Symonds and The World of London: Some Clues for the Lost Library

Understanding the social, economic and political conditions of John Addington Symonds’ life is crucial to understanding his personality and his writing. It is also a way to find the connections he had with other writers and translators. The World of London represents an opportunity to deepen this dimension we may have ignored so far. This book clearly belonged to Symonds’ library with an entry in William George’s Sons 1909 catalog (see lost library). The World of London describes British society around 1885 through a series of 25 letters written by Count Vasili. It gives information about how British politics worked, how the gentry and the aristocracy lived or how sports was a structuring activity for Englishmen. It also describes the important political leaders, statesmen, scientists, and writers. It is designed for someone who does not live in London, the capital city of the United Kingdom, but still wants to understand British civilization.

First, I will focus on the history of The World of London, its author and the edition Symonds may have read. Then, I will connect this book to other volumes that may have belonged him but were not in William George’s Sons catalog of 1909.

Title page of The World of London, by Count Paul Vasili, London: Sampson Low, Marston Searle & Rivington, 1885, via Internet Archive, Public Domain.

The catalog doesn’t contain detailed information on the version Symonds owned. The most valuable information is the date of publication (1885) which indicates that Symonds was already an accomplished author and gentleman when he read The World of London. I assume he owned an English edition and the only possibility was the one published by Sampson Low, Marston, Searle, and Rivington. It is worth noting that in both the American and English editions of the book, there is an interesting introductory note. It explains that the publishers did not see any part of the text before publication. However, they reserved the right to remove some passages if they thought they were “too scandalous, if not libelous” (page II). It is probably because some quite sarcastic letters in the book criticize the Royal Family, politicians and British Society more generally. A non-expurgated French edition is available online and includes 28 letters instead of 25 for the English edition.

The World of London was not written by a British author. The book was initially published in France by Comte Paul Vasili, an alleged Russian aristocrat. In fact, Paul Vasili was a pseudonym for a group of writers that included Juliette Adam, Catherine Radziwill and others. It is not really clear if the book has been mostly written by Adam or Radziwill. The non-British author is a reason why this book gives perhaps obvious details about English culture. It was also purportedly written for non-British readers who may need some basic knowledge about British Society. An English gentleman like Symonds would likely have read this book to understand how a foreign author saw British culture. He may not have paid attention to the elements he already knew. I had the opposite approach because the details about British society were crucial in my attempt to understand the historical context surrounding Symonds and his library.

The World of London contains many chapters focused on politics, a subject that we have not extensively discussed so far. It is an opportunity to find new leads about his library. Symonds did not write about ordinary politics (elections, parties, etc.) in his Memoirs. He explained that his father was close to the Liberals (“He corresponded with the leading Liberals in politics, religion, and philosophy.”, page 84) but Symonds did not mention his own views. The words “vote”, “politics” or “elections” are almost absent when searching the Memoirs but there are other clues about his opinions. For instance, The World of London tends to be in favor of Liberals than any other party. Furthermore, Symonds was related to T.H. Green who influenced the social-liberal movement. He was also a friend with Edward Carpenter who was openly socialist. Therefore, Symonds was arguably a liberal and British scholar Colin Tyler considers he was even close to “an eroticized form of democratic socialism.” (J.A. Symonds, socialism and the crisis of sexuality in fin-de-siècle Britain, History of European Ideas, 2017). It is close to the conception I in my previous post on Walt Whitman: a study. Symonds’ library should reflect his political thoughts. Publications from Edward Carpenter are already in our database but there is nothing about Green. We should expect to discover some books written by this author and more generally volumes about political theory in subsequent researches

Carbon print of Alfred Lord Tennyson, Juliet Margaret Cameron, 1869, via Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain.

The World of London helps us understand which poets and/or novelists were prominent around 1885 and many poets mentioned in this book were on Symonds’ shelves. Even if Symonds was proud of his collection of Walt Whitman’s books, Whitman was not, by any mean, the only poet he read. For instance, The World of London has information about Lord Tennyson, the Poet Laureate. We know Tennyson was an author Symonds read because there are two entries in our catalog under this name. Robert Browning follows the same pattern. Vasili mentioned him and Symonds owned three of his books. However, there is no record of the other eminent authors mentioned in by Vasili. Books by George Eliot, Charles Dickens and John Stuart Mill were presumably on Symonds’ shelves even if there is no record. These missing titles make it very clear that the bookseller’s catalog we are using to reconstruct the library is not exhaustive. A significant amount of work still needs to be achieved to fully comprehend the composition of Symonds’ library.

