In the Key of Blue as the Culmination of a Life

John Addington Symonds was, among many other things, an extraordinarily prolific writer. In addition to various essays and poetry, he authored twenty or so books over the course of his career. This is a remarkable output considering he was not published until 1863; on average, Symonds put out a book every year and a half from the age of 23 until his death at 53 in 1893. He had three publications in his final year of life: the first of three was In the Key of Blue, and Other Prose Essays. (The other two were The Life of Michelangelo Buonarroti and Walt Whitman: A Study.) This antepenultimate book is the culmination of many different pieces of Symonds’ life, and here I will discuss how In the Key of Blue is not only representative of Symonds’ full corpus and body of interests, but also by far the most open acknowledgement of his same-sex love and attraction published publicly up to that point.

Cover of the first edition of John Addington Symonds, In the Key of Blue (London: Elkin Matthews & John Lane, 1893). Illustrated by Charles Ricketts. Image by John Coulthart, reproduced with permission.

In The Key of Blue contains thirteen selections written by Symonds over the span of more than 30 years. That Symonds selected the essays in this text for breadth is not a revelation: he says as much in the preface. “I have tried to make the selection representative of the different kinds of work in which I have principally engaged—Greek and Renaissance Literature, Description of Places, Translation, Criticism, and Original Verse,” he writes, which is an accurate if unspecific list of his scholarly inclinations.1 Many of the pieces cover several of the aforementioned categories and are multi-genre. “Edward Cracroft Lefroy,” for example, is biography, poetic analysis, and discussion of the man’s influences on Symonds all in one.

Title page of In the Key of Blue via

It is worth discussing “Among the Euganean Hills,” which contains scenic descriptions and account of Symonds visit to the Euganean Hills in Padua, Italy, at more length. The essay is mediated by Symonds’ musings on the Percy Shelley poem “Lines Written among the Euganean Hills.” It is also rife with references to classical antiquity, often apropos of nothing. In a section about the villages Battaglia and Abano, Symonds includes an extended aside on Geryon that, while interesting, has little to do with the primary subject.2 This phenomenon is not isolated to this essay–In the Key of Blue is, altogether an extraordinarily self-indulgent book.

Another element present in “Among the Euganean Hills” is Symonds’ same-sex attraction. Symonds describes a time he was sitting on Monte Venda, the highest mountain of the hills, and a “youthful cowherd” came along, who he calls “a bright lad, clear-cut in feature, nut-brown of complexion, white of teeth, with pale wistful blue eyes.”3 This description is similar to others that appear in Symonds work that portray men he finds attractive or has feelings for. Although these sorts of low-key mentions are common across Symonds’ works, this essay is actually quite subtle when compared to the references to Symonds’ homosexuality in other essays within In The Key of Blue specifically.

This brings me to my second point, which is that In the Key of Blue contains far more obviously references to male same-sex attraction than any other mainstream text by Symonds. Although A Problem in Greek Ethics was written around 1873 and printed privately in 1883, it was not published until after Symonds’ death, as a part of Die konträre Geschlechtsgefühl in 1896. Further, In the Key of Blue discusses Symonds’ personal attractions, not similarly the historical evidence and cultural implications of “Greek love.” There are three essays in particular I would like to draw attention to: “In the Key of Blue,” “The Dantesque and Platonic Ideals of Love,” and “Clifton and a Lad’s Love.”

The eponymous first essay, “In the Key of Blue,” starts off as a meditation on how color is expressed in literature but morphs into a simultaneous consideration of how the color blue illuminates the beauty of Augusto, a Venetian youth. The essay alternates between Symonds’ commentary and his “studies” of the color blue, which are really just poems gushing about how beautiful Augusto is. The first of these studies is reproduced below:

A symphony of black and blue—
Venice asleep, vast night, and you.
The skies were blurred with vapours dank:
The long canal stretch inky-blank
 With lights on heaving water shed
From lamps that trembled overhead.
Pitch-dark! You were the one thing blue;
Four tints of pure celestial hue:
The larkspur blouse by tones degraded
Through silken sash of sapphire faded,
The faintly floating violet tie,
The hose of lapis-lazuli
How blue you were amid that black,
Lighting the wave, the ebon wrack!
The ivory pallor of your face,
Gleamed from those glowing azure back
Against the golden gaslight grapes
Of dusty curls your brows embrace
And round you all the vast night gapes.4

Although Symonds claims the focus of these studies is the color blue, it is difficult to view them creative experiment: his attraction towards Augusto hard to miss.

