British Ballads and Symonds’s Spiritual Terrors of Childhood

In his childhood, John Addington Symonds constantly suffered from “spiritual terrors” (Memoirs, 71). He identified several works that took hold of his imagination, including “a book of old ballads in two volumes” (ibid.). A copy of one likely candidate, The Book of British Ballads (edited by S. C. Hall and published between 1842 and 1844), is in the Special Collections of Johns Hopkins University’s library. When I first saw the book, my first instinct was to search for the pictures for three specific ballads Symonds mentions––“Glenfinals,” “The Eve of St John,” and “Kempion”––because they had brought emotional distress to young Symonds and had left him with deep impressions which were so long-lasting that he could clearly recall the exact names of all three ballads when he wrote his memoirs in his 40’s (ibid.). However, I only saw “Kempion” in the index and soon realized the book in our library was one of two published volumes.

In fact, the book in our library does not appear to be an original version, because it is obvious that the pages were removed from the original book and pasted on larger-sized pages (see the image below).

The title page of The Book of British Ballads, Volume 1.
The title page of The Book of British Ballads, Volume 1. From the Sheridan Libraries, Johns Hopkins University. Photograph by Yuhan Deng.

Also, near the end of this book, I observed the traces of several torn pages. Therefore, I suspected that the book in hand was not complete.

Traces of torn pages in The Book of British Ballads, Volume 1
Traces of torn pages in The Book of British Ballads, Volume 1. From the Sheridan Libraries, Johns Hopkins University. Photograph by Yuhan Deng.

By referring to a digital version of the first volume of The Book of British Ballads, I discovered that the current version in our library leaves out a page from the original book with the text, “A SECOND SERIES OF THIS COLLECTION IS IN PROGRESS, AND WILL BE COMPLETED BY CHRISTMAS, 1843.” Therefore, I searched for the second volume of The Book of British Ballads online and discovered that the second volume had the complete index to the whole collection (both volumes), which includes all three ballads that Symonds mentions. “Glenfinals” and “The Eve of St. John” are in the second volume. Given that Symonds was born in 1840, the publication date, paired with Symonds’s explicit description of the book “in two volumes,” makes it a plausible candidate for the book of old ballads that evoked horrible imaginings in his young self, though he misremembers Daniel Maclise as one of the illustrators to this book (Memoirs, 92). (A Maclise illustration was used as the frontispiece to a later edition published in 1879, but not in the original volumes.) Finally, I managed to put together all the pictures in an attempt to find what they share and why they may have made Symonds “uncomfortable” (ibid.). Due to Symonds’s preoccupation with “spiritual terror,” my analysis will focus on analyzing pictures with supernatural components.

Although The Book of British Ballads is a collection of ballads by different authors, all three poems that impressed Symonds were by Walter Scott, a Scottish historical novelist and poet. In “Kempion,” the heroine is turned into a beast (illustrated as a dragon) by her stepmother, who curses her to remain so until the king’s son, Kempion, comes to kiss her three times. After knowing the beast is in his land, Kempion comes to see her with his brother. The beast lures Kempion to a crag and persuades him to kiss her three times. After the third kiss, she turns back into a lovely woman and accuses her stepmother of cursing her. There are four illustrations to this poem, all of which contains supernatural elements: 1) the wicked stepmother casting a spell on the heroine in order to turn her into a beast; 2) the beast breathing out fire towards Kempion and his companion; 3) Kempion kneeling by the edge of the crag and kissing the beast; 4) the stepmother becoming a beast walking on four feet, staring at Kempion and her stepdaughter.

Illustrations to “Kempion”
Illustrations to “Kempion,” designed by W. B. Scott and engraved by Smith and Lintos, The Book of British Ballads, Volume 1. From the Sheridan Libraries, Johns Hopkins University. Photograph by Yuhan Deng.

