personhood of God through Christ (in a way roughly analogous to Dante’s experience in paradise in the final section of the Divine Comedy).

The first mention of Dante in De Profundis introduces a paradox. Wilde refers to how Walter Pater’s (then recent) book Renaissance had posed a problem to his pre-existing understanding of Dante. Pater mentions in his book that Dante encounters in a very lowly situation in the inferno (i.e. hell) those who wilfully live in sadness. To dwell sustainedly on your own misery, he sees, is to wallow in the darkest pits of the damned. And yet, notes Wilde, this Dante who condemns self-pity is the same Dante who says that ‘sorrow remarries us to God’. How could it make sense, in this light, for Dante to be so harsh to those ‘enamoured of melancholy’ in hell, Wilde wonders.

Walter Pater, the literary critic, whose writing provided Wilde with food for thought while he was in prison

Wilde does not proceed to offer a neat resolution to this apparent quandary, but subsequent sections of his letter reveal that he has found a way to see through it. For Wilde, as for Dante, in order to find God one must find him through a spiritual journey which passes through the darkest and most harrowing depths of sorrow. In the phrase of St John of the Cross (who was influenced, like Dante, by the theology of St Thomas Aquinas), one must experience the dark night of the soul. Dante depicts this in terms of a physical journey, through hell initially, via purgatory, through (finally) to paradise. But Dante’s text can equally be read as an allegory: it is a story of the stages a human soul must move through in order to establish a relationship with the divine.

Wilde has come to feel (under the special influence of Dante in particular) that sorrow is not the final word in truly lived human experience (even in jail), even if it is a vitally important component of it. Like Dante, he thinks that it does however deserve sustained attention – and he accordingly offers an arresting, melodic and sombre meditation on the subject in which Sorrow, capitalised, acquires a dramatic and hypostasised personality all of its own.

‘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…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…for the secret life is suffering, It is what is hidden behind everything’, he writes.

Wilde’s heartfelt depiction of the nature of Sorrow, I think, can be seen as a reflection of all that is most harrowing not only in Wilde’s own personal and spiritual experience (but in Dante’s Inferno too – the ‘city of weeping’, of ‘eternal sorrow’, of the ‘lost people’).*

Wilde proceeds from here in what might seem (particularly if Dante’s likely influence is not appreciated) a surprising direction. Having linked Sorrow to Truth, he then links it to Beauty and to Love, before alluding briefly to the problem of evil (or, more precisely, to the problem of pain).

He had previously thought, he says, that suffering proved that God did not love man, and that wherever there is sorrow, the whole face of creation has been marred. ‘Now it seems to me’, he says, ‘that Love of some kind is the only possible explanation of the extraordinary amount of suffering that there is in the world…if the worlds have indeed been built out of Sorrow, it has been by the hands of Love, because in no other way could the Soul of man for whom the worlds are made reach the full stature of its perfection. Pleasure for the beautiful body, but Pain for the beautiful Soul’.

A few lines later, he reveals that these insights have helped to generate in him a ‘new life, as through my love of Dante I sometimes like to call it’.

I do not think I share Wilde’s sense that by developing a sufficiently tragic and romantic sensibility, one can begin to come to terms with the problem of evil. I do share his view, however, that by acquiring such a sensibility, one can begin to approach in new light the figure of Christ – as he does at length in several rich, lyrical and beautifully rendered paragraphs over the subsequent pages of De Profundis. Rather than summarise these pages here, I will simply recommend them as wonderful (and provocative) reading.

Wilde’s encounter with the figure of Christ, as outlined in those pages, is facilitated not only by Renan’s Vie de Jésus (among several other significant texts). It also relies heavily, I think, on his engagement with Dante. It is not just that Wilde quotes directly from Dante’s description of his journey through purgatory to add colour to his description of Christ (who, he says, saw that the soul of each person should have the ‘manner of a child who laughs and weeps and behaves childishly’).**

It is also that, in order to arrive at his contemplation of the personality of Christ in De Profundis, Wilde has first had to confront and move through the depths of his despair and degradation – both in terms of the humbling vicissitudes of his relationship with Bosie, but also in terms of his experience of desperation and sorrow while in jail. This sense of somehow moving from a personal nadir of sorrow and deep anguish, all the way through to a dramatic personal and spiritual communion with God through Christ, establishes Wilde on precisely the same trajectory as that represented by Dante’s journey in the Divine Comedy.

But there is a further connection. In the Divine Comedy, as has already been mentioned, Dante encounters Virgil, who becomes his guide through his journey to hell (and beyond). In a similar way, I think, Wilde – despite not writing within the same tradition of epic poetry – manifestly considers Dante to be his foremost literary and spiritual guide, as he moves through the darkest depths of despair, and (somehow) beyond.

