John Addington Symonds was born on 5 October 1840 into a thoroughly middle-class and archetypically Victorian family; he would never reject the solider aspects of this background, and it was by Victorian standards that he valued many of his own achievements: "When the committee of the Athenaeum elected me to that club in 1882, I became aware that I had the right to consider myself one of the men of our time."
The family bore arms; his grandfather, whom Symonds remembered with fondness, was a sturdy Puritan from whom he inherited a sense of duty, and a Latin scholar with an enthusiasm for botany which inspired the detailed observation of plants in his own writings. His father was the most eminent physician in Bristol and the West of England, a Liberal of rare culture and talent whose dinner parties were attended by crowds of distinguished people and the aristocracy: Frederick Maurice the Christian socialist, Lord Lansdowne the Home Secretary and Member of the Cabinet, William Gladstone the Liberal Member of Parliament, Alfred Lord Tennyson the Poet Laureate, Benjamin Jowett the Master of Balliol College, Alfred Carpenter the Liberal Member of Parliament for North Bristol in 1886, Jenny Lind the singer, and a host of scientists, historians, Liberal curates and philosophers.
The family lived in the mansion of Clifton Hill House with a view over Bristol and the mouth of the Severn, attended by a small army of servants. And Symonds duly went to the right school and the right college: first to a private tutor's in Clifton, then to Harrow, then to Balliol and later to Magdalen. He grew up with the friendly advice of the good and the great. From such soil he ought to have grown up into a liberal but dignified physician or lawyer, rather than a dilettante. Symonds summed up the three generations of men his grandfather, his father and himself as corresponding "to the transition from early pointed Gothic to Decorated to Flamboyant architecture."
Symonds's mother died when he was only four years old, and his father had a powerful influence upon the formation of his character. The fashionable Freudian theory that a man's homosexuality is caused by a close-binding-intimate mother and a weak-or-absent father is put to rout by Symonds's childhood, in which the opposite was the case. Admittedly there were mostly women in the household, governesses, aunts, and eventually four sisters, but he records no sense of being overwhelmed by the feminine atmosphere, and was fairly indifferent to their presence. Strong bonds of sympathy would develop between him and his younger sister Charlotte, but it was the presence of his father that figured largely in his early life. Ironically it was his father's artistic taste, particularly his library, which stocked his imagination with images of Greek sculpture, Elizabethan paeans to Ganymedic youths such as Marlowe's Leander or Shakespeare's Adonis, and heroic figures by Flaxman, Raphael and Michelangelo. Photographs of the interior of Clifton Hill House reveal his father's opulently Italian taste for Bohemian glass, heavy draperies, velvet upholstery, statues in niches, densely flowered carpets, and walls covered by prints and paintings in wide gilt frames. His son would simply refine this taste to its more specifically Venetian aspects.
Like many Victorians, Dr Symonds worked at culture: every morning before going to his medical practice, he devoted two hours to the study of art, literature, philosophy, or history. Symonds conscientiously felt this duty to self culture throughout his own life, and everyone who knew him remarked upon the wonderful diligence with which he pursued his life's work. Few people realized that he was a workaholic partly to escape his sexual anxieties and partly to assemble the material necessary to justify homosexual love to the world. His admission to his sister Charlotte that "I had hoped to make my work the means of saving my soul" [Letter to Charlotte Symonds Green, 16 September 1873. In The Letters of John Addington Symonds, 3 vols, ed. Herbert M. Schueller and Robert L. Peters (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 19671969)] covers both these motives. He also knew that his life would be shortened by tuberculosis, and it was a race against time. His last work, his great biography of Michelangelo, was written at a killing pace, taking brief intervals for food and rest during the day, then working from 8.30 p.m. to 2.00 a.m. each evening, and he died soon after it was published, on 19 April 1893.
Symonds was plagued by ill health, and he would die of tuberculosis at the age of 52. Some of his physical and mental breakdowns betray the symptoms of sexual repression, and anxiety quite often exacerbates breathing disabilities. But we must not underestimate the physical basis of the disease, common to his mother's family, which would eventually kill not only him, but also his grandfather, his sister Mary Isabella at the age of 46, and his daughter Janet at the age of 22. As a child he was sickly yet full of nervous energy, states of hyperactivity alternating with somnambulism, and he was subject to trance-like withdrawals from the physical world even in later life.
During his last term at Oxford, in 1863 his health collapsed altogether, partly due to stress caused by the spread of rumours that he was having a homosexual affair with one of the students. His brilliant academic career was at an end, and for three years he was unable to do any work requiring mental concentration or to use his inflamed eyes without pain. He thought he might study for the law, but in 1865 it was discovered that his left lung was diseased, and after a complete rest it was decided that he could never follow a profession, but would have to go to a warmer, or at least a dryer, climate and become a litterateur. For the next dozen years he often experienced chest pains, and for many weeks on end he was unable to work due to physical disability and pain in the spine. He had to learn how to sleep without the use of narcotics. He sometimes had to use a respirator, and was embarrassed to be seen in public using it. Nervous collapses were frequent.
In 1877 an attack of bronchitis was followed by a violent haemorrhage, and he was told he dare not spend another winter in England. A journey aiming for Egypt was broken at Switzerland, and Davos Platz would become his home for the rest of his life, except for several months each winter spent in Venice. From his late forties he constantly referred to himself as a "decrepit" old man, and he rapidly grew old before his time. During the last few years of his life he suffered from diarrhoea, insomnia, headaches, and fevers, but grasped at life with increasing fervour as his health waned.
The main argument of his memoirs is that freedom and strength can be achieved through self-discovery, and that the more he accepted his homosexuality the more healthy and vigorous he became. There is no doubt about the psychological validity of this claim: he experienced a powerful sense of liberation at each successive stage of his "coming out," which he called "self-effectuation," but this was achieved after periods of tormented self-analysis. He felt an inner repugnance to sordid behaviour, and could not easily accept the sexual expression of his ideal love. Many Victorians of course felt the same way, but Symonds nearly developed a split personality as he attempted to lead the dual life without reconciling the real and the ideal. He sublimated most of his experiences throughout his life, possibly to mould them into virtues of which his father would have approved. He was both excited and repulsed by the sexual roughhousing all around him at Harrow. "I thought that I had transcended crude sensuality through the aesthetic idealisation of erotic instincts. I did not know how fallacious that method of expelling nature is."
At Harrow he discovered that the very respected headmaster Charles Vaughan was having an affair with one of the boys. This appalled him, partly because he detested Vaughan's hypocrisy, partly because he felt personal distaste at being the object of some of Vaughan's overtures, and partly because it threatened to spoil the sanction of his ruling passion which he had just found in the ennobling idealizations of Plato's Symposium and Phaedrus. Some years later, in 1859, Symonds revealed the story about Vaughan to his friend John Conington, during an argument about "Arcadian love"; Conington persuaded Symonds to tell his father, which he did; Symonds would have let the matter drop, but direction of the affair was taken out of his hands and in due course Dr Symonds forced Vaughan to resign his headmastership, and also to reject two bishoprics offered to him by the government. Symonds's three best friends at Harrow broke off relations at this act of disloyalty. Rather too much significance can be attached to this dishonourable stain upon Symonds's character. It was not a deliberate act of treachery, but a revelation due to carelessness, which he felt could not be withdrawn once made. He (and his father) nevertheless did prevent the story from becoming public knowledge, and fewer than a dozen people ever knew the truth of the affair. Symonds experienced some painful heart- searching, but his own hatred of hypocrisy and his father's scrupulous determination to assist the course of justice made the outcome inevitable.
