Symonds’ and Travel Literature: Melville’s Typee

In 1909, 16 years after Symonds’ death, a prominent bookseller in Bristol published a catalogue of Symonds’ home library, shedding light on his literary preferences and direct influences. Our ability to partially reconstruct his lost library through the catalogue gives us the chance to understand Symonds not just as an author, but also as a philosopher, historian, traveler, and avid reader. Among the books of poetry, art, sexology, and classical antiquity that once were on his bookshelves, a seemingly fun adventure novel by a name I knew caught my attention.

In 1846, Herman Melville published his travel book Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life During a Four Months’ Residence in a Valley of the Marquesas. Not many years later, Symonds owned and likely read a copy of this book, and we can only postulate on why.


Frontispiece and title page of Herman Mevile, Typee… (New York: Wiley and Putnam, and London: John Murray, 1846). From the University of California Libraries via the Internet Archive

Typee, Melville’s first book, is a highly romanticized and fictionalized account of his one-month stay in the Marquesas. Melville drew from his experiences, from his imagination, and from accounts by Pacific explorers, departing from the truth of what actually happened to make a more entertaining story. Typee is a story of escape, capture, and re-escape, alluding to themes of cannibalism, colonialism, natural beauty, and the perceived simplicity of “native” lifestyle.

While Symonds never visited the Pacific islands, he was an avid traveler and travel writer – and in these writings can occasionally be discerned a sympathy for Melville’s South Seas experience. During a trip to Normandy, for instance, Symonds kept a diary, a “misty guide book,” in which he describes his own seaside isolation:

“Like a formless Monaco, but with so much more of suggestion in the northern sea. The Channel Islands are visible from the terrace of the town, and long stretches of arid dunes stretching away northwards, salt, barren, uninviting.”


(Memoirs, 298)

The emotions that the coast evoke in him is fodder for Symonds’ own poetry. In the summer of 1867 in London, he writes the Song of Cyclades, describing the burden of loneliness that he shares with the islands.

“The burden of Cyclades, the burden of many islands, of islands on the sea of my own life. (There is firm ground beneath; I am not all islands and sea.)

The hours of weeping because I was not strong, and no companions sought me; nor beautiful, and women did not love me; nor great, and no poems were in me.

The hour of passionate weeping for the sin and shame upon me—the hour of wailing for the unkindness of friends—the hour of hot blushing for the thoughts of my own soul: solitary, self-centred, judgment and confession hours. “

Memoirs, 318

The first edition of Typee was published in New York (Wiley and Putnam) and London (John Murray) in 1846 as part of a collection of travel books. It was Melville’s first published book after a stint of articles and short stories. After the publication of Typee, Melville became a more successful and well-known writer, with the help of his friend Nathaniel Hawthorne, eventually publishing his whaling novel Moby-Dick in 1851.

The first edition was published as part of “Murray’s Colonial and Home Library,” a collection for readers in the British colonies to compete with piracies, often by American publishers. We know from the 1909 William George’s Sons catalogue that the edition Symonds owned was published in 1861, the year in which John Murray published it in London. The small octavo edition sold for two shillings and six pence. The 1861 edition is in all likelihood a reprint of the first edition, published cooperatively with an American publisher

Entry for Melville’s Typee from Books on poetry, art, biography, etc., from the library of late John Addington Symonds, removed from Am Hof, Davos Platz, Switzerland: each work. (1909) Bristol [Gloucestershire]: Offered for sale by William George’s Sons.

Did Symonds read Melville’s Moby-Dick? The author is not mentioned at all in his Memoirs or his Letters, so we cannot know for sure. But Melville was a contemporary of Symonds’ time, and Symonds was familiar with the works of other American writers such as Walt Whitman. If Symonds read Typee, it is possible he also read the better-known Moby-Dick, first published in 1851. Symonds could have become better acquainted with Herman Melville’s works after the publication of Moby-Dick and gone to read more of his lesser-known works, buying a later 1861 edition of his earlier book, Typee. Perhaps these naturalistic adventure novels were what he read as part of his research in travel writing.

Perhaps Symonds never even read Moby-Dick, but specifically sought out Typee for its interesting take on travel literature, by combining fiction and fact. Symonds himself wrote many travel books that combined his own experiences with a scholarly assessment of the land, society, and culture, including his book Sketches and Studies in Southern Europe (1880) and his book Our Life in the Swiss Highlands (1892) written cooperatively with his daughter Margaret.