Dante, accompanied by Beatrice, ascending to the sphere of the sun in Paradise, as depicted by Giovanni Di Paolo

I mentioned in a previous post, which considered the dynamics of the interaction between Aeneas and Dido in Book 6 of Virgil’s Aeneid, that one important feature of epic poetry is that it can help to nurture in attentive readers a sensitive, thoughtful – and, above all, humane – approach to human dialogue and human relationships. Wilde’s reading of Dante reveals a further area in which epic poetry in the classical tradition can be seen to have something profound to say to its readers, even centuries after the event of its composition: in the context of spiritual awakening.

*Inferno 3:1-3.

**Purgatorio 16: 86-7, trans. C. Sisson.


Talking through Dido: the failure of forthright tenderness in Aeneid 6

When Aeneas catches sight of the ghost of Dido, his abandoned lover and the former Queen of Carthage, amongst a group of shades he passes on his journey into the depths of the underworld, he stops to try to talk to her. The conversation does not get off the ground. Hearing Aeneas speak, Dido shows no emotion in her facial features, which are left ‘unmoved, like hard rock’. This is in spite of the fact that we know ‘her mind is burning’. When Aeneas finishes speaking, she avoids all eye contact, staring at the ground, before retreating back into the shadows without saying a word.

Aeneas’ attempt to start a conversation with Dido is a striking failure, not least because Dido’s ghostly reticence stands in stark contrast with the outspoken, though increasingly troubled figure whom Aeneas has known in her earthly life. When he last saw her, she was in a state of furious indignation and deep melancholy at his impending departure from her kingdom. She had certainly had things to say to him previously. Why are things different now?

One reading of her response (or lack of response) to Aeneas in the underworld is that, in light of the devastation he has caused her (devastation which seems not entirely to have subsided), she really has nothing to say to him anymore. Coming face to face with him here perhaps gives Dido an opportunity to show Aeneas that she is now in a new state of mind, detached from the emotions which brought about her premature death. She is showing him that she has moved on from her state of earthly passion; that she has cried more than her share of tears for this man; and that she has perhaps found some peace of sorts in the company of the shade of her prematurely deceased husband Sychaeus (whose presence she seems to retreat toward).

Despite being plausible enough as far as it goes, for me this reading of the meeting of Aeneas and Dido in the underworld misses much of the richness and subtlety of Virgil’s presentation of their encounter. I think we can read more deeply into the dynamics of their responses to one another by looking carefully at the tone Aeneas adopts in his address of Dido and focussing on this as the likely cause of her response to him. Dido’s body language and withdrawal from Aeneas may best be seen, I think, as an implicit rejection – above all – of his tone, and the buoyant self-confidence and forthright and assertive, yet seemingly well-intentioned tenderness, it conveys.

If this is correct, one can perhaps imagine Aeneas’ words not only passing literally through Dido’s ghost, failing to register a physical impact on a phantasmagorical entity now bereft of its mortal existence. One can also imagine him talking through her, in the sense of missing the mark: missing the mark, that is, insofar as he adopts an emotional and rhetorical pose which falls well short of the kind of delicate sensitivity which an appropriate handling of this interaction would have involved.

Aeneas has entered the underworld to try to find his dead father Anchises. His motive is not simply that of a devoted son. He wishes to benefit from his father’s wisdom and foresight. He will rely on these to strengthen him as he strives to find a new homeland for his band of refugee Trojan warriors. His quest for a new home is not simply about finding appropriate land to settle. It is shown by Virgil to link profoundly to the story of the foundation and future greatness of Rome, not least insofar as Aeneas – despite being a Trojan hero – is made to embody many of the paradigmatic virtues of first century BC Augustan Rome.

Aeneas in the Underworld, by Rubens

Part of Aeneas’ problem is that he is so deeply caught up with the serious business of being the hero, leader of men and all-round man of action and adventure that he is. Virgil tells us that Aeneas addresses Dido with ‘sweet love’ in his voice (6.455), but just how much sweetness is this Odyssean swashbuckler capable of?

‘infelix Dido’ (‘unhappy/unlucky Dido’), he begins. This is a phrase which echoes other passages in the Aeneid, but it doesn’t obviously stand out for its sweetness, nor does it speak volumes for Aeneas’ capacity for sensitivity. Dido may indeed be unhappy, though why mention it – especially given that he himself is right at the root of this unhappiness?

He proceeds to ask two questions. The first aims to clarify whether Dido did indeed meet her death with a sword. The second asks if he himself had been the cause of her suicide. Aeneas immediately confronts Dido, then, with two of the most traumatic details of her existence. And, what’s more, he asks with a self-interested tone. Was Aeneas, by any chance, on her mind as Dido experienced her deepest moments of desperation?

