The Book That Scared Symonds

Throughout the first volume of Symonds’s Letters, Symonds rarely writes about leaving a book unfinished. Often, Symonds discusses how engaged he is in his reading, from describing how “enchanted” he was with Berkeley’s Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge to how he “devoured” Collins’s Woman in White (Letters, 158, 242). There are moments when Symonds describes a book as difficult, with one example being Spinoza’s infamously incomprehensible Ethics, but even then, he says that he reads it with “great labour, interest, & profit” (Letters, 296). The picture that the Letters paint of Symonds is a man deeply in love with his books.

This tone is somewhat to be expected. After all, these are the letters that Symonds sent to his friends and family; why would he talk about the books that bored him? Given how prolific Symonds was as a reader, many of the books he did not finish most likely would not have made their way into his Letters. So when Symonds mentions a book in his Letters that was so terrifying that he had to stop reading it, that book merits some attention.

That book is The Life and Death of Silas Barnstake by Talbot Gwynne1, which Symonds writes about in a letter to his father. Of the book, Symonds writes the following:

In the evening we had a great fright. We had got a book called Silas Barnstake by Gwynne from the Library, & I began to read it out. It was the most horrible beginning all about dying people, & winter’s nights, & diabolically hard hearted little boys, so that we had to relinquish it. But its lugubrious influence remained, & we fell to talking “ghosts,” robbers, etc. At last Edith was worked up to a climax, & said she could not sleep in her room (which was the best room, on the drawing room floor, with no one beneath her), & that she & I must exchange.   

Letters, 162

In this letter, Symonds recalls a night of reading with his oldest sister Edith while staying in Edinburgh. According to the story, Symonds borrowed the book (presumably from the house library), read the book out loud, and stopped after he and Edith were frightened by the beginning of the book and its talk of “dying people, winter’s nights, & diabolically hard hearted little boys.” However, after they stopped and returned the book, they could not stop thinking about it, leading them to discuss it and other “scary” topics such as ghosts and robbers until, at some point, Edith was so scared that she could no longer sleep in her room and asked a young Symonds to swap rooms with her for the night.

At first glance, Symonds’s and Edith’s experience in this letter feels like a common childhood response to reading a scary story: they read it, they were scared by it, and they were unable to stop thinking about it to the point that it prevented them from sleeping normally. If Symonds and his sister were children at the time of this letter, then this would seem to be a normal response. However, this letter was written on September 28th, 1858. For reference, Symonds was born in 1840 and started at Oxford in 1858, close to the time that this letter was written (Memoirs, 169). Meanwhile, we know that Edith, Symonds’s “eldest sister,” is at least 20 at the time of this letter2 (Memoirs, 181). Rather than a story of two young children responding to a scary book, the incident described in the letter involves an Oxford student and his 20-odd-year-old sister being so terrified of a book that the older sister had to ask her 18-year-old brother to swap rooms with her. While such an event is not impossible by any means, it is undoubtedly strange.

Title page of The Life and Death of Silas Barnstake, Talbot Gwynne, Smith, Elder, & Co.
Public domain via HathiTrust (accessed

What about The Life and Death of Silas Barnstake managed to scare the two of them so much? And how should we interpret their fear? Just from the letter, it is impossible to tell exactly how far into the book Symonds read that night. However, the three aspects he mentions, “dying people, winter’s nights, & diabolically hard hearted little boys,” all appear within the first twenty pages of the book, which detail Silas’s mother dying from childbirth, his father dying from grief, and Silas’s separation from his little brother Walter (Gwynne, 1-20). What is strange about these first twenty pages in relation to Symonds’s story is that they do not seem to be scary in a traditional sense. For example, the description of a winter’s night starts off the book, as Gwynne writes, “The night was dark – dark with the melancholy, mysterious blackness of a winter midnight, and so still that distant sounds seemed near at hand” (Gwynne, 1). The note about diabolically hard-hearted little boys seems to reference Silas’s cold character, especially in relation to his grieving father and Silas’s “thoughtless questions and remarks” (Gwynne, 7). Finally, there are two descriptions of death within the first twenty pages, one being Silas’s mother’s death and the other his father’s. However, these descriptions seem grim and sad, as opposed to something that would inspire fear or terror. Consider the following passages:

[Edmund Barnstake] stept [sic] up to the bed where lay his wife: she feebly put forth her hand. He took it in his, which were cold and trembling. His words choked him: to speak was, to him, impossible.

The night was over, day was breaking, and the snow still fell from the clouds; the clouds that hung so low, that were so sad-looking, grey, dark, and heavy.

The light still burned in the room where throughout the night Barnstake had watched, or wearily slept. The cull light of morning struggled with that of the candle, giving a melancholy air to the large low room, and seeming to add to the chilly cold of the now fireless chamber.

Barnstake sat before his table, his arms folded and resting on it, whilst his face was buried in his arms.

He remained motionless for hours, with teeth tight set, and brows knit closely together; whilst a mown burst from him at rare intervals.

In the room above, behind the closed curtains of the ponderous, dark bed, lay the clay-cold body of his wife.

A sound rang through the still air and smote his ear.

It was the tolling of the church bell, announcing that a soul had passed away.

Gwynne, 4-5

Delirium soon seized him, during which he raved of the happy days of his love, nor seemed once to dream of his loss and sorrow. For many days, for many nights, he raved, muttered, and wearily tossed in his burning bed.

A fortnight after the burial of his wife, [Edmund] Barnstake, an unconscious corpse, was placed beside her. He had died without recovering the senses which pain and fever had scared away. Thus, within but a brief space of time, were Silas and his little brother left orphans.

Gwynne, 17

Examining the prose, none of it fits what today would be considered “scary.” The descriptions of the sky and Silas’s uncompassionate nature are not only strange candidates for something “scary,” especially for two people eighteen and above, but are also extremely short, to the point that it would be difficult to imagine them inducing terror. Meanwhile, the descriptions of death are undoubtedly saddening (which explains Symonds’s use of the term “lugubrious”), but not fear-inducing. So why does Symonds express his night reading The Life and Death of Silas Barnstake as “a great fright?”

