This month, Henry Holt publishes The Complete Letters of Oscar Wilde, edited by Merlin Holland and Rupert Hart-Davis, in which the following letter appears. When he wrote it, Wilde was just out of Reading Prison and living in France under a pseudonym, Sebastian Melmoth. The addressee, Carlos Blacker, was an Englishman and close friend to whom Wilde dedicated The Happy Prince.
To Carlos Blacker
12 July 1897 [Châlet Bourgeat], Berneval-sur-Mer
My dear old Friend, I need not tell you with what feelings of affection and gratitude I read your letter. You were always my staunch friend and stood by my side for many years.
Often in prison I used to think of you: of your chivalry of nature, of your limitless generosity, of your quick intellectual sympathies, of your culture so receptive, so refined. What marvelous evenings, dear Carlos, we used to have! What brilliant dinners! What days of laughter and delight! To you, as to me, conversation — that [delightful wickedness] as Euripides calls it — that sweet sin of phrases — was always among the supreme aims of life, and we tired many a moon with talk, and drank many a sun to rest with wine and words. You were always the truest of friends and the most sympathetic of companions. You will, I know, wish to hear about me, and what I am doing and thinking.
Well, I am in a little chalet, with a garden, over the sea. It is a nice chalet with two great balconies, where I pass much of my day and many of my nights: Berneval is a tiny place consisting of a hotel and about twenty chalets: the people who come here are des bons bourgeois as far as I can see. The sea has a lovely beach, to which one descends through a small ravine, and the land is full of trees and flowers, quite like a bit of Surrey: so green and shady. Dieppe is ten miles off. Many friends, such as Will Rothenstein, the artist, Conder, have come to see me for a few days: and next month I hope to see Ricketts and Shannon, who decorated all my books for me, dear Robbie Ross, and perhaps some others. I learnt many things in prison that were terrible to learn, but I learnt some good lessons that I needed. I learnt gratitude: and though, in the eyes of the world, I am of course a disgraced and ruined man, still every day I am filled with wonder at all the beautiful things that are left to me: loyal and loving friends: good health: books, one of the greatest of the many worlds God has given to each man: the pageant of the seasons: the loveliness of leaf and flower: the nights hung with silver and the dawns dim with gold. I often find myself strangely happy. You must not think of me as being morbidly sad, or willfully living in sadness, that sin which Dante punishes so terribly. My desire to live is as intense as ever, and though my heart is broken, hearts are made to be broken: that is why God sends sorrow into the world. The hard heart is the evil thing of life and of art. I have also learnt sympathy with suffering. To me, suffering seems now a sacramental thing, that makes those whom it touches holy. I think I am in many respects a much better fellow than I was, and I now make no more exorbitant claims on life: I accept everything. I am sure it is all right. I was living a life unworthy of an artist, and though I do not hold with the British view of morals that sets Messalina [the faithless and depraved wife of Emperor Claudius] above Sporus [Nero’s favorite male companion], I see that any materialism in life coarsens the soul, and that the hunger of the body and the appetites of the flesh desecrate always, and often destroy.
Of course I am troubled about money, because the life of a man of letters — and I hope to be one again — requires solitude, peace, books and the opportunity of retirement. I have, as I dare say you know, only £3 a week: but dear Robbie Ross and some other friends got up privately a little subscription for me to give me a start. But of course they are all quite poor themselves, and though they gave largely from their store, their store was small, and I have had to buy everything, so as to be able to live at all.
I hope to write a play soon, and then if I can get it produced I shall have money — far too much I dare say: but as yet I have not been able to work. The two long years of silence kept my soul in bonds. It will all come back, I feel sure, and then all will be well.
Will you do this? It would help me very much to see you — more than I can say.
And now, dear friend, I must end my letter. I have only said a little in it, but writing is strangely difficult for me from long disuse.
Write to me as Monsieur Sebastian Melmoth. It is my new name. I enclose a card. Pray offer my homage to your wife, and believe me, ever gratefully and affectionately yours.
Merlin Holland, who is Wilde’s only grandson, will read from his book tonight, Thursday, November 16, at 7 p.m., at the Los Angeles Public Library’s Mark Taper Auditorium. For info, call (213) 228-7025. The William Andrews Clark Memorial Library in Los Angeles, which, writes Holland, “houses the greatest Wilde collection in the world,” will honor the centenary of Wilde’s death with an all-day symposium, “Remembering Oscar Wilde,” on Thursday, November 30, at the Clark Library, 2520 Cimarron St., downtown. Pre-registration is required; call (310) 206-8552.