One can understand Aeneas’ curiosity, perhaps, but why does he need to know this as a matter of urgency? One might even suggest that it is more than a bit cumbersome and unthinking of him to ask the question at all. He is rather like the person who, although he may have well-meaning concerns for an individual on his mind, just can’t help leaping into a conversation by voicing these concerns directly and straightaway, quite without regard for the emotional turbulence that doing so may cause the other party.

Aeneas continues by protesting that he didn’t want to leave Dido when he did (‘invitus, regina, tuo de litore cessi’: ‘I left your shores unwillingly, O queen’). This is not exactly new information. He has already told Dido, right on the brink of his departure from Carthage, that he is not leaving of his own accord. Here he seems to assume that she simply didn’t believe him first time round.

So now he uses emphatic words in a dramatic tricolon to promise that it really is true: ‘by the stars, by the gods and by whatever kind of faith exists within the depths of the earth’. But even if (on a charitable reading) Dido may now be better convinced of something she wasn’t before, what should this matter now? The deed has been done: Aeneas seems more concerned to justify and perhaps exculpate himself to Dido, than he does to empathise seriously with her feelings during her desperate last moments of life.

He then tells her that he cannot believe that such great grief was caused to her by his leaving Carthage. Clearly he was not paying sufficient attention during her extended emotional outpourings in Book 4. While speaking of her distress, Dido had pointedly referenced her own mortality, even claiming she was ‘going to die’ at one point (4.307). Has Aeneas simply forgotten this? Was he himself too distressed to register it when he heard it first time round? Or was he, rather, just insufficiently sympathetic to Dido’s pain properly to grasp it, being rather too focussed (for instance) on his own divinely ordained prerogatives to recognise it?

Toward the end of his speech, Aeneas issues a pair of direct commands, telling Dido to ‘stop’ and instructing her not to remove herself from his sight. Rather than telling her so abrasively what to do, could he not have implored her with soothing words, gently inviting her to share some words with him? The direct language Virgil employs helps, I think, to underscore the fact that this Aeneas is inescapably a forthright man of action who is used to commanding others with a strutting confidence. A less forthright (and more effective) approach would, perhaps, have involved a more delicate appeal to the sensibilities of his tragically jilted lover.

It is a commonplace to point out that Virgil’s Aeneas, as a prototypical Roman, simply tramples over the Carthaginian Dido in a way that represents the later Roman trampling of Carthage itself in the Punic Wars.* Aeneas stands for Rome, then, and Dido for Carthage. Many readers of Virgil sense that he is profoundly alert to the darkness and tragedy of military conquest and (specifically also of) Roman imperialism. In my opinion, Aeneas’ speech to Dido in the underworld sustains this reading. Through Aeneas, Virgil conveys something of the tactless bluster of the conquering Roman mentality, as it comes face to face with the tragic queen it has (seemingly unwittingly) brought to ruin.

TS Eliot found in Aeneas’ address of Dido in Book 6 something rather different from what I find here. For Eliot, Aeneas’ words disclose ‘civilised manners, and a civilised consciousness and conscience’.** Many other readers have found something similar, and some have admired Aeneas for his emotional articulacy in the passage, finding in him something approaching an exemplary figure who plainly and directly speaks his mind in a difficult interaction. My own reading challenges this view, which to me seems altogether too tidy and clipped. Even if Aeneas has to leave Carthage to fulfil his destiny, he still manages to get things wrong with Dido in the way he talks with her, I suggest.

Book 6 of the Aeneid, with its account of Aeneas’ descent into the underworld, enjoyed an extended afterlife as an inspiration for medieval and early modern Christian imaginings of hell. Both Dante and Milton made features of Virgil’s account central to their own epic poems.

Virgil and Dante in Hell, by Delacroix

Contemporary readers are unlikely to look to Virgil as a resource when trying to picture any possible life after death. But Virgil’s characters, and his art as a storyteller, may still hold lessons not only for how to think about human relationships, as I have explored here, but (also, among other things) for contemporary attempts to do theology.

It is a truism of many such attempts in recent Christian writing that God is a God of love who can somehow be found through the experience of love in human relationships. As a rich resource for helping people to think through the meaning of sensitivity, sympathy and love in their relationships, Virgil’s writing could arguably be as instructive to this sort of theology now as it was in stimulating the religious thought and experience of medieval Christianity.

*For example, Bruno Currie, Epilogue, in Epic Interactions: Perspectives on Homer, Virgil and the Epic Tradition, pp. 351-2.

**TS Eliot, What is a Classic? p. 20

The featured image is a painting by Jan Brueghel the Elder of Aeneas with the Sibyl in the underworld.