What makes slightly more sense here is to interpret Symonds’s fear not as terror, but as a sort of existential dread. After all, Symonds’s mother died of scarlet fever when he was only four (Memoirs, 63). Maybe Gwynne’s descriptions of death were a little too familiar, either raising memories of their mother or worries about the possible death of their father. Symonds also acknowledges that talk of his mother was scant during his childhood and that his father “showed no outward sign of grief, and said nothing” about his mother’s death (Memoirs, 63-64). This reluctance might have represented a taboo regarding discussions of mourning and familial death. Gwynne’s descriptions would then have personally resonated for Symonds and his sister, on a topic that they had for a long time avoided.

While this interpretation is stronger, it does not yet account for Symonds’s own feelings about his mother’s death. Symonds notes in the Memoirs that he has no “distinct memory” of his mother and that he had not “exactly felt the loss of her” (Memoirs, 63-64). Instead, Symonds describes his feelings around his mother’s death as a sort of “vague awe” at the “mystery” of death (Memoirs, 64). With his mother’s death occurring so early in Symonds’s life, Symonds’s impassionate tone here makes some sense. However, Symonds’s feelings are not completely opposed to this interpretation. For example, Symonds’s lack of connection with his own mother explains why Edith’s response to reading Silas Barnstake was much more powerful than his, as she almost certainly had more experience with their mother due to her elder status. Nevertheless, the question of why Symonds was affected so much despite that lack of connection remains unanswered.

One interesting possibility is that it is precisely that lack of connection that led Symonds to resonate with Silas Barnstake to such an extent. In the Memoirs, Symonds himself laments that he lacked that connection with his mother, worrying that he was “heartless and sinful” because he did not feel more (Memoirs, 64). Even though Symonds admits that those feelings were irrational due to that lack of physical connection, it is apparent that, when it came to writing the Memoirs, some of those thoughts stuck with him. These thoughts might explain why he found Gwynne’s “hard hearted little boys” so troubling. He might have seen a reflection of himself in the character of Silas Barnstake, a young boy, uncaring and dispassionate despite the death of someone close to him. It most certainly was not a positive reflection of Symonds’s character, which might have been why he decided to stop.

There are some parts of the story that are still unexplained. For example, why does Symonds makes note explicitly of the descriptions of night –which, while vivid, do not evoke the same sense of dread that the descriptions of death do? Why did Symonds and Edith, after being reminded of the death of their mother and facing a feeling of existential dread, choose to discuss “robbers” and “ghosts” (Letters, 162)? These questions are left unanswered. So, for a reader as prolific as Symonds, the reason why he stopped reading The Life and Death of Silas Barnstake is still up for interpretation.

It is very possible that Symonds’s story in this letter and The Life and Death of Silas Barnstake are insignificant blips in the story of Symonds’s life. However, to note a book in a letter, especially one to a parental figure, implies that the book held some significance, and, for a reader like Symonds who writes prolifically about how engaged he becomes with the texts that he reads, the one text that he not only drops within a night but notes to his father raises a few questions. The possibility that the reason he stopped was that the book and its rather mild prose evoked an overwhelming sense of terror or dread while he and his sister were both above the age of 18 raises a few more.

1 Talbot Gwynne is a masculine pseudonym used by Josepha Heath Gulston. As the gender of Talbot Gwynne/Josepha Heath Gulston is unclear, for the purposes of this blog post, I have avoided using any gendered pronouns in describing them.

2 Symonds notes that another one of his elder sisters, Mary Isabella (Maribella), was born in 1837 (Memoirs, 68). As Symonds describes Edith as his eldest sister, we know that Edith was born at earliest in 1837, meaning that she was around 20 in 1858 when this letter was written.

Gwynne, Talbot. The Life and Death of Silas Barnstake: A Story of the Seventeenth Century. Smith, Elder, & Co. London, 1853. Accessed

Symonds, John Addington. The Letters of John Addington Symonds, edited by Herbert M. Schueller and Robert L. Peters, vol. 1, Wayne State University Press, 1967.

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

The First Step in Creating Symonds’s Network

Network theory, also commonly referred to as graph theory, uses graphs to represent relations between distinct objects, whether those be people, neurons, companies, or even abstract concepts. Due to its versatility, network theory can be applied to a variety of fields such as sociology, neuroscience, operations research, and public health, and offers an efficient way for researchers to visualize and analyze all the connections among one’s objects of interest.

As part of the John Addington Symonds Project, I have been working with one of my peers, Kendra Brewer, on building a network of people surrounding John Addington Symonds. We used The Memoirs to compile a list of people who had an impact on Symonds’s life, both directly and indirectly. We included the people that he interacted with in real life, but we also included those who he never met but who still inspired him and influenced his work, such as authors, ancient philosophers, and mythological figures.

We grouped the people based on their relationships with Symonds, using the categories “Family,” “Ancestor,” “Friend / Colleague,” “Amour / Comrade,” “The Stranger,” “General Acquaintance,” “Inspiration,” and “Other.” “Family” includes relatives of Symonds by blood or marriage with whom Symonds had in-person contact, “Ancestor” includes relatives of Symonds who were dead before his time, “Friend / Colleague” includes people that Symonds was close to, “Amour / Comrade” includes people who had a romantic and/or sexual relationship with Symonds, “The Stranger” includes people with whom Symonds did not have a romantic or sexual relationship but about whom he fantasized, “Inspiration” includes those whose work inspired Symonds, and the “Other” category includes anyone who did not fit into any of the above-mentioned categories. The following figure depicts a breakdown of the different groups shown in the data we collected from The Memoirs.

Figure 1. Breakdown of the relationship categories.

In basic network theory, a graph is defined as a collection of nodes and edges, where an edge represents a connection between two nodes. In this case, we defined the nodes as people, and every edge signified the existence of a relationship between people. The original dataset focused mostly on the relationship each person had with Symonds and not necessarily on the relationships they had with each other, so we arbitrarily sub-sampled a few notable figures from The Memoirs and Symonds’s Letters to construct a preliminary graph representation of Symonds’s network. We chose people whose relationships with one another can be clearly inferred from our sources, and we used Palladio [1], a web-based data visualization tool developed by the Humanities + Design Lab at Stanford University.