Symonds had to come to terms with his own secret, for soon after reading the Phaedrus in March/April 1858, he had fallen head over heels in love with Willie Dyer, a chorister at Bristol Cathedral three years younger than himself. "I saw ahead of me the goal to which I had been tending. ... For the first time in my life, I knew that I must take possession of the dream and clasp it." He dated the birth of his real self from the morning they first went for a walk in the spring sunlight, and he still trembled with emotion when he remembered it in his memoirs thirty-two years later. They did little more than kiss and hold hands in this enchanted garden of the Golden Age. This lasted for only a year, when the strain of the Vaughan affair caused him to confess his romantic affection to his father. Dr Symonds was a man of integrity and sincerity, and an honest friend and confidant to his son, ever solicitous of his son's health and interests. Symonds "came out" to his father, on several occasions, and the advice his father gave him was carefully considered, if not always possible to follow. Dr Symonds pointed out that their love could never come to anything because of the difference in their social backgrounds, and because it was founded upon an emotion as doubtful as that of Vaughan. So Symonds was persuaded to gradually end the affair. Thus in a very short period of time Symonds had both discovered and denied his true self, and this cycle would recur several times later in his life.
At Oxford, Symonds fell in love with another cathedral chorister, Alfred Brooke. This was an altogether more sensual and feverish affair, though his thirst for forbidden knowledge remained unslaked. The Vaughan affair had left its mark, for he now recognized that the love for which he longed was deemed wicked by society, and he attempted to repress it. For several years he experienced "a sustained conflict between desire and conscience, in which the will exercised a steady empire over action, while dreams and visions inflamed the fancy and irritated the whole nervous constitution." His longings were masked by outward self-control, but he brooded over his wet-dreams and produced some morbidly bitter-sweet poetry.
For many years Symonds's energy was wasted by trying to suppress his homosexuality. At the advice of his father and his father's medical associates, he even allowed himself to be cauterized through the urethra in an effort to reduce an irritation in his sexual organs. His father sent him to Dr Spencer Wells, surgeon to the Queen's household, who diagnosed his disorders as the result of sexual repression. So in 1864, on medical advice, he attempted the "cure" of marriage, to Catherine North. The day after his marriage he knew he could never alter his original bent, and it is terrible to see his haggard features in photographs from this period, where the strain of accommodating himself to conventional heterosexual life is so painfully visible. Catherine did not enjoy sex, and she became more melancholic with each pregnancy (there would be four daughters), while Symonds racked his nerves with obsessive masturbatory poetry, storing up a malaise which it would take him many years to shake off.
In 1868, after another physical and nervous breakdown, he took up the threads of the homosexual life from which he had failed to untie himself, and deliberately cultivated an affair with the Clifton schoolboy Norman Moor. Catherine and Symonds had a long discussion, and it was agreed that he and she would remain companions in the highest sense, while he would also have male companions in the slightly lower sense. He immediately grew in health and vigour as the great effort of deceit was lifted from him. Photographs seem to bear this out, and photographs of him in Venice, where he was most self-accepting and sexually promiscuous, show him to be youthful and vital, and almost robust. Symonds may have exaggerated the liberating effects of coming out or self-effectuation upon the body as well as the spirit, for the climate of Venice hardly suited his condition, and each year he returned more exhausted to Switzerland. Yet one is left with the final impression that his sense of mission, his sense of noble purpose in celebrating the virtue of comradeship, gave him the strength necessary to prolong his life beyond its expected course. He liked the splendid description of himself in some periodical as "the indomitable invalid" [Letter to Margaret Symonds, 14 November 1892].
Throughout his writings on the Italian Renaissance, and in the memoirs, Symonds makes it clear that his aesthetic response was emotional, and that what he valued most was life rather than art the more vivid and pulsating, the better. And yet his defense of the superiority of the real over the ideal must be understood in the context of his natural impulse to idealize reality. In his essay on "The Model" it is clear that he prefers the boy who modelled for Flandrin's painting to the painting itself, but in his essay on "Swiss Athletic Sports" it is equally evident that he admires the Swiss wrestlers through a pair of Michelangelesque spectacles. His erotic desires were largely visual, and as often satisfied by imagination as by experience. The glimpse of a young man with the body of Adonis and the presence of an animal was sufficient unto itself. Of a 22 year old cable layer with broad haunches whom he met in a coffee house in Falmouth he has this to say: "Passing stranger you know not how I love you! The most toothed hubbed memories in my mind are evanescent romances of this sort" [Letter to Henry Graham Dakyns, 10 December 1872].
One is never quite sure if he wants to realize the ideal or to idealize reality: the conflicting pull is so strong in both directions that in his writings he often changes his thrust between one paragraph and another, sometimes with humorous effect. Essentially he wished to make homosexuality acceptable (both to himself and to society) by idealizing it; having achieved that, he could then feel less guilty about taking his pleasure in its less ideal acts. One feels rather sorry for a boy such as Alfred Brooke who could not possibly live up to this idealizing onslaught. The Swiss and the Italians coped best with this overcultivated Englishman, by tolerating his aestheticism as an eccentricity, and eventually their naturalness rubbed off on him. In his early forties he achieved the goal of taking the sexual life as it came, and not being unduly distressed by the discrepancy between the real and the idea. He became a healthy homosexual.
Despite his social background, and despite his solid literary scholarship, Symonds regarded himself as "a born Bohemian" [Letter to Henry Graham Dakyns, 19 July 1890]. On the practical side, the strain of the conflict between homosexual instinct and societal restraint was eventually resolved by adopting a Bohemian lifestyle of moderate respectability. He was wealthy, and under no necessity of earning a living, which is just as well, for he earned very little from writing until the last few years of his life. His inheritance and regular income from investments were comfortable. In 1892 he told his wife that he had increased his capital estate by £22,000 since 1877, and that he had invested £2,200 during the year; most of his stocks were in land and railways. His earnings from literature that year were only £500, and he spent most of that setting up an unidentified gondolier in business [Letter to Mrs John Addington Symonds, 23 October 1892].
His own needs were not extravagant, particularly in Switzerland, and he could easily afford to travel in the company of his boyfriends while supporting a wife and four children in comfort. With no pressing need to be respectable, he could live in an unconventional manner; he and his wife came to an arrangement about him living en garçon, and after some initial resentment she eventually grew to regard some of her husband's boyfriends with affection. He very openly travelled and lived with the Venetian gondolier Angelo Fusato and the Swiss athlete and hotelier Christian Buol and other young men.
Symonds built his own home, named Am Hof after the meadow in which it was built. In Davos he gave generously to local causes, and helped many young men get a foothold in business. His lovers had the vitality which he lacked, but to which he contributed by funding most of the cost of the Davos Gymnasium. His love for the Swiss peasant athletes prompted him to found the Davos Gymnastic Club, and he gave wine parties for its members; he acted for several years as the President of the Davos Winter Sports Club and the Davos Toboggan Club which he helped to form, and was president of the committee which organized the Davos International Toboggan Race 188889. Every member of the Buol family profited by his relationship with Christian, and the Hotel Buol through his efforts became the favourite establishment in Davos.
In Venice he passed his time with gondoliers, porters, princesses and prostitutes. He loved living on the mezzanine floor of the palazzo owned by his friend Horatio Forbes Brown in the via Zattere overlooking the canal of the Guidecca: "I am just above a bridge ... up & down wh[ich] go divine beings: sailors of the marine, soldiers, blue vested & trowsered fishermen, swaggering gondoliers. I can almost see their faces as they top the bridge. By rising from the chair a little I do so at once and get some smiles from passing strangers" [Letter to Edmund Gosse, 9 November 1890]. He slept with hundreds of men, nearly all of them in a class lower than his own, which he believed to be democratic. When he says in an offhand manner, concerning his affair with Angelo Fusato, "I gave him a gondola," we cannot help but feel that Symonds was behaving in the manner of a born aristocrat. He once deliberately left Angelo behind in Milan while he went on to Davos, because he felt that Angelo was assuming "the airs of a spoilt & indispensable old servant" and he wanted "to bring him round to his bearings" and to assert his padroneship [Letter to Janet Ross, 13 November 1891]. He quixotically made a point of earning by his own literary endeavour the money which he gave to Angelo, in order to impress upon Angelo's conscience the value of work. Their relationship lasted for twelve years, until Symonds's death.
