Reexamining the Lost Library

One of the lab’s tasks for this semester included extracting data for the Lost Library from the letters of John Addington Symonds. Working with this new source of evidence has raised new questions: How can we determine degrees of book ownership? How can we be certain Symonds owned a specific edition of a work? Can different non-book printed materials such as a photograph or a libretto count as a new entry? All these matters have prompted us to reexamine how we add evidence to the Lost Library and how we justify our decisions.

For earlier lab cohorts, the main sources of evidence for books to include in the Lost Library included the entries from auction catalogs (created when books from Symonds’s library were sold) and titles Symonds mentioned in his Memoirs. A few works were also recorded by analyzing a large-scale photograph of Symonds in his study and reading the titles from the book spines. These methods allowed for strong confidence in our knowledge regarding the books Symonds owned or read.

Extracting data from the Letters has posed new challenges that our cohort has worked through. Students read through each letter and recorded titles mentioned, relying primarily on the footnotes provided by editors Herbert M. Schueller and Robert L. Peters for details. Some footnotes provided enough information for a researcher to find the work that was in Symonds’s collection or that he read. However, sometimes we encountered titles mentioned in passing within a letter with little to no information with regards to edition, publication, or ownership status–raising questions about the best practices for recording such works and how, or whether, to include them in the Lost Library. As mentioned, our new inquiries include deciding which edition of a work to list if it is unclear, defining the boundaries of the types of materials in the library, and deciding on the degree of ownership and importance a given work has.

The group has articulated a few standard practices regarding the choice of an edition if one is not listed in the footnotes. Students originally adopted the practice of locating the first edition of the work we could find (choosing an edition published in London over an American publication), though recent practice has been to prefer instead the prior edition closest to the date of the mention. There were also issues about choosing editions for famous works in the literary canon, such as a Shakespeare play or books of the Bible. In these cases, we are still not sure if Symonds had a specific Shakespeare collection or Bible he frequently read. In some cases, we can narrow down the options. For example, we can deduce that the family Bible the Symonds household most likely read was the King James Version. We have left such works to the side for now, and we hope to find more evidence in the future that will point towards which editions of these works the author most likely owned.

Another subject that frequently came up was what material types are allowed in the Lost Library. A student might find a reference to a photograph or painting that seemed important to Symonds, but prompted greater questions about how we define the scope of the library. In one discussion, a student brought up a question about a libretto for Franz Joseph Haydn’s oratorio The Creation (composed in the 1790s) that Symonds wrote about in a letter. The student recorded that Symonds saw the renowned British soprano Clara Novello perform the oratorio. After discussing the work with the team, the researcher couldn’t confidently deduce that Symonds owned a physical copy of the libretto. However, questions remain about the influence that this and other artistic or musical works had on the author. The Creation surely must have had a great effect on the author for him to mention it. If he had a copy of the libretto, he very well could have stashed it in his physical library. These uncertainties about different material types make us re-think what the Lost Library is. Should the collection include any work that we think was important to Symonds? We defined the boundaries of the library to focus mainly on books that we know he owned or that we can justify were important to him. However, the significance of other mediums such as music, art, and photography are interesting subjects that can be explored in depth in the future.

Franz Joseph Haydn's libretto for The Creation
Cover of Franz Joseph Haydn’s The Creation with libretto by Gottfried van Swieten. London: Novello; New York: H.W. Gray Co., 1859, via the Internet Archive.

Lastly, some of the most interesting conversations arose around questions about degrees of ownership and the importance of a book to Symonds. Is his ability to quote excerpts from a work by heart a sign of ownership? Does this ability mean that the work had a profound impact on him? Is his expression of interest in purchasing a book from the shop an indication of potential ownership? When grappling with such questions, students had to find convincing evidence in the letters that made us think he owned a book or if it greatly impacted him in some way. The justification of our decisions whether to include a work or not has sparked many conversations about addressing the question of ownership as we have generated data for the library.