Figure 2. Rudimentary graph representation of a sub-sample of Symonds’s network.

Our sub-sampled graph provides a good partial visualization of Symonds’s network, but there is much room for improvement. Palladio does not allow for much manipulation of network features such as node color, edge color, or edge thickness, which would be a very effective visual aid to the user. The nodes could be colored based on location or profession, the edges could be colored based on the relationship categories as defined above, and edge thickness could represent how close two people were. There are several ways we could quantify closeness, such as the number of mentions in The Memoirs or the number of letters sent between two people. It may be necessary to create a scale with bins, where a certain thickness corresponds to a range of the number of mentions/letters. For example, we could define the transformation such that 10 to 20 mentions correspond to a “closeness” value of 2, 20 to 30 mentions correspond to a “closeness” value of 3, and so on. Thus, it would be interesting to see if we could add any extensions or make any modifications to the program that would allow the user to change various network features as they see fit, making the program more interactive and flexible.

Once we have a more robust graph that can represent a larger dataset effectively, there are several ways we could characterize the network, such as finding the largest connected component, which is defined as the largest subgraph where the nodes are all connected to one another; this component would represent the largest community in which everyone was connected to one another. Or we could find triangle subgraphs in the network, which would tell us if there were any trios that maintained strong communication. We could also try clustering the nodes in the network based on various metrics, to see whether they would cluster differently from their original categories.

There are many creative methods we could use to analyze the network once it has more visually identifiable features as well as more information on not just how the people are related to Symonds but how they are related to each other. The results might act as additional evidence to simply reinforce the knowledge we already have about Symonds’s network or they could shed light on some new connections and communities. I hope future cohorts will be able to build on the basic network that we have created, to unveil novel information from a new, more mathematical perspective.

Works Cited

[1] Stanford University Digital Humanities, “Palladio,”

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.

Deciphering Symonds’s Coat of Arms: A Reflection

After spending time thinking about Symonds’s name and family history in my previous post (entitled What’s in a name?”), I decided to continue along the same theme with this one. Within the Johns Hopkins University Special Collections Library appears a copy of Agamemnon: A Tragedy taken from Aeschylus that was translated by Edward FitzGerald and owned by both Symonds and William W. Gay, as evidenced by their bookplates in this copy. This book and the bookplates found within it offer several branches of research. One is Symonds’s relationship to the text itself, which has already been explored in a post by another student (visible here). Another branch explores which of these men owned this book first and thus who was given it “With the publisher’s compliments”–a manuscript inscription that appears on the front endpaper. This mystery was solved after I had the chance to read a letter, laid into this copy, from the publisher, Bernard Quaritch, to William W. Gay, dated November 5, 1912. In this letter, Quaritch explains the differences between the edition of FitzGerald’s Agamemnon that was privately printed in 1865 and the one Quaritch himself published in 1876. The fact that this letter was written nearly two decades after Symonds’s death and Gay’s need for this explanation suggest that Symonds was the original owner of this book. While this is fascinating information, as a student of art history, I was most interested in studying the bookplate itself.

The first step to deciphering this heraldic symbol was to understand the different elements represented on the bookplate. The Handbook to English Heraldry by Charles Boutell served as a resource for this research. Using this book, I learned not only the different colors and metals present on Symonds’s coat of arms but also the terms and some histories for the different heraldic symbols. To give a brief overview of terminology, coat of arms refers to “a complete armorial composition” (Boutell 1914, 109). This encompasses not only the shield of arms or shield, which derives its name from the battle-shields that would have once been decorated, but also the helm or helmet and the crest both of which are found atop the shield (Boutell 1914, 32, 133, 128-129). Any supporters, or figures that appear alongside the shield, that might exist are also considered part of the coat of arms (Boutell 1914, 152-153).

Figure 1

Bookplate of John Addington Symonds in Agamemnon: A Tragedy taken from Aeschylus, translated by Edward FitzGerald. London: Bernard Quaritch, 1876. From the Sheridan Libraries, Johns Hopkins University. Photograph by Kendra Brewer.

With this information, we can begin to decipher the coat of arms present on the bookplate within Agamemnon (Figure 1). The animal present in the Symonds family crest is identified as an ermine by Symonds (1894, 28-29). This ermine is standing on four paws, looking forward, a position termed statant in heraldry (Boutell 1914, 85). In its mouth appears a rose that, according to Symonds (1894, 29), should be red and have green leaves. The crown supporting this crest is called a crest-coronet in heraldry (Boutell 1914, 113). This sits atop the helm of a gentleman, which is always steel-colored and which appears with “the vizor closed, and set in profile” (Boutell 1914, 129). The next element of the coat of arms is the shield. When using proper heraldic terminology, the shield depicted in Figure 1 can be described in the following terms: per pale; sable and or counterchanged, three trefoils slipped of the second on the dexter side; azure, three fleurs-de-lys argent, passant lion or on the sinister side. In layman’s terms, that means that the shield is split down the middle into two parts. On the left-hand side, there is a black and gold checker-board-like pattern on which three, gold trefoils appear in a specific design. On the right-hand side, the background is blue and three, silver fleurs-de-lys appear alongside a gold lion. To assist in visualizing this colorful coat of arms, see Figure 2. Any heraldic symbol lacking a described color (e.g., the ermine and the crest-coronet) is meant to appear as it would in real life. Given that a stoat is only called an ermine when wearing its winter coat, its coloring is white with a tail terminating in black (“Ermine”). The crest-coronet, however, can have many color variations. Also note that the artistic flourishes to the coat of arms do not appear in color in this depiction.

Figure 2

Bookplate of John Addington Symonds. Artist rendition by Kendra Brewer.

Another element generally included in a coat of arms is a motto, which oftentimes in heraldry serves as a pun on the family name (Boutell 1914, 138). For example, while the family motto on Symonds’s bookplate is “Humi tutus,”2 Symonds wrote in On The English Family of Symonds the following:

My father invented a motto: ‘In mundo immundo sim mundus3,’ which plays upon the family name as we pronounce it. A friend of mine suggested that this might be improved into: ‘Si mundus immundus sim mundus,’ which plays upon the two pronunciations of the name.”