Despite the occasional patronizing attitude, Symonds established friendship with men of the working classes from the simple and straightforward motive of enjoyment and because he felt at ease in their company. He explained this in a letter to Dr J. W. Wallace, a fellow Whitmanian, on 2 March 1893:
Among my own dearest friends are a postilion, a stevedore, a gondolier, a farm servant, a porter in a hotel. I find the greatest possible relief & rest in conversing & corresponding with them. They do me so much good by their simplicity & manly affection. Their real life is such a contrast to that strange thought-world in which my studious hours are past Italian Renaissance, Greek Poets, Art, philosophy, poetry all the lumber of my culture. In fact the greatest thing I owe to Walt is his having thoroughly opened my eyes to comradeship & convinced me of the absolute equality of men. My friends of this kind think me an exception to the rest of the world. But, having won their confidence, I see how enormously they appreciate the fraternal love of a man socially & by education superior to them. I verily believe that the social problems would find their solution if only the majority of rich & cultivated people felt as I do, & acted so.
We must not be too harsh upon Symonds for somewhat deluding himself about the possibility of class-crossing. Equality of love between persons of very unequal backgrounds is a very difficult goal; it was achieved by Edward Carpenter and his lover George Merrill, but Carpenter began in a lower social strata than Symonds so he had less distance to span. Democratic friendship was easier to achieve in America, as with Whitman and Peter Doyle, but there again Whitman did not begin as a gentleman. By all reports, Symonds did achieve a genuine rapport with the Swiss peasants. He moved very easily between different social sets, but he was more at ease with Augusto Zanon in "a little old- fashioned wine-shop in a garden of vines, where the gondoliers congregate" [Letter to Charles Kains-Jackson, 30 October 1892] than with the Empress Frederick (Queen Victoria's eldest daughter) and her circle of Contessas, Marchesas and Princesses, or that modern mélange of aristocratic democrats the Dukes of Devonshire, Westminster, and Argyle whom he and Angelo Fusato visited while staying with Lord Ronald Gower and the Earl of Carlisle at Castle Howard in August 1892.
Walt Whitman recognized himself that "Symonds has got into our crowd in spite of his culture: I tell you we don't give away places in our crowd easy a man has to sweat to get in" [Horace Traubel, With Walt Whitman in Camden (Boston: Small, Maynard & Co., 1906), p. 388 (27 June 1888)]. Ironically some of the best analysis of Symonds's character is provided by the Old Grey Poet, whom he never met: "Symonds has always seemed to me a forthright man unhesitating, without cant: not slushing over, not freezing up" [Horace Traubel, With Walt Whitman in Camden (New York: D. Appleton & Co., 1908), p. 278 (7 September 1888)]. Whitman was very fond of his English admirer, and thought that Symonds was heroic and noble in his fight with his body. Many of Symonds's letters and much of his autobiography show him to be a man of morbid introspection, but people who knew him well also knew that he was full of joie de vivre. Jowett was to compose his Latin epitaph, declaring that no one cherished friends more than he. Robert Louis Stevenson, another Bohemian who spent two winters in Davos as an invalid, also testified to Symonds's great capacity for friendship. He found him to be one of the best of talkers, with an easy flow of conversation. "He is a far better and more interesting thing than any of his books" [Cited by Phyllis Grosskurth, John Addington Symonds: A Biography (London: Longmans, 1964), p. 211].
His daughter Margaret testified that life at their home Am Hof was free from taboos, though her mother was reserved, and she knew the nature of her father's studies from the age of six. Homosexuality was a subject of family conversation as much as the latest toboggan race or the behaviour of their dogs chewing bones under the table, and words like "neurotic" and "psychopathic" were in common parlance at Am Hof long before they came into general use even in medical circles. Affectionate and long-lasting friendships were established with women as well as men, especially tomboys such as Margot Tennant, who described him as a superb conversationalist and an enchanting companion. Janet Ross said that "Symonds's brilliant conversation and great charm of manner are impossible to describe; his talk was like fireworks, swift and dazzling, and he had a wonderful gift of sympathy even with the fads and foibles of others. No struggling young writer ever appealed to him in vain, both his brains and his purse were at his service" [Cited by Grosskurth, p. 304]. One day he might be listless with a haunting melancholy, but the next day he would be chumming with an acrobat. As he summed up his life to his daughter Margaret, "I was born with a temperament wh[ich] has given me immense worry & distress all through my life. It is, luckily, mixed up with great capacity for enjoyment & being merry" [Letter to Margaret Symonds, 16 July 1892].
Whitman also recognized that "Symonds is a man whose range of production is extraordinary: he is a critic scholar of the first international all-time rank" [Horace Traubel, With Walt Whitman in Camden (Southern Illinois Press, 1959), 10 February 1889]. During a writing career of about twenty years, Symonds wrote nearly two books a year, plus dozens of unpublished or privately printed long poems, hundreds of magazine articles and reviews, and thousands of letters. He published seven large volumes in the history of the Renaissance in Italy (which is the first cultural history in English, and it still bears comparison with Jacob Burckhardt's shorter Die Kultur der Renaissance in Italien of 1860); critical studies of Dante, Greek poetry (two books), Boccaccio, pre-Shakespearean drama, Walt Whitman, and Milton and the history of blank verse; critical introductions to collections of works by Sir Thomas Browne, Christopher Marlowe, Thomas Heywood, Webster and Tourneur, Byron, and the Uranian poet Edward Cracroft Lefroy; several volumes of travel writings on Italy and Greece, and several collections of miscellaneous essays and autobiographical works; a history of homosexuality in ancient Greece and a defense of homosexuality in modern society; five published volumes of poetry; biographies of Shelley, Sir Philip Sidney, Ben Jonson, and Michelangelo; translations of medieval Latin lyrics, the sonnets of Michelangelo and Tommaso Campanella, many of Sappho's poems, and the lengthy autobiographies of Benvenuto Cellini and Count Carlo Gozzi (to which he appended a book-length study of Commedia dell' Arte); he edited the literary remains of his father Dr Symonds, Arthur Hugh Clough, and John Conington, and helped with projects such as Ellis's Studies in the Psychology of Sex; and he contributed articles to the ninth edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica [Originally published 18791888, but still included in the eleventh edition of 19101911] on Marsilio Ficino, Francesco Filelfo, Giovanni Battista Guarini, Francesco Guicciardini, Machiavelli, Manutius, Metastasio, Petrarch, Poggio, Politian, Joviano Pontanus, the Renaissance, Tasso, and a massive thirty-two columns on the history of Italy from the year 476 to 1796. Most of his books required an enormous amount of reading and scholarly research, often in Greek, Latin, Italian, French and German sources, from which he always made his own fine translations. His prodigious output was amazing by any standards, and truly incredible when we remember that perhaps a third of his waking life was spent recuperating from illness, often unable to feed himself, much less read and write books.
It is for his studies in the history of art that Symonds has been most highly praised and remembered. His prose was infused with a poetic sensibility, and though at times his style was too facile and florid, it was full of vivid images, such as his description of the hill-set villages around Rimini, "marly mountain-flanks in wrinkles and gnarled convolutions like some giant's brain, furrowed by rivers crawling through dry wasteful beds of shingle" ["The Palace of Urbino", in The Cornhill Magazine (July to December 1882), Vol. XLVI, p. 293]. Most of the chapters in his books began as self-contained articles for literary magazines, and were necessarily showy. When strung together in a full-length book, the heightened effects sometimes cloy. Most of his critics recognized the breadth and depth of his scholarship, but they felt that such serious subjects ought to be treated by dons rather than journalists. The attack upon the "flamboyance" of his literary style was a covert attack upon his suspected homosexual lifestyle; a lack of restraint was detected in his morals as well as his writing. He was never "one of us," and it is not at all surprising that he failed to win the Professorship of Poetry at Oxford in 1876, when he was violently attacked for his immoral defense of homosexuality in the last chapter of his Studies of the Greek Poets.