In conclusion, The World of London is interesting because it relates to the society surrounding Symonds. As a part of the intellectual élite, Symonds cannot be detached from a political situation that includes the reign of Queen Victoria, reforms and modern political thinkers. The rise of some poets and successful authors of novels may have also affected Symonds. In the end, The World of London represents an opportunity to identify books we may find are important in our further attempts to reconstruct his lost library.

Works cited and useful links:

Colin Tyler (2017) J.A. Symonds, socialism and the crisis of sexuality in fin-de-siècle Britain, History of European Ideas, 43:8, 1002-1015, DOI: 10.1080/01916599.2017.1284141

Quinn, J., & Brooke, C. (2011). ‘Affection in Education’: Edward Carpenter, John Addington Symonds and the politics of Greek love. Oxford Review of Education37(5), 683–698. DOI: 10.1080/03054985.2011.625164

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

Symonds, John Addington. Walt Whitman: a Study. London: G. Routledge & sons, limited, 1893. (link)

Vasili, P., Cyon, E. de, & Adam, J. (1885). The world of London : La société de Londres. London: Sampson Low, Marston, Searle, & Rivington. (Internet Archive / Hathi Trust)

Vasili, P., Cyon, E. de, & Adam, J. (1885). La société de Londres. Paris: Nouvelle Revue. Fourth Edition. (Internet Archive)

More information on T.H. Green (link)

Separated by the Ocean: John Addington Symonds and Walt Whitman

Published in 1893, Walt Whitman: A Study is the last book written by John Addington Symonds. Indeed, the preface is dated March 10, 1893, and Symonds died the following month. In the study, Symonds describes the main themes and influences of Walt Whitman’s poems. Symonds had a special connection with Whitman: they were from the same generation; they were writers and they loved men. The two authors knew each other and communicated by letters. Whitman died in 1892 and arguably Symonds wrote this book as a tribute to the man he knew.

In this blog post, I will analyze both the form and the content of this 1893 edition of Walt Whitman: a study. Then, I will make some connections between the text and other works written or owned by John Addington Symonds.

Title page, Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass. Boston: Thayer and Eldridge, 1860-61. Photo by M245, via Wikimedia Commons, public domain.

I learned from this book that the first encounter between Symonds and Whitman’s poetry goes back to 1865. Symonds heard about Leaves of Grass thanks to F.W.H. Myers, a friend from the University of Cambridge (Memoirs, 368). Symonds was fascinated and immediately bought the Boston edition of the Leaves of Grass. What Symonds called the “Boston edition” is a new edition by Thayer and Eldridge in 1860. Whitman modified Leaves of Grass several times until his death in 1892 and the Boston edition is the first to include a cluster of poems called Calamus describing the love between two male comrades. There is no mention of an 1860 copy of Leaves of Grass in the catalog published for the posthumous sale of Symonds’ library. Therefore, there is no trace of the copy he owned. That information is crucial to a confident reconstruction of his library.

Walt Whitman: A Study illustrates Whitman’s strong influence over Symonds, something that was clearly acknowledged by the latter. Symonds had a very high opinion of Whitman whom he considered as some kind of a prophet/philosopher comparable to Buddha, Socrates or Jesus Christ. Symonds considered that Leaves of Grass affected him more than the works of Plato or Goethe, which is truly impressive from a European gentleman who specialized in ancient Greece. Symonds gave many autobiographical details in the study which may lead the reader to think this book focuses less on Whitman’s works and more on Symonds’s life and relationship with the poet. Thus, it is difficult not to see a connection with Symonds’ Memoirs in which he also quoted Whitman several times. For example, Symonds wrote that it was the encounter with Whitman’s volume of poetry that made him write A Problem in Greek Ethics. Beyond inspiration, perhaps Whitman enabled Symonds to accept his love of men, as it is suggested by this sentence from Walt Whitman: A Study: “Through him, I stripped my soul of social prejudices” (160).

Apart from the inspiration, there are multiple connections between Walt Whitman: A Study and A Problem in Greek Ethics. In his study of Whitman, Symonds used many examples from antiquity. These were already present in A Problem in Greek Ethics, in which Symonds mentioned the sexual habits of the Dorians and the famous relationship between Achilles and Patroclus. Moreover, the attitude of the ancient Greeks regarding “boy love” was also very close to Whitman’s thoughts. For Whitman, passion and romance are associated with the love of two men engaged in a strong friendship. This is the kind of love Achilles and Patroclus experienced according to Symonds. Symonds thought Whitman never wrote about sexual desire between two men even if several passages of Leaves of Grass seem to definitely portray two men in erotic and sexual relationships, something Whitman denied. Symonds wrote that according to Whitman the relationship between men and women is “ordinary” (page 75) and purely sexual. It clearly relates to what he wrote in A Problem in Greek Ethics, in which he explained the relations between men and women in ancient Greece were mostly defined by reproduction. There is, however, a key difference with Whitman. For ancient Greeks, male love was reserved for the citizens who were a male elite, whereas Whitman had a democratic vision. For him, there was no question of social status when dealing with the love of two comrades.