John Addington Symonds, On The English Family of Symonds (1894, 30)

This play on names is quite common in heraldry according to Boutell (1914, 138). Interestingly, in his adulthood, Symonds (1894, 30) “ha[d] little to say” about his family’s motto only touching upon the suggestions of his father and his friend; however, the same can not be said for a much younger Symonds. As a teenager, Symonds became interested in his family genealogy and heraldry. Symonds’s own assessment of this research and of his family motto appear in a letter to his sister, Charlotte. Symonds wrote:

My inner life has been much perturbed on genealogical subjects, owing to the booklabel which Bosanquet bought me. It is a regular heraldic enigma. How cruel our Ancestors were not to pay more attention to their colours & metals! One thing settled is that our crest is correct with the substitution of a red rose for the cinquefoil. Joshua S. the surgeon of London must have been an unaspiring individual as his motto is “Humi tutus.” I wonder whether he wished to transmit this grovelling sentiment to his descendants! If so, he has been frustrated as we have certainly made a change for the better.”

Letters 1:131 (58) to Charlotte Symonds (Harrow January 17, [1858])

This excerpt is interesting for several reasons. Not only does he mention his bookplate, or at least this very first one, as being a gift—most likely from his “bosom-friend at Harrow,” Gustavus Bosanquet (Symonds 2016, 140)—Symonds also mentions that it was this bookplate that, in part, led to his interest in his family genealogy and heraldry. Further, Symonds’s early assessment of “Humi tutus” as both “unaspiring” and “grovelling” greatly contrasts with his later, seemingly disinterested stance on the subject.

Now that all the elements of Symonds’s coat of arms have been discussed, there is an interesting twist to this story: Symonds believed the coat of arms present on the bookplate to be inaccurate. In fact, Symonds (1894) dedicates a significant portion of On The English Family of Symonds not only to the history of the family coat of arms but also to a series of corrections the shield should have. In his opinion, “the proper arms and crest of my own immediate family” would have a shield designed with the following specifications:

Quarterly 1 and 4: per fess sable and or, a pale counterchanged, three trefoils slipped of the second: 2 and 3 azure three trefoils or. […] Crest, on a ducal coronet an ermine statant holding in his mouth a rose gules stalked and leaved vert.”

Symonds 1894, 28-29

According to Symonds, while the crest is accurate, the shield that appears on the bookplate would need several corrections. First, the shield should be split into four separate parts with each diagonal pair sharing the same characteristics. The top-left and bottom-right sections of the shield should have the same black and gold pattern that appears on his bookplate as well as the same three, gold trefoil designs. The top-right and bottom-left sections should have a blue background and three, gold trefoils rather than three, silver fleurs-de-lys. There is no mention of a lion in this design. Figure 3 creates one possible rendition of this “proper” coat of arms, though positioning for the gold trefoils on the blue background can be varied. Note again that the colors chosen for the crest-coronet can also vary.

Figure 3

Coat of arms according to John Addington Symonds. Artist rendition by Kendra Brewer.

The differences between the coat of arms on the bookplate in the Johns Hopkins University collection and the one that Symonds considered correct carry with them one important question: did Symonds ever change his bookplate to match the proper coat of arms? While I have only come across this one design in my own research, it does appear that at least two versions of his bookplate might exist. After all, as a teenager, Symonds wrote that there was a “cinquefoil” present on the crest of the coat of arms that should be replaced by a “red rose” (Letters 1:131 (58) to Charlotte Symonds (Harrow January 17, [1858])). The bookplate in Agamemnon: A Tragedy taken from Aeschylus and in other works I have seen (e.g., The Life and Death of Jason: A Poem, in the Sheridan Libraries collection) includes this adaptation, so it is not impossible to imagine other changes occurring. Additionally, if there is not and never was a bookplate with Symonds’s corrections, that begs the question as to why the changes were never made. These questions are worth exploring in future attempts to understand Symonds’s relationship with his past and how it affected his present. 

1. My own description from heraldic information in Boutell.
2. Translated by Herbert M. Schueller and Robert L. Peters as “Safe on the ground” (Letters 1:132 (58) n4 to Charlotte Symonds (Harrow January 17, [1858])).
3. Translated by author as “In an unclean world, I am clean” using Harper’s Latin Dictionary (1907) edited by Charlton T. Lewis and Charles Short, pp. 895, 911, and 1175.
4. Translated by author as “If the world is unclean, I will be clean” using Harper’s Latin Dictionary (1907) edited by Charlton T. Lewis and Charles Short, pp. 895, 1175, and 1688-9.

Boutell, Charles. 1914. The Handbook to English Heraldry. Edited by A. C. Fox-Davies. London: Reeves & Turner. Project Gutenberg.

“Ermine.” Encyclopedia Britannica. Last modified June 6, 2020.

Harper’s Latin Dicitonary, ed. Charlton T. Lewis and Charles Short. `1907. New York, Cincinnati, and Chicago: American Book Company.

Morris, William. 1868. The Life and Death of Jason: A Poem. London: Bell and Daldy. From Sheridan Libraries, Johns Hopkins University.

Quaritch, Bernard. Bernard Quaritch to William W. Gay, November 5, 1912. Letter. From Sheridan Libraries, Johns Hopkins University.

Symonds, John Addington. 1894. On The English Family of Symonds. Oxford: Privately printed. Google Books.

Symonds, John Addington. 1967. The Letters of John Addington Symonds. Edited by Herbert M. Schueller and Robert L. 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.

Symonds and Boccaccio’s “Artistic Inferiority”

Over the course of his career, one curious writer Symonds referenced frequently was Giovanni Boccaccio, a fourteenth-century Italian poet and prose writer famous for works such as The Decameron. Not only is Boccaccio discussed among other famous Italian authors, Dante and Petrarch, in the “Italian Literature” volume of his Renaissance in Italy series, but Symonds also wrote an essay about Boccaccio titled “Giovanni Boccaccio as Man and Author.”