Symonds himself loved to travel; here we see what Symonds may have read for when he wished to travel in his mind– a wild adventure story with tales of far-away travel that combines whimsy with the eloquent skill of an established author, undoubtedly influential in Symonds’ own later works. Exploring the lost library of Symonds allows us to appreciate him as a person and better understand his life outside of academia.

For reference:


“Herman Melville.” 1870. Oil painting by Joseph Oriel, commissioned and presented to the family by Melville’s brother-in-law, John Hoadley. Houghton Library, Harvard University. Public Domain. Wikimedia Commons.

Herman Melville (August 1, 1819 – September 28, 1891) was an American novelist, short story writer, and poet of the American Renaissance period best known for Typee (1846), a romantic account of his experiences in Polynesian life, and his whaling novel Moby-Dick (1851). His work was almost forgotten during his last thirty years. His writing draws on his experience at sea as a common sailor, exploration of literature and philosophy, and engagement in the contradictions of American society in a period of rapid change.

Works Cited:

Featured image is “Mekong pirogue at sunset in the 4000 islands.” Wikimedia Commons: Featured Pictures.

Melville, Herman. Typee, or Four Months’ Residence in the Marquesas. London: John Murray, 1861.

The Memoirs of John Addington Symonds: A Critical Edition. Amber K. Regis, editor. London: Palgrave Macmillan Publishing, 2016, pp 1-587. Print.

The Years 1871-1872, or Symonds’ Dantesque Pilgrimage

It was the year 1872 and Symonds was 32 years old. After falling ill with possible tuberculosis in 1868, he had returned to lecture at Clifton College, and he began preparing essays such as that comprised the Introduction to the Study of Dante (1872) and Studies of the Greek Poets (1873-1876) as resource materials for teaching his classes.

Frontispiece of An Introduction to the Study of Dante, John Addington Symonds. London: Smith, Elder & Co., 1872, pp 1-271. Internet Archive, University of California Libraries SRLF 302444.

He tells how he prepared these essays that summer in Austria: “I wrote the bulk of these lectures in a little tavern at Heiligenblut during the month of June, and remodeled them at Clifton” (Memoirs 438).

The chapters included in his Introduction to the Study of Dante were originally meant to make the study of Dante’s works more accessible to English readers. It was published in London in 1872, by Smith and Elder, a British publishing company that also published Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. This book is a precursor to his culminating work on the cultural history of the Italian Renaissance, entitled Renaissance in Italy, which appeared in seven volumes between 1875-1886. Dante was an important to Symonds as both a literary and historical figure.

In his Introduction to the Study of Dante, Symonds begins broadly, writing first about early Italian history in the 13th century, then about Dante’s life in Florence: his literary studies, political quarrels, his relationship with Beatrice, and his exile from the city. Chapters 4 and 5 involve themes of the Divine Comedy – its allegory, satire, literary allusions, and the visual map of the Christian afterlife. Chapters 6 and 7 focus on Dante’s genius – the sublimity of his meter compared to Homer, Aeschylus, Shakespeare, and Milton and how it has influenced the later work. Chapter 8 discusses the differences between Classical Platonic love and Medieval chivalrous love, referencing Dante’s love poetry to Beatrice.

The photograph that serves as the book’s frontispiece is taken from a cast of Dante’s face in death which was given to Symonds by Mr. Kirkup of Florence, to which he ascribes physiognomic characteristics:


“The eyes are half-closed, as in death. The mouth is shut as though silence or paucity of words habitually dwelt upon the lips. The whole face is very calm and sad and grave”


(Introduction 88)

Dante was an important figure for Symonds, both in his studies and also in his personal life. While writing in London, Symonds first turned to Dante for words to describe his own sorrowful malaise and sexual repression. In a letter to Henry Sidgwick, he writes

“But at times, when my nervous light burns low in solitude, when the fever of the brain and lung is on me, then the shadows of the past gather round, and I feel that life itself is darkened…I am often numb and callous; all virtue seems to have gone out of me, the spring of life to have faded, its bloom to have been rubbed away. I dread that art and poetry and nature are unable to do more for what Dante with terrible truth called li mal protesi nervi” 1


(Memoirs 316)

His mental suffering reached a peak during his last few weeks at Cannes, France in 1869 when he contemplated suicide. He likened his own senseless desperation to Dante’s slothful in the fifth circle of Hell:

“Dante (detail)” by Luca Signorelli, photo taken by Georges Jansoone, 30 April 2008. Fresco, Cappella di San Brizio, Duomo, Orvieto.