In “The Dantesque and Platonic Ideals of Love,” Symonds discusses the similarities and differences of Greek love and the chivalrous love Dante describes through the allegory of Beatrice (for an expansion on the latter, see this post) and argues they both ultimately allow one to “scale the higher fortresses of intellectual truth”5 In other words, he places homosexual love in a comparable plane of ethics and legitimacy as heterosexual love.

Finally, “Clifton and a Lad’s Love,” which appears midway through the collection, is the most unambiguous in that it is the only essay where Symonds openly acknowledges same-sex attraction. The essay is a somewhat unusual inclusion in that it is the earliest work by a good few years.6 It is another piece which alternates Symonds’ poetry with prose commentary. The writing of the essay corresponds with Symonds’ relationship with the choir boy Willie Dyer.7 So where Symonds writes, “Else had I laid my lips to his, /And called him by love’s dearest name,” there is little doubt as to who he means, although certainly readers of the day did not have the Memoirs as a cross-reference point.8

Although homosexuality was an important subject for Symonds, personally and academically throughout his career, it took until the publication of In the Key of Blue for this subject to be reflected openly in his public work. The years after his death would see Symonds’ contributions to the historical and literary discussions of same-sex attraction and his own inclinations first more widely known, and then fervently minimized and released by his executors. So, in some ways, In the Key of Blue was the first, and only, unmitigated and publicly available text on Symonds’ own sexuality.

External Links
In the Key of Blue, and Other Prose Essays (1893) via HathiTrust

1 John Addington Symonds, In the Key of Blue, and Other Prose Essays, (London: Elkin Matthews & John Lane), 1893, preface.
2 Symonds, In the Key of Blue, 25.
3 Ibid, 31.
4 Ibid, 6.
5 Ibid, 61.
6 Amber K. Regis, “Late style and speaking out: J.A Symonds’s In the Key of Blue,” English Studies (2013) 94:2, 206-31.
7 John Addington Symonds and Amber K. Regis,,The Memoirs of John Addington Symonds: a Critical Edition, (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), 156.
8 Symonds, In the Key of Blue, 158.

Works Cited
Regis, Amber K. 2013. “Late style and speaking out: J.A Symonds’s In the Key of Blue.” English Studies 94:2, 206-31.

Symonds, John Addington. 1893. In the Key of Blue, And Other Prose Essays. London: Elkin Mathews & John Lane.

Symonds, John Addington. 2016. The Memoirs of John Addington Symonds: a Critical Edition. Edited by Amber K. Regis. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

“A Sort of Bible”: Symonds and Whitman’s Leaves of Grass

Although John Addington Symonds’ strongest influences came from classical antiquity, he also drew substantial inspiration from books by some of his contemporaries. One noteworthy example is Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman. Reading Leaves of Grass was a spiritual and artistic epiphany for Symonds; the book, and his understanding of Whitman, had a great influence on his writing and helped him formulate his thoughts on his own homosexual desires and ethics.

Symonds describes his first encounter with Whitman in the 1866-1875 section of his Memoirs. During that time, he wrote poetry as a “vehicle and safety-valve” for his feelings of same-sex attraction, which he called “tormenting preoccupations.”1 He discovered the book while he was spending time with his friend, F.W.H. Meyers. Meyers “stood up, seized a book and shouted out in his nasal intonation with those brazen lungs of his: ‘Long I thought that knowledge alone would content me.’” Symonds was quite taken with the work: “This fine poem,” he wrote, “omitted from later editions of Leaves of Grass, formed part of ‘Calamus’. The book became for me a sort of Bible.”2

Beyond this retroactive commemoration in the Memoirs, Symonds’ Whitman revelation can be dated more precisely by a letter from Symonds to his close friend Henry Graham Dakyns. Written on February 2, 1867 the letter he describes his first reaction to the book:

Leaves of Grass were published in 1860, when I was just 2 years old.3 Is it not strange I should only have read them this last week I am now 9 years old? Providence orders things so crookedly. If I had read them then & if I had understood I should have been a better very different man now. It is quite indispensable that you should have this book. Yet wait until I come & savor it for the first time with me. It is not a book; there are many better books; it is a man, miraculous in his vigour & love & omnigenuousness and omniscience & animalisme & omnivorous humanity [sic].4

In his letter, Symonds suggests he read Leaves of Grass a week or two before writing to Dakyns, at most, so his first encounter with the book must have occurred in the first month of 1867.  Symonds was then 27 years old. He had already been involved in at least one same-sex affair, with choir boy William Fear Dyer, at Balliol College. However, Symonds ended the affair after a short time, and remained at odds with his own desires for many years after. He was aware of “social standards of propriety and respectability” that made homosexuality disallowed: at the same time, he was unable to ignore how he felt.5 Reading Leaves of Grass catalyzed for Symonds a sense of peace about his desires.

