John Addington Symonds was exposed to classical Greco-Roman art through the large illustrated folios in the library in his childhood home in Clifton. In his Memoirs, Symonds recalls that his house “was well stocked with engravings, photographs, copies of Italian pictures, and illustrated works upon Greek sculpture.” (118). From this large collection, Symonds mentions that “the two large folios issued by the Dilettante Society were among my favorites” (ibid). The Dilletante Society that Symonds refers to, more properly known as the Society of Dilettanti, was an academic society that focused on studying ancient Greek and Roman art.
One of these folios is most likely Specimens of Ancient Sculpture, Ægyptian, Estruscan, Greek, and Roman: Selected from Different Collections in Great Britain published by the Society of Dilettanti published in 1809. Specimens is filled with engravings that reproduce pieces of sculpture obtained by the British Museum from private donors of ancient Greek sculptures, including the figure of Apollo, whose representations in art and literature became an inspiration for Symonds throughout his life. Symonds describes the attraction as follows:
“The kernel of my inspiration was that radiant figure of the young Apollo, doomed to pass his time with shepherds, serving them, and loving them. A luminous haze of yearning emotion surrounded the god. His divine beauty penetrated my soul and marrow”
These descriptions of Apollo come from the mythological story of Apollo’s servitude to King Admetus as punishment for rebelling against Zeus (Apollodorus, The Library): “So he went to Admetus, son of Pheres, at Pherae, and served him as a herdsman, and caused all the cows to drop twins” (Apollodorus). This description of Apollo is one that sets the deity in a pastoral landscape, with the god interacting with nature and potential lovers of both genders. The erotic implications of such a setting are well illustrated in “The Herdsmen of Admetus” painted by Constance Phillott.
Symonds’ understanding of Apollonian beauty was not just one based on literary understanding of the mythological figure, but also on visual representations which portray the figure of Apollo. In Plate V of the Specimens, the figure of Apollo is depicted; as the description notes:
“The muscles of the limbs and body are full and prominent after the antient manner of representation”
(Society of Dilettanti)
In this depiction of the god, he seems to be engaging in something related to nature, like hunting. According to the text in the book, “the right arm might have rested on a quiver, the left seems to have held a bow, which has been in contact with the leg on the left side.” (Society of Dilettanti).
In the corner of the plate, is the inscription “J.S. Agar”, referring to John Samuel Agar, a painter and engraver in the early nineteenth century, close to the publication date of this book. Unlike John Flaxman, another engraver of the time, Agar utilizes a style of engraving depicts Apollo’s full form in a realistic style. This depiction of Apollo, with its sharp details, displays his physicality, not his intellect or his association with the arts, comparable more to “patron of pugilism than to the leader of a celestial orchestra” (Society of Dilettanti).
Symonds equates Apollo with masculinity and his association with nature, such as the legends of Apollo’s travels among shepherds. For Symonds, “the god of my adoration drank life and love among the sheep-cotes of Admetus” (Memoirs, 114). Symonds understands Apollo as both an abstracted deity of the arts, but also as a representation of ideal male beauty. This view of Apollo is one that depicts idealized beauty which Symonds uses to judge what he perceives in others.
Symonds’s view of art also influenced his view of real life. When he describes his relationship with William Dyer, Symonds describes his friend as: “the boy who owned that voice seemed the only beautiful, the only flawless being I had ever seen” (Memoirs, 155). This description of Dyer reflects the view that Symonds holds in his mind about ideal beauty, which he contrasts to the social relationships that prevailed at Harrow.
He writes that Dyer “had delivered my soul from the Egyptian house of Harrow bondage. He enabled me to realize an ideal of a passionate and yet pure love between friend and friend” (Memoirs, 158). This use of the “ideal” clearly manifests itself in the way that Symonds translates his love for William into the classical framework.
