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.
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 In fact, the two shared unpublished poems with each other.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 Nevertheless, we can be certain that Symonds did indeed read Brown’s unpublished work; how closely those early versions resembled the final pieces we have in book form today is difficult to know.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.
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.
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.
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.
Symonds, John Addington, and Amber K Regis. The Memoirs of John Addington Symonds : a Critical Edition. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
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.
John Addington Symonds writes both sexologically and nostalgically in A Problem in Greek Ethics and his Memoirs. He approaches same-sex desire from an analytical angle while also inviting readers to luxuriate with him in an appreciation of antiquity. By way of these seemingly oppositional techniques, he engages with same-sex relationships in a way that both explicates their historical receptions and enjoys their romances. This approach persists in the 21st century, with scholars including Nancy F. Cott and Rachel Hope Cleves favoring Symonds’ techniques in their contemporary explorations of same-sex desire.
Symonds begins this work in A Problem in Greek Ethics, in which he speaks of the acceptability of same-sex desire in Ancient Greece: “the tale of Achilles and Patroclus sanctioned among the Greeks a form of masculine love.”1 He arrives at this point through the analysis of “the paragons of heroic virtue”2 relied upon by Homer and other famous Greeks, and Symonds remarks, too, that
in Greek history boy-love, as a form sensual passion, became a national institution.3
He thus roots his work in formal, sexological scholarship as a necessary basis for his desire for this Greek past.
His Memoirs, then, editorialize his scholarship by providing relevant information about his identity and illustrating a yearning for space in which to express his desires, and he refers back to the concept of masculine love in discussing his sexuality:
I am more masculine than many men I know who adore women. I have no feminine feelings for the males who rouse my desires.4
Although he understands that his desires remain fixed in masculinity, he must confront theories from his contemporaries that founded same-sex relationships in “effeminate desire”5 and “the theory of a female soul.”6 By quickly negating these possibilities in his life with the declaration that these hypotheses are simply not true, he alludes to his study of the acceptance of masculine love and sensual passion between men in Ancient Greece. This brief intimation of a longing for a past time maintains Symonds’ characteristic analytical arc, though, for he is careful to base even claims about his personal life in the strict analysis of memories, letters, and thoughts.
Nancy F. Cott in Public Vows: A History of Marriage and the Nation, a seminal text in the Obergefell v. Hodges civil rights case in 2015, historicizes same-sex relationships in the United States in a manner much like Symonds in A Problem in Greek Ethics. She claims in this work that
marital behavior always varies more than the law predicts7
and that this habitual deviance creates space within the institution of marriage for more forms of marriage than only a religious, heterosexual one. The actual work, like A Problem in Greek Ethics, does not largely engage with the present but rather seeks to elucidate the existence of covert or deviant relationships in the past. The work’s use in the Ogerbefell v. Hodges case, then, fills the role of the Memoirs in that it is applied historically and analytically to the permissibility of same-sex relationships.
Likewise, Rachel Hope Cleves resembles Symonds’ Memoirs in Charity and Sylvia: A Same-Sex Marriage in Early America. The novel is largely structured around analysis of the correspondence between the two women in the early nineteenth century, and it is from this critical work that Cleves begins to dramatize the romantic relationship and illustrate the existence of same-sex marriage even before its legalization. This work, like Cott’s, yearns for the integration of same-sex relationships into legal doctrine and realms of social acceptability – the same social acceptability that Symonds, too, desired.
The seemingly opposing approaches – analytical and nostalgic – come together to emphasize the intrinsic emotion regarding the study of love. Symonds’ work, though itself directed at a time long before his own, continues to be reflected formally in work surrounding same-sex desire in the 21st century.
1. Ellis, Havelock, and John Addington Symonds. Sexual Inversion. (Wilson and MacMillan, 1897), 168. 2. Ibid., 168. 3. Ibid., 169. 4. John Addington Symonds, and Amber K. Regis, ed., The Memoirs of John Addington Symonds: a Critical Edition, (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), 103. 5. Ibid., 103. 6. Ibid., 103. 7. Cott, Nancy F.,Public Vows: A History of Marriage and the Nation. (Harvard University Press, 2002), 8.