Symonds was a sensualist and a romantic rather than an academic, and he made the Italian Renaissance his speciality partly because the exotic splendour and magnificence of the period matched the broad gestures and rich colouring of his style, and because in this period he could find ample references to homosexuality and celebrations of the male nude, and these were the not-so-secret themes of his massive Kulturgeschichte. Andrew Lang reviewed The Revival of Learning in The Examiner (23 June 1877) and had many reservations, particularly the fact that Symonds "seems to us to be too fond of alluding to the unmentionable. He regards the sensual side of the Renaissance as of equal importance with its scholarship. ... We seem to have a running chorus 'Naughty, naughty, but so nice'." Catherine Symonds in a letter to her sister Mrs Green humorously referred to her husband's interest in "the picturesquely wicked days of middle-aged Italy." The scholarly world was not much interested in the truth if it were scandalous. But Symonds enjoyed making mischief, and he was especially pleased at his discovery that Italian editors and biographers had conspired to conceal Michelangelo's homosexual desires, just as they had suppressed references to Cellini's imprisonment for sodomy.
Symonds's cultural studies gave him the opportunity to indulge his central aesthetic preoccupation with healthy naked men. What attracted him most in Greek poetry were descriptions of nude youths in the gymnasia; what attracted him most in Renaissance painting were the male nudes of Signorelli, Michelangelo, and a host of others. He was fascinated by the male nude, and collected numerous representations of it. He had twenty-one photographs of original drawings by the homosexual painter Simeon Solomon sent to him from London in 1868, "chiefly classical subjects," and in 1885 he was trying to get a copy of Solomon's Sintram, a work (now lost) meant to symbolize homosexuality. Mme Marville the French photographer was enlisted to photograph Ingres' drawings of the male nude in the Louvre and send them to him. He commissioned Edward Clifford to copy paintings for him, and encouraged Clifford's endeavour to paint "heroic male beauty." He wrote to Henry Scott Tuke praising his Perseus for its delicate yet vigorous handling of the nude, and asked him for photographs of his pictures of the nude fisherboys of Falmouth. He asked the critic and poet Edmund Gosse if he did not agree that Tuke's Leander had "the aura" [Letter to Edmund Gosse, 9 November 1890].
He collected an enormous quantity of photographs of Greek and Roman statues, especially representations of Hadrian's beloved Antinous, about whom he wrote a lengthy biographical study, and photographs of the complete works of Michelangelo, which all curled up due to damp weather and covered the floor of his study like a nest of vipers. He engaged a German artist to photograph models posed in the impossible positions portrayed by Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel. He had heard that William Hamo Thornycroft's Mower was "a Hermes in the dress of a working man," and he eventually acquired photographs of several statues by Thornycroft including the Teucer and Warrior Bearing a Wounded Youth, which were "the delight of my eyes & soul" [Letter to Edmund Gosse, 23 October 1884]. In November 1872 he sent a bronze state of a gladiator as a gift to Cecil Boyle, former boyfriend of the classics master of Clifton College Henry Graham Dakyns, to both of whom he was attracted; on his own desk was a reproduction of The Dying Gladiator, possibly a return gift from Cecil. Horatio Forbes Brown gave him a reproduction of Cellini's Perseus, which also went into his study at Am Hof in Davos.
Symonds advised Vernon Lee to look at "photographs from the nude published by Giraudon, which proves how little correction is needed ... to convert a soldier or mechanic into a hero or ephebus" [Letter to Vernon Lee, 20 June 1884]. For more private uses he collected nude photographs by Wilhelm von Gloeden, and he was a personal friend of Guglielmo Plüschow whose plein air photographs of nude boys he would send to friends such as Charles Kains- Jackson: "The model you seem to have liked best is a Roman lad called Luigi" [Letter to Charles Kains- Jackson, 2 January 1892]. He exchanged packets of these photographs with Gosse, who kept stealing glances at one all through the funeral service held for Browning at Westminster Abbey. In March 1890 he proposed to the Julian School of Art in Paris a prize competition for drawings of the male nude, for which he would contribute three prizes of 200 Francs each, and for which he would retain the right to publish the winning entries together with photographs of the live models. He drew after models whom he hired to pose for him as he convalesced, and he photographed them in poses from famous statues or paintings such as the study by Hippolyte Flandrin which formed the subject of his essay on "The Model."
Symonds made impressionistic photo studies of the 20-year-old Venetian facchino (porter) Augusto Zanon dressed in various shades of blue against different coloured backgrounds (described in In the Key of Blue); "Of things like this, I have always been doing plenty, and then putting them away in a box. The public thinks them immoral. You ought not to be attached to a young man in a blouse, and see how beautiful he is combined with blacks and reds and golds, etc." [Letter to Arthur Symons, 13 June 1892].
Symonds translated Bion's "Lament for Adonis" while grieving over some serious "wound" sustained by Augusto in 1890. Symonds had been criticized for his camaraderie with working-class youths, as revealed in his autobiographical essay "A Page of My Life" published in The Fortnightly Review in 1889, but he had withheld much from that essay that he wanted to say on the subject of Augusto. In an unpublished letter dated 12 July 1890 to Edmund Gosse, he had this to say about the essay:
My article was hastily put together in one day at [Frank] Harris's urgent request ... But I had to omit the nicest parts of my diary, to wh[ich] the rest (what I printed) served but as setting. Some things cannot be published; and the frame goes to the Salon without the picture. I could not introduce Augusto to the English public. They would have thought my perfectly innocent relations with a working-man were at the least startlingly unconventional. But here are two portraits of Augusto, wh[ich] please return. You may put him on the top of Penolice or among the acacia groves of Galgigniano or the stately pleasure-grounds of Val San Zibio, in your mind. He is dressed in 3 harmonized blues light for the Camiciotto, darker for the trousers, bright & sharp for the fascia around the waist.
Symonds sent photographs of Augusto to several of his friends. I reproduce here a photograph of Augusto that was pasted into a copy of In the Key of Blue owned by Leonard Green, beside which he wrote that it was given to Charles Kains Jackson by Symonds and given to Green by Jackson, in March 1919.
In the field of literature, Symonds's antennae were always attuned to "the aura," which he sensed in Whitman's Calamus poems, Pierre Loti's Mon frere Yves ("It is written on the motif of a comradely attachment between a naval officer & a seaman a refreshing change from the prevalent French motif") [Letter to T. S. Perry, 30 July 1884], and more obvious homoerotica such as Alcibiade fanciullo a scola and Monsieur Venus. He enthusiastically noted homosexual themes throughout Western literature and in the lives of artists and writers, and gathered together the material necessary for his vast project on the history of homosexuality: Alexander the Great, Poliziano, Shakespeare, Richard Barnfield, Christopher Marlowe, Sir Philip Sidney, Henri III, Frederick the Great, Leonardo da Vinci, Walt Whitman, Roden Noel, Charles Philip Kains-Jackson, Edward Cracroft Lefroy, Edward Carpenter, and the lives of Alcibiades, Hadrian and Antinous, Cellini, Michelangelo, Antonio Beccadelli, and the more disreputable popes and emperors, some of whom found their way into an appendix to Sexual Inversion, for which he also collected modern case histories in a systematic manner.
He was simultaneously fascinated and repelled by men such as Lord Ronald Gower, who often visited him, who would "saturate one's spirit in Urningthum of the rankest most diabolical kind" [Letter to Edmund Gosse, 18 September 1891], and he found Verlaine "interesting" for similar reasons. Symonds was a healthy homosexual like Edward Carpenter, whose practice of "simplification" he admired. He was always uneasy about the sickly and scented aura he recognized in works such as Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray, and in the refined writing of Walter Pater: "His view of life gives me the creeps, as old women say" [Letter to Henry Graham Dakyns, 20 February 1873]. He nevertheless engaged in friendly correspondence with Wilde, and he and Pater favourably reviewed each other's books.