This essay in itself is curious, its earliest publication being a posthumous 1895 edition. The only reference to the manuscript in Symonds’s Memoirs is a “long introduction to Boccaccio for Vizetelly” that he wrote in 1888 (Memoirs, 444). According to the footnotes, this was ultimately published by John C. Nimmo, not Vizetelly (Memoirs, 460 n135).

Giovanni Boccaccio As Man and Author, John Addington Symonds, published by John C. Nimmo, London 1895. Image via HathiTrust.

Bibliographic details aside, Boccaccio, ending the “first and most brilliant age of Italian literature,” was, alongside Dante and Petrarch, one of the writers ushering in a modern form of Italian literature (Symonds, Renaissance in Italy, 3). Symonds states:

Dante took for his province the drama of the human soul in its widest scope; Petrarch takes the heart of an individual man, himself; Boccaccio takes the complex stuff of daily life, the quicquid agunt homines of common experience.

Giovanni Boccaccio As Man and Author, 3

In addition to their different subject matters, the men themselves had drastically different upbringings: Dante grew up as Florentine nobility, Petrarch grew up middle class, and Boccaccio was born into the lower class from parents of no consequence, although Symonds notes that his class became the ascendant class in Florence (As Man and Author, 4-6).

This considered, then, the differences between them are clear. Symonds made his interest in Dante and his Inferno clear in the Memoirs, but his interest in Boccaccio is rather curious. In his essay on Boccaccio, he ranks Boccaccio below Dante and Petrarch in “force and character and quality of genius” (As Man and Author, 6). While Symonds gives praise to the originality and descriptiveness of his writing, he notes:

…judged as poems, they leave much to be desired. The style is never choice, and often simply vulgar. In some parts the execution is unpardonably slovenly.

As Man and Author, 50

He goes on to mention that Boccaccio’s work often feels rushed and there is an “absence of loving care” (As Man and Author, 51).

This critique reveals a marked contrast to Symonds’s own approach to writing, which he details as:

Concentration lies beyond my grasp. The right words do not fall into the right places at my bidding. I have written few good paragraphs, and possibly no single perfect line. I strove, however, to control the qualities I knew myself to have, to train and curb them, to improve them by attention to the details of style.

The Memoirs of John Addington Symonds, 418

Symonds consistently reveals himself to be a writer concerned with details and giving his writing due attention (which can be seen in the footnotes to the Memoirs, let alone his poetry). This raises a question: why did Symonds devote an entire essay to an author whose work he is often very critical of?

It’s worth noting that, while he claims Boccaccio fails to be an artist when it comes to his poetry, he also says that he himself lacks the “inevitable touch of the true poet, the unconquerable patience of the conscious artist” (Memoirs, 418). In other sections of the Memoirs, he notes times he doubted his own artistic abilities. This seems to demonstrate a lack of superiority or hypocrisy when critiquing Boccaccio’s work; the qualities he claims Boccaccio lacks are qualities he himself tries to achieve in his own writing. 

Despite these critiques, Symonds does give praise to Boccaccio’s finer qualities. To return to his comparisons between the three authors, despite Boccaccio’s ranking, he was the most influential of them:

He alone grew with the growing age, in his substitution of sensual and concrete for mystical and abstract ideals, in his joyous acceptance of nature and the world…

As Man and Author, 7

This statement alone offers some insight into the appeal of Boccaccio for Symonds, as Symonds establishes himself frequently in his writing as someone wont to be appreciative of nature and beauty, evident by diaries he carried during his travels, who aims to write vividly enough to fully utilize “such certainty of touch” and create perceptions for a reader (Memoirs 417).

In addition, he says of Boccaccio’s sonnets:

Their artistic inferiority secures for them a certain air of correspondence with the truth.

As Man and Author, 26

This is interesting because truth is something Symonds grappled with in his literary pursuits, particularly when crafting his Memoirs, where he creates a balance between his examinations of self and the minor day-to-day details. When he discusses his work in the Memoirs, he says:

It has been my destiny to make continual renunciation of my truest self, because I was born out of sympathy with the men around me, and have lived a stifled anachronism.

Memoirs, 418

The desire for truth juxtaposed with the frequent personal unattainability of it for Symonds might also suggest why Boccaccio’s own achievement of veracity in his work was interesting to him.

Symonds’s literature on Boccaccio is fascinating because, on the surface, it may appear that Boccaccio’s work might be too far removed from Symonds’s own to have been of any interest to him. It’s clear, however, that the critiques he offers are not particularly damning, as he himself is not a perfect writer. It’s possible that, besides making Boccaccio the subject of an essay due to his fame and influence, he saw Boccaccio’s work, as flawed as it was in Symonds’s eyes, as a tool through which he could analyze his own flaws as a writer. These comments that Symonds has made, about Boccaccio’s work and his own, can be used to reveal more about him as man and author.


Symonds, John Addington. Giovanni Boccaccio As Man And Author. London: J.C. Nimmo, 1895.

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

Symonds, John Addington. Renaissance In Italy: Italian Literature: In Two Parts. London: Smith, Elder & co., 1881.

The Commonplace Book of Sophia Elers

The commonplace book developed in the hands of sixteenth- through nineteenth-century European women as a form of privatized intellectual engagement. A dearth of formal women’s education and an emphasis, rather, on domestic skills both necessitated the search for academic outlets and provided women with ample time to find them. Women turned to commonplace books to fulfill their intellectual needs by engaging meticulously with contemporary literature, drawing or cutting out illustrations, and filling pages with their reflections and musings.

Sophia Elers was one such woman. Although we do not know much about her as a person besides her likely residence in the Bickenhill Vicarage, and, based upon this residence, her being in an elite, educated family of clergymen,1 we do know that she traveled intellectually in her Victorian-era commonplace book, beginning with her transcription of a lengthy passage from William Edward Parry’s 1824 Journal of a Second Voyage for the Discovery of a North-West Passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific.2 Elers supplemented the passage with her own painstakingly detailed illustrations, which depict the “Snow Village of the Eskimaux”3 and “Eskimaux Man & Woman of Savage Island.”4 In this brief foray into Parry’s writings, Elers established herself as his colleague – adding and eliding words and visual representations – and entered into the literary tradition characterized by and filled with her male peers.