We formulate new memories every day, and sensory cues are often associated with each memory that we create. We hear the loud rattle of a train, and we are suddenly taken back to a family trip we took when we were 10, staring out the window, mesmerized by the whole world passing by us in a blur of color. We smell the sweetness of caramel, cinnamon, and butter, and we are reminded of the apple pie we baked from scratch with our friends over Thanksgiving break. We can recall details from these memories and relive them because they are true … or are they?
The unreliability of memory has been studied extensively in the field of cognitive psychology.
It is now widely recognized that human memory is not an exact reproduction of past experiences but is instead an imperfect process that is prone to various kinds of errors and distortions.
Memory Distortion: An Adaptive Perspective, 467
Our brain is continuously adapting to process new memories and to make connections with existing ones, so it’s not surprising that some parts may be overwritten or unintentionally modified. However, John Addington Symonds recounts his childhood memories with striking detail, describing the flowers he saw, the clothes he was wearing, and even the architecture of some of the buildings he was in. Here is an account of his sister’s christening when he was about four years old.
So far as I can now recall it, the building is of pseudo-Graeco-Roman architecture, rectangular in the body, faced with a portico, and surmounted with a nondescript Pecksniffian spire in the bastard classic style … myself dressed in white, with a white hat and something blue in the trimmings of it, half standing, half supported, so as to took over the rim of the pew.
The Memoirs, 64 – 5
Here is another account from his teenage years, thinking about the view he had from his bedroom at Clifton Hill House.
Winter sunrise provided pageants of more fiery splendour. From the dark rim of Dundry Hill behind which the sun was journeying, striving to emerge, there shot to the clear sapphire zenith shafts of rosy flame, painting the bars of cloud with living fire and enamelling the floating mists which slowly changed and shifted across liquid spaces of orange, daffodil and beryl.
The Memoirs, 119-20
It’s incredible how illustrative his descriptions are, and it’s almost as if we, as readers consuming his memoirs more than a century after his death, are right there experiencing the moment with him. However, even though the details are much appreciated, it’s hard to believe that his memories were not fabricated to some extent. I am curious to see how much of his memoirs have factual evidence for or against what he claims to have happened, but this would be an almost impossible task. So perhaps the more important questions are: Why was it so important for him to make the memory seem perfect? What was so significant about those memories?
Regardless of their authenticity, Symonds included these memories and details because each represented a milestone in his life. Either the details were so important to him that he distinctly remembered them after decades had passed, or he was willing to exaggerate the details so he could depict a vivid image of the scene. Symonds wished to document his story through his memories, an emphasis that is clear in the titling of his autobiography as his Memoirs. He wanted to provide some sort of explanation as to how he came to be by delving into not only his sexuality, even though this was an important aspect of his book, but also his family, his values, and the connections he made along the way. Thus, his memories served as a roadmap for him as recapped his journey, and he wrote detailed recounts of events that were crucial to his character development, such as his first kiss with Willie Dyer.
We were together alone, I well remember, in a clearing of Leigh Woods – where the red quarries break down from tufted yews, and dwarf peaches, and wych elms plumed upon the cliff to the riverside. The afternoon sunlight fell upon glossy ivy, bluebells and late-flowering anemones.
The Memoirs, 157
Symonds eventually relied more on his journal entries rather than his memories, but nonetheless, his elaborate storytelling of specific moments of his life continued to be a driving force in his Memoirs. As readers, we are able to immerse ourselves in each experience, relive that memory with him, and get a glimpse of the thoughts he had, who he was as a person, and the impact he had on other people in his life.
John Addington Symonds was hesitant about writing this book and intended to share it only privately or not at all. Even so, he was extremely analytical in the way he approached his Memoirs, and his extremely detailed, almost photographic, accounts of significant events in his life perhaps provided an explanation for himself of the formation of the person that he became. Thus, the vivid memories add not only detail and realism to his work, but they also shed light on Symonds’ values and approach to life by giving future readers a chance to analyze him on another level, looking at not only the content of the memories but also the aspects he chooses to focus on.
Schacter, Daniel L. Guerin, Scott A. St. Jacques, Peggy L. “Memory Distortion: An Adaptive Perspective.” Trends in Cognitive Sciences. October 2011; 15(10): 467-474.
Symonds, John Addington. The Memoirs of John Addington Symonds: A Critical Edition. Edited by Amber K. Regis.London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016.
