Symonds and Vernon Lee’s Belcaro: A polite disagreement

A quick author’s note first: for the three blog posts I have written so far, I started by looking at Symonds’ memoirs, then his letters, to search for evidence linking him with to the book/image/author in question. I would then read the source. I decided to try a different approach this time. I picked a book from his library before consulting Symonds’ memoirs and letters for connecting points. This way, I hoped I would be better able to put myself in Symonds’ role as a reader. The book I selected is by Vernon Lee, the pseudonym for Violet Paget. While entering the books from Symonds’ library into our Omeka catalog, I noticed three books, Studies of the Eighteenth Century in Italy, Euphorion, Belcaro, and Juvenilia by Vernon Lee on the list. I became curious about what Symonds saw in Lee’s works in particular. With this, I opened Belcaro: Being Essays on Sundry Aesthetical Questions.

Belcaro is a collection of Lee’s ”studies,” in which she describes her observations and experiences of different works of art. This book implements her approach to psychological aesthetics, an area she is expert in. Her analysis is based on a variety of artworks, from sculpture to bas-relief, music to poetry. ( Fun fact: While writing about music, Vernon Lee takes Mozart’s character, Cherubino, from the Marriage of Figaro. This male character is usually portrayed in opera productions y a mezzo-soprano, a woman. Vernon Lee also sees herself as a woman who often assumed masculine attire. )

In each chapter, Lee uses one specific art form to shed light on a distinct aspect of aesthetic experience. She usually points out a difference between the way people are inclined to see the arts and the way she deems this art ought to be perceived. And such inconsistency, according to her, is what distances “The Child in the Vatican” from the true aesthetic values of Greek sculptures, from falling in love with a city like Rome, which has given birth to the richest history of mankind. (Lee, 48). Thus, Lee argues against appreciating arts from what viewers think it portrays. Rather, we should look at it in terms of how it portrays, “the perfection of line and curve, and light and shade,” as she puts; “the highest intrinsic quality of form is beauty; and the highest merit of the artist… is to make form which is beautiful” (41). In another chapter on a bas-relief of Orpheus and Eurydice, Lee explains how, by assuming that each art piece tells a story outside itself, people are only able to enjoy the arts if they know enough background information, i.e., who Orpheus and Eurydice are and what their relationship is. Once again, she criticizes this kind of appreciation on the basis of a viewer’s knowledge as “appreciating merely your own intellectual equivalent of it [art]” (Lee, 64). Topics of other chapters include the “supernatural” power of poems, the fidelity of music performers to composers, and more.

Portrait of Vernon Lee by John Singer Sargent via Wikipedia public domain.

To truly appreciate the arts, as Lee suggests, one needs to see a work of art in its light, not one’s own. While Lee’s position is firm, she unfolds her arguments imaginatively, narrating in a way that, to an extent, makes her work itself a piece of art. For example, in her essay on “Orpheus and Eurydice,” she says:

“One answer, then another, then yet another, as fancy took more definite shapes. Yes, the dawn and the morning are a pair of lovers over whom hangs an irresistible, inscrutable fate

Cephalus and Procris, Alcestis and Admetus, Orpheus and Eurydice.” (Lee, 50)

Although often vague and giving her readers a real hard time, her poetic style does not fail to remind me of another equally imaginative writer, John Addington Symonds. Here is an excerpt drawn from “The Song of the Summer,” which is included in Symonds’ Miscellanies:

“He threw his rags aside. Naked he stood there; like an athlete, like a Greek hero, like Heracles or Hermes in the dawn of noble deeds. His firm and vital flesh, white, rounded, radiant, shone upon the sward.” (Memoirs, 370)

(Memoirs, p. 370)

In the quotes selected, both Symonds and Lee make reference to Greek figures. While Lee directly list them to illustrate what she describes as “a pair of lovers,” appealing to readers’ romantic imagination, Symonds directly writes his erotic imagination as realized in the figure of a Greek hero. Also, they both use “dawn” here to convey a sense of hope for the forthcoming future for those bright energetic Greek youth.