So, too, did Elers venture into France with clippings from a book of French women’s clothing5 and into Asia with an imagined, silhouetted scene cut from thick black paper and a meticulously carved fan.6 These intellectual travels, however, appear not to be associated with any specific text, but rather exist as mere longings for exploration or otherness that was unsupported by the little education Elers likely did receive, which Elers intimates once again by randomly populating the bottom third of a page filled with arithmetic with a cut-out rabbit sitting in the grass:7 even the illustrations seem to be hoping to be removed from the dull arena in which she was situated.

Particularly striking in Elers’ work, though, is the series of questions she posed. Whether they are philosophical ones, riddles, or jokes missing their punchlines is unclear, but these questions do work to express Elers’ unanswered desire to engage intellectually with someone other than herself. She asks,

Why is a large E like London?

Can you look at In till you make it a word of four syllables?

What Island is the lightest colour?

When are eggs like a stolen game?

and many more.8

British women in the mid nineteenth century had few opportunities to receive an advanced education. Although some feminist debate sparked around this period surrounding the fitness of women to enter academic settings and universities, nearly a century remained before these feminist longings were properly addressed and women were incorporated into a coeducational scholarly arena. Elers’ attempt to liberate herself and travel through the work in her book helps, though, to emphasize the important self-educations that took place and paints education during this time as “fundamentally identified with women’s personal, intellectual, emotional and spiritual emancipation.”9 Formal women’s education during this period, however, fell prey to patriarchal structures, enforced largely by the Miltonic and adjacently influential structures of male dominance and “benevolent patriarchs.”10

And so, the book of Sophia Elers can be seen as representative of a woman’s intellectual yearning during the Victorian era. Charlotte Symonds, to whom John Addington Symonds addressed most of his early letters, likely worked similarly in her own commonplace books, which we, unfortunately, do not have, and with the pieces of writing and literary recommendation provided to her by her brother. Instead, we must turn to these snapshots of life that Sophia Elers has provided to imagine how Charlotte Symonds might have filled the time left available after responding to her brother, fulfilling his library requests, and consuming the novels he lauded.

1. Circuit, Carol, The practice of concealment: Developing social history from physical evidence: a detailed exploration of artefacts hidden within a Victorian chaise longue and an interpretation of the significance of the contents (Buckinghamshire New University, Coventry University, 2017).
2. Parry, William Edward, Journal of a Second Voyage for the Discovery of a North-West Passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific, Performed in the Years 1821 – 1822 – 1823. in His Majesty’s Ships Fury and Hecla Under the Orders of Captain William Edward Parry, R.N., F.R.S., and Commander of the Expedition (London: Published by authority of the Lord’s Commissioners and Admiralty, 1824).
3. Elers, Sophia, Commonplace Book, 5.
4. Ibid., 11.
5. Ibid., 62.
6. Ibid., 56.
7. Ibid., 64.
8. Ibid., 47.
9. Schwartz, Laura, “Feminist thinking on education in Victorian England,” Oxford Review of Education, 37, 5 (2011): 679.
10. Kowaleski-Wallace, Beth, “Milton’s Daughters: The Education of Eighteenth-Century Women Writers,” Feminist Studies 12, 2 (1986): 275.

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.

A Case for “Job”

Thank you very much for Job. It is a beautiful copy. I have compared it with my father’s, & find the proofs wh you have given me far finer than his impressions.”

Symonds, Letters, 1:506 (360)

So John Addington Symonds wrote in a letter to his good friend Henry Graham Dakyns in November of 1864.

 At first glance, it would seem that Symonds is referring to the Book of Job from the Bible. After all, that is certainly the best-known literary Job, and it would not be at all unusual for Symonds’s father to already have a copy. However, there is a possibility–albeit less likely–that Symonds here is referring to a poem entitled “Job the White.”

“Job the White” was written by T.E. Brown. Brown was best known for his long narrative poems written in the Manx dialect–the traditional dialect of the Isle of Man. The first poems in his series of Fo’c’s’le Yarns were published in 1881; “Job the White,” in the third and final book of the series, was not published until 1895. While this publication date, 30 years after Symonds wrote his letter to Dakyns, makes it unlikely that Symonds is referring to the poem, there nevertheless exists a deeper literary relationship between the two.

T.E. Brown in his youth
T.E. Brown by Emery Walker, from Selected Poems of T. E. Brown, edited by H. F. B. and H. G. B. Macmillan, 1908. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

To begin with, Dakyns and Brown were good friends. Indeed, Brown even composed a poem addressed to Dakyns, entitled “Epistola Ad Dakyns,” which was published in his collection Old John and Other Poems.

DAKYNS, when I am dead,

Three places must by you be visited,

Three places excellent,

Where you may ponder what I meant,

And then pass on —

Three places you must visit when I’m gone.

Brown, “Epistola Ad Dakyns”

And while I do not know for sure whether Dakyns did visit these three places, he nevertheless played a part in perpetuating Brown’s legacy posthumously; Dakyns was one of the three editors of The Collected Poems of T.E. Brown.

More than just having a mutual friend in Dakyns, though, Symonds and Brown were themselves friends. In fact, the two shared unpublished poems with each other. While humble about his own poetry (describing it in one letter to Brown as “too diffuse & voluminously descriptive” (Letters, 2:118 (717))), Symonds was quite fond of Brown’s work.

Brown’s new poem is A…I do wish he would print one of his poems.”

Symonds, Letters, 2:119 (718)

It would be a decade before this wish would come true. Nevertheless, we can be certain that Symonds did indeed read Brown’s unpublished work; how closely those early versions resembled the final pieces we have in book form today is difficult to know. 

After reading Symonds’s (posthumous) biography by Horatio Brown, T.E. Brown expressed some measure of surprise at the contents. In particular, he was struck by the relative prevalence of “agony,” while literary matters fell somewhat by the side. Symonds’s biography was largely based on his Memoirs, and thus his own priorities of his story; but there exist other lenses through which he can be understood, and they are not necessarily any less true. Brown’s image of Symonds–an image formed through years of friendship and swapping of literature–is one of these other angles. But at present, we have yet to reach a full understanding of the relationship between the two. It is not certain that the “Job” Symonds referred to in his 1864 letter is Brown’s–but, if that is indeed the case, it stands as a very early instance of their relationship being put to paper.  