Symonds in his study
Photographer unknown. John Addington Symonds in his library at Am Hof, Davos, Switzerland. From the John Addington Symonds papers, 1801-1980. University of Bristol Special Collections. GB 3 DM 109.

Despite these challenges, examining the Letters gave our group a nuanced view of Symonds’s literary interests and influences. As our team talked about during our final discussion, studying them has allowed us to truly appreciate the variety of works the author engaged with during his lifetime. Reading a firsthand account of books he found interesting during a trip or what was popular in his day has allowed us to value the rich diversity of his library, beyond what an auction catalog can offer. Our group of researchers was able to join Symonds on his literary journey as we read through his letters. We found works ranging from serial magazines to schoolbooks that he engaged with as a young man and growing author. Finally, the efforts of our cohort to define best practices when investigating the Letters should prove helpful to future researchers and should give readers an understanding of our process. We look forward to finding what insights into the literary life of John Addington Symonds the remaining volumes of the Letters have to offer.

Masses, Hymns, and Symphonies: Symonds’ Life in Music

John Addington Symonds pointedly states in his Memoirs, “I never really enjoy a cathedral without music” (288). This testimonial is supported by his subtle nods of appreciation for music throughout his writing, starting with his earliest recollections and vivid descriptions of church hymns from his childhood. He might have extended this declaration of musical appreciation to choristers, and especially to his first love, Willie Dyer, whose ethereal renditions of the masses of great composers moved the author as a young man. However, one cannot help but notice the lack of music in Symonds’s subsequent amours, which I shall explore later. Music and musical settings played a nuanced role in his personal appreciation of aesthetics, and I shall consider how this features in the story of Willie. I would also like to explore some noteworthy composers and pieces Symonds discusses.  

In Symonds’s early recollections of churchgoing as a young man, it is apparent that music, along with art and architecture, played an important role in his developing aesthetics. In this passage, he describes how music in the Bristol Cathedral deeply affected him: 

The organ was playing and the choristers were singing. Some chord awoke in me then, which has gone on thrilling through my lifetime and has been connected with the deepest of my emotional experiences. […] The voices of choiring men and boys, the sobbing antiphones and lark-like soaring of clear treble notes into the gloom of Gothic arches, the thunder of the labouring diapasons, stir in me that old deep-centred innate sentiment (65).

An additional note of interest is the fondness with which he describes the voices of the choristers, which would play an important role in his later relationship with Willie. It also seems that the glory of the power of all the voices in a choir and the accompanying organ complemented the architectural aesthetics he appreciated in church. Following on how music complemented his perception of architecture, he explains,

Without this living accompaniment [of music] and commentary, architecture seems to me cold and dead. Are the harmonic ratios of form and sound really so sympathetic as mutually to elucidate each other? Or is it a matter of association: the religious purpose and solemn character of organ music tuning our mind to the proper key for comprehending sacred architecture? (288). 

The musical grandeur of his early experience in church leaves a lasting impression on Symonds, as he is able to capture the same majesty and feeling in his Memoirs decades later. 

Musical encounters distinguish and accompany a particularly important point in his life: his first love for Willie Dyer. On one morning at church when Symonds was a student at Harrow, the voice of a certain chorister captured his attention:

Music and the grandeur of Gothic aisles, the mystery of winter evenings in cathedral choirs, when the tumultuous vibrations of the organ shook the giant windows and made the candles in their sconces tremble, took from [Willie] a poetry that pierced into my heart and marrow (158).

In Symonds’s reflections on Willie’s voice, he writes,

His voice charmed me by its sharp ethereal melancholy. In timbre and quality it had something of a wood instrument; and because of my love for it, I have ever since been sensitive to the notes of hautbois and clarionette (156).