John Addington Symonds was familiar with Greek myth and indulged a particular affection for its visual depiction. He had access to a multitude of books in his family’s home but reveals that he spent much time in his youth with European books of images and mentions John Flaxman specifically. Symonds writes, “I was very fond of picture books and drew a great deal from Raphael, Flaxman and Retzsch. Our house was well stocked with engravings, photographs, copies of Italian pictures and illustrated works upon Greek sculpture” (Memoirs, 118). Composizioni di Giovanni Flaxman Scultore Inglese Tratte Dall’Odissea di Omero(Compositions of John Flaxman, English Sculptor, Regarding the Odyssey of Homer) is a likely candidate given that it is an European picture book with multiple images of Apollo, for whom Symonds expressed an interest. The book, with engravings by Beniamino del Vecchio, was published in Italian in 1805. John Addington Symonds Senior was born in 1807 and his son in 1840. The book, or a similar edition, easily could have been purchased by Symonds senior and would not have been too old for Symonds junior to enjoy in his youth. The publication date, paired with Symonds’ explicitly stated interest in the subject, makes it a plausible candidate for either Symonds to own, though it should be noted that Flaxman’s illustrations were frequently printed, both on their own and in editions of the works they illustrate. The 1805 book has thirty-five plates depicting various scenes from the Odyssey. But there is one specific image of Apollo that, given his tastes, would surely have struck the young Symonds.
Symonds makes clear his affection for Apollo. He spent many walks and daydreams dwelling on the deity. He recalls this in the third chapter of the Memoirs,
“The kernel of my inspiration was that radiant figure of the young Apollo… A luminous haze of yearning emotion surrounded the god. His divine beauty penetrated my soul and marrow. I stretched out my arms to him in worship. It was I alone who knew him to be Olympian; and I loved him…” (114).
Symonds is obviously enchanted by Apollo and his myths. Given his deep infatuation, it is reasonable that the youth examined a multitude of images of his love. In Flaxman’s book there is a plate entitled, La Ninfa Lampesia va ad avvertire Apollo che i compagni di Ulisse gli hanno ucciso il bestiame. This translates to: The Nymph Lampesia goes to Apollo to warn him that the companions of Ulysses killed his cattle. In the Odyssey the deity from this tale is Helios who can be used interchangeably with Apollo since both are sun gods. ¹
Symonds might have been drawn to this image in particular because it shows the god as an idealized, youthful nude flying through the sky on a glorious chariot. It is clear that Symonds would have spent time with nearly any image of Apollo, but this one is especially interesting because of the second figure in the plate. Apollo’s image is accompanied by the partially nude female figure of Lampesia. In his Memoirs, Symonds records that his father commented to him regarding what piqued his visual interest,
“I used to pore for hours together over the divine loveliness, while my father read poetry aloud to us in the evenings. He did not quite approve, and asked me why I would not choose some other statue [than the Praxitelean Cupid], a nymph or Hebe” (118).
This plate would afford Symonds the opportunity to compare Apollo with a feminine being, perhaps quieting his father. Given Symonds infatuation with Apollo it seems obvious that if he had access to this specific plate he would have adored this image of the glorious and beautiful deity.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
John Addington Symonds was, among many other things, an extraordinarily prolific writer. In addition to various essays and poetry, he authored twenty or so books over the course of his career. This is a remarkable output considering he was not published until 1863; on average, Symonds put out a book every year and a half from the age of 23 until his death at 53 in 1893. He had three publications in his final year of life: the first of three was Inthe Key of Blue, and Other Prose Essays. (The other two were The Life of Michelangelo Buonarroti and Walt Whitman: A Study.) This antepenultimate book is the culmination of many different pieces of Symonds’ life, and here I will discuss how In the Key of Blue is not only representative of Symonds’ full corpus and body of interests, but also by far the most open acknowledgement of his same-sex love and attraction published publicly up to that point.
In The Key of Blue contains thirteen selections written by Symonds over the span of more than 30 years. That Symonds selected the essays in this text for breadth is not a revelation: he says as much in the preface. “I have tried to make the selection representative of the different kinds of work in which I have principally engaged—Greek and Renaissance Literature, Description of Places, Translation, Criticism, and Original Verse,” he writes, which is an accurate if unspecific list of his scholarly inclinations.1 Many of the pieces cover several of the aforementioned categories and are multi-genre. “Edward Cracroft Lefroy,” for example, is biography, poetic analysis, and discussion of the man’s influences on Symonds all in one.