So I was very surprised when I finally opened Symonds’ letters to search for his references to Vernon Lee. Between 1880 and 1884, Symonds corresponded frequently with her; he wrote around fifteen letters to Vernon Lee, besides also mentioning her multiple times in his correspondence to his other friends. Symonds knew Vernon Lee from her work, Studies of the Eighteenth Century in Italy. Both were influential for their studies of the Renaissance, and at one point Symonds considered Lee a “new star risen above the horizon” (Letters, 995) It is clear, however, that Symonds often disagreed with Lee’s writing style as well as her way of unfolding her arguments. Symonds’ interactions with Lee, therefore, were not entirely pleasant. At first, Symonds did not hesitate to provide writing advice to Lee, as he considered himself “as an older craftsman” speaking to “a younger craftsman” (Letters, 635). Gradually, however, Symonds became impatient with Lee’s writing and her “overconfiden[ce] in [her] own intuition,” which he eventually described as “insufferable ignorant conceit” while writing to one of their mutual friends, Eleanot Frances Poynter, (Letters, 853). Regarding Belcaro, the book being analyzed here, Symonds directly expressed his difference of opinion, writing that “Art is not Art’s end; & Beauty is not its end; Art is the means, & Beauty is the mode chosen for utterance of the Geist” (Letters, 740) In a latter correspondence addressed to Lee, Symonds directly tells Lee that “I[he] feel[s] that you[she] imagine yourself to be so clever that everything you think is either right or else valuable. And your way of expressing yourself is so uncompromising that your belief in yourself grates upon my sense of what is just and dignified.” Hence, Symonds (Letters, 897 & 898).

Symonds’ frankness, his keen willingness to mentor and guide a junior scholar whom he considers a “comrade,” and his intolerance of “one-sidedness” and “cocksure” writing, are new to my knowledge of him. Although Vernon Lee turns out not to be among those who influenced Symonds’ own work, she helps us see other sides of Symonds as a reviewer, a senior scholar, who, although firmly believes that one should not withhold their opinions, also assumes it his responsibility to perpetuate the “accepted wisdom, a certain caution & reserve in asserting our opinions” that may differ from the world. More moving perhaps, is his insistence on a clear writing style that is accessible to readers. The illimitable energy and vigor of Lee’s writing , as Symonds describes, is “pungent.” However, he also admits that her books will “give me delight” while stimulat[ing] me[him] to controversy.” (p. 870) While original ideas shine in Lee’s essays, Symonds’ reflection on Belcaro shows again his human-centered way of thinking: art, if anything, is a unique and crucial human expression; there will be no aesthetic experience. I find myself more convinced by his argument.

Works Cited:

Lee, Vernon. Belcaro: being essays on sundry aesthetical questions. W. Satchell & co: 1881.

Symonds, John Addington. The letters of John Addington Symonds. Volume II. Wayne State University Press: 1967

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

The world has grown old: reflections on Studies of the Greek Poets by J.A.S

The first version of Studies of the Greek Poets is published in 1873. A result of his life-long study in Greek literature, this book looks deeply into the Greek aesthetics, literary traditions, and politics through the lens of poets and the poetry. At this point, Symonds’ knowledge of Ancient Greece is sophisticated enough for him to look at one piece of art and draws out countless ties it has with the whole Greek society.

Symonds starts by giving a temporal and historical account of Greek literature, which he divides into five periods: the Heroic, the transition from Heroic to artistic maturity (B.C. 776 to B.C. 477), the Athenian Supremacy (B.C. 477 to B.C. 413), Athenian Decline (B.C. 413 to B.C. 323), and the final period of decline and decay (B.C. 323 to the final extinction of classical civilization).

It is worth paying attention to Symonds’ descriptions of the Heroic period, which initiates the flourishing splendor of Greek literature. According to Symonds, the influence of Homer’s works infiltrates all emerging literature, aesthetics, ideals of beings, and thereby the Greek society as a whole. He states that “it is from the Homeric poems alone that we can form a picture to our imagination of the state of society in prehistoric Hellas. ”(Studies of Greek Poets, p. 7) For one thing, Homer’s works shed light on the ideal of human life. Infusing the “beautiful human heroism” (p. 9) in Achilles; and in Ulysses the “bravery, subtlety, and cunningness”(p. 9), Homer lays the foundation of one human ideal: a man eloquent and adventurous like Ulysses in his outer appearance; radiant, youthful, adolescent like Achilles in his spirit. Homer puts upon desk the most energetic possibilities of living, which give rise to the Homeric Epic poems, those of Achilles and of Ulysses or the alike. Moreover, Achilles’s death influences the Greek tragedy too. In short, Homer alone inspires the major themes and aesthetics of Greek literature. The history of Greek literary development can therefore be viewed as a process of how the heroism created by Homer develops into a thematic monarchy all over its literature, and then eventually dissolves into a subtle yet omnipresent aesthetics constantly dazzling in later Greek literature.