Frontispiece portrait of Walt Whitman taken from photograph given by Whitman to John Addington Symonds. John Addington Symonds, Walt Whitman: A Study, (London: Routledge, 1893). Via the Internet Archive.

On a different note, the Johns Hopkins library owns a first edition of the book. Reading the first edition of this book was an incredible opportunity. First, it enabled me to read Symonds as one his contemporaries would have. For instance, a poem by Symonds is pasted onto the first page. It is arguably the mark the first owner of this book who gave this book in 1923 to the library. The owner signed as Dr. W.W. Lovejoy and he may be the father of Arthur O. Lovejoy whose papers are conserved at the Johns Hopkins’ library (see Lovejoy’s biography). Beyond identifying the first owner of the book, it is possible to understand the reaction of successive readers, thanks to several annotations in the margins. For example, there is a reaction of surprise represented by a question mark above the sentence, “This being so, Whitman never suggests that comradeship may occasion the development of physical desire” (90). It is perhaps the reaction of past students or faculty members that were unfamiliar with the theme of sexuality in Whitman’s poems. It could also be that readers were familiar with Whitman’s erotic descriptions, and were surprised by Symonds’ denial.

It is worth noting that Walt Whitman: a study seems to have not been borrowed much. There is only one entry on the library card used before computers and it is from the 1960s. Overall, the first edition provides an opportunity to ask questions, not only about the content but also about the reception of a book over the years.

In conclusion, Walt Whitman: A Study gives information about what Symonds read and how it affected him. In our project to reconstruct Symonds’ library, it is now possible to find which edition of Leaves of Grass he probably possessed based on the fact that he bought this book in 1865. Even if this book is not mentioned in A Problem in Greek Ethics, the influence of Whitman’s poems was crucial. Whitman was behind Symonds’ work on the relationship between men during antiquity. More generally, the influence of nineteenth-century poetry on John Addington Symonds seems to be worth noting since our work has mostly been focused on authors from antiquity so far. Following this idea, there are arguably other perspectives on Symonds’ works and life that could be discovered by reading Shelley, the biography of the English Romantic poet he wrote.

References and useful links:

Ellis, Havelock, John Addington Symonds, and Ivan Crozier. Sexual Inversion: a Critical Edition. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan UK, 2008.

John Addington Symonds to Walt Whitman, letters stored at the Library of Congress (follow the link)

Wiener, Philip P. “Towards Commemorating the Centenary of Arthur O. Lovejoy’s Birthday (October 10, 1873).” Journal of the History of Ideas, vol. 34, no. 4, 1973, pp. 591–598. JSTOR,

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

Symonds, John Addington. Shelley. London: Macmillan & co, 1878. (text from the first edition)

Symonds, John Addington. Walt Whitman: a Study. London: G. Routledge & sons, limited, 1893. (text from a different edition is available)

Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass. Boston: Thayer and Eldridge, year 85 of the States, 1860. (text from the Boston edition)

Lucian: From Satires to Symonds

John Addington Symonds frequently cites Lucian, a prolific author from the 1st century A.D (see biography below). According to his Memoirs, he first read the “erotic dialogues” of Lucian as an adolescent at the family residence of Clifton. This is the only mention of Lucian within the Memoirs. I will analyze the influence of Lucian in Symonds’ Letters and in A Problem in Greek Ethics.

In A Problem in Greek Ethics, the author mentions only Amores, also known as Affairs of the Heart or Erōtes. In Amores, Lucian wrote a dialogue comparing the difference between love for women and love for boys. Some argue this text was not written by Lucian and should, therefore, be characterized as “Pseudo Lucian,” of which fact Symonds was aware when he wrote his essay. According to James Jope, Lucian’s text received little attention from the first theorists of sexuality. John Addington Symonds is apparently one of the few people to use this text before Michel Foucault and David M. Halperin.

Symonds writes almost two pages about Amores in section XVI of A Problem in Greek Ethics, praising its comprehensive description of erotic passion. In the extracts he mentions, two characters are engaged in a discussion: Charicles defends the cause of women and Callicratides that of boys. Symonds considered the former to have had some “curiously mixed arguments”. He makes no comment on the position of Callicratides, who thinks the love of boys is a mark of sophistication. The final word is given to a third character named Theomnestus who considers that both loves are acceptable for pleasure without accepting the arguments of Callicratides.