Bassani’s Etruscans

Language, writes Christopher Hitchens, is the magical key to prose, as much as to poetry. From the magic of the recent English translations of the Ferrara sequence of novels by Giorgio Bassani,* I can only assume that there was a great deal of enchantment in Bassani’s original Italian prose. Certainly, the haunting (haunted?) prologue of The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, which was first published in 1962, has stayed etched in my thoughts since the day I read it a couple of months ago.

Partly, I think, this is because it touches upon some of the ancient historical scenery around the city of Rome, including – for instance – the Etruscan archaeological remains at Cerveteri (remains about which I know very little). But the passage has mainly stayed with me for a different reason: the luminous way in which it combines topographical description with philosophical reflection about the historical longue durée.

By doing this, Bassani manages to place a subtle melancholy frame around the harrowing events he goes on to describe. He uses historical memory, then, as a way to achieve perspective and to infuse sadness – but also (beautifully) to demonstrate the continuing possibility of an innocent kind of hope, as we witness the exuberance of a young girl’s attempts to grapple with moral questions while engaging in serious historical thinking for what seems like the first time.

The Garden of the Finzi-Continis follows the fortunes of some young, upper crust members of the Jewish community of Ferrara in the late 1930s. The youngsters in question have a fondness for literature and discussion, for food, wine and tobacco, and for game after game of summer tennis (singles, doubles, whatever). Against this background, the marginalisation of the Jewish community that is going on in Ferrara over the course of this period, particularly as a consequence of Mussolini’s Racial Laws, gradually impinges in various ways on the characters.

Despite this descent, Bassani wants to show that the atmosphere among his characters of tender young love, carefree innocence, and coming of age discussion had not (yet) been destroyed during this time. He does this by revealing a tremendous level of poignancy, sensitivity and intimacy of feeling among his characters, the effect of which is to keep the reader focussed mainly on the contours of the personal relationships being described: the gathering political clouds which cast their increasingly ominous shadow over the ‘big picture’ landscape of the period are for their part kept mostly out of focus.

In the prologue of the story, Bassani’s characters experience the Italian landscape as a theatre of memory while out on a family day-trip. Driving toward the Etruscan necropolis at Cerveteri, not far from Rome, a discussion ensues among the passengers, the youngest of whom – Giannina – asks: ‘In the history book, the Etruscans are at the beginning, next to the Egyptians and the Jews. But Papa, who do you think were the oldest, the Etruscans or the Jews?’ A tricky question for poor Dad, who understandably deflects it – and fortunately for him an attractive double row of cypresses provides a welcome temporary distraction through the window.

Etruscan tombs at Cerveteri

The conversation lulls. Before long, though, another question breaks the silence: ‘Papa, why are old tombs less sad than new ones?’ This time Dad feels confident enough to offer what seems like a competent enough answer: ‘Well’, he says, ‘the recent dead are closer to us, and so it makes sense that we care more about them. The Etruscans, they’ve been dead such a long time – it’s as though they’d never lived, as though they were always dead’.

A pause. ‘But now you say that’, young Giannina gently responds, ‘it makes me think the opposite, that the Etruscans really did live, and that I care about them just as much as about the others’.

This remark, it turns out, sets the tone for the family’s whole visit to the Etruscan necropolis. It allows them to wonder with open minds not just about the Etruscans’ tombs and burial practices, but about the passage of time, and about the fate of this archaeological site which had survived ever since the time when ‘Etruria, with its coalition of free, aristocratic city-states, dominated almost the entire Italian peninsula’. In time, ‘new civilisations, cruder and less aristocratic, but also stronger and more warlike’ had held the field and the Etruscans slid into insignificance.

In the end, the narrator asks, what does this all matter? No direct answer to this question – which turns out to be rhetorical – is ventured. Instead, we are whisked away (not by car, but in our narrator’s imagination), from Etruscan Cerveteri, all the way back to his childhood Ferrara, to its grand old Jewish cemetery – and to the scenes of his youth which unfolded there.

Bassani’s juxtaposition of the Etruscan and Jewish burial grounds enables him to suggest an implicit if ever so slightly unnerving parallel between the two. Both burial grounds – if imaginatively engaged with – present a silent face of Italian history. And whereas his own memories in one of them are fresh, so that he can give voice to them, much in that old world has now gone.

In recalling memories of the recent Jewish past, even while doing so in glorious and complex richness and colour, it seems to make sense to this narrator to set them somewhat in context against the grand and merciless sweep of the peninsula’s wider history. In this way, Bassani hints with gentle knowing that he would like us to broach  the tragedy of the Jews of Ferrara in this story with the unforgiving laboratory of history as our backdrop.

  • The novels have been translated into English (beautifully) by Jamie McKendrick.