With this understanding, let us now start approaching the content of Symonds’ scholarly essays. By writing “Studies of the Greek Poets,” Symonds aims to achieve two things: being an informant who “bring[s] Greek literature home to the general reader” and an literary critic who “applies to the Greek poets the same sort of criticism as that which modern classics receive.” (p. 1) In each chapter, Symonds would usually start from an overview, sketching the historical development of one genre, its division and mutation over time, to specific examples that he deems reflect the essence of the genre best. Take the chapter on The lyric poets for example. Symonds starts by introducing the particularities of lyric poems given by its form. According to Symonds, each genre of poetry is donated to a different purpose. “The Hexameter was consecrated to epical narrative; the Elegy was confined to songs of lament or meditation; The Iambic assumed a satiric character. ” (p. 111) The lyrical poetry is connected to personal feeling and of public ceremonial. From there, Symonds then accounts for the different sub-divisions of the lyrical poetry and the relevant names related to each. Through his writings, we are informed of the sublime rhythm of Sappho’s poems which bears a “heart-devouring passion.” (p. 130) And Scolion of Hubrias the Cretan, which sheds light on the early Dorian barbarism. Such analysis enables us to imagine not just the individual lives of the poets; Symonds also puts before our eyes lively pictures of ancient Greek life.

To make his writings more accessible to the modern readers, Symonds uses a lot of comparisons between the Ancient Greece and the society we are more familiar with. For example, when talking about the lyric poems, he compares the mass of “lyric poetry which might have existed in Greek” to the “church music that exists in Germany and Italy.” (p.113) Symonds even dedicates a whole chapter to the comparison between ancient and modern tragedy. In Chapter IX, he argues that the major difference between the modern tragedy and the Greek tragedy lies in that Greek tragedy knows no subtlety in depicting human emotions. Located in open ground with all grand Athenian sceneries around, the Greek theatre does not allow actors to express the wide spectrum of human emotions and passions as does the modern theatre which takes place in indoor chambers. Symonds acutely summarizes this difference as “the ancient dramatist plays with his cards upon the table: the modern dramatist conceals his hand.” (p. 289) In Greek tragedy, a lot of theatrical elements are fixed and simple: the construction, the scenes, etc. Moreover, it keeps using the same well-known characters drawn from Homer and to the Epic cycle, for example, Oedipus, Agamemnon, etc. The audience therefore comes to the theatre with abundant knowledge of the destiny of all characters; it is only the characters themselves who don’t know what they are facing. This renders the Greek Tragedy a sense of irony which is not present in any modern dramas (considering how we all hate spoilers).

While reading this book, I am impressed by how Symonds uses “poets” rather than “poetry” as the thread to link up his arguments. It appears to me that Symonds possesses a keen sense of looking at history, politics, and civilization from the lives and deeds of humans, not the reverse way. One evidence is that Symonds keeps going back to Alexander, who, bearing an unusual parallel to Achilles due to his admiration for Homer’s works, proves the importance of this literary figure to the Greek race. Metaphorically, Symonds loves to draw an analogy between the historical development of literature to a person’s life. Greek literature, with its long-lasting impact on individuals and thereby the society, is the “springtime of the world. The world has now grown gold.” (p. 398) The modern society Symonds lives in inevitably afflicts his mind with human sufferings, with the unexpressed identities, and with all other complications that gradually drains a youthful mind. The Greek society becomes no more than a past dream. At the time of his writing, Symonds is thirty-three. As I am reading Symonds’ imagination of the Greek society, a world he imagines to have “no mystery of darkness, no labyrinth of tortuous shade, no conflict of contrasted forms,” (p.404) I imagine him sitting in his study, his eyes closed. I imagine the rich literature he just read from Pericles, from Sappho, and from Pindar, alleviating the pains he had from illness, and from having to “sit down soberly to contemplate his own besetting vice. ”(Memoirs, p.524) What penetrates through the book pages is Symonds’ yearning for all fair things: integrity, truth, bravery, and ultimately the possibility of a life that conceals nothing. All of these ideals are present in Greek literature. In this light, Symonds clings on to Greek literature for this transcendental beauty that is itself adequate to shine through all dark ages of humanity.