He recognized "the aura" in the poetry of his friend Edmund Gosse, and was both heartened and saddened when Gosse sent him a poem on "The Taming of Chimaera" (this was also Symonds's code word for homosexual passion) which provided the secret key which was suppressed from Gosse's published poems, demonstrating a self-castration which distressed Symonds: "I feel very bitter about this. Quoque tandem Domine? [How long, O Lord?] How long are souls to groan beneath the altar, & poets to eviscerate their offspring, for the sake of what? What shall I call it? an unnatural disnaturing respect for middleclass propriety. I find no phrase for my abhorrence" [Letter to Edmund Gosse, 25 March 1890]. He appreciated the "peculiar flavour" of Roden Noel's poetry, and praised Charles Kains-Jackson's "Doric lays" on Hylas, Hyacinth, Narcissus, et al, and wished such poetry could be made more public: "Do you think it would create a scandal if four or five people who have written lyrics in this vein should publish an anthology of chosen pieces?" [Letter to Charles Kains-Jackson, 4 March 1892].
Symonds was at heart a poet, and writing (and translating) verse was the literary work which gave him the greatest joy. He wrote poetry in two distinctly different modes, which illustrate the conflicting pulls of his personality. On the one hand there is a large body of "Uranian" verse, celebrations of masculine beauty in the manner of Marlowe's Hero and Leander, and of masculine love and comradeship in the manner of the Phaedrus interwoven with Leaves of Grass descriptive, sensuous, and sprawling, printed in pamphlets for private circulation. On the other hand his published poetry consists largely of tightly knitted sonnets, gnomic, analytical, intellectual, in the manner of Michelangelo and the seventeenth- century metaphysical poets. Most of his poetry is too self- conscious and introspective, but his pagan verse has some delightfully sensuous imagery, while his nearly-Christian verse has moments of poignant candour.
His Uranian verse is good of its kind. It drew its inspiration from themes of "Arcadian love" in which Symonds had immersed himself in the mid-1850s and 1860s, the dialogues of Plato, the Greek Anthology, and Ionica (1858) by William Johnson Cory, a kind of Pindar of the Eton playing fields, whose sentimental and idealized portraits of his boyfriends such as Charlie Wood (Lord Halifax), found echoes in Symonds's love for Alfred Brooke and Norman Moor. Symonds wrote to Cory while he was at Oxford and received in reply a lengthy defence of pederasty in modern times. Much of Symonds's erotic poetry was written following his marriage in November 1864, in an attempt to regain the joy of his homosexual adolescence and to compensate for the failure of his heterosexual experiment. It was frankly masturbatory, and paralleled the erotic daydreams he recorded in prose poems which exaggerated the excitement of viewing men bathing naked in the Serpentine. "Phallus Impudicus" describes the genitals of a lad from Sorrento:
The smooth rude muscle, calm and slow and tender,
The alabaster shaft, the pale pink shrine,
The crimson glory of the lustrous gland
Lurking in dewy darkness half-concealed,
Like a rose-bud peeping from clasped silken sheath.
This of course was not meant for the public, but soon Symonds's friends were being treated to privately printed pamphlets narrating "The Love-Tale of Cleomachus," "Theron," "The Clemency of Phalaris," "The Elysium of Greek Lovers," "Cratinus and Aristodemus," "The Tale of Leutychidas and Lynkeus," "Dipsychus Deterior," "Diocles," "Damocles the Beautiful," "Genius Amoris Amari Visio," "Callicrates," "Gabriel" and "The Lotos Garden of Antinous." The model for most of these mini-epics was the description of Leander in Christopher Marlowe's Hero and Leander; the influence of Theocritus was rather marginal. Symonds showed some of these poems to his friend Henry Sidgwick, who was horrified by their feverish eroticism. He persuaded Symonds to lock them all up in a black tin box and give him the key, which he flung into the river Avon. Some were eventually burned, but many survived in the copies given to Henry Graham Dakyns. All of these poems were intended to form part of "my big Book of Eros," a poetic cycle celebrating masculine love throughout the ages which he proposed to title, rather surprisingly, "John Morden."
Although Symonds preferred mature young men to boys, he became something of a mentor for the first wave of Uranian or pederastic poets, and they knew some of his work through private circulation and also its appearance in Many Moods (1878) and In the Key of Blue (1893). He strived towards the equality of "adhesiveness," but never condemned the inequality of pederasty, and his Uranian friends included Charles Kains- Jackson, editor of the Artist and Journal of Home Culture and author of poems on Lysis and Antinous, with whom he exchanged photographs of nude youths by von Gloeden; Henry Scott Tuke (whom he very sensibly advised to leave off giving his paintings artificial classical titles); John Gambril Nicholson, author of Love in Earnest, whom he first met at Tuke's house; and especially Horatio Forbes Brown, whose house he shared in Venice and who would become his literary executor. He popularized the work of Edward Cracroft Lefroy, poet of muscular Christianity and Echoes from Theocritus whom he had never known; and he corresponded with Lord Alfred Douglas, whom he attempted to persuade to visit him. Bosie lamented his death in an obituary in the Spirit Lamp (4 May 1893): "he had not finished his work, there was more to do; there were chains he might have loosened, and burdens he might have lifted; chains on the limbs of lovers and burdens on the wings of poets."
Horatio Brown was writing straightforward, honest, Uranian poetry that could never be published, and Symonds was "sorry that he has chosen to tread the wearifully barren & solitary & heart-saddening path of paiderastic poetry" [Letter to Henry Graham Dakyns, 5 June 1879[. Symonds desperately wanted to be courageous in public rather than merely daring in private. In order to test the waters, he printed five copies of Rhaetica in 1878 and asked his friends if he dared to publish it. Henry Sidgwick's advice was final; as summarized by Symonds to Dakyns, "the gist is that I am on the brink of a precipice, on the verge of losing my reputation & bringing disgrace on Henry & you & all who call me friend. Rhaetica, if smelt out by a critic, would precipitate me altogether. I think I ought to ask you, under these conditions, to destroy the peccant pamphlet, together perhaps with all my confounded verses in print or out of it" [Letter to Dakyns, 12 June 1879].
In order to publish, Symonds developed a set of code words to point to his secret subject tracing the movement from homosexual repression and self-loathing to self-realization and celebration: "unutterable things," "valley of vain desire," "the impossible," "Chimaera," "Maya" are the phrases that recur throughout the sonnet sequences in New and Old (1880), Animi Figura (1882), Fragilia Labilia (1884), and Vagabunduli Libellus (1884). He wished to stake his reputation as a poet upon these volumes, but he dared not provide the key to unlock their meaning. Each volume was received by the critics with varying degrees of indifference, ridicule, or abhorrence. They recognized the inadequacy of the motive force, as though it had been emasculated, and they sensed the Swinburnian unwholesomeness between the lines. In 1884 he abandoned the vocation of poetry, but it remained an avocation. He continued to write small pieces, and he continued polishing older poems for reprints in anthologies, and In the Key of Blue which was published the year he died contained one of his earliest homoerotic poems, "Clifton and a Lad's Love."
In his non-Uranian verse, Symonds's preference for the sonnet form is rather unfortunate: his sonnets are too highly condensed, too studied, too intellectual and analytical; he has extracted all of the meaning from an experience without enough of its telling images. The sonnets are so personal and deeply felt as to be painful and, ultimately, embarrassing. At their best, his sonnets are beautifully subtle, but many of them are overwrought in more senses than one, and all too often they founder upon the rock of adolescent self-pity. Symonds set for himself a task that by its very nature could not be achieved: how could he fulfil his urge to utter the truest truths while at the same time disguising the fundamentally homosexual motivation of his passion? For him, candour was concomitant with self- discovery, but no reputable publisher would have printed his poetry had it been honestly presented. He is correct in more ways than one when he admits in the memoirs that "many of these sonnets were mutilated in order to adapt them to the female sex"; his whole life as a poet was mutilated by the attempt to adapt his emotions to the expectations of society.