“Fixed in the mire they say, ‘We sullen were
In the sweet air, which by the sun is gladdened.
Bearing within ourselves the sluggish reek’ ”


(Inferno 7.121-3)

In December 1868, Symonds was introduced to Norman Moor, with whom he delighted in romantic affection. But while Norman reciprocated Symonds’ feelings in part, they never attained the Greek ideal union of lover and beloved, causing great pain for Symonds.

“The result was that I had to suffer from jealousy, from the want of any definite hold upon my adored friend, from the dissatisfaction of incomplete spiritual possession, and from the hunger of defrauded longings” (Memoirs 381).

The medieval trope of courtly love was one with which Symonds was familiar, both in his studies and in his personal homosexual endeavors. It is quite possible that Symonds likened his courtly love to that of Dante’s love for Beatrice.

In the summer of 1872, Symonds vacationed with Norman around Europe, and they reach a mutual unspoken agreement that the time for “amorous caresses” had gone by, yet Symonds still held a tender affection for him.

Right after their foreign tour, on September 19th, 1872, Symonds received his first published copy of the Introduction to the Study of Dante. He cited the publication of this book and the natural end of his episode with Norman as happening concurrently; one bitter ending brings another exciting beginning:

“Thus my entrance into authorship took place exactly at the moment when a final reconciliation of opposites was effected in the matter of my love for Norman. He became a schoolmaster, married, and is now the father of children” (Memoirs 402).

Besides the Newdigate prize poem on the Escorial (1860) and the Chancellor’s prize essay on the Renaissance (1863), Symonds had not yet published anything with his name attached to it until this essay.

In February 1871, his father died, never knowing a world where his son was a known author. Just a year later, in the spring of 1872, Symonds rose to literary success and published his lectures of Dante, which were “favourably received upon the whole, and added to my reputation” (Memoirs 439).

Symonds then compared the physical, sensual passion of Classical love poetry to the love of medieval, chivalric poetry – the amorous devotion heightened to religious worship:

“God was the ultimate object of the worship of the chivalrous lover; but the lady stood between his soul and God as the visible image and perpetual reminder of the heaven to which he ardently aspired. Thus Petrarch and Dante both constantly repeat that it was the thought of their lady which had ennobled them, and turned their souls to God” (Introduction 243).

The state of feeling generated by this love was called Joie; it was the ecstasy which filled the heart of the true lover with delight and capable of deeds almost more than mortal. Like the ideal Greek love Symonds so ardently desired, chivalric love existed independent of the marriage-tie; the lady who inspired it was often already married or otherwise unattainable. Symonds compares this courtly love to the mania of Greek love described by Plato in the Phaedrus, in which love led the way to heaven and raised a man above himself. Both the Classical and medieval chivalric love are idealized states, for which Symonds spent his life looking.

“Both set forth an idea of love, pure from the grossness of the flesh, not to be confounded with matrimonial affection or sensual passion, by means of which the spirit of man is rendered capable of self-devotion and high deeds” (Introduction 245).

“Overview of the Divine Comedy” by Michelangelo Caetani, 1855. Cornell University Library, Rare & Manuscript Collections. Acc. no. 1071.01. Wikimedia Commons, public domain.

While Symonds ultimately does not find his Beatrice in Norman, he does go through a harrowing pilgrimage of his own during the writing and publication of An Introduction to the Study of Dante. Just as Dante enters the darkness of the underworld scared and confused2 only to find his way up to the blessed salvation of Heaven,3 Symonds begins 1871 lost and depressed, having just suffered the loss of his father, but ends 1872 with the publication of his first official book and a renewed sense of creativity.

For reference:

Dante Alighieri (1265-1321) was an Italian statesman, political theorist, and poet of the Late Middle Ages. He is most known for his Divine Comedy, an allegorical poem writing in the Italian dialect that depicts Dante the pilgrim’s journey through Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven. He is cited as an influence on John Milton, Giovanni Boccaccio, Geoffrey Chaucer, and Alfred Tennyson among others for his literature and theology. He also published the Vita Nuova (The New Life}, a book of verse poems detailing his tragic, unrequited love for Beatrice. He immersed himself in the politics of Florence, where he fell out of favor and was exiled for life by leaders of the Black Guelfs.