Unlike some texts, whose influence on Symonds is subtle and difficult to detect, Leaves of Grass is praised and discussed critically throughout the entirety of his Memoirs. At the end of the preface, there appears a quotation from Whitman’s poem “When I Read The Book,” which was part of his “Inscriptions” cluster in Leaves of Grass.

When I read the book, the biography famous,
And is this then (said I) what the author calls a man’s life?
And so will some one when I am dead and gone write my life?
(As if any man really knew aught of my life,
Why even I myself I often think know little or nothing of my real life,
Only a few hints, a few diffused faint clews and indirections
I seek for my own use to trace out here.)6

The “Inscriptions” quotation speaks many of the themes that Symonds drew from Whitman, and these are discussed in more depth later on in his autobiography. In Chapter 13, titled “Norman,” Symonds describes his relationship with his long time love Norman Moor. Norman Moor was a young man who Symonds met in Clifton 1868—a year after Symonds read Leaves of Grass.7 He says their time together “approached sincerity and truth mainly in those ‘native moments’” Symonds says.8 The phrase “native moments” shows up twice in the ‘Enfans d’Adam’ cluster of Leaves of Grass.9

Leaves of Grass also figures prominently in Chapter 15 of the Memoirs, on Symonds’ “Religious Development.” There is a lengthy section in which he waxes poetic about Leaves of Grass and its profound impact on him:

I find it difficult to speak about Leaves of Grass without exaggeration. Whitman’s intense emotional feeling for the universe, his acute sense of the goodliness of life in all its aspects, the audacity of his mood—as of one eager to cast himself upon illimitable billows, assured that whether he sank there or swam it would be well with him, confident the while that sink he could not, that nothing can eventually come to naught: this concrete passionate faith in the world, combined with the man’s multiform experience, his human sympathy, his thrill of love and comradeship, sent a current of vitalizing magnetism through my speculations… In short, Whitman added conviction, courage, self-reliance, to my sense of the Cosmic Enthusiasm. What is more, he taught me, as no enthusiasm of humanity could do, the value of fraternizing with my fellows—for their own sakes, to love them, to learn from them, to teach them, to help and to be helped by them—not for any ulterior object upon either side. I felt, through him, what it really is to be a member of the universe I sought to worship.10

In brief, the writings of Whitman played an important role in both Symonds self-conceptualization and spiritual life. But even more powerfully, Symonds states that Leaves of Grass, and in particular “Calamus,” played a direct role in his decision to write “A Problem in Greek Ethics.” The “Calamus” cluster in Leaves of Grass is a sequence of forty-five untitled poems that speak effusively of “comradeship” and “adhesive love,” terms which had been used in other contexts to indicate male same-sex love specifically.11 Even beyond this terminology, the poems were decisively provocative: one of them ends on the lines, “…two simple men I saw to-day on the pier…The one to remain hung on the other’s neck and passionately kiss’d him, / While the one to depart tightly prest the one to remain in his arms.”12 It is hard to conjure an interpretation of these lines that is not referential to homosexual desire. Symonds describes the influence of these poems in Memoirs:

Inspired by ‘Calamus’ I adopted another method of palliative treatment, and tried to invigorate the emotion I could not shake off by absorbing Whitman’s conception of comradeship… I can now declare with sincerity that my abnormal inclinations, modified by Whitman’s idealism and penetrated with his democratic enthusiasm, have brought me into close and profitable sympathy with human beings even while I sinned against law and conventional morality. The immediate result of this study of Walt Whitman was the determination to write the history of paiderastia in Greece and to attempt a theoretical demonstration of the chivalrous enthusiasm which seemed to me implicit in comradeship.”13

Symonds encountered at least four different editions of Leaves of Grass throughout his life. The edition that he received from Meyers was the third edition, published in 1860-1861 by Boston publisher Thayer and Eldridge.14 We know this because of the publication date Symonds offers Dakyns, as well as the opinions he expresses about other editions. This edition contained the full, forty-five poem “Calamus” cluster in its original sequence. 

