Sports and Symonds: A Surprising Connection

Our lab’s task of re-creating John Addington Symonds’ library has most recently taken us to the catalogue of its contents prepared by William George’s Sons, a prominent bookseller in Bristol.1 Although the catalogue is from 1909, 16 years after Symonds’ death, it can shed much light on the influences and inspirations for his scholarly works. Additionally, the contents listed in the 1909 catalogue can give us information about Symonds beyond our understanding of him as an academic. Symonds was a prolific historian and classicist, who made significant contributions to queer history and literature, being one of the first people to use the term “homosexuality” in A Problem in Modern Ethics. In this essay and its predecessor, A Problem in Greek Ethics,  he gives insight into classical history and provides a working understanding of Ancient Greek sexual culture.

In academic study it is often common to view important figures only within the context of their scholarly or literary output. Rarely have I been asked to think about an author beyond the scope of reading and analyzing their literature. Our work on Symonds has felt like fresh air, seeing him not only for his work and but also beyond it, learning about him in intimate detail through his memoirs and letters he wrote. Given the breadth of Symonds’ work, it has been fascinating to read through the catalogue of his library and see the direct influences on his writing. Between books on poetry, philosophy, language, and art, one can see the amount of literature at his disposal. In analyzing this catalogue, clear connections can be made from the contents of his library to his own written works, allowing us to trace his inspirations in a remarkable way.

And yet, not every connection is so clear. The book that struck me most, for instance, was Richard Brown’s Memorabilia Curliana Mabenensia, and Symonds’ copy was likely the first edition published in 1830.2 It was somewhat hard to find information on the book due to a typo in the catalogue, but I was able to dig around and find an electronic copy through the HathiTrust Digital Library. Not recognizing the Latin vocabulary in the title, I was surprised to discover it is a book on the history of curling. Different sections of the book outline the rules, strategies, lingo, and history of the winter sport, particularly referencing Scottish curlers of the Lochmaben Curling Society. Considering the impressive and intellectual makeup of his library, I found the presence of the Memorabilia puzzling; within a library largely comprised of works seemingly related to Symonds’ scholarly pursuits, where on Earth do Scottish curlers fit? What is their place among Homer, Thucydides, and Shelley, to name a mere few? We know from Symonds’ Memoirs that he did not care for sports in his youth, and yet he owned a book on curling.

Screenshot from Books on poetry, art, biography, etc., from the library of late John Addington Symonds, removed from Am Hof, Davos Platz, Switzerland. Offered for sale by William George’s Sons. Bristol, 1909.

After a few moments of perplexed reflection, I thought about how reductive that line of thinking was. Though we know Symonds largely for his notable academic work, it is foolish to expect that his interests were limited to those efforts alone. Why should I think his interests could not evolve? There are many things I detested in youth that I can now enjoy even just in young adulthood (e.g. tomatoes, running). Likewise, I’m sure we can all relate to a few seemingly “out of character” pieces of literature, art, or music in our various collections. As evidence of pursuits outside of academia, the Memorabilia serves to show the diversity and range of his interests, reminding us of his humanity.

Though unrelated to the academic interests for which he was known, it is possible to establish connections with his works describing his life in Switzerland. In Our Life in the Swiss Highlands (which he wrote with his daughter shortly before his death), he dedicates an entire chapter to discussing Swiss athletic sports. 3, 4 Sporting events in the winter season appear to have been an important means of integrating into Swiss culture and meeting people, and specifically, young men. Here we can start connecting the dots. Curling, among other athletic sports, likely served as a way for Symonds connect to the communities around him in Switzerland in the last years of his life. The Memorabilia seems to be the only book in the catalogue that focuses on sports, yet it gives us a peek into Symonds’ Swiss life and shows us more about Symonds as a multi-faceted person and not just a lofty academic. There is something remarkably down-to-earth about engaging in interests in order to make social connections, and to see cute boys exercise.

Exploring the contents of Symonds’ library allows us to appreciate the inspirations behind his extensive academic accomplishments, as well as the influences on his life outside academia. From this we can gain greater insights into who John Addington Symonds was as an author and person, strengthening the lab’s work.

Featured image: Frontispiece for Richard Brown, Memorabilia Curliana Magenensia. Dumfries: J. Sinclair, 1830. Via HathiTrust.

  1. Books on poetry, art, biography, etc., from the library of late John Addington Symonds, removed from Am Hof, Davos Platz, Switzerland : each work. (1909) Bristol [Gloucestershire] : Offered for sale by William George’s Sons.
  2. Brown, R. (1830). Memorabilia curliana mabenensia. Dumfries: J. Sinclair.
  3. Symonds, J. Addington. (1879). Sketches and studies in Italy. London: Smith, Elder.
  4. Symonds, J. Addington., Symonds, M. (1892). Our life in the Swiss highlands. London: A. and C. Black.

Symonds and Sculpture: A Sexual Awakening

From John Addington Symonds’ body of work, it seems clear that Greco-Roman art and literature had a significant influence on his intellectual and sexual development. In his memoirs he describes the books in his childhood home that were influential in his personal and intellectual life.

