A useful meditation on Dante, accidia, suffering, cheerfulness, anger, suicidal tendencies, Walter Pater, and prison life. From De Profundis.
Then, I must learn how to be happy! There was a time when I knew happiness, or thought I did — instinctively. At that time spring reigned in my heart ; it was filled with the joy of living. My life o’erflowed with pleasures, like a cup running over with wine. I now look upon life from a new and different point of view; I often find it difficult to form even a conception of happiness. I remember — it was in my first term at Oxford — reading in Walter Pater’s Renaissance — the book which has so strangely influenced my life — how Dante relegated to the depths of the Inferno those who wilfully surrender their souls to sadness, and going to the college library I looked up the passage in the Divine Comedy where these unfortunates are pictured as dwelling in the marshy regions of helL “sad in the sweet air” and condemned to sigh: “Tristi fummo / Nell’ aer dolce che dal sol s’allegra.” I knew that the church disapproved of “accidia,” but this notion seemed to me so wholly fantastic; just the kind of sin, I thought, that an innocent priest might devise. Nor did I, then, understand how Dante, who says in another passage, that “suffering unites us again with God,” could be so harsh against those who gave themselves up to melancholy, if there were such. I did not then suspect that some day sadness would be my greatest temptation.
While I was confined in the prison at Wandsworth, I longed to die; it was my sole desire. When, after two months in the infirmary, I was brought here and my physical condition slowly improved, I stormed with rage. I decided to commit suicide the day I left the prison. This despondency left me, after a while, and I made up my mind to live, but to clothe myself in melancholy, as a king robes himself in purple. I resolved never to smile again, to make every house I entered a house of mourning. My friends were to walk in sadness by my side and move with measured tread; my sor- row was to spoil their joy; I decided to torment them with my own suffering. Now I think differently about all this. It would be ungrateful and uncivil of me to make a wry face whenever my friends visited me, and compel them to make still longer faces, merely to express their sympathy, or ask them to sit down silently, like mourners, and partake of a funeral repast of bitter herbs.
I must learn to be cheerful and happy. The last two times my friends were allowed to visit me here in prison I took pains to be as joyful as possible and to appear in as pleasant a frame of mind as I could command, in order to show them my appreciation of the trouble they had taken in coming all the way from London to see me. I am fully aware that this is only meagre thanks, but I am sure they prefer this method of demonstrating my gratitude to any other. A week ago last Saturday I was allowed to spend a whole hour in conversation with Robbie; I did my best to make him realise my heartfelt joy at our meeting. The fact that for the first time since sentence was pronounced against me I desire most eagerly to return to the world proves to me that the views and convictions I have formed here are right and just. There is so much before me, so much to be done, that I would look upon itas a terrible calamity should I die before I had had a chance to realise at least a part of my work. I see before me new possibilities of development in art and in life, each of which points to the attainment of the ideal. I long to live, so as to be able to study life and the world which are as good as new to me now.