In the Memoirs, Symonds quotes from three different U.S. editions of Leaves of Grass: the aforementioned 1860 version, as well as the 1856 second edition and the 1867 fourth edition. Whitman often made substantial edits, sometimes adding full sections of poems, between editions, which is why it is possible to determine exactly which version Symonds quoted from. The 1856 edition, among other differences, notably did not include the “Calamus” cluster, and in the 1867 edition “Calamus” had been edited down to thirty-nine poems.15, 16

In addition to the three US editions, Symonds got his hands on the first UK edition of the book…sort of. William Rossetti, a literary critic and biographer, wanted to publish an edition of Leaves of Grass. However, he was concerned about the UK’s anti-pornography laws, and omitted poems he thought would upset the public. The book, titled Poems by Walt Whitman,was published in in 1868 with John Camden Hotten. Hotten specialized in controversial titles, but the new volume nonetheless omitted nearly half of the poems.17 After the publication of the book, Symonds wrote to Rossetti to inquire why he had cut certain poems—including “Calamus.”18 It is notable that by early 1868, Symonds was already knowledgeable enough about the “Calamus” poems to notice their absence.

Title Page, Poems by Walt Whitman, edited by William Michael Rossetti (London: John Camden Hotten, 1868). Via

Symonds is not shy about his influences; the majority of his work, in fact, draws quite explicitly on other texts. However, he speaks of no modern book quite as effusively or clearly as he does Leaves of Grass. Symonds would carry his love of Whitman with him throughout his life, and it ultimately culminated in the writing of Walt Whitman: A Study, published in 1893.

Leaves of Grass (1856)
Leaves of Grass (1860)
Leaves of Grass (1867)
Poems by Walt Whitman (1868)

1 John Addington Symonds and Amber K. Regis, ed., The Memoirs of John Addington Symonds: a Critical Edition, (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), 367.
2 Symonds and Regis, Memoirs, 367.
3 Symonds cites the incorrect original publication date for Leaves of Grass. It was first published in 1855, although Symonds probably did not read this edition, as he does not mention or cite it.
4 John Addington Symonds, Herbert M. Schueller, ed. and Robert Peters, ed., The Letters of John Addington Symonds, vol. 1 (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1967), 696.
5 Symonds and Regis, Memoirs, 10.
6 Ibid, 60.
7 Ibid, 379.
8 Ibid, 403.
9 Ibid, 413n.
10 Ibid, 468.
11 James E. Miller, “Whitman’s “Calamus”: The Leaf and the Root,” PMLA 72. 1 (1957): 251, doi:10.2307/460228.
12 Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass, (Boston: Thayer and Eldridge, 1860), 373.
13 Symonds and Regis, Memoirs, 368.
14 Gregory Eiselein, J.R. LeMaster, ed., and Donald D. Kummings, ed.,“Leaves of Grass, 1860 edition,” Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998),
15 Harold Aspiz, J.R. LeMaster, ed., and Donald D. Kummings, ed.,“ “Leaves of Grass, 1856 edition,” Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998),
16 Luke Mancuso, J.R. LeMaster, ed., and Donald D. Kummings, ed.,“ “Leaves of Grass, 1867 edition,” Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998),
17 Kenneth M. Price and Ed Folsom, “Published Works,” The Walt Whitman Archive, University of Nebraska–Lincoln and University of Iowa, May 2019,
18 Symonds, Schueller, and Peters, Letters, 836n.

Aspiz, Harold. “Leaves of Grass, 1856 edition.” 1998. J.R. Edited by LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings. Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia. New York: Garland Publishing.

Eiselein, Gregory. “Leaves of Grass, 1860 edition.” 1998. J.R. Edited by LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings. Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia. New York: Garland Publishing.

Mancuso, Luke. “Leaves of Grass, 1867 edition.” 1998. J.R. Edited by LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings. Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia. New York: Garland Publishing.

Miller, James E. “Whitman’s “Calamus”: The Leaf and the Root.” 1957. PMLA 72, no. 1: 249-71. doi:10.2307/460228.

Price, Kenneth M. and Ed Folsom, eds. “Published Works.” The Walt Whitman Archive. University of Nebraska–Lincoln and University of Iowa, May 2019.