In contrast, the remaining two poems contain real names and appear to be more reality-based. “Glenfinlas” narrates a story happening in Glenfinlas, “a tract of forest-ground, lying in the Highlands of Perthshire, not far from Callender, in Menteith” (The Book of British Ballads, 242). In the ballad, the Highland chieftain Lord Ronald and Moy, another chief from a distant Scottish island, go on a hunting expedition in the wilds of Glenfinlas. Telling Moy that his sweetheart Mary is also hunting with her sister Flora, Ronald leaves Moy in the cabin and goes to a tryst with Mary in a nearby dell, yet never comes back. At midnight, a huntress appears and attempts to lure Moy out, but he refuses. The huntress, revealed as a spirit, flies away, and brings a rain of blood and body fragments upon Ronald. Besides the first illustration depicting a romantic implication of hunting through interactions among a group of god-like figures (they are standing on clouds), there are six pictures with a supernatural element, the huntress spirit. Unlike the ugly beast in “Kempion,” this female figure appears to be a beautiful young woman in all illustrations. However, one picture reminds the reader that her beauty is a disguise for her fatal threat, by placing the corpse of Ronald under her perfect nude body.

Illustrations to “Glenfinlas” depicting a huntress spirit and a man’s corpse
Illustrations to “Glenfinlas” depicting a huntress spirit and a man’s corpse, designed by H. J. Townsend and engraved by G. P. Nicholls, F. Branston, & J. Walmsley, The Book of British Ballads, Volume 2,

“The Eve of St John” refers to the battle of “Ancram Moor” that took place in 1546. In the poem, the Baron of Smaylho’me has just come back from the battle and learns from his attendants that his lady has fallen in love with a knight and has scheduled a tryst with him on the eve of St. John. However, after knowing the knight’s name, the lord is frightened, because the knight has been killed and buried. At midnight, when the Baron has fallen asleep, the spirit of the knight comes for his lover and tells the truth, leaving his fingermark on her wrist. Since the fact that the knight is a spirit is revealed at last, most illustrations to this poem, except for the last one, appear to be normal. Nevertheless, the last picture, depicting the visit of the knight at midnight, presents a nightmarish scene.

illustrations to “The Eve of St. John” depicting a night visit of the knight spirit
Illustration to “The Eve of St. John” depicting a night visit of the knight spirit, designed by J. N. Paton and engraved by Fred Branston, The Book of British Ballads, Volume 2,

Juxtaposing all three poems and their illustrations, it becomes clear that they convey interchangeability between mankind and supernatural beings. In “Kempion,” the heroine and her stepmother appear as normal humans in the first picture. However, in the next three pictures, they turn into terrifying beasts. In both “Glenfinlas” and “The Eve of St. John,” there is a figure who takes the form of a human being (the huntress in the former and the knight in the latter) but ends up being a spirit. I suspect this interchangeability strengthened by those illustrations could have fostered a sense of distrust towards one’s perception of daily matters, with an intrusive doubt in mind: is what I see real? The boundary between reality and imagination was further blurred by dreams and visions. Symonds writes,

Dreams and visions exercised a far more potent spell. Nigh to them lay madness and utter impotence of self-control.

(Memoirs, 70)

Therefore, the spiritual terrors that Symonds used to experience might have influenced his early personality, which he recognizes as “[b]eing sensitive to the point of suspiciousness” (Memoirs, 68). Meanwhile, Symonds was fully aware that, as opposed to powerful supernatural beings, he was one of the human beings, “things of flesh and blood, brutal and murderous as they might be, [which] could always be taken by the hand and fraternized with” (Memoirs, 69-70). This terrified him.

Also, it is noteworthy that the horrible scenes in “Glenfinlas” and “The Eve of St. John” happen at night. In the Memoirs, Symonds explicitly recalls various things that he used to fear at night: “phantasmal noises, which blended terrifically with the caterwauling of cats upon the roof,” the fancy of “a corpse in a coffin underneath [his] bed,” a recurrent nightmare about a little finger, only visible to him, creeping slowly into the room, etc. (Memoirs, 68). The illustrations might have served as confirmation for Symonds that horrible things tended to happen at night. According to Symonds’s imagination, another spirit dwelling in his childhood home was “the devil [living] near the door-mat in a dark corner of the passage by [his] father’s bedroom” and “[appearing] to [him] there under the shape of a black shadow” (Memoirs, 69). The last illustration of “The Eve of St. John” corresponds to this black shadow, likely triggering Symonds’s fancy of the devil.