1 “sin-excited nerves” (Inferno 15.114).
2 “I found myself within a forest dark / For the straightforward pathway had been lost” (Inferno 1.2-3)
3 “But now it is turning, my desire and will / the Love which moves the sun and the other stars” (Paradiso 33.143-145).

Works Cited:

“Dante Alighieri – The Life.” Unione Fiorentina, Museo Casa di Dante, 2018. Website. Digital Access.

Featured image “Inferno Canto 6.” Illustration by Gustave Dore. From the Divine Comedy in Project Gutenberg. Wikimedia Commons.

Symonds, John Addington. An Introduction to the Study of Dante. London: Smith, Elder & Co., 1872. Internet Archive, University of California Libraries SRLF 302444. Digital Access.

Symonds, John Addington. The Memoirs of John Addington Symonds: A Critical Edition. Amber K. Regis, editor. London: Palgrave Macmillan Publishing, 2016. Print.

N.B. The translations of Dante’s Divine Comedy that Symonds cites in his Memoris are from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1867). Columbia University, Website. Digital Access.

The Epic Love Story of Patroclus and Achilles

As a well-educated English literary man, John Addington Symonds had read the ancient Homeric epics in school by an early age, and it was from these stories that Symonds first learned ideas of Greek masculine love.

In Homer’s Iliad, military brotherhood is an intense bond. It is only when Patroclus dies that Achilles overcome his anger at Agamemnon and seeks vengeance, incited by love for his slain comrade. The true turning point of the epic lies in this epic love and change in passion: Hector, the slayer of Patroclus, must be slain by Achilles, the lover of Patroclus.

From fifth century BCE writers in antiquity to modern day scholars, the nature of the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus as presented by Homer has been a controversial matter for discussion: was it a relationship of homosexual love or heroic friendship?

The long-term influence of the Iliad produced many illustrations of the tragic scene in modern-day reception. Throughout time, illustrations, including this kylix from Classical Greece, this sarcophagus from late antiquity, and this Hennequin drawing from modern times, are ambiguous on the exact nature of their relationship.

“Achilles Mourning Over the Body of Patroclus.” Line engraving by John Flaxman. Rome, 1793. from the “Iliade d’Homere [Homer’s Iliad] engraved by Thomas Piroli after drawings by Jean Flaxman, sculptor in Rome. Book, printed in French 34 plates; 35 x 45 cm. Johns Hopkins Special Collections 730 X6 FOLIO c. 1.https://catalyst.library.jhu.edu/catalog/bib_2105108 

The image above is from a collection of illustrations based on scenes from Homer’s Iliad. This engraving by Tommaso Piroli, based on the original line drawings of John Flaxman, depicts Achilles lamenting the death of Patroclus. The image presents us with a scene of passionate mourning, with figures covering their faces and tensing their bodies, yet it does not imply anything homoerotic. This Flaxman drawing shows the ambiguity of this famous relationship: is it depicting a man lamenting the death of his best friend and comrade in war, or his romantic companion and sexual partner? The beauty in this engraving lies in the interpretation of its viewers – it can be whichever one chooses.

This book, published about 40 years before Symonds was born, could likely have been in his family’s library, something he would have seen as a child that would have shaped his understanding of ancient Greek literature. Since Homer became so essential to Symonds’ conception of ideal Greek male love, it is not hard to imagine him poring over visual depiction of the epic love story of Achilles and Patroclus. We can picture Symonds gazing at this drawing just as we are now, lamenting the untimely death of the Greek hero alongside Achilles and empathizing with the bitter emotions of those in the image. Perhaps Symonds would have even thought of his own male lovers, Willie Dyer and Alfred Brooke, and reminisced about the emotions he himself felt after losing those men.

Symonds references Homer often throughout his collected works, and many of the allusions concern the story of Achilles and Patroclus. In his essay A Problem in Greek Ethics, Symonds states that, at least in Homer, their companionship was not paiderastia – male love for a male youth – but simply heroic friendship (Greek Ethics 44). However, Symonds himself seems to doubt this definition of their relationship, considering that in later Greek history the love of Achilles for Patroclus became the canonical model and “almost religious sanction to the martial form of paiderastia” (Greek Ethics 44).