It is worth discussing “Among the Euganean Hills,” which contains scenic descriptions and account of Symonds visit to the Euganean Hills in Padua, Italy, at more length. The essay is mediated by Symonds’ musings on the Percy Shelley poem “Lines Written among the Euganean Hills.” It is also rife with references to classical antiquity, often apropos of nothing. In a section about the villages Battaglia and Abano, Symonds includes an extended aside on Geryon that, while interesting, has little to do with the primary subject.2 This phenomenon is not isolated to this essay–In the Key of Blue is, altogether an extraordinarily self-indulgent book.
Another element present in “Among the Euganean Hills” is Symonds’ same-sex attraction. Symonds describes a time he was sitting on Monte Venda, the highest mountain of the hills, and a “youthful cowherd” came along, who he calls “a bright lad, clear-cut in feature, nut-brown of complexion, white of teeth, with pale wistful blue eyes.”3 This description is similar to others that appear in Symonds work that portray men he finds attractive or has feelings for. Although these sorts of low-key mentions are common across Symonds’ works, this essay is actually quite subtle when compared to the references to Symonds’ homosexuality in other essays within In The Key of Blue specifically.
This brings me to my second point, which is that In the Key of Blue contains far more obviously references to male same-sex attraction than any other mainstream text by Symonds. Although A Problem in Greek Ethics was written around 1873 and printed privately in 1883, it was not published until after Symonds’ death, as a part of Die konträre Geschlechtsgefühl in 1896. Further, In the Key of Blue discusses Symonds’ personal attractions, not similarly the historical evidence and cultural implications of “Greek love.” There are three essays in particular I would like to draw attention to: “In the Key of Blue,” “The Dantesque and Platonic Ideals of Love,” and “Clifton and a Lad’s Love.”
The eponymous first essay, “In the Key of Blue,” starts off as a meditation on how color is expressed in literature but morphs into a simultaneous consideration of how the color blue illuminates the beauty of Augusto, a Venetian youth. The essay alternates between Symonds’ commentary and his “studies” of the color blue, which are really just poems gushing about how beautiful Augusto is. The first of these studies is reproduced below:
A symphony of black and blue— Venice asleep, vast night, and you. The skies were blurred with vapours dank: The long canal stretch inky-blank With lights on heaving water shed From lamps that trembled overhead. Pitch-dark! You were the one thing blue; Four tints of pure celestial hue: The larkspur blouse by tones degraded Through silken sash of sapphire faded, The faintly floating violet tie, The hose of lapis-lazuli How blue you were amid that black, Lighting the wave, the ebon wrack! The ivory pallor of your face, Gleamed from those glowing azure back Against the golden gaslight grapes Of dusty curls your brows embrace And round you all the vast night gapes.4
Although Symonds claims the focus of these studies is the color blue, it is difficult to view them creative experiment: his attraction towards Augusto hard to miss.
In “The Dantesque and Platonic Ideals of Love,” Symonds discusses the similarities and differences of Greek love and the chivalrous love Dante describes through the allegory of Beatrice (for an expansion on the latter, see this post) and argues they both ultimately allow one to “scale the higher fortresses of intellectual truth”5 In other words, he places homosexual love in a comparable plane of ethics and legitimacy as heterosexual love.
Finally, “Clifton and a Lad’s Love,” which appears midway through the collection, is the most unambiguous in that it is the only essay where Symonds openly acknowledges same-sex attraction. The essay is a somewhat unusual inclusion in that it is the earliest work by a good few years.6 It is another piece which alternates Symonds’ poetry with prose commentary. The writing of the essay corresponds with Symonds’ relationship with the choir boy Willie Dyer.7 So where Symonds writes, “Else had I laid my lips to his, /And called him by love’s dearest name,” there is little doubt as to who he means, although certainly readers of the day did not have the Memoirs as a cross-reference point.8
Although homosexuality was an important subject for Symonds, personally and academically throughout his career, it took until the publication of In the Key of Blue for this subject to be reflected openly in his public work. The years after his death would see Symonds’ contributions to the historical and literary discussions of same-sex attraction and his own inclinations first more widely known, and then fervently minimized and released by his executors. So, in some ways, In the Key of Blue was the first, and only, unmitigated and publicly available text on Symonds’ own sexuality.