With almost childlike innocence, Symonds would post off his homosexual poems to his friends, quite unprepared for the effects they would produce. He was taken aback and hurt by their reactions. He sent copies of "The Love Tale of Odatis and Prince Zariadres" and other poems to Mrs Arthur Hugh Clough; she said she did not much care for "The Upas Tree," which he blandly defended as merely "an allegory of the attractions wh[ich] some forms of vice have for even the most beautiful natures" [Letter to Mrs Arthur Hugh Clough, 11 December 1871], though he invited her to burn them. He misjudged the emotional nature of Edward Clifford, to whom he sent poems such as "Eudiades" and "Love and Death," which Clifford regarded as evil temptations against which his Christianity was proof. Symonds advised him to consign the poems to the fire, but defended "With Caligula in Rome" as simply "the cold & frigid picture of an Emperor at his high jinks of lust & blood. It seems to me to belong to the Pompeian genre picture style of Alma Tadema" [Letter to Edward Clifford, 23 October 1871]. After a hiatus, their correspondence was resumed without Symonds having learned his lesson, except in so far as he began sending Clifford his specifically Christian homoerotic poems such as "David and Jonathan."
In one of his earliest letters to Edmund Gosse, Symonds did not rest content with graciously thanking him for sending a copy of King Erik, but went on to bluntly observe "I note throughout this poem what I always feel as characteristic of your work, a strong & tender sympathy with the beauty of youth in men as well as women" [Letter to Edmund Gosse, 14 January 1876]. In return, he sent Gosse the inevitable copy of "Eudiades" with a note of encouragement, "Of course, this Greek love is different in quality from what can be expected to flourish in the modern world, & to attempt to replant it would be anachronistic. Yet I do not see, having the root of Calamus within our souls, why we should not make the Hellenic passion of friendship a motive in art" [Letter to Edmund Gosse, 16 January 1876]. Gosse was taken aback, and Symonds had to apologize for sending such a poem.
Symonds would not allow any of his acquaintances to denigrate or dismiss homosexual love without a word of rebuke. As far as he was concerned, every intelligent person had a duty to recognize it and to accept it. He commended Mrs Arthur Hugh Clough's essay on Shakespeare's Sonnets, but criticized her dependence upon a book by Richard Simpson (1868) in which the author "in his attempt ... to screen Sh[akespeare] from a vile imputation has not noticed the palpable intensity of a personal, historically biographically personal, emotion the sonnets contain" [Letter to Mrs Arthur Hugh Clough, 1 January 1869]. He was quick to respond to scholars who ventured into what he came to regard as his field, and to set them on a less prejudiced path of investigation. He told Rev. Arthur Galton, who had written a book on Tiberius, that "congenital abnormality is not vice or crime, but imperfection, aberration from the standard," and referred him to studies by Krafft- Ebing, Ulrichs, Moreau, Lombroso, and the Italian Penal Code of 1889 which had decriminalized homosexuality [Letter to Arthur Galton, 10 October 1890]. Henry Scott Tuke's father, a specialist in mental illness, was a friend of Symonds's father; when he visited Symonds in Davos, Symonds "tried to draw him about 'Sexual inversion', but found that he preferred to discourse on 'hypnotism'" [Letter to Edmund Gosse, 15 November 1890].
He often adopted the role of schoolmaster in his letters, particularly with those whom he respected the most. The poetry of Walt Whitman transformed Symonds's life. He knew that any homosexual who read Calamus would see it as a justification of masculine love in the fullest possible sense, for Whitman accepted sex as a positive driving force in a way that Plato had not. Symonds was one of the earliest publicists of Whitman's poetry in England, and he did everything possible to establish a Calamite network of sympathizers.
But Whitman left one thing unspoken, and for many years Symonds nagged him to be more explicit about the homosexual nature of "adhesiveness." Finally he pushed Whitman into a corner and got the answer he deserved: that the homosexual interpretation of Calamus was "damnable" and the great poet had six illegitimate children to prove his normality. Fortunately Calamus had by now assumed for Symonds an existence independent of its creator, and Whitman's violently reactionary response, though disappointing, failed to demolish his own firm belief in the rightness of his interpretation. He consoled himself by lecturing the Master on his obvious ignorance about homosexuality, and he expressed some surprise that Whitman failed to recognize that such inferences were natural and such love was wholesome. Similarly, when Jowett was preparing to publish his view that homosexual love in Plato was merely a metaphor, Symonds so very severely reprimanded him for delving into something of which he knew so little, that Jowett was persuaded to drop the project.
Symonds's courage in defending homosexual love can be seen more clearly in the context of Victorian prudery. He was known to be an agnostic, and was suspected of immorality. His translations of Goliardic verse called Wine, Women and Song were coolly reviewed because of the risqué nature of the title alone. Symonds naively thought that Studies of the Greek Poets would be used as a textbook, whereas even the compositor was shocked by his statement that "even paiderastia had its honourable aspects," and wrote him an indignant letter; his defense of a Whitman type of Hellenism led to an attack upon him which forced him to withdraw his nomination for the Professorship of Poetry at Oxford. He was severely criticized for his public defence of manly comradeship in works such as An Introduction to the Study of Dante, and for his review of the Geneva Turnfest which he knew to be "very bold in its plain proclamation of a passionate interest in masculine beauty" [Letter to Edmund Gosse, 18 September 1890]. In 1878 he asked R. S. Poole of the British Museum for information about medals portraying Antinous, and was infuriated to be told that "it was very courageous to ask even artistic questions about him"; he forced Poole to apologize for his impudence. He publicly defended Sir Richard Burton's translation of the Arabian Nights, infamous for its "Terminal Essay" on homosexuality in the east, and rebuked the British for their hypocrisy.
Symonds mistakenly believed that American men of letters were less narrow minded than the English: W. S. Kennedy, the leader of the pro-Whitman faction in America, said "We here in America were astounded that it seemed to [Symonds] necessary in his work ... to relieve the Calamus poems of the vilest of all possible interpretations. It was a sad revelation to us of the state of European morals" [Preface to Reminiscences of Walt Whitman, 1896[. Symonds's close friends at home advised him to burn his own homoerotic poetry, and one friend gravely suggested that one of his more erotic poems could be rendered publishable if he altered "young Achilles" into "Amaryllis" [Letter to Charles Kains-Jackson, 24 April 1892]. He did disguise the sex of his lover in Vagabunduli Libellus, but the reviewers saw that it contained something intimate that they did not wish to know about, and they panned it. He was always rather surprised that the public at large could read between the lines, and could recognize, with some distaste, what he was getting at." I have doubted myself upon the propriety of speaking out so fully without speaking out more. I rather feel that from the literary point of view, I fell between two stools" [Letter to Eleanor Frances Poynter, 30 July 1882].
Just as Symonds's aesthetic and erotic sensibilities were inextricably intertwined, so also his erudition was erotically motivated. The essays in Studies of the Greek Poets (1873) began as a series of lectures delivered to the Sixth Form boys at Clifton College. Their hidden agenda was to enable him to get close to Norman Moor, whom he met at a dinner party given by Graham Dakyns in December 1868, with whom he deliberately engaged in a sensual romance (excluding coitus). Norman returned his love, but was himself attracted to younger boys, so though their affair lasted for four years it was never quite satisfying. (Nor could it have been very satisfactory for Catherine and the children, who went to Ilfracombe while Norman and her husband visited Milan, Verona, Venice and the Tirol. Margaret observed that her mother was a woman of "singular Sibylline fortitude.")
But the lectures were a great success, and prompted his intense research into Greek language, poetry, and history which became the foundation for his first publications. They continued for more than two years, and many of his students became his best friends, including Horatio Brown. His enthusiasm for Aristophanes and the Greek Anthology must have been infectious, and his personal commitment to Greek values as if they were modern values must have transformed the dry linguistic studies to which the boys were accustomed. The same lectures were delivered to the Society for Higher Education for Women, and the 80 ladies in his class were in fact more attentive than the boys. The first collection was successful enough for there to be demand for a second collection in 1876, and he was very proud of them.