Works Cited:

  1. John Addington Symonds. Studies of the Greek Poets. London: Smith, Elder & Co., 1873.
  2. Regis, Amber K. The Memoirs of John Addington Symonds: A Critical Edition. London: Palgrave Macmillan UK , 2016.

Yearning, Nostalgia: Plutarch’s Influences over Symonds

Two ways to look deeply into an ancient culture are to read about the lives of its people and the social ideologies they formed. Plutarch produced one work for each. As an essayist, Plutarch has a collection of articles, Moralia, including essays and transcribed speeches, shedding light on the Greek and Roman livings in general. As a biographer, Plutarch is known for Lives/Parallel Lives, which chronicles a series of famous Greek and Roman people (Mark Antony for example) in a detailed manner. Like Karl Marx to a sociology class, Plutarch is one of those names you are unlikely to miss on your Classics 101 (says me who is not a classics major, yet) reading list as his works provide a basic understanding into the social, philosophical, and spiritual frameworks of ancient Greek culture.

Plutarch/Lives via Artstor by v1.12.41

It is curious to see how our protagonist John Addington Symonds, who is a classics scholar and to whom Greek life is “of intense personal interest,” came across Plutarch. Several times in his memoirs and letters, he mentioned reading Plutarch as part of his personal life. On his trip to Italy, JAS brought Plutarch with him to read all day long in a cabin and in Sicily. He expressed his feeling of being in Italy as to “get so many of the good things of the world,” Plutarch being one of them. In another letter, he mentions that his 10-year-old Janet read Plutarch’s Lives with him every day after breakfast.

What, then, did JAS find so invaluable in Plutarch’s works? As aforementioned, Plutarch’s works are more like an encyclopedia of Greek livings and society. It is therefore crucial and intriguing for us to see what is it that draws the most attention from JAS among the plethora of ancient Greek characters and ideologies Plutarch has to offer. We might also want to ask what the connection is there between those characters and JAS’s personal life and beliefs.  

Epaminondas/Death of Epaminondas via Artstor by v1.12.41

Plutarch’s Lives as a source that demonstrates the military origin of Greek love. The Life of Pelopidas brings up the Sacred Band, an army led by Pelopidas, and is “cemented by friendship grounded upon love” between soldiers. The Sacred Band, is said to be invincible as lovers would never want to appear base in sight of the beloved, as supported in Plutarch’s The Dialogue on Love“For love makes a man clever …the coward brave, just as men make soft wood tough by hardening it in the fire.” Symonds also touches lightly on other similar stories to support this claim. Such love that bred in a military setting rests on what Symonds calls comradeship, the “companion in battlein public and private affairs of life,”The relationship between Pelopidas and Epaminondas in the Life of Pelopidas fits this description. Both being free of a vanity towards “personal wealth and glory,” they are bonded by a “divine desire of seeing their country glorious by their exertions.” The affection between them further ferments through participating in public actions and fighting together at battles. Evidence from Symonds’ memoirs and letters suggest that such friendship infiltrates its influence from his scholastic to personal life, exciting his romantic imagination. Symonds describes his affection for Willie Dyer, his first love, as “a passionate yet pure love between friend and friend…the vision of a comrade, seemed at the time to be made actual in him [Willie]”. As a boy, Symonds wrote an unpublished poem, “Epaminondas,” which is mentioned in his letters. Although we as readers cannot see the actual poem, it is hard not to draw a connection between Epaminondas and Symonds himself, both of whom are voracious in philosophizing and engaged in boy love. Moreover, in his memoir, Symonds confesses his attraction towards masculinity which indicates a possibility of him projecting himself on Epaminondas; he has an unusual friendship with Pelopidas, who is keen on bodily actions. It is funny to read that Pelopidas and Epaminondas once worked together as colleagues “in supreme command and gained the greater part of the nations there, including all Arcadia.”, comparing this to the fact that Symonds famously euphemizes his ideal Greek love as the “Arcadian Love,” distinguishing it from Greek love which includes also a baser form of paiderastia.