External Links In the Key of Blue, and Other Prose Essays (1893) via HathiTrust Endnotes 1 John Addington Symonds, In the Key of Blue, and Other Prose Essays, (London: Elkin Matthews & John Lane), 1893, preface. 2 Symonds, In the Key of Blue, 25. 3 Ibid, 31. 4 Ibid, 6. 5 Ibid, 61. 6 Amber K. Regis, “Late style and speaking out: J.A Symonds’s In the Key of Blue,” English Studies (2013) 94:2, 206-31. 7 John Addington Symonds and Amber K. Regis,,The Memoirs of John Addington Symonds: a Critical Edition, (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), 156. 8 Symonds, In the Key of Blue, 158.
Regis, Amber K. 2013. “Late style and speaking out: J.A Symonds’s In the Key of Blue.” English Studies 94:2, 206-31.
Symonds, John Addington. 1893. In the Key of Blue, And Other Prose Essays.
London: Elkin Mathews & John Lane.
Symonds, John Addington.
2016. The Memoirs of John Addington
Symonds: a Critical Edition. Edited by Amber K. Regis. London:
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.
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.”
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. “
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
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 bookOur 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.
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.
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.
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 Bywaysis 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.
It seems almost presumptuous for me to try and write a blog post on Symonds’ Studies of the Greek Poets. It’s a quite influential and momentous text that’s been discussed in detail by people far more erudite than I; additionally, and perhaps more pertinently, Yiyang has already written a wonderful overview and analysis of the text for this site’s blog (you should check it out).
I don’t want to retread ground that’s already been covered,
so rather than focusing on the internal particulars of the work itself, I’m
going to try and stick to examining some of the context within which Studies of the Greek Poets was written, and
why I think it’s a pretty exciting work.
(I know, I get excited by old books about Greek poetry a
lot. You should too!)
[I’ve finally written a blog post which warrants using an image of Symonds. I almost feel like a real academic now.]
As I mentioned inmy last post, “Book it! (Part 1 – William Mure’s Critical History),” Symonds considered Studies to be a contribution to the then-relatively new scholarly movement of analyzing classical texts through a modern critical lens. Symonds was not content to merely present poetry as a historical document, or write a dry biography of classical writers. Rather, he aimed to provide an analysis which was both vividly evocative and packed with critical insight. Again, you should check out Yiyang’s post for a more in-depth look at how he accomplishes this.
Perhaps calling Studies of the Greek Poets a contribution to this critical movement is an understatement – it may seem a bit dramatic to phrase it this way, but I would consider Studies of the Greek Poets nothing short of revolutionary. Certainly, A Problem in Greek Ethics was a revolutionary text, and Symonds conceived of the two works collectively:
“Part of it [an essay on ‘Platonic Love’] I used for my chapter, in Studies of the Greek Poets, on the Greek Spirit. The rest I rewrote in Clifton in 1874, and privately printed under the title of A Problem in Greek Ethics.” – JAS, Memoirs, 340
This revolutionary thrust was not limited to some shared
material between the two works, however. I believe that Symonds harbored a
strong feeling of dissatisfaction with the state of the classical literary
establishment during his lifetime, which likely inspired the creation of both A Problem in Greek Ethics and Studies of the Greek Poets.
Regarding the former, we may consider this excerpt from 1889
letter to Benjamin Jowett, which Symonds wrote in response to Jowett’s
dismissal of the prospect of homosexual content in the works of Plato:
“It surprises me to find you, with your knowledge of Greek history, speaking of this in Plato as ‘mainly a figure of speech.’ […]
Greek love was for Plato no ‘figure of speech’, but a present poignant reality. Greek love is for modern students of Plato no ‘figure of speech’ and no anachronism, but a present poignant reality. The facts of Greek history and the facts of contemporary life demonstrate these propositions only too conclusively.