Symonds, John Addington. 1967. The Letters of John Addington Symonds. Volume 1. Edited by Herbert M. Schueller and Robert Peters. Detroit: Wayne State University Press.

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

Whitman, Walt. 1860. Leaves of Grass. Boston: Thayer and Eldridge.

The Things We Do For Love: The Death of Patroclus and Achilles’ Vengeance

During his studies—almost certainly at the Harrow School, and more extensively at Balliol College, Oxford—John Addington Symonds would have read the Iliad by Homer. There is much speculation and dissent, both by ancient writers and modern scholars, about the exact nature of the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus depicted by the text. At the time, it could have been considered through the lens of paiderastia. A relationship between an adult man, the erastês, and a younger one, often a teenager, the erômenos, paiderastia was a well-established institution in ancient Greece by the 4th century BC.1 However, the acceptability of this arrangement was not as prominent when Homer composed the Iliad. Although Symonds himself did not ascribe an erotic dimension to the heroic friendship between Achilles and Patroclus, their relationship is so easily read as such that it nonetheless functions as a keystone for understanding “Greek love.”

Symonds’ first encounter with the Iliad, and therefore the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus, was almost certainly during early childhood.
In his Memoirs, he discusses the artwork and texts available to him as a young boy, writing, “I was very fond of picture books and drew a great deal from Raphael, Flaxman and Retzsch. Our house was well stocked with engravings, photographs, copies of Italian pictures and illustrated works upon Greek sculpture.”2 The name surname Flaxman refers to John Flaxman, who was an eminent Neoclassicist sculptor and engraver.

Thomas Piroli, engraver, after a drawing by John Flaxman, “Achille Combat avrec le Fleuve Scamandre,” in L’iliade d’Homere (Rome: ca. 1793). From the Sheridan Libraries, Johns Hopkins University. Photograph by Kyle Bacon.

The image above is taken from a collection of illustrations based on scenes from the Iliad, engraved by Thomas Piroli and based on John Flaxman’s line drawings. As a representation of one of the most famous Greek texts, Flaxman’s Iliad illustrations would have been important to the classical education of a young boy. So of all of Flaxman’s work, it is probable Symonds would have been able to access these; the book of engravings containing this scene almost certainly was present in Symonds’ childhood library. This particular image depicts Achilles in violent rage following his grief over the death of Patroclus. To avenge his fallen comrade, Achilles slaughtered dozens of Trojans in the river Xanthus:

But when they were now come to the ford of the fair-flowing river, even eddying Xanthus that immortal Zeus begat, there Achilles cleft them asunder… the Zeus-begotten left there his spear upon the bank, leaning against the tamarisk bushes, and himself leapt in like a god with naught but his sword; and grim was the work he purposed in his heart, and turning him this way and that he smote and smote; and from them uprose hideous groaning as they were anchorage in their terror, for greedily doth he devour whatsoever one he catcheth; even so cowered the Trojans in the streams of the dread river beneath the steep banks.3

Achilles killed so many Trojans, in fact, that the river god Scamander showed up to ask him to please stop:

The deep-eddying River waxed wroth and called to him in the semblance of a man, sending forth a voice from out the deep eddy: “O Achilles, beyond men art thou in might, and beyond men doest deeds of evil; for ever do the very gods give thee aid. If so be the son of Cronos hath granted thee to slay all the men of Troy, forth out of my stream at least do thou drive them, and work thy direful work on the plain. Lo, full are my lovely streams with dead men, nor can I anywise avail to pour my waters forth into the bright sea, being choked with dead, while thou ever slayest ruthlessly. Nay, come, let be; amazement holds me, thou leader of hosts.”4

Achilles would not, and decided to literally fight the river:

Then swift-footed Achilles answered him, saying: “Thus shall it be, Scamander, nurtured of Zeus, even as thou biddest. Howbeit the proud Trojan will I not cease to slay until I have pent them in their city, and have made trial of Hector, man to man, whether he shall slay me or I him.”5

Rage of Achilles” by Kate Beaton via Hark, a Vagrant / CC BY NC-ND. The story of Achilles and Patroclus, and in particular Achilles’ passion for his companion and eventual mad grief over his loss, has remained popular in contemporary media. Examples include this webcomic and the recent novel The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller.