Plutarch/Comradeship by via Artstor by v1.12.41

Symonds’ referral to Plutarch is centered on the debate about love and the characters that exemplify a pure, passionate relationship seen in the Greek military, which drives his intellectual inquiry and unworldly personal imagination. However, upon reading Plutarch, I also recognize traces of other morals from Plutarch that might have been correlated to Symonds’ life. As stated by Arthur Hugh Clough, “Plutarch is a moralist, not a historian.” Plutarch’s own moral values are made apparent in his Lives, partly reflecting the ideals the Greek society had aspired to. Besides the Life of Pelopidas, Symonds mentions the Life of Solon quite frequently as well. According to Plutarch, Pelopidas, Epaminondas, and Solon share one commonality: they are “no admirers of riches.” Symonds, at a very young age, had also discovered that he “felt no desire for wealth, no mere wish to cut a figure in society,” In this light, it is Symonds’ whole nature, or at least some nature more than mere sexual orientation, that resonates with the essential virtues of the Greek heroes as portrayed by Plutarch. Thus, this observation suggests to me that his indulgence into the ancient Greek history and literature would not be a choice, but a destiny.

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), pp. 21.

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

Symonds, John Addington, and Horatio F Brown. Letters and Papers of John Addington Symonds. New York: C. Scribner’s Sons, 1923.

Symonds, John Addington. A Problem In Modern Ethics: Being an Inquiry Into the Phenomenon of Sexual Inversion. London, 1896.

Plutarch. “Plutarch’s lives” London, Dent; New York, Dutton [1969-71; vol. 1&2, 1970] Dryden ed., rev. with an introd. by Arthur Hugh Clough.

First budding of the down: Symonds’ encounter with Sir. William Hamilton’s collection of antiquities

Imagine dwelling in your father’s library for the whole day, devouring Greek literature. When your eyes need a break, you look out from the windows of Clifton Hill House. The city’s towers, the River Avon, and the sea-going ships are gleaming. Or, you feast your eyes with engravings, photographs, copies of Italian pictures and illustrated books about Greek sculpture. The adolescent Symonds nurtured himself in these ways. Symonds is dreamy and whimsical. He frequently appears to his friends as “languorous” in real-world pursuits as he explains that he “live[s] into emotion through the brooding imagination” (Memoirs, p. 181).

Symonds /Clifton Hill House Open Garden by Chris L via

Before Symonds’ imagination could take flight, he needed images that could inspire and suggest. The actual images he took in became elements with which to build sceneries and characters in his fantasy world; no one but himself was able to enter this world of imagination. Nevertheless, it is possible for us to get closer to his fantasy world by looking at images that might have had an impact on him. Doing so, we can begin to visualize his imaginative world using our own imagination. In this blog post, I am going to experiment with this idea by presenting one image from Symonds’ visual library.

Title page, Pierre-Francois Hugues D’Hancarville, Etruscan, Greek, and Roman Antiquities from the Cabinet of the Honble William Hamilton (Naples: 1766-1767). Image via

Among Symonds’ favorite picture books was a book of engraved reproductions of the collection of Sir William Hamilton (1730-1803). Hamilton was famous for his large collection of Etruscan, Greek, and Roman antiquities. As the Envoy Extraordinary to Naples for the British empire, Hamilton possessed a charismatic personality that attracted patrons who help with his collecting project, enabling him to amass and study in depth a large number of antiquities. He stood out from his peers, upper-class, rich Englishmen, mainly for his scholastic pursuits in antiquity and, surprisingly, volcanology. With his scientific observations of volcanos, he intended to “convince the world that volcanoes should not be seen as destructive, but on the contrary as extraordinarily productive natural phenomena” (Pierre-Francois, preface). Similar things can be said about Hamilton’s love of antiquity. His motivation went beyond a simple collecting frenzy. As Pierre D’ Hancarville noted in his introduction to the book, Hamilton’s collection merited reproduction because it was “useful to Artists, to Men of Letters and by their means to the World in general” (Pierre-Francois, preface ). So it was not unnatural for Symonds to be drawn to Hamilton’s collections, which would have appealed to him not just because of its contents, but also for its painstaking dedication to a comprehensive understanding of art and culture.