Amigoni, David. 2009. “Translating the Self: Sexuality, Religion, and Sanctuary in John Addington Symond’s Cellini and Other Acts of Life Writing,” Biography 32, no. 1 (2009): 161–72.

Brown, T.E. 1893. Old John and Other Poems. London: Macmillan and Co. 

Brown, T.E. 1909. The Collected Poems of T.E. Brown. Edited by H.F. Brown, H.G. Dakyns, and W.E. Henley. London: Macmillan and Co.

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

“T.E. Brown.” Manx Literature.

Symonds, Harrow, and Plato: Different Forms of Love

In his Memoirs, Symonds describes his discovery of Plato–specifically the Phaedrus and the Symposium–as “the revelation I had been waiting for, the consecration of a long-cherished idealism. It was just as though the voice of my own soul spoke to me through Plato…” (Memoirs, 152). This refers specifically to the speeches made on love–particularly, “Greek love” between two men. As Symonds himself notes, these works realize a notion that he has been working towards for some time; however, they also, I believe, reflected elements of the world he had been living in at the time of discovery.

By his account, Symonds discovered these texts while reading Plato’s Apology for his schoolwork at Harrow. When discussing Harrow in his Memoirs, however, Symonds tends to put the focus less on the schoolwork and more on the social atmosphere—especially the overwhelming presence of sexual relationships between the students at the school. As he states in a chapter focused on the school:

One thing at Harrow very soon arrested my attention. It was the moral state of the school…The talk in the dormitories was incredibly obscene. Here and there one could not avoid seeing acts of onanism, mutual masturbation, the sports of naked boys in bed together. There was no refinement, no sentiment, no passion; nothing but animal lust in these occurrences. They filled me with disgust and loathing.

Memoirs, 147

In the Phaedrus, Plato gives two speeches to Socrates: the first, arguing for the friendship of a non-lover over a lover; and the second, the reverse. It is the first of these two in which Symonds may have seen the environment at Harrow reflected. The speech disparages the lover as a creature driven only by carnal desire, with no desire for betterment of the self or the beloved. In fact, both the lover and beloved are worse off for their relationship. 

These things, dear boy, you must bear in mind, and you must know that the fondness of the lover is not a matter of goodwill, but of appetite which he wishes to satisfy:

“Just as the wolf loves the lamb, so the lover adores his beloved.”

Phaedrus 241 c-d

Given Symonds’ extensive distress over the “crude sensuality” and “animalisms” of the relationships that he saw at Harrow, it would not be a stretch to believe that he saw these very factors represented clearly in the Phaedrus. In fact, although he did not actually participate in a sexual relationship while at Harrow, Symonds describes the prevalence of these carnal pairings as something that caused him great moral distress, perhaps even to the point of physical weakening. Reading a speech that directly points at these relationships as the cause of similar moral and mental degradation in the participants may very well have made Symonds feel justified in his own feelings towards the relationships he was surrounded by.

Plato i sin akademi (Plato and His Students), after Carl Wahlbom, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Of course, it was the second of these speeches that Symonds saw himself in. This one, concerned with the argument of the lover over the non-lover, placed love as a “divine madness” that is ultimately a philosophical and aesthetic affair. Writing a “Myth of the Soul,” wherein all human beings are drawn likewise towards divine beauty and earthly sin, Plato (through Socrates) makes the case that the ideal love is divine in nature and something, in fact, to be sought. One key aspect of this, however, is self-control; giving in to lustful urges is something that can either cut this ideal love off at the start or at least reduce its positive effects, depending on the point at which control is lost. 

If now the better elements of the mind, which lead to a well ordered life and to philosophy, prevail, they live a life of happiness and harmony here on earth, self controlled and orderly, holding in subjection that which causes evil in the soul and giving freedom to that which makes for virtue; and when this life is ended they are light and winged, for they have conquered in one of the three truly Olympic contests. Neither human wisdom nor divine inspiration can confer upon man any greater blessing than this.

Phaedrus 256 a-b

It was this concept of love that Symonds had been searching for and moving towards with his own thought. While of course his Memoirs were written in retrospect and so may very well have been influenced by the contrast between the two images of love in these speeches, it is truly striking how well they map onto the two types of male love that he encountered in his time at (and even before) Harrow: both the carnal relations of those around him, and the aesthetic ideal that he himself sought.

Work Cited:

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

Plato, Phaedrus.

Harrow: Pantomimed Heterosexuality

To say that Symonds was disgusted by the version of homosexuality that he saw at Harrow is an understatement. Symonds saw the relationships at Harrow as brutal and vulgar, which eventually led him to discover Plato and the idealized form of homosexuality that the Platonic dialogues espouse (Memoirs, 152). However, the comfort that Symonds found in Plato might not have been merely a more elegant form of homosexuality. Looking at Pausanias’s speech in the Symposium, what Symonds might have seen and rejected in the relationships at Harrow was not only a more carnal form of homosexuality but one that he saw as pantomiming the binary relationships of heterosexuality, making Symonds’s disgust an early rejection of heterosexuality itself.

Taken at face value, Symonds’s disgust towards the sexual goings-on at Harrow seems primarily directed at their carnality. Consider the language that Symonds used in the Memoirs to describe what he saw:

The earliest phase of my sexual consciousness was here objectified before my eyes; and I detested in practice what had once attracted me in fancy.…The animalisms of boyish lust sickened me by their brutality, offended my taste by their vulgarity. I imagined them to be a phase of immature development, from which my comrades would emerge when they grew to manhood. Nevertheless, they steeped my imagination in filth.

