From the depths, I have cried out to you, O Lord!
Despite the chilling despair of Psalm 130 from which the title De Profundis (“From the Depths”) was taken, and the gloomy death poem that Oncle Serge sent out with it, there is nothing melancholic or funereal about De Profundis the perfume. That’s the problem with back-story in perfume – one association from the perfumer and our mind rushes to meet it, so it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. If Oncle Serge hadn’t mentioned death, nobody would be talking about this perfume using words such as death, sadness, melancholy, or funerals. But he did, and they do…
Actually, De Profundis is a rather classical piece of work, its chilly, wet green floral opening recalling in particular the muguet dampness of vintage Diorissimo and the hyacinth dewiness of Chamade. The opening notes are vivid and naturalistic – they made me gasp! You get the impression of a clump of flowers being ripped from the earth and being held up to your nose to inhale them, dripping wet roots, crushed stalks, stamens, clinging earth, dewy petals and all.
What flowers? Hard to tell, only that there is a wet, green, stemmy feel to them all – I sense the bitterness of crushed dandelion stalks, tulip bulbs, lily of the valley (the sweet, slightly soapy “white” scent of the flowers), sharp hyacinth, and later on, the fruity sweetness of violet petals. I don’t know what chrysanthemums smell like, but perhaps they smell like a mixture of all these flowers. I find it to be a joyful, cheerful opening – akin to spring flowers pushing their way through the frozen earth and snow and into the sun.
Yes, the opening is great – wet, green, a bit wild, and definitely earthy. I am not really into purely floral fragrances, but I have to admit that more often than not it is the vivid, naturalistic florals that move me almost to tears – De Profundis achieved this, as did Ostara, En Passant, Sa Majeste La Rose, and Carnal Flower. There is something about the purity of the flowers in these perfumes – I get the same rush of emotion smelling them as I do smelling the flowers in nature. It is perhaps a long-buried spiritual drive within me, something that says, look here, look what nature created for you – look, smell! These perfumes move me because they replicate a tiny piece of that awe I get from nature and capture it in a bottle.
Ah, there I go, despite myself, talking about God and nature, etc., etc. Oncle Serge’s marketing for De Profundis must have worked on me after all.
Anyway, after a thrilling opening, De Profundis starts to deflate under the weight of its own gorgeousness. Floral notes of such dewy, crystalline beauty are very hard to keep aloft – they wilt as quickly as the real flowers do. Even as you are enjoying the savage, wet greenery of the start, the perfume starts to desiccate and shrink back onto itself, like the feet of the Wicked Witch of the East shriveling under the house that Dorothy dropped on her. An ocean of white musk rises to take the burden of the florals on its shoulders, and one hour in, only hot breathing on your white-musked-up skin will revive the ghost of the stupendous green flowers you were smelling before.
It’s such a shame! The same thing happens with Ostara, but that has a much better, creamier dry down that makes the experience more satisfying from beginning to end.
Nevermind. We live in an era where perfumers have to reformulate and take short cuts, and I suspect that this is the sort of gutting that has happened to De Profundis. I don’t mind re-spraying to get that initial burst of beauty, because it really is an opening that deserves to be relived over and over again.
To me, the opening of De Profundis spells out a message of hope – that alive things may emerge from the depths (“De Profundis”) of the black, cold earth after a long, hard winter. That life may begin again.
Despite myself, then, I am making the connection to Psalm 130. Of course, De Profundis is also the name of the letter that Oscar Wilde wrote in an agony of despair and rage to his former lover, Lord Alfred Douglas (“Bosie”), while in prison on charges of moral indecency (Lord Alfred Douglas being the same person who put him there). Tired and nervous from two years in jail under the ever-watchful eyes of cruel guards, Wilde wrote this letter page by page a month before his release, handing each page off at the end of the day because he wasn’t allowed to have books or papers with him in his room.
His letter is full of anger, hatred, and blame (for both himself and Bosie) but ultimately it seeks to lay out the terms for forgiveness. Just like Psalm 130, where the supplicant begs for God’s mercy to lift him out of the depths of his misery, so too is Wilde’s letter a plea to be allowed emerge once again into the light. I like to think that Wilde was able, one day, just outside his barred window, to smell the spring flowers pushing through scads of icy earth, and that he too sensed that there was hope for new life to crawl out of the depths.