Symonds’ Italian Byways: Connection Through Time

If there is a theme that could perhaps define Symonds’ academic career, outside of Classic Greek literature, a case could certainly be made for his attachment and fascination toward Italy, something that can be gleaned by inference, looking at his catalog of work and his personal library. With one of the main pillars of the Renaissance taking place in Italy, Symonds’ love of classics would naturally lead him to Florence and Rome, and writers like Dante who took their cues from the writers of old. Much of Symonds’ body of work is concerned with not only the literature that came from the modern surroundings of Rome, but also the aesthetics and culture of the country. Symonds wrote multiple books such as Sketches in Italy and Greece that demonstrated an interest in the classical countries, beyond just tracing their literary history. Symonds also owned books such as those dealing with Italian architecture, and prominent Italian figures. Symonds also had personal reasons to be attached to Italy, between one of his friends owning a house where he often stayed in Venice, as well as his lover being a gondolier in the city of canals. Symonds’ personal connection to Italy, as a person and a scholar, is an undeniable part of his character.

Italian Byways is one of the books that catalogues the breadth of Symonds’ work, as it unites all of his interests in Italy in a way that fits someone with as unique a character as Symonds possessed. The book covers Italian architecture, but in a way that encompasses the historical context behind them, as well as Symonds’ scholarly background. While the book is ostensibly about some of the architecture in Florence and other parts of Italy, it is synthesized with Symonds’ own thoughts on art and the various legendary figures that inhabited those streets at other points in time. It showed he was a free thinking person in a time that could perhaps be called one of great conformity, if his sexual orientation and the frankness of his memoirs didn’t indicate that already, as well as how learned he was, showing off comparisons to classical architecture and drawing comparisons that displayed how much time and effort he had put into researching the architecture, as well as the history of certain classical adjacent authors.

But to me, by far the most interesting aspect of this book is Symonds’ own thoughts that he intersperses and elucidates throughout the book. He describes art (like architecture) as “in the business of creating an ideal world.” The tangible parts of art are “the mode of presentation through which spiritual content manifests itself.” As an English major myself, this resonated with me as it’s the very reason I was so interested in literature in the first place. All of those characters, stories, the beautiful representations of the potential of humanity, the acknowledgment of how far we could descend into depravity, that is what is so attractive about literature. It connects to something deep within us that recognizes our potential, for good or for ill, and puts it into a form digestible to us, analogous to Plato and the cave in which the captives can see shadows. As a person who could not be more different than Symonds in terms of background, it is a moment of respite to see how much we shared in this regard, of how we both saw how art required a certain connection to spirit to function. The human spirit is what invests art with meaning, what allows us to recognize why the form appeals to us so. That perhaps, is the most timeless thing that Symonds left us, the acknowledgment that art transcends time and touches upon humanity for a reason we all can understand, but not necessarily fathom.

Flaxman’s Agamemnon: A Subtle Influence

John Flaxman is a figure not very often referenced by Symonds in his memoirs or his letters, but someone who seems to have a more hidden connection with Symonds. The one mention of Flaxman in the memoirs mentions him in the context of picture books and how he “drew a great deal from Raphael, Flaxman and Retzch.” At the very least, Flaxman’s illustrations served as one of Symonds’ first introductions to Greek classics. The specific Flaxman book I will be referring to is Compositions from the Tragedies of Aeschylus, of which the content seems fairly self-explanatory.

Catalyst Link Here, Photo Taken by the Author

The reference from his memoirs, along with a mention in one of his letters about selling a Flaxman book as part of a “list”, is strong evidence that Symonds had these books lying around in his collection and would have been familiar with them. In his memoirs he also mentions his house “well stocked with engravings, photographs, copies of Italian pictures and illustrated works upon Greek sculpture.” (page 118) It wouldn’t have at all been unusual for Symonds to possess his books, between his interest in classical Greek literature and noted proclivity toward collecting artwork. The publishing date of 1795 is also well before Symonds’ time (being born in 1840), making it entirely plausible for Symonds to have owned a copy. While Flaxman as a figure does not appear much in Symonds’ writing, Aeschylus certainly does, making appearances multiple times in his memoirs, his letters, and a few instances in A Problem in Greek Ethics. Considering all these factors, it would be a seemingly gaping hole in his collection if Symonds never owned a version of Flaxman’s illustrations of Aeschylus.

“My king, my royal lord, what words can show/ My grief…”,
Photo taken by Kyle Bacon

The specific play pictured in this image is Agamemnon, a play by Aeschylus which dramatizes the life of the titular Agamemnon, a mythological king of Mycanae. The scene pictured in the photo seems to be Agamemnon’s wife, Clytemnestra, standing over his corpse, after he has been killed according to Cassandra’s prophecy. The quote underlying the illustration seems to be Clytemnestra expressing grief over her husband’s death, though the picture itself seems to tell a different tale, from her facial expression. Perhaps it could be interpreted as indignant rage over her husband’s death, but the play itself also says otherwise. Clytemnestra had a lover, and when Agamemnon dies, she takes over the government with him. The expression on her face in the picture does not seem to match her quote, but also is not particularly congruent with the events of the play that are going on in that moment. In terms of Symonds’ interest in the Agamemnon in particular, he does not reference in much in the writings we have looked at; there is one mention in the letters but nothing particularly earth-shattering. He does reference Aeschylus a fair bit throughout his letters, and a few times in both his memoirs and A Problem in Greek Ethics. But it seems fair to assume, at least for the scholarly affairs of Greek Ethics and his life in general, Aeschylus and the Agamemnon were not particularly massive influences. Which leaves us only with the vague speculations of what a young boy looking at this particular image could have seen when gazing into the confusingly furious eyes of a cheating wife looking at her husband’s body while expressing grief. We can probably assume that Symonds was not aware of the events in the play, but I think there is still something to be said. Perhaps the disconnect between facial expression and quote inspired a sort of curiosity, an inkling in him that something was quite not right with the situation. Essentially, it might have served as a sort of gateway to hint at the depth of the Greek classics, and planted the seed that would sprout into his research into Greek classics years later. It provided a question, that he would later answer through the course of his life through study.