Later in his essay, Symonds contends that even ancient Greek students of Homer must have seen this friendship as an example for ideal masculine love. He describes their love as “a powerful and masculine emotion, in which effeminacy had no part, and which by no means excluded the ordinary sexual feelings…the tie was both more spiritual and more energetic than that which bound man to woman” (Greek Ethics 45). Even before the concept of paiderastia was established in Greek custom, the erotic often had a place in intimate male relations.

“Achillies Binding Patroclus’ Wounds kylix” by Sosias Painter. 500 BC. Clay vessel. Antikensammlung, Altes Museum, Berlin. Inv. No. 2278. Width: 32 cm. Wikimedia Commons.

It seems very possible that Symonds held the same viewpoint, not as that of Homer, but as that of later Greeks, who read into the sentiments and passions of the text to find a romantic relationship between Achilles and Patroclus. Symonds cites Aeschines, in his Oration Against Timarchus, who discusses this question of Achilles’ love, saying “[Homer] indeed conceals their love, and does not give its proper name to the affection between them, judging that the extremity of their fondness would be intelligible to the well instructed men among his audience” (Aeschines 142).

Symonds would indeed fall under this “well-educated audience,” in which Achilles’ affection does not have to be overtly stated, as it is already implied. Fourth century BC Aeschines, like nineteenth century English scholars, could read Homer through the lens of homoeroticism, and Symonds himself shows real empathy to this idealistic Greek love in his own analysis.

Symonds read the Iliad along with other Greek classics in school and then went on to teach lectures on it. In an 1886 letter to Norman Moor, Symonds addressed the influence of homosexuality in classical literature in public schools. He believed that young boys “have been initiated into the mysteries of paiderastia unofficially long before their reading of the classics,” yet he thought that while they do read the Iliad in school, “it does not occur to them that there was anything between Achilles and Patroclus.” Here it seems that Symonds himself subscribed to the belief that there is a sexual and romantic component to the relationship of the two Greek heroes, but only if one is receptive and mature enough to perceive it. As he said in his Memoirs, it was not until age 18 when he read Plato that he encountered the catalyst for his own self-revelation of erotic male love, but once he acknowledged this in himself, he agreed that Patroclus and Achilles could be read as examples of Greek lovers.

Additionally, Aeschylus’ tragedy the Myrmidones, now lost, which would have been a popular sight in fifth century BCE Athens, portrays Achilles and Patroclus as lovers. Symonds was familiar with this story, in which Aeschylus presents Achilles as the erastes [lover], speaking to his dead beloved Patroclus, the eramenos [beloved]. In one fragment of the play, Achilles laments over the corpse of his friend, his lower limbs uncovered – the same scene depicted more modestly on Flaxman’s engraving above – with unmeasured passion that describes the intimate love between the two heroes. Here Achilles mournfully reproaches that, in his forbidden advance against the Trojans, Patroclus had been heedless of his dear affection:

 “For the pureness of the thighs, you have no reverence, O most ungrateful for my frequent kisses!” (Athenaeus, Deipnosophists xiii.79 13.602e frag. 64)

“Achilles Mourning the Dead Patroclus.” Image from the front panel of a sarcophagus with representation of scenes from the Iliad. Greek marble. 160 CE. Ostia, Archaeological Museum. Inv. No. SBAO 43504. Photo by Ilya Shurygin.

As the Iliad is a work of fiction, the question of a possible homosexual relationship here is not one of historical accuracy. In Piroli’s engraving, as well as in many late Greek stories and illustrations from antiquity to modern-day, it seems that Achilles and Patroclus did have an intimate relationship as lovers. But it does not really matter to us whether this would have been possible in Homeric society. Instead of pondering over hypotheticals, we can find in the Iliad a familiar love story told in romantic discourse. For us, and for Symonds, we can relate to their timeless relationship, and the possibility of seeing queer love in such an ancient story.

At least for Symonds, it is likely a depiction of historically bounded ideal Greek love, the idealist homosexual affection he himself had experienced and dedicated his life to studying. Yet it does not matter whether or not Homer really intended to portray the relationship of Achilles and Patroclus as ‘heroic friendship’ or that of lovers, for from 4th c. BC Greece onward, their relationship has become the canonical representation of Greek male love.