Hall, Samuel Carter, ed. The Book of British Ballads. London: Jeremiah How, 1842-44.

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

Nowhere to Stand: Symonds’ Response to Krafft-Ebing’s Classification of Sexual Inversion

In the opening sentence of chapter 2 of his Memoirs, John Addington Symonds explicitly presents his wish to produce an extended sexual case study of himself. The remainder of chapter 2 is devoted to describing his sexual development before the age of eleven. In addition to calmly reflecting on “what [he] know[s] to be absolutely certain facts,” Symonds constantly considers the reasons behind those superficial phenomena (101). Since he recognizes sexuality as “essentially important in the formation of character and the determination of mental qualities,” he is eager to know why his emotions are directed to the male sex (99). He is unable to provide himself with a satisfying answer. Therefore, by labeling chapter 2 as “Containing Material Which None But Students of Psychology and Ethics Need Peruse,” he implicitly claims his status as someone who can write for experts in the hope of finding a better answer from them.

Psychology as a medical specialty had begun to develop in the middle of the 19th century. Symonds managed to gain a deeper insight into what he called his “problem” by studying cases of sexual inversion documented by continental sexologists, including some written after he first drafted the chapter. However, we know from an addendum to chapter 2 that, although some ideas of these continental sexologists resonated with Symonds, his “problem” was still unsolved. Symonds paid special attention to the probable innate character of the origination of “abnormal sexual feelings” with reference to Krafft-Ebing, an Austro-German psychiatrist and author of the foundational work Psychopathia Sexualis (1886). Krafft-Ebing created categories of inversion and argued that they were caused by internal as well as external factors. In his Memoirs, Symonds reviews his family health history: “My mother’s family on the paternal side (Sykes) was tainted with pulmonary phthisis, and on the maternal side (Abdy) with extreme nervous excitability, eccentricity, even madness” (102). He then arrives at the conclusion that Krafft-Ebing and his school would recognize hereditary neuroticism in him, which predisposes its subject to sexual inversion. However, Symonds apparently does not find this explanation satisfying. I think what hinders Symonds’ acceptance of Krafft-Ebing’s perception of sexual inversion lies partly in his delicate pride in his literary achievement. Symonds attributes his literary achievement partly to “a high degree of nervous sensibility” and questions the rationality of classifying “poets, men of letters painters, almost all of whom exhibit some nervous abnormalities, with the subjects of hereditary disease” (103). I will explore other reasons for his disagreement with Krafft-Ebing in the following paragraphs.

Photo of Richard von Krafft-Ebing, circa 1900. Weltrundschau zu Reclams Universum. 1902. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Symonds developed his rejection to Krafft-Ebing’s theory of sexual inversion more thoroughly in Chapter 7 of A Problem in Modern Ethics (1891). In this chapter, Symonds confined his review of medical literature on sexual inversion to what he considered as “the most recent, most authoritative, and…upon the whole most sensible studies” (143). Therefore, despite his disagreement with Krafft-Ebing, Symonds gave credit to Krafft-Ebing’s contribution to this field of studies. Symonds presented a scheme of Krafft-Ebing’s subdivision of subjects of sexual inversion under the form of a table:

Krafft- Ebing’s Analysis of Sexual Inversion. John Addington Symonds. “A Problem in Modern Ethics”. 1981.

According to Symonds, Krafft-Ebing summarizes from his case studies two causes, both necessary but neither sufficient alone, for “acquired” sexual inversion: “morbid predispositions inherited by the patient” and “onanism as the exciting cause of the latent neuropathic ailment” (151-2). Symonds only agrees with Krafft-Ebing’s conception of the “episodical type”: “[Krafft-Ebing] discusses a few cases in which it seems that sexual inversion displays itself episodically under the conditions of a psychopathical disturbance…the details show that the subjects were clearly morbid. Therefore, they have their value for the building up of a theory of sexual inversion upon the basis of inherited and active disease” (156-7). However, Symonds takes issue with the “persistent” type.