Memoirs, 149

Symonds’s disgust here seems primarily directed at the animalistic and juvenile nature of what he witnessed at Harrow. If Symonds’s disgust here is directed solely at the carnality of the acts, the important distinction between the love Symonds read about in the Platonic dialogues and the acts he witnessed at Harrow is merely the difference between two versions of homosexuality: the more carnal version he witnesses at Harrow and the more idealistic version he reads about in the Symposium. In this “carnality” reading of Symonds’s disgust, the comfort that Symonds then finds in the Symposium is an affirmation of his more innocent homosexuality. However, there might be another part to the story. Looking at Pausanias’s speech in the Symposium, what Symonds saw at Harrow and reflected in Plato might have been not only the distinction between a “cruder” and “purer” form of homosexuality but a distinction between a pure form of homosexuality and one that mimicked heterosexuality. For Symonds, what he saw at Harrow was not only carnal; it also reflected the gendered, binary relationship of heterosexuality.

In the Symposium, Pausanias makes a distinction between heavenly love and common love. Heavenly love, for Pausanias, is “from the male only,” as those that participate in heavenly love “turn to the male, and delight in him who is the more valiant and intelligent nature,” with heavenly love also being concerned with the well-being of those involved (Symposium, 181c-d). Meanwhile, consider how Pausanias describes common love:

The Love who is the offspring of the common Aphrodite is essentially common, and has no discrimination, being such as the meaner sort of men feel, and is apt to be of women as well as of youths, and is of the body rather than the soul – the most foolish beings are the objects of this love which desires only to gain an end, but never thinks of accomplishing the end nobly, and therefore does good and evil quite indiscriminately. The goddess who is his mother is far younger than the other, and she was born of the union of the male and the female, and partakes of both.

Symposium, 181a-c

Here, Pausanias notes that common love is not only more brutal than its heavenly counterpart, but it is also more concerned with ends and is uniquely tied to heterosexuality. Meanwhile, heavenly love is an idealized non-carnal love, one that is innately homosexual. Therefore, the distinction between the two is not only one of carnal and non-carnal, but also one of homosexuality and pantomimed heterosexuality, where the former is concerned with the well-being of those involved and the latter only concerned with the pleasure of the lover.

There are echoes of Pausanias’s distinction in the way that Symonds described the goings-on at Harrow. Consider the passage with which Symonds begins the fifth chapter of his Memoirs:

One thing at Harrow very soon arrested my attention. It was the moral state of the school. Every boy of good looks had a female name, and was recognized either as a public prostitute or some bigger fellow’s ‘bitch.’ Bitch was the word in common usage to indicate a boy who yielded his person to a lover. The talk in the dormitories and the studies was incredibly obscene. Here and there one could not avoid seeing acts of onanism, mutual masturbation, the sports of naked boys in bed together. There was no refinement, no sentiment, no passion; nothing but animal lust in these occurrences. They filled me with disgust and loathing.

Memoirs, 147

Upon first glance, this passage is merely Symonds describing his disdain for the homosexual culture at Harrow. However, in this passage, Symonds also makes note of parts of the Harrow homosexual culture that mimic the gendered relationship of heterosexuality. In particular, he notes that more submissive, good-looking boys were given female names, recognized as prostitutes, and were referred to as the “bitch” of a more dominant boy. These are aspects of Harrow’s culture that Symonds not only described as crude, but that he distinctly linked with the traditional gendered power relationship of heterosexuality, one where the male figure is dominant and the female is submissive. Symonds mentions this pantomimed heterosexuality two other times in the chapter about Harrow’s homosexual culture: one when describing the mistreatment of a boy named Cookson, who others abused and referred to as “their bitch,” and another when he details the case of two boys, Dering and O’Brien, with the latter having been given the name “Leila,” whose relationship led to an assembly in which the headmaster condemned the practice of giving boys female names (Memoirs, 148-49). In these stories, Symonds once again calls direct attention not only to the crude and violent nature of the acts, but also the ways in which those events reflected the traditional power structure of heterosexuality. In Symonds’s eyes, not only were the relationships at Harrow vulgar and crude, they were a pantomime of heterosexuality.

Attic kylix depicting a lover and a beloved kissing (5th century BCE), Anselm Feuerbach, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

This pantomime of heterosexuality almost directly reflects Pausanias’s distinction. Symonds almost certainly saw the love at Harrow as matching Pausanias’s description of common love, being what “the meaner sort of men feel,” and one “of the body rather than of the soul” (Symposium, 181b). Symonds would also almost certainly agree with the sentiment that Pausanias espouses later in his speech when he says, “Evil is the vulgar lover who loves the body rather than the soul” (Symposium, 183d). However, Pausanias’s distinction is not merely one of crudeness and carnality but one between homosexuality and pantomimed heterosexuality. With that in mind, considering Pausanias’s distinction in light of what Symonds saw at Harrow (and what Symonds noted in his Memoirs) highlights another possible layer in the story of Symonds’s disgust. What Symonds saw at Harrow and what he rejected about the homosexual culture of Harrow was not only a form of homosexuality that was vulgar and carnal, but one that pantomimed heterosexuality.  

Symonds describes in detail the profound effect that discovering Plato during his time at Harrow had on him, but it seems as if Pausanias’s speech was of unique significance to Symonds. For one, Symonds names Pausanias’s speech as particularly influential, along with Agathon’s, Diotima’s, and the Phaedrus’s Myth of the Soul (Memoirs, 152). He even references Pausanias’s distinction in the letter to Benjamin Jowett, the professor whose translation of the Symposium Symonds would later help revise, which Symonds includes in the very same chapter when he writes that “Erôs Pandemos [common love] is everywhere” (Memoirs, 154). For Symonds to note Pausanias’s speech both in his Memoirs and in a letter sent decades after the events at Harrow shows that Symonds identified Pausanias’s distinction as significant. Pausanias’s importance here seems to only confirm that Symonds’s disgust at the culture at Harrow was not only towards the vulgarity of the acts, but also the ways in which they pantomimed heterosexuality. In expressing his disgust and turning to the more idealized form of Plato, Symonds not only rejected a cruder form of homosexuality, but he also rejected heterosexuality itself. Put differently, according to Symonds:

At the same time, [Plato] confirmed my congenital inclination toward persons of the male sex…

Memoirs, 152

Plato. “Symposium.” The Dialogues of Plato Translated Into English: With Analyses and Introductions, edited by Benjamin Jowett, vol. 1, 3rd ed., Oxford University Press, 1892.

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