Book It! (Part 2 – John Addington Symonds’ Studies of the Greek Poets)

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!)

Carlo Orsi, chalk portrait of John Addington Symonds, circa 1880s-1893. NPG 1427. National Portrait Gallery, London. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0

[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 in my 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 Symonds was not content to merely present poetry as a historical document, or write a dry biography of classical writers.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 been attempted.

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.

Works Cited:

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

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, 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.