I will not trouble you again upon this topic. I could not, however, allow the following passage in your letter—‘I do not understand how, what is in the main a figure of speech should have so great power over them’—to go unnoticed without throwing what light I can upon what you do not understand.” – JAS, Memoirs, 154-155
I think this passionate rebuttal suggests not only Symonds’ interest in accurate discussion of homosexual love in ancient Greece, but also his resistance to academic ignorance or insufficient analysis.
Of course, there’s also a level of emotional intensity in Symonds’ writing here reflecting that his interest in discussing homosexuality in ancient Greece goes beyond simple academic exploration. Symonds’ personal experience doubtlessly both inspired and informed his work in this area. His remark that “Greek love is for modern students […] a present poignant reality” hearkens back to his personal observations of sexual contact within the student body at Harrow, which he derided as “repulsive” due to its manipulative and violent character (Memoirs, 148). A thread of personal experience runs through many of Symonds’ scholarly endeavors.
To return briefly to the topic of my last blog post, the sensuality and corruption Symonds witnessed at Harrow would have been constantly before him as he studied and contemplated his school gift copy of Mure’s Critical History – a connection made all the more prominent due to the text’s school bindings. One can only imagine what this association inspired for Symonds, and the role this inspiration played in the creation of A Problem in Greek Ethics.
For a look at material more directly related to Studies of the Greek Poets, let’s compare Symonds’ response to Jowett to this excerpt from a letter he wrote to George Smith in 1872, which I discussed in my last post.
“I have been often asked of late to reprint in a collected form some Essays on Greek Poetry […] In all of them it has been my aim to adjust the study of the Classics to the spirit of modern literary criticism more than has been attempted in the standard books on the subject – Müller and Mure.” – JAS, Letters, 254-255
This statement certainly lacks much of the fire present in
the letter to Jowett, but it may be read as containing some similar motivation.
Clearly, Symonds felt that existing critical work regarding classical
literature was thin on the ground, and inadequate in the areas where it had
While I will not claim that his modern poetic critical analysis was a topic which was personally important to Symonds to the same degree as his discussion of homosexuality in the classical world, I think that the recurring elements of sexuality and personal experience associated with his scholarly work in both areas – consider Mure’s Critical History, for just one example – suggests the source of the passion Symonds devoted to both A Problem in Greek Ethics and Studies of the Greek Poets. Furthermore, I believe that neither work could exist without Symonds’ desire to discard the restrictive shackles of entrenched traditions within classical scholarship, and to examine ancient works with fresh eyes.
Symonds, John Addington.The Letters of Johns Addington Symonds. Wayne State University Press. Detroit, 1967. Print.
–. The Memoirs of John Addington Symonds: A Critical Edition. Amber K. Regis, ed. Palgrave Macmillan Publishing. London, 2016. Print.
–. Studies of the Greek Poets. London: Smith, Elder & Co., 1873
The first version ofStudies 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.
John Addington Symonds. Studies of the Greek Poets. London: Smith, Elder & Co., 1873.
Regis, Amber K. The Memoirs of John Addington Symonds: A Critical Edition. London: Palgrave Macmillan UK , 2016.
Although John Addington Symonds’ strongest influences came from classical antiquity, he also drew substantial inspiration from books by some of his contemporaries. One noteworthy example is Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman. Reading Leaves of Grass was a spiritual and artistic epiphany for Symonds; the book, and his understanding of Whitman, had a great influence on his writing and helped him formulate his thoughts on his own homosexual desires and ethics.