In the Heart’s Ear: Symonds and Theognis

A Symposiast sings Theognis. Source: Wikimedia Commons

The poems of Theognis, as we know them today, could be considered a misnomer for the work. The collection under his name is collected from a variety of sources, some of which Symonds notes in his introduction to them in A Problem in Greek Ethics, like Solon. There is much ambiguity about which poems Theognis authored, and which ended up as part of his collection by circumstance. We know some are from authors that are not Theognis (like Solon) but others are left up for debate. Symonds seems to have embraced this aspect of the poems, if anything. Since many of these poems are adjacent to his interests, and from many eclectic sources, this seems to strengthen the use for which Symonds employs the poems for Section 11 of A Problem in Greek Ethics, where he points out certain passages from the poems that point to a broader application of paiderastia, specifically in the political sphere. Theognis used the earlier elegies both as personal letters to Kurnus (Cyrnus in some translations), his friend and junior, with whom a romantic relation seems wholly plausible, as well as political advice to navigate the Greek nobility. The later volumes are less personal, dealing with broader political topics and certain figures (such as Solon himself) where the ambiguity of authorship is introduced. This does, to an extent, validate Symonds’ exploration of paiderastia in the old Greek tradition. At least in Megara, Theognis’ home city, the practice seemed to be widespread and accepted, which would no doubt have piqued Symonds’ interest, if nothing else.

It’s quite clear Symonds was attracted to these poems, even saying they “reveal the very heart of a Greek lover,” in a passage from A Problem in Greek Ethics. Indeed, his memoir reveals how near and dear Theognis was to him. He mentions a couplet “in my heart’s ear” from Theognis in Chapter 10, before launching into a vivid description of what amounts to a dream of sexual ecstasy. Symonds would revisit the line in A Problem in Greek Ethics, using it as proof of paiderastia’s association with “manly sports and pleasures”.

“Happy he that loveth as he taketh his practice and when he goeth home sleepeth the day out with a fair lad.” (Elegy II. 1335-1336)

It’s perhaps hard to see what inspired such wonder in Symonds from a modern perspective, but if his memoirs are anything to judge by, they sparked in him an intense desire and “unwholesome poetry making”. It’s rather hard to deny that Symonds felt an intense personal connection to this particular couplet. If I may put my own speculation on it, it might have been the idea that it was acceptable, even a path to happiness, for a man to have homoerotic sexual desires. I imagine hearing that sort of ancient “wisdom”, if you’d call it that, would be vindicating and freeing having struggled with that desire for your whole life. For this reason, it seems appropriate Symonds would keep this particular passage close to the chest.

Later on in Memoirs, Symonds talks about his relationship with Norman, a sixth form from Clifton College. In reference, he talks about another passage from Theognis that is also discussed in Greek Ethics, this one about loyalty.

If thou lovest me and the heart within thee is loyal, be not my friend but in word, with heart and mind turned contrary; either love me with a whole heart, or disown me and hate me in open quarrel. Whosoever is in two minds with one tongue, he, Cyrnus, is a dangerous comrade, better as foe than friend. (Elegy II. 87-92)

He follows this quotation up in his memoirs by stating that Norman was never disloyal, and that it was his circumstances that made the relationship awkward (complicating factors like being married). If the other passage was one that gave Symonds solace, this one seemed like one that he internalized to highlight the strangeness and perhaps the perceived wrongness of his own circumstances. After all, it was Symonds who was the disloyal one in this relationship, in whichever direction you want to consider it. Maybe it spoke to him, on account of his own inability to fulfill the words of one who so openly practiced a subject he had a vested interest in. It was deeply personal, but this time in a way that highlighted the way he had to practice it in the shadows, rather than out in the open like the Greeks.

The last interesting thing about Theognis is that he never appears in any of Symonds’ letters. This suggests to me that his works were dissimilar to Plutarch or Plato, who he often discussed with contemporaries. It seems more to me that Theognis was someone that held passages that were very personal to him, but perhaps the overall works themselves were not of much intellectual interest. Maybe he kept them close, but not in a way that dominated his thought.

Works Cited:

Sean Brady and John Addington Symonds, “A Problem in Greek Ethics,” essay, in John Addington Symonds (1840-1893) and Homosexuality: a Critical Edition of Sources (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012)

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

Theognis. Elegy and Iambus. with an English Translation by. J. M. Edmonds. Cambridge, MA. Harvard University Press. London. William Heinemann Ltd. 1931. 1.

Williams, T. Hudson. “Theognis and His Poems.” The Journal of Hellenic Studies, vol. 23, 1903, pp. 1–23. JSTOR,