Symonds seems to be more inclined to Callicratides’ vision. For Symonds, Lucian ultimately “support[s] a thesis of pure hedonism.” Even if Symonds refuses the ultimate conclusion of Lucian through the character of Theomnestus, he seeks to describe what he thought was one of the most important texts on the matter. Symonds wants to highlight that argumentation in favor of boy-love existed. Lucian’s texts prove that “boy-love” was a matter of debate in Ancient Greece and not necessarily seen as deviant.

Symonds also mentions Amores in section XV. In this section, Lucian describes the attitude toward marriage of one character: marriage is just a way of perpetuating mankind. In this situation, the love of males is the only true, noble love. The main idea of the extracts can be summed up in one sentence: “Let women be ciphers and be retained merely for child-bearing; but in all else away with them, and may I be rid of them.” (Amores, 38)

Symonds quotes these passages in order to illustrate the way in which people like Lucian opposed the position of Plato in the Laws. Plato argues that pleasure is only acceptable during intercourse between men and women By contrast, Lucian thinks men have a complex life, and cannot be reduced to animals simply looking to reproduce. Thus, using Lucian as an example, Symonds demonstrates that the Platonic doctrine was not highly praised by every Ancient Greek. This supports the notion that boy-love is more complicated than a simple question of tolerance or rejection.

Red-Figure Column Krater, Athens, circa 440 BC, terracotta, by Walters Art Museum via Wikimedia Commons / Public domain, photography is cropped

Lucian also served as a source for Symonds in a letter where he referred to the Dialogues of the Courtesans but does not use the proper name. He refers to it as Brothel Dialogues, which is a cruder translation. Lucian wrote Dialogues of the Courtesan as a series of comedy sketches about the life of prostitutes. The picture on the left illustrates the kind of activities prostitutes performed. It shows a symposium that includes both a female prostitute playing music (hetairai) and a young male recognizable by his lack of beard.

The letter written by Symonds is addressed to Havelock Ellis and dated from 1892. Ellis was an English physician and a pioneer in sexology who would later co-author Sexual Inversion with Symonds. A Problem in Greek Ethics came to be part of Sexual Inversion, and the letter is about the general organization of this book.

In this letter, Symonds broadly summarizes the thesis of A Problem in Greek Ethics, which he frequently refers to as “My Problem.” He quotes Strato, Plato, and Lucian as basic references on the question of ancient conceptions of sex. He emphasizes that Ancient Greeks were not shocked by relationships between men because they were often attracted to both males and females. He also uses Lucian’s dialogues to describe “female Sexual Inversion”. Symonds stresses the lack of historical information on the topic. This question is not really treated in A Problem in Greek Ethics, in which Symonds focuses on men. It seems important to point out that Lucian would indeed be used later by scholars such as Kenneth J. Dover. Symonds already pointed out Lucian’s importance in the 19th century.

            In conclusion, Lucian’s writings had a crucial impact on the thinking of John Addington Symonds. Using the debate between Charicles and Callicratides he proved that paiderastia was debated and could be associated with positive values. He also mentioned Lucian as a promising lead to explain love between women. Overall, these texts enable him to consider sexual relations in Ancient Greece with a comprehensive and nuanced approach making A Problem in Greek Ethics a major essay on the matter.

Lucian, the satirist. Engraving by, William Faithorne, London, 1711, Opencooper via Wikimedia Commons / public domain

Some information about Lucian:

Lucian’s life is not fully described. What little information we have on him comes from his own works, which are not always reliable. Lucian was born around 120 A.D. in present-day Turkey and he died in Athens around 180 A.D. He was a rhetorician and a writer established in Athens. He is well-known for his satirical commentaries on the life of Greeks in the Classical (423-323 B.C.) and Hellenistic (323-30 B.C.) periods. A lot of his works have survived for centuries because of their popularity among Romans.

Works Cited and useful links

A complete translation of the works of Lucian can be found on public domain thanks to the University of Adelaide (follow the link)

Blondell, Ruby & Boehringer, Sandra. “Revenge of the Hetairistria: The Reception of Plato’s Symposium in Lucian’s Fifth Dialogue of the Courtesans.” Arethusa, vol. 47 no. 2, 2014, pp. 231-264. (not open access)

Jope, James. “Interpretation and Authenticity of the Lucianic Erotes.” Helios, vol. 38, no. 1, 2011, pp. 103–120. (not open access)

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

Symonds, John Addington. A Problem In Modern Ethics: Being an Inquiry Into the Phenomenon of Sexual Inversion. London, 1896.

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