John Addington Symonds pointedly states in his Memoirs, “I never really enjoy a cathedral without music” (288). This testimonial is supported by his subtle nods of appreciation for music throughout his writing, starting with his earliest recollections and vivid descriptions of church hymns from his childhood. He might have extended this declaration of musical appreciation to choristers, and especially to his first love, Willie Dyer, whose ethereal renditions of the masses of great composers moved the author as a young man. However, one cannot help but notice the lack of music in Symonds’s subsequent amours, which I shall explore later. Music and musical settings played a nuanced role in his personal appreciation of aesthetics, and I shall consider how this features in the story of Willie. I would also like to explore some noteworthy composers and pieces Symonds discusses.
In Symonds’s early recollections of churchgoing as a young man, it is apparent that music, along with art and architecture, played an important role in his developing aesthetics. In this passage, he describes how music in the Bristol Cathedral deeply affected him:
The organ was playing and the choristers were singing. Some chord awoke in me then, which has gone on thrilling through my lifetime and has been connected with the deepest of my emotional experiences. […] The voices of choiring men and boys, the sobbing antiphones and lark-like soaring of clear treble notes into the gloom of Gothic arches, the thunder of the labouring diapasons, stir in me that old deep-centred innate sentiment (65).
An additional note of interest is the fondness with which he describes the voices of the choristers, which would play an important role in his later relationship with Willie. It also seems that the glory of the power of all the voices in a choir and the accompanying organ complemented the architectural aesthetics he appreciated in church. Following on how music complemented his perception of architecture, he explains,
Without this living accompaniment [of music] and commentary, architecture seems to me cold and dead. Are the harmonic ratios of form and sound really so sympathetic as mutually to elucidate each other? Or is it a matter of association: the religious purpose and solemn character of organ music tuning our mind to the proper key for comprehending sacred architecture? (288).
The musical grandeur of his early experience in church leaves a lasting impression on Symonds, as he is able to capture the same majesty and feeling in his Memoirs decades later.
Musical encounters distinguish and accompany a particularly important point in his life: his first love for Willie Dyer. On one morning at church when Symonds was a student at Harrow, the voice of a certain chorister captured his attention:
Music and the grandeur of Gothic aisles, the mystery of winter evenings in cathedral choirs, when the tumultuous vibrations of the organ shook the giant windows and made the candles in their sconces tremble, took from [Willie] a poetry that pierced into my heart and marrow (158).
In Symonds’s reflections on Willie’s voice, he writes,
His voice charmed me by its sharp ethereal melancholy. In timbre and quality it had something of a wood instrument; and because of my love for it, I have ever since been sensitive to the notes of hautbois and clarionette (156).
This leads to his passionate relationship to the singer, which was pivotal in his personal development; he writes that their eventual meeting gave rise to the birth of his real self (157). The combination of Willie’s voice and his ability to interpret such pieces captivated the author’s imagination. Music was a gateway for him to see the beauty in Willie. As an adult, Symonds directly points to the qualities of Willie’s musical talents that touched him as a young man. There is a clear nostalgia in his writing, when he states that he is still “sensitive” to the timbre of a wood instrument, which reminds him of the chorister’s voice.
An interesting point to consider is the lack of fervent descriptions of music and its role in Symonds’s later relationships. For example, in his descriptions of Alfred Brooke or Norman, the author mainly concentrates on their physical or intellectual beauty. In his recollections of Alfred, he describes his love for him in a series of prose dithyrambs, which focus on Alfred’s attractiveness. Years later, this physical longing is still in command of Symonds’s reflections in the Memoirs. For Norman, Symonds insists that this love played an important role in his literary development. He writes that Norman liberated his intellect and will, and their meeting dates to the beginning of his own period of great literary activity (381). His later amours have a profound impact on his artistic development, and other qualities of these relationships dominate Symonds’s recollections. However, he doesn’t make any references to musical works or musical settings that make him sentimental when he reflects on these other loves. Instead of mentions of hymns, he often dedicates Ancient Greek and Latin verses to the memory of these men; in place of descriptions of a church choir, the settings at Oxford and the College Green mark his later loves. Consequently, music does not have a central role in the reminiscences of Alfred or Norman as it did with Willie. When Symonds first met the chorister, he initially noticed the captivating qualities of his voice, which was an entryway into a further passionate relationship. Symonds’s love for other young men lacks this important feature. The image of the chorister subsequently made the author associate church hymns and masses with Willie’s beauty, which was not only physical or intellectual, but also musical.