Pierre-Francois Hugues D’Hancarville, The Collection of Antiquities from the cabinet of Sir William Hamilton (Köln: TASCHEN, 2004). From the Sheridan Libraries, Johns Hopkins University. Photograph by Yiyang Xu.

The picture here (on the left) is from an Attic, a region of Greece that contained Athens, bell-krater, labelled III-36 from Collection of Etruscan, Greek and Roman Antiquities from the cabinet of the Hon.W. Hamilton. I chose this image to analyze as the flexible bodily gestures of six half-naked youths here immediately remind me of some similar scenery descriptions I have frequently come across in Symonds’ memoirs. The image is captioned “Surrounded by six youths (five torch-bearers), Nike leads a bull towards a base with two steps.” In Greek mythology, Nike is the goddess of victory. Unlike many other Greek goddesses, Nike is not given many personal histories and characteristics. In other words, she appears more as a symbol than a person. This makes the theme of the image less clear: there are no prominent figures such as Achilles or the brothers Castor and Pollux here that readers could relate to a background story. Paintings like this entail a lesser sense of story-telling, which allows the reader to focus solely on the aesthetics. In other words, since there is not an established setting, it is open to the reader’s interpretation.

Several aspects of this picture stand out to me; the first one is the masculine bodies. The six nude youths in the picture are similar, as they are all well-built with a sheet of muscle between the abdomen and chest. This painting therefore serves as a perfect exemplar for demonstrating Symonds’ own description of his viewing of pictures, aimed at satisfying his desire for “the love of a robust and manly lad, even if it had not been wholly pure.” Such visual experience, he adds, “must have been beneficial to a boy like me [him]” (Memoirs, p.118). Another notable feature of this painting is that it depicts six masculine youths, rather than one or a couple. More than anything, the painting strikes me first as a reminder of Symonds’ account of how he “used to fancy” himself “crouched upon the floor amid a company of naked adult men: sailors.” It is worth noting that the awakening of Symonds’ erotic imagination here entails scenes of a group of masculine youths (sailors) rather than a single one. The painting at hand would satisfy exactly this secret desire.

Nike, the only female here, is placed in the center of the painting. Nike’s covered body, tender gesture, and her state of being protected by the brawny youths around her might very well have tempted Symonds to fantasize in the same way that he did about Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis, about which he reflected, “those adult males, the shaggy and brawny sailors, without entirely disappearing, began to be superseded in my fancy by an adolescent Adonis…She [Venus] only expressed my own relation to the desirable male.” (Memoirs, p.101). In this case, Nike would be in the position of “Venus” for him, a symbol that only intensifies his yearning for the nearby youths.

Nevertheless, I would argue that the picture is more than a graphic representation of Symonds’ erotic ideal. The torches in the hands of the youths around Nike indicate that it is night time. Oddly enough, in the painting, Nike doesn’t hold a torch herself, which suggests that she is not just guarded, but is also guided by the six young men; they are leading the way for her to travel in the darkness. In return, Nike brings victory to the youths. Such a relationship itself resembles the comradeship that Symonds often mentions, which surpassed the realm of sexual imagination. The relationship of guarding, guiding, and eventually needing one another is akin to what Symonds craved in a romantic relationship, independent of bodily desire. As Symonds rested his eyes on the painting, both his romantic and erotic imaginations would have been inspired; these two elements worked in tandem to enhance his sensual pleasure.

Works Cited:

  1. Regis, Amber K. The Memoirs of John Addington Symonds: A Critical Edition. London: Palgrave Macmillan UK , 2016.
  2. Pierre-Francois Hugues D’Hancarville, The Collection of Antiquities from the Cabinet of Sir William Hamilton. Cologne: TASCHEN, 2004.