Symonds describes his first encounter with Whitman in the 1866-1875 section of his Memoirs. During that time, he wrote poetry as a “vehicle and safety-valve” for his feelings of same-sex attraction, which he called “tormenting preoccupations.”1 He discovered the book while he was spending time with his friend, F.W.H. Meyers. Meyers “stood up, seized a book and shouted out in his nasal intonation with those brazen lungs of his: ‘Long I thought that knowledge alone would content me.’” Symonds was quite taken with the work: “This fine poem,” he wrote, “omitted from later editions of Leaves of Grass, formed part of ‘Calamus’. The book became for me a sort of Bible.”2
Beyond this retroactive commemoration in the Memoirs, Symonds’ Whitman revelation can be dated more precisely by a letter from Symonds to his close friend Henry Graham Dakyns. Written on February 2, 1867 the letter he describes his first reaction to the book:
Leaves of Grass were published in 1860, when I was just 2 years old.3 Is it not strange I should only have read them this last week I am now 9 years old? Providence orders things so crookedly. If I had read them then & if I had understood I should have been a better very different man now. It is quite indispensable that you should have this book. Yet wait until I come & savor it for the first time with me. It is not a book; there are many better books; it is a man, miraculous in his vigour & love & omnigenuousness and omniscience & animalisme & omnivorous humanity [sic].4
In his letter, Symonds suggests he read Leaves of Grass a week or two before writing to Dakyns, at most, so his first encounter with the book must have occurred in the first month of 1867. Symonds was then 27 years old. He had already been involved in at least one same-sex affair, with choir boy William Fear Dyer, at Balliol College. However, Symonds ended the affair after a short time, and remained at odds with his own desires for many years after. He was aware of “social standards of propriety and respectability” that made homosexuality disallowed: at the same time, he was unable to ignore how he felt.5 Reading Leaves of Grass catalyzed for Symonds a sense of peace about his desires.
Unlike some texts, whose influence on Symonds is subtle and difficult to detect, Leaves of Grass is praised and discussed critically throughout the entirety of his Memoirs. At the end of the preface, there appears a quotation from Whitman’s poem “When I Read The Book,” which was part of his “Inscriptions” cluster in Leaves of Grass.
When I read the book, the biography famous, And is this then (said I) what the author calls a man’s life? And so will some one when I am dead and gone write my life? (As if any man really knew aught of my life, Why even I myself I often think know little or nothing of my real life, Only a few hints, a few diffused faint clews and indirections I seek for my own use to trace out here.)6
The “Inscriptions” quotation speaks many of the themes that Symonds drew from Whitman, and these are discussed in more depth later on in his autobiography. In Chapter 13, titled “Norman,” Symonds describes his relationship with his long time love Norman Moor. Norman Moor was a young man who Symonds met in Clifton 1868—a year after Symonds read Leaves of Grass.7 He says their time together “approached sincerity and truth mainly in those ‘native moments’” Symonds says.8 The phrase “native moments” shows up twice in the ‘Enfans d’Adam’ cluster of Leaves of Grass.9
Leaves of Grass also figures prominently in Chapter 15 of the Memoirs, on Symonds’ “Religious Development.” There is a lengthy section in which he waxes poetic about Leaves of Grass and its profound impact on him:
I find it difficult to speak about Leaves of Grass without exaggeration. Whitman’s intense emotional feeling for the universe, his acute sense of the goodliness of life in all its aspects, the audacity of his mood—as of one eager to cast himself upon illimitable billows, assured that whether he sank there or swam it would be well with him, confident the while that sink he could not, that nothing can eventually come to naught: this concrete passionate faith in the world, combined with the man’s multiform experience, his human sympathy, his thrill of love and comradeship, sent a current of vitalizing magnetism through my speculations… In short, Whitman added conviction, courage, self-reliance, to my sense of the Cosmic Enthusiasm. What is more, he taught me, as no enthusiasm of humanity could do, the value of fraternizing with my fellows—for their own sakes, to love them, to learn from them, to teach them, to help and to be helped by them—not for any ulterior object upon either side. I felt, through him, what it really is to be a member of the universe I sought to worship.10