The research for these lectures lead inevitably to one of his most important works, A Problem in Greek Ethics, which was written in 1873, though not printed until 1883, in an edition of ten copies. It is the first extended historical and literary study of homosexuality in English. In 1890 Symonds sent a copy to Sir Richard Burton, after reading the latter's Terminal Essay to The Thousand Nights and a Night published in 1888. Burton's theory about "Sotadic Zones" in which climate determines sexual behaviour is a ludicrous excuse for titillating anecdote, whereas Symonds's book contains a carefully constructed argument supported by an enormously wide range of references. For sheer readability it has not been surpassed, and his translations from the Greek have few equals. His theory about the origin of pederasty in Dorian military custom has been generally accepted. The persuasive fluency of his style has not been matched by the more extended scholarly works of more recent decades. It is a subversive book in the sense that it uses conventional techniques to undermine contemporary conventions about sexual behaviour. Even after the advent of Gay Liberation, and even though the Classics no longer claim such a prominent place in our education, a reading of this work cannot but have a liberating effect.
The writing of his memoirs from 1889 prompted him to extend his historical survey of homosexuality by a "scientific" psychological-sociological analysis, and throughout 1890 he systematically gathered information for A Problem in Modern Ethics, which went into proof stages in November, though it was not printed until mid-January 1891, in 50 copies. Symonds always paid too much heed to his friends' well-intentioned advice to be cautious, but as he grew older he mounted a single platform and spoke out more openly. It is worth noting that although his two Problem essays were privately printed, they were also privately reprinted, in larger editions of 100 copies, and they were so widely circulated as to be "published" to all intents and purposes. Symonds's homosexuality was an open secret for at least the last ten years of his life, and even his children would parody him for falling in love so quickly with one handsome young man after another.
Symonds was in constant correspondence with Karl Heinrich Ulrichs about "the slave-cause of the Urnings." Ulrichs pioneered the defence of homosexuality in Germany in writings under the name of Numa Numantius from the early 1860s, in which he popularized the term "Urning" to describe a man born with a woman's soul which prompted him to love men. (In the German manner, he outlined a host of categories and subcategories, including the "Mannling" who prefers effeminate men, the "Zwischen-Urning" who prefers adolescents, and the "Weibling" who prefers strapping young fellows, the category in which Symonds would have classed himself but for the fact that he was not effeminate). Symonds did not use the term in any specific sense, but merely as a synonym for "homosexual"; depending upon his audience, Symonds would use the terms "homosexual," "unisexual," "masculine love," "democratic love," "Urningthum" (homosexuality), "die Conträre Sexual Empfindung" (contrary sexual sense), or "sexual inversion," with a preference for "invert" and "homosexual" in his last writings.
He tackled the Problem in Modern Ethics in the manner of Sir Thomas Browne, exposing vulgar errors by a well-judged mixture of sarcasm, science, and common sense. The essay was circulated to all his friends and to many prominent men, and was very well received. He was "quite surprised to see how frankly ardently & sympathetically a large number of highly respectable persons feel toward a subject which in society they would only mention as unmentionable" [Letter to Henry Graham Dakyns, 20 May 1891]. Henry James praised his gallantry for taking a stand, but felt that "one ought to wish him more humour, it is really the saving salt. But the great reformers never have it and he is the Gladstone of the affair" [H. Montgomery Hyde, Henry James at Home (1969), p. 50]). He received many "confessions" from homosexuals in England, and from Benjamin Osgood Pierce, Harvard mathematician, some "sharply-defined acute partisanship for Urningthum" (i.e. homosexuality). The new information prompted him to revise and expand his essay, and this new material appeared in the posthumous pirated 1896 edition.
Symonds came to acquire so much knowledge about homosexuals in contemporary life that it made him even more committed to liberating other homosexual men from the miseries which he had experienced. Quietly, in correspondence and at dinner parties, he argued against the Labouchere amendment to the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1885 which made "gross indecency" between men punishable by up to two year's imprisonment (under which Wilde would be convicted). He believed that legal reform was of paramount importance, though he was pessimistic about the outcome: "only I fear that a free legal course, with social sympathy attending, will not be given to my brethrern the Urnings" [Letter to Henry Graham Dakyns, 23 January 1891].
Symonds was impressed by the sympathetic interpretation of Whitman in Havelock Ellis's The New Spirit (1890), and began corresponding with him. In June 1892 he asked Ellis if he would publish a book by him on Sexual Inversion for the Contemporary Science Series of books which Ellis was editing, because the subject "is being fearfully mishandled by pathologists and psychiatrical professors, who know nothing whatsoever about its real nature" [Letter to Arthur Symons, 13 June 1892]. He did not realize that Ellis was already contemplating doing such a study himself, and it was quickly agreed that they would collaborate, with Ellis providing the psychological parts and Symonds providing the historical arguments plus case studies. He felt it was absolutely necessary to discuss homosexuality in ancient Greece in order to show how ludicrous it was to diagnose homosexuality in modern times as something morbid. "The ignorance of men like Casper-Liman, Tardieu, Carlier, Taxil, Moreau, Tarnowsky, Krafft-Ebing, Richard Burton is incalculable, and is only equalled to their presumption. They not only do not know Ancient Greece, but they do not know their own cousins and club-mates" [Letter to Havelock Ellis, 20 June 1892]. The theory of morbidity was more humane, but just as false as theories of sin or vice.
Symonds believed that homosexuality "will eventually be regarded as a comparatively rare but quite natural and not morbid deflection from the common rule," rather like colour blindness [Letter to Havelock Ellis, 29 Sept 1892]. He insisted that in any case they must come to an agreement about the legal aspects of the subject, because "I should not like to promulgate any book, which did not show the absurdity and injustice of the English law" [Ibid.]. He had obviously decided to speak out: "I should certainly give my name to anything I produced," and he would publish it by himself if necessary, although he felt that their two names would help the book reach a wider audience and receive serious attention.
Ellis kept backsliding towards the theory of neurosis, but Symonds did what he could to tone this down. "I think sex- inverts can only be called "abnormal" in so far as they are in a minority, i.e. form exceptions to the large rule of sex" [Letter to Havelock Ellis, 7 July 1892]. He was not sure how much one could be influenced by habit and custom and surroundings, but he felt that boys who responded to homosexual advances did so because they "were previously constituted to receive the suggestion. In fact, suggestion seems to play exactly the same part in the normal and abnormal awakening of sex" [Letter to Havelock Ellis, 1 December 1892]. The theories of neurosis and congenital abnormality had the advantage that they could be used to gain sympathy and tolerance from the public, whereas a theory involving either free choice or influence could be used to argue for suppression and restraint. In order to achieve the fundamental goal of law reform, Symonds decided to try to turn the tide rather than vainly swim against it.
"Whatever view the psychologist may take of homosexual passions, every citizen of a free country must feel that Labouchere's Clause is a disgrace to legislation, because of its vague terminology & plain incitement to false accusations" [Letter to Dr J. W. Wallace, 19 December 1892]. For many years, anal intercourse between men had been punished by imprisonment for terms from ten years up to life (the death penalty was not abolished until 1861), and an attempt to commit sodomy was punished by two years' imprisonment (as well as pillorying until 1816). Labouchere's amendment to the Criminal Law Amendment Bill did not increase the penalties for homosexual acts, nor did it make acts such as fellatio criminal for the first time. The ambiguous term "gross indecency" technically extended its application to a wide range of unspecified acts including soliciting, fondling, and even kissing in public, but all of these had been prosecuted during the previous two centuries as the misdemeanor, "a conspiracy to commit sodomy". The issues of consent and privacy were specifically excluded as a defence, though this had always been true in practice - the concept of "privacy" had had no validity in the preceding centuries. Though the Labouchere Amendment was called "the blackmailers' charter," homosexuals had been regularly blackmailed since the early eighteenth century. The amendment did not change the law; it merely restated it for a new generation of intolerance.