Works Cited:

Featured image “Achilles and Patroclus.” Drawing by Philippe-Auguste Hennequin, French 1784. Pen and brown ink with brown-grey wash on laid paper. Sheet: 20.5 x 30.9 cm. The National Gallery of Art (Washington D.C), Joseph F. McCrindle Collection Inv. No. 2009.70.141. Artstor.

Johns Addington Symonds (1840-1893) and Homosexuality. “Chapter 2: A Problem in Greek Ethics.” Palgrave Macmillan Publishing. Basingstoke, 2012. Print.

The Letters of Johns Addington Symonds. Wayne State University Press. Detroit, 1967. Print.

Symonds, John Addington. The Memoirs of John Addington Symonds: A Critical Edition. Palgrave Macmillan Publishing. London, 2016. Print.

Symonds’ Self-Revelation in Plato’s Ideal Masculine Greek Love

When he began to read in his youth, John Addington Symonds was mentally precocious and aware of the amorous subtleties of Greek literature; he was particularly attracted to certain male figures, like the Adonis of Shakespeare’s poems, Hermes in Homer, and the Praxitelean Cupid (Memoirs 118). In adolescence, he enjoyed sleeping visions of beautiful young men and exquisite Greek statues, finding a poetic pleasure in ideal forms.

In his eighteenth year, a decisive event in his sexuality occurred: he read Plato.

Symonds’ first introduction to Plato was during summer vacation, when he joined a reading party with his friends John Conington and Thomas Green, in a farmhouse on Lake Coniston. There in July 1860, Symonds writes to Reverend Stephens, the Dean of Winchester, “Green is coaching me in Plato. He does it well, for he knows an immense deal about the Platonic and Aristotelian philosophy. On the other hand, because he is a very original thinker, he does not express himself quite clearly and fluently as such beginners as myself would like” (Letters 1.251 (149)).

Reading Plato, especially the Phaedrus and the Symposiumwas a revelation for Symonds in terms of the notion of Greek ideal love; it was the catalyst for his own self-reflection on homosexuality:

“Bust of Plato.” Illustration from Illustrerad verldshistoria by E. Wallis, volume I. “Plato.” Wikimedia Commons.

“Here in the Phaedrus and the Symposium, I discovered the true Liber Amoris [Book of Love] at last, the revelation I had been waiting for, the consecration of a long-cherished idealism. It was just as though the voice of my own soul spoke to me through Plato, as though in some antenatal experience I had lived the life of a philosophical Greek lover” (Memoirs 152).

He was introduced to a new world and he felt his own nature was revealed to him. He fell for a boy, a choir boy named Willie Dyer, and the only two kisses they ever shared “were the most perfect joys he ever felt.” Symonds cites the morning he first met him, the 10th of April 1868, as “the birth of [his] real self” (Memoirs 157).

Seeing the crude sensuality of the boys at Harrow School, he believed that he was saved by finding the aesthetic Platonic idealism of erotic instinct. The study of Plato allowed Symonds the possibility of reconciling his “inborn instincts of masculine love” with his “higher aspiration after noble passion” (Memoirs 152). Plato did not think of carnal human love but of the ideal love of beauty, truth, goodness, and perfection. It is the revelation of this love that drives Symonds’ studies; he devours Greek literature and art as “love unsealed the eyes of [his] soul” (Memoirs 159).

Later at Oxford, he fell violently in love with a chorister called Alfred Brooke, with a passion both more sensual and more ideal than he had ever felt before (Memoirs 159). In describing the “genius” of Greek love, he writes a poem of his own heart’s experience, being thoroughly disarmed by the charm of this man, and holding his love as a secret from his family and friends:

Upon my bed I turn in the night-watches:
I clench my fist, and beat my brow; the flesh
Throbs in revolt, and my faint soul is faltering.
I thirst for him as thirsts the hunted hart
For water-brooks: I weep and wail for him,
For him from whom I turned aside, for him
On whom I trampled. Yea, I loathe my longing.

Before my study-window once he passed:
The Phaedrus fell from my unheeding hands.
He smiled and beckoned, with frank open face
Wafting fair messages of fruitful joy.
I would not answer, hardly looked at him,
Holding my breath and at the curtain clutching
Till he was gone. Then down into the road
Rushed, followed him, restrained my racing feet,
Fell on the garden grass and leaves, and wrestled.