In brief, the writings of Whitman played an important role in both Symonds self-conceptualization and spiritual life. But even more powerfully, Symonds states that Leaves of Grass, and in particular “Calamus,” played a direct role in his decision to write “A Problem in Greek Ethics.” The “Calamus” cluster in Leaves of Grass is a sequence of forty-five untitled poems that speak effusively of “comradeship” and “adhesive love,” terms which had been used in other contexts to indicate male same-sex love specifically.11 Even beyond this terminology, the poems were decisively provocative: one of them ends on the lines, “…two simple men I saw to-day on the pier…The one to remain hung on the other’s neck and passionately kiss’d him, / While the one to depart tightly prest the one to remain in his arms.”12 It is hard to conjure an interpretation of these lines that is not referential to homosexual desire. Symonds describes the influence of these poems in Memoirs:
Inspired by ‘Calamus’ I adopted another method of palliative treatment, and tried to invigorate the emotion I could not shake off by absorbing Whitman’s conception of comradeship… I can now declare with sincerity that my abnormal inclinations, modified by Whitman’s idealism and penetrated with his democratic enthusiasm, have brought me into close and profitable sympathy with human beings even while I sinned against law and conventional morality. The immediate result of this study of Walt Whitman was the determination to write the history of paiderastia in Greece and to attempt a theoretical demonstration of the chivalrous enthusiasm which seemed to me implicit in comradeship.”13
Symonds encountered at least four different editions of Leaves of Grass throughout his life. The edition that he received from Meyers was the third edition, published in 1860-1861 by Boston publisher Thayer and Eldridge.14 We know this because of the publication date Symonds offers Dakyns, as well as the opinions he expresses about other editions. This edition contained the full, forty-five poem “Calamus” cluster in its original sequence.
In the Memoirs, Symonds quotes from three different U.S. editions of Leaves of Grass: the aforementioned 1860 version, as well as the 1856 second edition and the 1867 fourth edition. Whitman often made substantial edits, sometimes adding full sections of poems, between editions, which is why it is possible to determine exactly which version Symonds quoted from. The 1856 edition, among other differences, notably did not include the “Calamus” cluster, and in the 1867 edition “Calamus” had been edited down to thirty-nine poems.15, 16
In addition to the three US editions, Symonds got his hands on the first UK edition of the book…sort of. William Rossetti, a literary critic and biographer, wanted to publish an edition of Leaves of Grass. However, he was concerned about the UK’s anti-pornography laws, and omitted poems he thought would upset the public. The book, titled Poems by Walt Whitman,was published in in 1868 with John Camden Hotten. Hotten specialized in controversial titles, but the new volume nonetheless omitted nearly half of the poems.17 After the publication of the book, Symonds wrote to Rossetti to inquire why he had cut certain poems—including “Calamus.”18 It is notable that by early 1868, Symonds was already knowledgeable enough about the “Calamus” poems to notice their absence.
Symonds is not shy about his influences; the majority of his work, in fact, draws quite explicitly on other texts. However, he speaks of no modern book quite as effusively or clearly as he does Leaves of Grass. Symonds would carry his love of Whitman with him throughout his life, and it ultimately culminated in the writing of Walt Whitman: A Study, published in 1893.
ENDNOTES 1 John Addington Symonds and Amber K. Regis, ed., The Memoirs of John Addington Symonds: a Critical Edition, (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), 367. 2 Symonds and Regis, Memoirs, 367. 3 Symonds cites the incorrect original publication date for Leaves of Grass. It was first published in 1855, although Symonds probably did not read this edition, as he does not mention or cite it. 4 John Addington Symonds, Herbert M. Schueller, ed. and Robert Peters, ed., The Letters of John Addington Symonds, vol. 1 (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1967), 696. 5 Symonds and Regis, Memoirs, 10. 6 Ibid, 60. 7 Ibid, 379. 8 Ibid, 403. 9 Ibid, 413n. 10 Ibid, 468. 11 James E. Miller, “Whitman’s “Calamus”: The Leaf and the Root,” PMLA 72. 1 (1957): 251, doi:10.2307/460228. 12 Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass, (Boston: Thayer and Eldridge, 1860), 373. 13 Symonds and Regis, Memoirs, 368. 14 Gregory Eiselein, J.R. LeMaster, ed., and Donald D. Kummings, ed.,“Leaves of Grass, 1860 edition,” Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), https://whitmanarchive.org/criticism/current/encyclopedia/entry_23.html. 15 Harold Aspiz, J.R. LeMaster, ed., and Donald D. Kummings, ed.,““Leaves of Grass, 1856 edition,” Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), https://whitmanarchive.org/criticism/current/encyclopedia/entry_22.html. 16 Luke Mancuso, J.R. LeMaster, ed., and Donald D. Kummings, ed.,“ “Leaves of Grass, 1867 edition,” Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), https://whitmanarchive.org/criticism/current/encyclopedia/entry_24.html. 17 Kenneth M. Price and Ed Folsom, “Published Works,” The Walt Whitman Archive, University of Nebraska–Lincoln and University of Iowa, May 2019, https://whitmanarchive.org/published/books/other/british/intro.html. 18 Symonds, Schueller, and Peters, Letters, 836n.