In general, Symonds criticizes Krafft-Ebing’s theory for being so constructed that it is almost impossible to be disproved, given that Krafft-Ebing identifies the concurrence of “hereditary taint” (hereditary disease) and onanism as a necessary rather than a sufficient condition for sexual inversion. Symonds writes,

Considering the frequency of both hereditary taint and onanism in our civilization, this is not risking much.

(A Problem in Modern Ethics,” 155)

However, Symonds is unwilling to ascribe what he commonly observed in his civilization, i.e., hereditary taint and onanism, to ancient Greece–which he deeply admires. He feels it “absurd” to maintain, according to Krafft-Ebing’s theory, that all the boy-lovers in ancient Greece, where sexual inversion had been permanently established and recognized and was all but universal, “owed their instincts to hereditary neuropathy complicated by onanism” (154).

In response to the first cause for acquired sexual inversion, Symonds objects,

At what point of the world’s history was the morbid taste acquired? If none but tainted individuals are capable of homosexual feelings, how did these feelings first come into existence?

(“A Problem in Modern Ethics,” 154)

Krafft-Ebing’s theory, Symonds argues, could not answer this question. On the other hand, Symonds casts doubt on the second cause primarily with reference to facts. Although masturbation or some form of sexual inversion could be found, according to Symonds, in both public and private schools in all parts of Europe, he observes that “few of the boys addicted to these practices remain abnormal after they have begun to frequent women” (153). Moreover, Symonds claims that “common experience shows beyond all doubt that young men between 16 and 20 give themselves up to daily self-abuse without weakening their appetite for women” (155). Therefore, Symonds finds Krafft-Ebing’s reasoning that onanism leads to hyper-sensibility in the sexual apparatus and partial impotence, therefore leading to demands for sexual gratification from men, even in the face of legal prohibition, very unconvincing.

Symonds takes the aforementioned counterargument to the innate character of sexual inversion with him when he proceeds to review what Krafft-Ebing categorizes as congenital sexual inversion. In addition, Symonds feels that he himself has nowhere to stand in Krafft-Ebing’s categories. Krafft-Ebing defines the four subdivisions of congenital sexual inversion as follows:

1) Psychopathic Hermaphrodites, born with a predominant inclination toward persons of their own sex, possessed rudimentary feelings of a semi-sexual nature for the opposite;

2) Male Habitus (Mannlinge), a subdivision of Urning (true homosexual individuals in a strict sense), did not differ in any marked or external characteristics from the type of their own sex;

3) Female Habitus (Weiblinge), a subdivision of Urning, altered their character, mental constitution, habits, and occupations according to their predominant sexual inversion, but still remained in their physical configuration of their own sex;

4) Androgyni, modified the bony structure of the body, the form of the face, the fleshly and muscular integuments to an obvious extent according to their predominant sexual inversion.

“In this characterization,” Symonds wrote, “I have overpassed the limits of the fifteen cases presented by Krafft-Ebing” (160).

A photograph from Krafft-Ebing’s personal collection: a man seated wearing a pink tutu and shoes. Wellcome Library. London.

Why does Krafft-Ebing’s theory centering around a neuropathic hereditary bias put Symonds on the defensive? I think we might be able to find the answer in one of Krafft-Ebing’s remarks that Symonds mentions several times:

I think it questionable whether the untainted individual is capable of homosexual feelings at all.

Richard von Krafft-Ebing

Is he “tainted”? In response to this stigmatization of homosexual love, Symonds would be reluctant to say “yes”. While Krafft-Ebing repeatedly stresses “inherited disorder,” “neuropathy,” and “morbid predisposition,” what Symonds wanted to hear was, instead, a specialist acknowledging that sexual inversion is “a recurring impulse of humanity, natural to some people, adopted by others, and in the majority of cases compatible with an otherwise normal and healthy temperament” (156).


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

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