This leads to his passionate relationship to the singer, which was pivotal in his personal development; he writes that their eventual meeting gave rise to the birth of his real self (157). The combination of Willie’s voice and his ability to interpret such pieces captivated the author’s imagination. Music was a gateway for him to see the beauty in Willie. As an adult, Symonds directly points to the qualities of Willie’s musical talents that touched him as a young man. There is a clear nostalgia in his writing, when he states that he is still “sensitive” to the timbre of a wood instrument, which reminds him of the chorister’s voice.

An interesting point to consider is the lack of fervent descriptions of music and its role in Symonds’s later relationships. For example, in his descriptions of Alfred Brooke or Norman, the author mainly concentrates on their physical or intellectual beauty. In his recollections of Alfred, he describes his love for him in a series of prose dithyrambs, which focus on Alfred’s attractiveness. Years later, this physical longing is still in command of Symonds’s reflections in the Memoirs. For Norman, Symonds insists that this love played an important role in his literary development. He writes that Norman liberated his intellect and will, and their meeting dates to the beginning of his own period of great literary activity (381). His later amours have a profound impact on his artistic development, and other qualities of these relationships dominate Symonds’s recollections. However, he doesn’t make any references to musical works or musical settings that make him sentimental when he reflects on these other loves. Instead of mentions of hymns, he often dedicates Ancient Greek and Latin verses to the memory of these men; in place of descriptions of a church choir, the settings at Oxford and the College Green mark his later loves. Consequently, music does not have a central role in the reminiscences of Alfred or Norman as it did with Willie. When Symonds first met the chorister, he initially noticed the captivating qualities of his voice, which was an entryway into a further passionate relationship. Symonds’s love for other young men lacks this important feature. The image of the chorister subsequently made the author associate church hymns and masses with Willie’s beauty, which was not only physical or intellectual, but also musical.

Finally, I would like to look at some composers and pieces that Symonds notes in his Memoirs. The earliest mentions are amid recollections about Dyer, where he lists church masses that moved him. Three soprano solos are forever impressed in his memory of the chorister’s voice, one of them being Mozart’s Kyrie of the Coronation Mass (158). The other two solos include the recitative from Handel’s Messiah, where he also mentions the “Pastoral Symphony,” the “Chorus of the Gloria,” and Louis Spohr’s “As pants the hart” (158). Other later mentions of church music include Mendelssohn’s oratorio, Elijah, which he listened to during his travels in Switzerland (222). Later, he writes about Gioachio Rossini’s “La Carità,” which is the third piece in the Trois choeurs religieux (310). Symonds’s descriptions of hearing this composer’s music lead him into sentimental reflections, in which he writes,

None of Rossini’s cadences are more melting than their violets, none of his crescendos more passionate than their reds, and the sehnsucht of his melody seemed to be written in glowing characters of green and gold and blue (310).

The pieces that Symonds heard in concert halls and opera houses are described as follows:

With closed eyes I sat listening to the divine melodies of Mozart, the symphonies of Beethoven, to Gounod, Bellini, Donizetti, Verdi; to Rubinstein’s impassioned piano-forte playing, and Piatti’s violoncello, Joachim’s violin; to the voices of Trebelli and Titiens, of Giuglini, and Patti, and Pauline Lucca (256-7). 

Interior of St. James' Concert Hall in London, 1858
St. James’s Hall in Piccadilly, London. Artist unknown. 1858.

Although his mentions of music in his Memoirs are often sparse, one can still sense the nostalgia Symonds felt for it. Musical settings cultivated his appreciation of architecture and aesthetics. He draws parallels between harmonies and architectural ratios, believing that the two must go hand in hand. Such settings also played an important part in his first relationship with Willie. The chorister not only offered physical beauty, but also musical splendor, which Symonds’s later amours lacked. Symonds puts the effect of music best in his own words:

And Music? Ah, that is the best anodyne of all. In music we emerge from opium fumes, and narcotize the soul into a hypnotism which is spiritual (317).

Works Cited: 

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