Today, the literary legacy of John Addington Symonds includes edited versions of his memoirs, biographies he penned of Percy Shelley and Philip Sidney, and of course his privately-printed essay A Problem in Greek Ethics. Yet a large percentage of his work fell into a very different genre: many of his books were sold as a sort of history of Italy, complete with commentary on the art, culture, and natural beauty of the country. The most expansive of these is Renaissance in Italy, a seven-volume series covering important episodes of Italian history and literature, from the dramatically titled first volume TheAge of the Despots to The Catholic Reaction, Parts I and II, the sixth and seventh volumes. Originally published during Symonds’ lifetime in 1875, the series returned to print several times after Symonds’ death (including a late publication date of 1914), presumably due to widespread popularity. Though they are not particularly ornamented volumes, the Renaissance in Italy books were printed on quality paper, suggesting that they were truly intended to be read instead of displayed.
The third volume of Renaissance in Italy, subtitled The Fine Arts, first published in London in 1877, is a guide to the art of Italy. It recalls the pieces proudly displayed in galleries across the country, most notably the Uffizi. It opens with this phrase:
“It has been granted to only two nations, the Greeks and the Italians, and to the latter only at the time of the Renaissance, to invest every phrase and variety of intellectual energy with the form of art.”
This line certainly serves its purpose as an eye-catching opening sentence, one that could now be contentious considering the artistic skill of many non-European nations at the time. However, to readers intent on discerning the interests of the author himself, this line lends itself to another reading, revealing the idea that Symonds’ esteem of Italian culture rivals the importance he places on classical Greek authors. Perhaps his interest in each culture can be attributed to his curiosity about paederastia.
We can trace the references in A Problem in Greek Ethics to mentions of paiderastia in classical Greek works, and the presence of many of those same works in Symonds’ library suggests they had a notable influence on his writing, and scattered amidst Symonds’ appreciation of Italian sculpture and painting are a few echoes of paederastia. Though the first publication of The Fine Arts in 1877 predates that of the 1883 A Problem in Greek Ethics, it is likely that he was working on the latter while writing the book, and so it is easy to trace Symonds’ ruminations on paederastia back through his earlier publications. In The Fine Arts, Symonds mentions the pieces of Italian sculptor Donatello, saying of St. George and David:
“Without striving to idealize his models, the sculptor has expressed in both the Christian conception of heroism, fearless in the face of danger, and sustained by faith. The naked beauty of the boy David and the mailed manhood of St. George are raised to a spiritual region”
The two figures are not displayed together today and Symonds’ comparison of them is not intended to suggest that the people they depict took part in a paederastic relationship. Instead, he assigns them roles that are reminiscent of people who assumed paederastic relationships: the pre-pubescent boy and the educated adult man. It is unlikely that Symonds’ intention here was to imply that Italy followed the Greek tradition. Instead, this phrase is a tiny window into Symonds’ mind, where A Problem in Greek Ethics was just beginning to solidify into an idea to pursue.
The Renaissance in Italy series is proof that Symonds was both an astute scholar and a brilliant observer of the world, especially the Italian peninsula that so interested him. Symonds’ books are a reminder to recognize the beauty of the classical history still visible in Italy today, and reading them with an understanding of the pertinence of paederastia to Symonds’ own life only supplements the experience.