Unfortunately Symonds died before the project could take final shape, though he did manage to revise and enlarge the two Problem essays on Greek Love and Modern Love, some cursory material was got up to cover homosexuality in the intervening centuries, particularly during Roman times, and many notes and case histories were gathered together. Symonds was indifferent to lesbianism, and this section was left to Ellis. Ellis was frankly relieved that the collaboration had ended. After finishing his own Man and Woman, he picked up where they left off, and obtained permission from Horatio Brown to include Symonds's material in his book. An English publisher could not be found, and it was not published until 1896, in Leipzig: Das konträre Geschlechtsgefühl von Havelock Ellis und J. A. Symonds. It was praised as a pioneering work, but when Wilson and Macmillan published the English version in 1897 as Sexual Inversion By Havelock Ellis and John Addington Symonds, Horatio Forbes Brown bought up nearly the entire edition in order to avoid a scandal accruing to the Symonds family. Brown had probably given Ellis permission to use the Symonds material before the Oscar Wilde trials in 1895.
Later in 1897 it was republished as Studies in the Psychology of Sex. Vol. I. Sexual Inversion. By Havelock Ellis, but in this edition, Symonds's named was expunged; the material from many of his footnotes was silently absorbed into the text, and his essay on Greek Ethics, which Ellis thought unscientific, was dumped altogether. (Fortunately the essays on Greek Ethics and Modern Ethics, as revised and expanded for this venture, were surreptitiously printed by Leonard Smithers in 1896, and again in 1901.) Although this edition has been reprinted several times, and about a third of the material in it was contributed by Symonds, his name was never reinstated, and his place in the history of the sexual reform movement has never become as openly acknowledged as he intended it to be. Brown correctly judged the temper of the times, for the bookseller was prosecuted for selling this "obscene" publication, and the aura of pornography has hung about this book ever since. Ellis came down in favour of "inborn constitutional abnormality," and argued strongly against social persecution and legal prosecution; specifically he argued that homosexuals should not try to become normal heterosexual men, and that homosexual activity in private should be legalized. But the medical model prevailed, and the view that homosexuality was curable rather than congenital lent support to those opposed to law reform. Edward Carpenter would advance Symonds's arguments in Homogenic Love and Its Place in a Free Society (1895) and other essays collected as The Intermediate Sex (1908), but when a friend asked him "Will there be a Revolution?" he had to answer "No such luck!" [Cited by Jeffrey Weeks, Coming Out: Homosexual Politics in Britain, from the Nineteenth Century to the Present (London, Melbourne, New York: Quartet Books, 1977), p. 73.] The law remained unaltered until 1967.
Symonds felt that his Memoirs would be "the most considerable product of my pen" [Letter to Henry Graham Dakyns, 27 March 1889]. But again he was foiled even in his posthumous coming out. It is a shame they were not published within a reasonable time after his death, for he certainly intended them to appear soon enough to be "relevant" to the society in which he lived. Symonds was regarded as "a man of our time" at least until the First World War, and these self-revelations could still have had a dramatic impact upon the Edwardians; they could have helped a generation of homosexuals to overcome their feelings of guilt and isolation, and they may have made the early medical theories of causation more difficult to sustain. There would at least have been an intellectual debate, whereas modern psychiatric theory has become too dogmatic to give him an ear. The careful self scrutiny with which he demonstrates that his homosexuality is inborn and innate goes for nought as far as his modern biographer Phyllis Grosskurth is concerned; she would rather grasp at any Freudian "contributory factor" showing a negative response to women than catalogue the abundant evidence showing his positive response to men.
Symonds's last letter, written to Catherine from his death bed in Rome, 19 April 1893, expresses the value he placed upon his memoirs:
There is something I ought to tell you, and being ill at Rome I take this occasion. If I do not see you again in this life you remember that I made H F Brown depositary of my printed books. I wish that legacy to cover all Mss Diaries Letters & other matters found in my books cupboard, with the exception of business papers. I do this because I have written things you could not like to read, but which I have always felt justified and useful for society. Brown will consult & publish nothing without your consent.
Catherine withheld her consent. She sent a copy of Symonds's letter to Henry Graham Dakyns, acknowledging the importance of his memoirs: "You see how the great question was supreme in his mind to the very last. Are we right in being cowardly & suppressing it?" She also omitted the penultimate line of this letter when she published it in her preface to Brown's biography, written two years later. Brown fully understood the importance Symonds attached to the memoirs, and that they must be saved from destruction after his death, but Symonds had also instructed him "to reserve its publication for a period when it will not be injurious to my family" [Letter to Horatio Forbes Brown, 29 December 1891]. Brown was in a difficult position and had no alternative but to obey the wishes of Catherine and her adviser Henry Sidgwick, and to edit the material as best he could for his biography. Brown does not bear the sole responsibility for totally removing all homosexual references from Symonds's apologia pro vita sua. Sir Charles Holmes, who was working at the publishers (Nimmo) at the time, said that Brown "exercised little more than ordinary discretion in cutting out the most intimate self-revelations. But a straiter critic had then to take a hand. The proofs, already bowdlerized, were completely emasculated, so that frank "Confessions," which might have made some little stir in the world (indeed that was generally expected), emerged as pure commonplace." [Cited by Timothy d'Arch Smith, Love in Earnest: Some Notes on the Lives and Writings of English 'Uranian' Poets from 1889 to 1930 (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1970). p. 15.]
This "straiter critic" was probably Edmund Gosse, to whom Brown eventually bequeathed the memoirs and papers when he died in 1926. Gosse and the librarian of the London Library made a bonfire in the garden and burned everything except the memoirs, which were deposited in the London Library with injunctions that they were not to be made available or published for fifty years, an unnecessarily long period of time. The papers that were destroyed probably included Symonds's sexual diary and material collected for his project with Ellis. Symonds's granddaughter Janet Vaughan was nauseated by the "smug gloating delight" with which Gosse informed her what he had done to preserve Symonds's good name. The memoirs were not published until 1984, long after the Kinsey Report, the Wolfenden Report, and the Stonewall Riot too late to be much more than a period piece.
The whole raison d'etre of the memoirs was to chart the emotional and intellectual growth, the "coming out," of a homosexual man, but this backbone was missing from the excerpts published in 1895. Most readers concluded that Symonds was tormented by religious doubts, like many of his generation, though they were puzzled by the intensity of his malaise. Religious anxiety was rather commonplace, and the memoirs missed out on the enormous interest that their real subject of sexual anxiety would have generated particularly in conjunction with the trials of Oscar Wilde that year. Symonds was seen as a philosopher pondering the riddle of life, rather than the riddle of homosexual self-discovery. The anguish was unrelieved by any references to the joy with which he seized upon each stage of his affirmation of his love of men. With his affirmation of the value of sex wholly removed, only his self- denial was left, and the humourless pathos of the truncated memoirs did his reputation more harm than any scandal that may have been caused by the truth. Henry James drew from them an extraordinary impression of Symonds's gifts, but recognized that they failed to reach any tragic heights because the self-pity seemed to be based upon no specific grief. T. E. Brown did not recognize in them the Symonds he knew, and he challenged Horatio Brown's presentation: "Are you quite sure that, through some co-affinity of temperament or experience, you have not exaggerated this [sceptical agony]? ... I fancy I can recollect a different Symonds, full of enthusiasm for favourite authors, outspoken, critical, of course, but brimming with love for those he preferred. What has become of this rapture?"
CITATION: If you cite this Web page, please use the following citation:
Rictor Norton. "The Life of John Addington Symonds." The Life and Writings of John Addington Symonds. Updated 6 Nov. 1999 <http://www.infopt.demon.co.uk/symonds.htm>.
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