Book it! (Part 1 – William Mure’s Critical History)

1858 – John Addington Symonds graduates from his boarding school, Harrow, and receives a most interesting book from his classmates as a parting gift. In his Memoirs, Symonds recounts the event:

“When I left Harrow the boys at Monkey’s subscribed to present me with a testimonial. It was Mure’s History of Greek Literature, handsomely bound, which my successor Currey handed to me with a speech of kindly congratulation.” – JAS, Memoirs, 136

The work Symonds alludes to here is Critical History of the Language and Literature of Ancient Greece, a five-volume work written by 19th-century classicist William Mure published between the years 1850 and 1857. This massive text provides a partial overview of Ancient Greek literature, acting as both a historical record and an analysis of the cataloged works through a more modern lens. The text’s critical angle is particularly interesting, as literary critical work on classical texts appears to have been a relatively new innovation at the time of the book’s publication (JAS, Letters, 254-255).

William Mure by unknown creator via Wikimedia Commons/ public domain

Given the way Symonds received the text, and the attention he draws to the fact that it was ‘handsomely bound,’ we can conclude that his copy of the text likely included school bindings marking the text as a present awarded at Harrow. A search on the book selling site AbeBooks.com, performed on April 18, 2019, showed multiple different volumes of the text bearing such bindings, though none from Harrow. From these listings, it can be concluded that it was not necessarily uncommon to gift Mure’s Critical History – all five volumes! – in the manner Symonds describes (at the very least, it happened more than once, and at a school other than Harrow). This is interesting not only as a matter of historical note, but also because it serves to highlight Symonds’ unique and innovative nature as a scholar; despite receiving such an apparently common gift, his usage of the text is far from typical.

A letter Symonds writes to his sister Charlotte in November of 1859 seems to confirm that Symonds was indeed given more than one volume of Critical History, and that he actively read the work and considered it to be of some value:

“W[oul]d you bring with you (if you have room for books) […] [the] volume of Mure that treats of Homer – I s[houl]d think it was vol I.” – JAS, Letters, 214

A reference to Mure appears once more in the Memoirs, quite a bit after Symonds’ initial acquisition of Critical History. Describing the period of his life from 1868 to 1877, Symonds recalls:

“Once more I read through the Greek poets, and wrote copiously, assimilating at the same time the criticisms of Müller, Mure and many scattered essayists. […] I have always thought that the large amount of time and vigour devoted to this work of lecturing prepared me for the definite career of authorship.” – JAS, Memoirs, 438

Though Symonds does not provide a definitive date for this particular series of projects, its placement in the chapter suggests it took place around 1868 or 1869. Given that it seems to comprise a fairly large body of work, it is also possible that this utilization of Mure’s text took place slightly earlier.

I find this timing exciting because it suggests that Symonds was closely reading and making use of Mure’s work – very probably, in my estimation, the same copy of Critical History he had received from his compatriots at Harrow – during a period which roughly overlaps with the creation of A Problem in Greek Ethics. It is somewhat difficult to definitively date the creation of the essay’s first draft, but the window of time here makes it likely that Symonds at least consulted Mure in between the essay’s initial composition and its rewriting in 1873 or 1874.

Here’s the kicker – what really gets me excited about Mure’s Critical History within the context of Symonds’ work: check out this excerpt from a letter Symonds wrote to George Smith in 1872:

“I have been often asked of late to reprint in a collected form some Essays on Greek Poetry wh[ich] have appeared from time to time in the North British & Westminister Reviews. […] 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

So there we have it! Not only does the letter’s date give us a definitive indication that Symonds had been reading and thinking about Mure’s work just prior to the rewrite of A Problem in Greek Ethics, the excerpt almost explicitly links Mure’s writing with Symonds’ Studies of Greek Poets, the collected reprint of essays Symonds refers to here, which Prof. Butler notes as “closely related” to A Problem in Greek Ethics in his piece linked here and above.

But even beyond those two points, we have a direct statement that Symonds intends to place himself in dialogue with William Mure’s work in synthesizing Classical studies with modern literary criticism – an area of writing in which A Problem in Greek Ethics flourishes as a revolutionary text.

From these few scraps of information, we can draw a fairly viable connection between Symonds’ acquisition of Mure’s Critical History in 1858 and one of his direct inspirations in composing and/or rewriting A Problem in Greek Ethics about a decade later – perhaps from rereading those very same books he received as a gift!

Honestly, I don’t know how much more compelling a story about a linguistic historical text can get.

Works Cited:

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

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

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