Sculpture specifically played a significant role in Symonds adolescence, as he came into his sexuality and discovered his attraction to men. In his memoirs, he discusses his early experiences of sexual dreams which allowed him to appreciate male beauty in art, writing that “this vision of ideal beauty under the form of a male genius symbolized spontaneous yearnings deeply seated in my nature, and prepared me to receive many impressions of art and literature”.1 He then specifically describes how a photograph of the Praxitelean Cupid was particularly inspiring: “A photograph of the Praxitelean Cupid…taught me to feel the secret of Greek sculpture…[and] strengthened the ideal I was gradually forming of adolescent beauty”.2 In this way, studying the masculine form in sculpture provided an outlet for his appreciation of male beauty, a concept important in his discussion of paiderastia in A Problem in Greek Ethics. 

From his account of his childhood library, Symonds seems to have had access to a number of works focused on photographs and engravings of Italian and Greek art, and sculpture in particular.3 He directly mentions two folios of the Society of Dilettanti as being among his favorite sources of Greco-Roman art. With the emphasis Symonds places on sculpture, it is reasonable to conclude that one of the folios to which he is referring is
Specimens of antient sculpture, Ægyptian, Etruscan, Greek and Roman: selected from different collection in Great Britain. Published in 1809, it is likely that the folio gained popularity and became culturally significant for an educated man like Symonds, so that he would have read it in his youth and adolescence. Within the plate book are images of a multitude of sculptures representing men, women, and various scenes. While a number of images could have been meaningful to Symonds, a particular image was of note to me, shown below in Plate LI.

J. S. Agar, artist and engraver, Apollo and Hyacinthus, Specimens of antient sculpture, Ægyptian, Etruscan, Greek and Roman: selected from different collection in Great Britain, Plate LI. From the Sheridan Libraries, Johns Hopkins University. Photograph by Kyle Bacon.

The image shows a sculpture of Apollo and Hyacinthus, likely from Hadrian’s villa near Tivoli—as noted in its description.4 The pair are known from the tenth book of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, in which the two have a love affair that appears to be a paiderastic relationship, with Hyacinthus being a young boy in this loving and likely sexual relationship with an adult Apollo.5

“[Apollo’s] zither and his bow no longer fill
his eager mind and now without a thought
of dignity, he carried nets and held
the dogs in leash, and did not hesitate
to go with Hyacinthus on the rough,
steep mountain ridges; and by all of such
associations, his love was increased.”

The story takes a tragic turn when Apollo’s discus takes an unfortunate bounce off the ground, striking and killing Hyacinthus.6

“My own hand gave you death
unmerited — I only can be charged
with your destruction.—What have I done wrong?
Can it be called a fault to play with you?
Should loving you be called a fault? And oh,
that I might now give up my life for you!
Or die with you! But since our destinies
prevent us you shall always be with me,
and you shall dwell upon my care-filled lips.”

Beyond the context of the image, the details of the sculpture are worth noting. From the image in the plate book, the sculpture looks incredibly well-made; the figures look extremely lifelike, seeming less of marble and more of flesh and bone. Here we can see the idealism often associated with classical art, of perfect human form. It is no wonder the image served as a reinforcement of male beauty for Symonds. There also seems to be a tenderness in the figures’ poses, with Apollo’s hand resting on Hyacinthus’ hair and Hyacinthus’ arm on Apollo’s thigh, suggesting a sense of intimacy between the pair. Such a depiction of two men could have been extremely influential to Symonds and his burgeoning sexuality, providing a classical example of his own feelings towards men. These features, along with the mythological context, create the potential for a huge impact on Symonds, not only in understanding himself, but informing his future scholarship.

Such an image could have been very significant to Symonds, in helping him understand his own sexuality as well as the paiderastic relationships he would discuss in A Problem in Greek Ethics. He mentions Apollo and Hyacinthus across different works when discussing paiderastia and male friendship. In Letter 476 in Volume I of his Letters, he references the lovers when describing “the divine youths and maidens of Hellenic dreams…some Hyacinth bewept by Phoebus”.7 In Volume II of Studies of the Greek Poets, Symonds again references the pair when providing quick examples of tales describing male friendship in Greek mythology and history.8 The story was able to provide Symonds with more evidence of the prevalence of paiderastia within mythology and history to inform his position on paiderastia even further.

The tale of Apollo and Hyacinthus, the associated sculpture, and its image seem then to have had significant influence on Symonds on the development of his sexuality and insight into paiderastic relationships in mythology. The lovers’ different forms symbolize paiderastic love as well as masculine beauty, both of which are ideas which contributed to Symonds’ sexual awakening and intellectual stimulation.

  1. Regis, Amber K. The Memoirs of John Addington Symonds: A Critical Edition. London: Palgrave Macmillan UK, 2016.
  2. Regis, Amber K. The Memoirs of John Addington Symonds: A Critical Edition. London: Palgrave Macmillan UK, 2016.
  3. Regis, Amber K. The Memoirs of John Addington Symonds: A Critical Edition. London: Palgrave Macmillan UK, 2016.
  4. The Society of Dilettanti. Specimens of antient sculpture, Ægyptian, Etruscan, Greek and Roman: selected from different collection in Great Britain. 1809.
  5. Ovid. Metamorphoses, in the Perseus Digital Library.
  6. Ovid. Metamorphoses, in the Perseus Digital Library.
  7. Symonds, J. Addington., Peters, R., Schueller, H. M. The letters of John Addington Symonds. Vol I. Detroit: Wayne State University Press. 1967.
  8. Symonds, J. Addington. Studies of the Greek Poets. Vol II. London : Smith, Elder. 1873.