Symonds’ interest in the image during childhood would have been rudimentary, and no doubt broadly curious rather than raptly speculative or scholastic. However, that his corpus draws substantially upon Achilles and Patroclus to discuss Greek love indicates that available representations in his early life made an impression. Despite Symonds’ statement in A Problem in Greek Ethics that “in the delineation of the friendship of Achilles and Patroclus there is nothing which indicates the passionate relation of the lover and the beloved,” their prominence in that text suggests some ambivalence.6 Symonds even mentions this specific scene: “The love for slain Patroclus broke his mood of sullen anger, and converted his brooding sense of wrong into a lively thirst for vengeance. Hector, the slayer of Patroclus, had to be slain by Achilles, the comrade of Patroclus.”7

Even if Achilles and Patroclus were not intended to be read as lovers, Greek writers after Homer represented them as such. In The Myrmidons, written in the fifth century BCE, Aeschylus portrayed Achilles as the erastês and Achilles as the erômenos. This portrayal is argued against in Plato’s Symposium, written in 4th century BCE–Phadedrus takes issue not with the fact that Aeschylus represents Achilles and Patroclus lovers, but argues against the paiderastic roles he assigns, insisting, “Aeschylus talks nonsense when he says that it was Achilles who was in love with Patroclus.”8 In other words, Aeschylus was incorrect to represent Achilles as the erastês. The long history of discourse around Achilles and Patroclus as a paragon of same-sex love render them a vital example in Symonds’ discussion.

Another interesting comment Symonds makes that complicates his position on Achilles and Patroclus as an example of “heroic friendship” rather than “Greek love” is that he goes on to suggest that “Greek love was, in its origin and essence, military.”9, 10 Achilles is a great warrior and military commander, and by far the most heroic figure in the Trojan War as represented in the Iliad. His initial response to Patroclus’s death—to go on a rampage—is as militaristic as response as one could possibly have. Given this definition of “Greek love,” it seems contradictory for Symonds to insist that Achilles’ dearest companion in life and battle could not also have been in some way a romantic partner, especially because Achilles insisted that his remains needed to be put in the same urn as Patroclus after he died.

Regardless of the Homeric representation of Achilles and Patroclus, the couple functioned as an important site of discussion and consideration during both classical antiquity and Symonds’ time. Achilles’ grief and rage at the death of Patroclus in the context of their broader relationship is just one of many pieces of evidence that Symonds used to evaluate whether they could be considered an example of paiderastia, but the event is a vital signal towards elements of the dynamic that cannot be dismissed merely as heroic friendship.

1 John Addington Symonds and Sean Brady, ed., “A Problem in Greek Ethics,” John Addington Symonds (1840-1893) and Homosexuality: a Critical Edition of Sources, (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), 44.
2 John Addington Symonds and Amber K. Regis, ed., The Memoirs of John Addington Symonds: a Critical Edition, (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), 118.
3 Homer and A. T. Murray, ed., The Iliad, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1924, via the Perseus Digital Library), 21.1-2,17-26.
4 Homer and Murray, The Illiad, 21.212-221.
5 Ibid, 21.222-226.
6 Symonds and Brady, “Greek Ethics,” 44.
7 Symonds and Brady, “Greek Ethics,” 45.
8 Plato and Harold N. Fowler, “Symposium,” Plato in Twelve Volumes, Vol. 9., (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1925, via the Perseus Digital Library), 180b.
9 Symonds and Brady, “Greek Ethics,” 45.
10 Symonds and Brady, “Greek Ethics,” 50.

Works Cited
Homer. The Iliad. 1924.  Translated by A.T. Murray. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, in the Perseus Digital Library. Accessed April 22, 2019.

Plato. “Symposium.” 1925. Plato in Twelve Volumes, Vol. 9. Translated by Harold N. Fowler. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, in the Perseus Digital Library. Accessed April 22, 2019.

Piroli, Thomas. “Achille Combat avrec le Fleuve Scamandre ,” 1793. Line engraving, 35 x 45 cm. (Johns Hopkins Special Collections 730 X6 FOLIO c.1, Baltimore, MD). In L’iliade d’Homere gravée par Thomas Piroli d’apres les desseins composés par Jean Flaxman, sculpteur á Rome [Homer’s Iliad engraved by Thomas Piroli after drawings by Jean Flaxman, sculptor in Rome]. Book, printed in French.