(Memoirs 199)

To Symonds, the sensual appetites were, theoretically at least, excluded from Platonic idea love. It was, as Plato says, the divine in human flesh: “the lightening vision / the radiant sight of the lover” (Greek Ethics xv)

By 1865, Symonds was well-read in Plato and was aware of the controversy that surrounded the topic of the Greek ideal love between a man and an adolescent – paederastia (???????????). Yet this social opprobrium did not hinder him from pursuing this love in his studies. If anything, it encouraged him to share and discuss it with his friends. Symonds sends Wright’s translation of Plato’s Phaedrus and Protagoras (1848) to Clementina Strong as recommended reading, with a caveat that “you will find some things that jar upon our modern taste but nothing that ought to shock the most refined sensibilities” (Letters 1.575 (434). While he was aware of the “sexual perversion,” he still wished to pursue it on a scholarly and personal level.

“Pederastic scene at the palaestra: man and youth about to make love.” . Tondo of an Attic red-figure cup by the Brygos-Painter, 480–470 BC, Ashmolean Museum (1967.304). Wikimedia Commons.

In his scholarly field, Symonds had a few disagreements with his Classics professor Benjamin Jowett, who intended to publish an essay on Greek male love as part of his translated edition of Plato’s Dialogues but decided to abandon the idea. Symonds was surprised that Jowett saw Plato’s treatment of Greek male love as “mainly a figure of speech” and wrote a letter to him in 1889, insisting that it is actually an “innate passion” and “injurious to a certain number of predisposed young men.” (Letters 3.345 (1894)).

Here Symonds expressed his idea of Platonic Greek male love as a revelation to many people, later including himselfHe believed that Greek history and literature confirmed the admitted possibility, and that ideal male love was still a “present poignant reality” to some whom find it personally interesting, reading Plato as their version of the Bible.

Symonds began to understand Greek masculine love as more a condition of the mind and heart, rather than a psychological disease. While working with Havelock Ellis on their publication of Sexual Inversion, Symonds sent him a letter discussing the chapter on the Greek history of sexuality: “One great difficulty I forsee: It is that I do not think it will be possible to conceal the fact that sexual anomaly (as in Greece) is often a matter of preference rather than of fixed physiological or morbid diathesis” (Letters 3.787 (2062)).

Greek love was in its origin and essence militaristic; fire and valor rather than tenderness or tears were the external expression of this passion and effeminacy had no place in it. In his A Problem in Greek Ethics, Symonds references a speech from Plato’s Symposium 12: Phaedrus says, “For what lover would not choose rather to be seen by all mankind than by his beloved, either when abandoning his post or throwing away his arms? He would be ready to die a thousand deaths rather than endure this. Or who would desert his beloved or fail him in the hour of danger? The veriest coward would become an inspired hero, equal to the bravest, at such a time; love would inspire him; that courage which, as Homer says, the god breathes into the soul of heroes, love of his own nature inspires into the lover.” (Greek Ethics vii).

The citations from Plato showed Symonds, as well as us, how real and vital was the passion of Greek love. Symonds even says, “It would be difficult to find more intense expressions of affection in modern literature” (Greek Ethics vii).

For reference:

Plato (428-348 BCE) was an ancient Greek philosopher, student of Socrates, teacher of Aristotle, and author of many philosophical works. In the Symposium, the characters discuss the topic of Love: interpersonal relationships through love, what types of love are worthy of praise, and the purpose of love. In the Phaedrus, the characters Lysias and Socrates present speeches on erotic love, the immortality of the soul, rhetoric, and the madness of love.

Works Cited:

Featured image “The Banquet of Symposium” by Anselm Feuerbach (1869). Oil on canvas, Kalrsruhe, Germany. Wikimedia Commons.

Johns Addington Symonds (1840-1893) and Homosexuality. “Chapter 2: A Problem in Greek Ethics.” Palgrave Macmillan Publishing. Basingstoke, 2012. Print.

The Letters of Johns Addington Symonds. Wayne State University Press. Detroit, 1967. Print.

Symonds, John Addington. The Memoirs of John Addington Symonds: A Critical Edition. Palgrave Macmillan Publishing. London, 2016. Print.