Symonds, John Addington. 2012. “A Problem in Greek Ethics,” essay, in John Addington Symonds (1840-1893) and Homosexuality: a Critical Edition of Sources. Edited by Sean Brady. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Symonds, John Addington. 2016. The Memoirs of John Addington Symonds: a Critical Edition. Edited by Amber K. Regis. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Between the Lines: Xenophon

The works of Xenophon are prominent in “A Problem in Greek Ethics,” which is surprising given his complete absence from the Memoirs of John Addington Symonds. In addition to providing vital evidence within what is arguably now Symonds’ most iconic contribution to queer scholarship, Xenophon also seems to function as a kind of vehicle for the articulation of same-sex desire between Symonds and his friend Henry Graham Dakyns.

Xenophon was a soldier, historian, and philosopher who lived from 431-354 BC. A student of Socrates, one of his best-known works is Memorabilia, which contained conversations with Socrates. His other notable works include the Anabasis, and Symposium and Apology also depict Socrates. He was famously part of the march of the Ten Thousand to take Persia. Although he was from Athens, he also wrote on and took great interest in Sparta. 

Roman sculptor, Portrait of the Writer, Xenophon, ca. 150. White marble. From the Royal Collection, Museo del Prado, Madrid.

Symonds primarily uses Xenophon to sketch out more specific details of paiderastia, or the Greek tradition of a socially acceptable romantic relationship between a younger boy and an adult man. He selects specific examples to argue that paiderastia is a genuine and passionate arrangement, and to reinforce its cultural permissibility by highlighting instances of same-sex relations that are unseemly.

The first notable reference to Xenophon appears in Section 7 of the essay. Symonds relays an anecdote from Anabasis, which is lengthy military history, explaining, “The following anecdote from the Anabasis of Xenophon may serve to illustrate the theory that regiments should consist entirely of lovers.”1 He goes on to relay how Episthenes of Olynthus saved a gorgeous boy from being killed by Seuthes II’s army. In his justification for saving the boy, in violation of a direct order, Episthenes tells Seuthes that he once formed an entire army of beautiful men.

The inclusion of this excerpt is specifically notable for its passion. Symonds includes both the Greek text and English translation of the following line: “Then Seuthes asked Episthenes if he was willing to die instead of the boy, and he answered, stretching out his neck, “Strike,” he says, “if the boy says yes, and will be pleased with it.”2 Here, Symonds makes the case that if the love between Episthenes and the boy is so strong (as strong as a heterosexual love), it should be permitted. This reading is validated by the fact it is reason enough for Seuthes—he grants the boy freedom, and Episthenes and the boy leave together.

Xenophon appears again in Section 10: Symonds cites Agesilaus, which biographies King Agesilaus II. Xenophon explains that paiderastia was not only sanctioned, but a part of Spartan education, since boys left home early for training and family influence was minimal. Throughout his essay, Symonds uses, alternatingly, sociohistorical accounts and specific illustrative examples, and Xenophon is particularly salient for his provision of both.

In terms of the latter, Symonds draws on Xenophon’s Symposium extensively in Section 13, using direct excerpts to elucidate the ideals of the boy lover. Symonds recounts a passage where Autolycus is invited to a banquet by his lover, Callias. When Autolycus is presented, “kind of divine awe fell upon the company…The grown-up men were dazzled by the beauty and the modest bearing of the boy.”3 The passage continues on, waxing poetic about Autolycus’s features. Symonds then gives a second example of passionate attraction in Symposium: Critobulus accounting his feelings for Cleinias. “I would rather be the slave of Cleinus,” Critobulus says, “than live without him; I would rather toil and suffer danger for his sake than live alone at ease and in safety. I would go through fire with him, as you would with me.”4

In the very next section, Xenophon’s Memorabilia is used to provide additional historical context. Symonds explains that there were morally distinct categories of pederasts, recounted by Xenophon as well as other writers such as Aristophanes, who said in Plutus, there were χρηστοὶ, “the good,” and πόρνοι “the strumpets.” Symonds then cites in a footnote Xenophon’s exact definition : “τήν τε γὰρ ὥραν ἐὰν μέν τις ἀργυρίου πωλῇ τῷ βουλομένῳ.”5 In English: “For to offer one’s beauty for money to all comers is called prostitution.”6

Symonds illustrates this difference with an example from Anabasis, where Xenophon describes at length how Strategus Menon was morally bankrupt for having achieved the rank of general by sleeping his way up the ranks with Aristippus and Ariaeus (the latter a barbarian). Xenophon describes a number of unproblematic relationships; he makes clear that the issue is not with those relations themselves. Xenophon describes Strategus Menon unfavorably because he “debases virtuous qualities” and “pursued selfish and mean aims” by having sexual relations for money.7 In other words, what should be a pure and passionate relationship is sullied by Strategus Menon’s use of sex as currency.

As mentioned before, despite his extensive usefulness in “Greek Ethics,” Xenophon does not appear at all in the pages of Symonds’ Memoirs. For this reason, it is difficult to determine exactly when he first encountered Xenophon. The only references to Xenophon are in Symonds’ letters to his close friend Henry Graham Dakyns. Dakyns was a good friend of Symonds—they met at Clifton College in Spring of 1864.8 His primary project was translating the complete works of Xenophon, which he would eventually finish in 1883.

Like Symonds, Dakyns had an interest in men, although it does not come up in his scholarly work. All of the Xenophon references in Symonds’ letters are very broad, and in reference to Dakyns’ work. Symonds often asked him to send translations or essays and encouraged him to finish his projects, saying once: “I am burning to see Xenophon either in proof or in mature print.”9 Paiderastia also came up occasionally in their letters, although the only one which mentions both Xenophon and Greek love came towards the end of Symonds’ life. However, discussed Symonds’ Greek love project in other letters. Dakyns’ side of the correspondence has not survived as well as Symonds, but it seems probable that Dakyns had to some extent furnished Symonds’ knowledge of specific examples of paiderastia in Xenophon’s works. 

Ultimately, Xenophon was a fruitful source for Symonds in terms of examples of socially acceptable, and sometimes expected, same-sex relations in ancient Greece. Symonds drew on four separate Xenophon texts, scattered throughout the essay; Xenophon’s status as a historian-philosopher, rather than a classical poet or playwright, positions him as a vital source for Symonds in the sense that his writings remove the level of extrapolation required in drawing social and cultural conclusions from literary sources.

1 John Addington Symonds and Sean Brady, ed. “A Problem in Greek Ethics,” John Addington Symonds (1840-1893) and Homosexuality: a Critical Edition of Sources, (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), 51.
2 Symonds and Brady, “Greek Ethics”, 52.
3 Ibid, 81.
4 Ibid, 82.
5 Xenophon. Xenophon in Seven Volumes. E. C. Marchant, trans. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1923), 1.6.13.
6 Symonds and Brady, “Greek Ethics,” 87
7 Ibid, 88.
8 John Addington Symonds and Amber K. Regis, ed. The Memoirs of John Addington Symonds: a Critical Edition, (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), 240.
9 John Addington Symonds and Horatio F. Brown. Letters and Papers of John Addington Symonds, (New York: C. Scribner’s Sons, 1923), 1160.

Works Cited
Booth, Howard J. “Same-Sex Desire, Ethics and Double-Mindedness: The Correspondence of Henry Graham Dakyns, Henry Sidgwick and John Addington Symonds.” Journal of European Studies 32, no. 125–126 (September 2002): 283–301. doi:10.1177/004724410203212514.

Browing, Eve A. “Xenophon (430—354 B.C.E.),” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, accessed March 6, 2019.

Collection: Henry Graham Dakyns Papers | Archives at Yale. Accessed March 7, 2019.

Symonds, John Addington. “A Problem in Greek Ethics,” essay, in John Addington Symonds (1840-1893) and Homosexuality: a Critical Edition of Sources. Edited by Sean Brady. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

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

Symonds, John Addington. 2016. The Memoirs of John Addington Symonds: a Critical Edition. Edited by Amber K. Regis. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Xenophon. 1925. “Agesilaus.” Xenophon in Seven Volumes. Volume 7. Translated by E. C. Marchant and G. W. Bowersock. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, in the Perseus Digital Library, accessed March 6, 2019. h

Xenophon. 1922. “Anabasis.” Xenophon in Seven Volumes. Volume 3. Translated by Carleton L. Brownson. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, in the Perseus Digital Library, accessed March 6, 2019.

Xenophon. 1923. “Memorabilia.” Xenophon in Seven Volumes. Volume 4. Translated by E. C. Marchant. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, in the Perseus Digital Library, accessed March 6, 2019.

Xenophon. 1979. “Symposium.” Xenophon in Seven Volumes. Volume 4. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, in the Perseus Digital Library, accessed March 6, 2019.