Finally, I would like to look at some composers and pieces that Symonds notes in his Memoirs. The earliest mentions are amid recollections about Dyer, where he lists church masses that moved him. Three soprano solos are forever impressed in his memory of the chorister’s voice, one of them being Mozart’s Kyrie of the Coronation Mass (158). The other two solos include the recitative from Handel’s Messiah, where he also mentions the “Pastoral Symphony,” the “Chorus of the Gloria,” and Louis Spohr’s “As pants the hart” (158). Other later mentions of church music include Mendelssohn’s oratorio, Elijah, which he listened to during his travels in Switzerland (222). Later, he writes about Gioachio Rossini’s “La Carità,” which is the third piece in the Trois choeurs religieux (310). Symonds’s descriptions of hearing this composer’s music lead him into sentimental reflections, in which he writes,
None of Rossini’s cadences are more melting than their violets, none of his crescendos more passionate than their reds, and the sehnsucht of his melody seemed to be written in glowing characters of green and gold and blue (310).
The pieces that Symonds heard in concert halls and opera houses are described as follows:
With closed eyes I sat listening to the divine melodies of Mozart, the symphonies of Beethoven, to Gounod, Bellini, Donizetti, Verdi; to Rubinstein’s impassioned piano-forte playing, and Piatti’s violoncello, Joachim’s violin; to the voices of Trebelli and Titiens, of Giuglini, and Patti, and Pauline Lucca (256-7).
Although his mentions of music in his Memoirs are often sparse, one can still sense the nostalgia Symonds felt for it. Musical settings cultivated his appreciation of architecture and aesthetics. He draws parallels between harmonies and architectural ratios, believing that the two must go hand in hand. Such settings also played an important part in his first relationship with Willie. The chorister not only offered physical beauty, but also musical splendor, which Symonds’s later amours lacked. Symonds puts the effect of music best in his own words:
And Music? Ah, that is the best anodyne of all. In music we emerge from opium fumes, and narcotize the soul into a hypnotism which is spiritual (317).
Symonds, John Addington. Regis, Amber K. The Memoirs of John Addington Symonds: A Critical Edition. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016.
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.
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).
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: ACritical 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.
Symonds documented an early interest in Greek literature in his Memoirs, when he described being particularly struck by figures such as Shakespeare’s Adonis and Homer’s Hermes, working his way up to writers including Plato, who deeply impacted him when he began his study of him:
Here in the Phaedrus and Symposium — in the Myth of the Soul and the speeches of Pausanias, Agathon, and Diotima — I discovered the true Liber Amoris [Book of Love] at last, the revelation I had been waiting for, the consecration of a long-cherished idealism.
The Memoirs of John Addington Symonds, 152
In the Symposium, Pausanias, one of the speakers Symonds references, contradicts Phaedrus’ description of love, claiming he ought to have distinguished between heavenly and earthly — or heavenly and common — love (Plato, xx). There are, Pausanias claims, two Aphrodites: the heavenly one born from Uranus, who represents an intelligent, noble form of love, and the younger, common Aphrodite born from Zeus and Dione, who represents a perverted lust that is merely a love of the body, not of the soul (Plato, xx).
These two separate forms of love are referenced by Symonds in A Problem in Greek Ethics in his discussion of paiderastia; he describes “two separate forms of masculine passion clearly marked in early Hellas—a noble and a base, a spiritual and a sensual. To the distinction between them the Greek conscience was acutely sensitive” (Problem, section VI). His focus then shifts specifically to the “nobler type of masculine love” the Greeks practiced, stating:
The immediate subject of the ensuing inquiry will, therefore, be that mixed form of paiderastia upon which the Greeks prided themselves, which had for its heroic ideal the friendship of Achilles and Patroclus, but which in historic times exhibited a sensuality unknown to Homer. In treating of this unique product of their civilisation I shall use the terms Greek Love…
A Problem in Greek Ethics
Examples of these relationships are prominent in Greek literature and history. Symonds discusses some of these lovers, famous for their heroic contributions to Greece, and in the section of the essay called “Semi-legendary tales of love,” Section IX, he briefly mentions the most famous pair, Harmodius and Aristogeiton, lauded as heroes for killing the tyrant Hipparchus. This common reference to Harmodius and Aristogeiton as “self-devoted patriots” is an interesting one, because the idea to kill both tyrants was not originally born from a desire to restore democracy; it was of a desire for revenge (Thucydides, xx).
The story begins when Hipparchus sets his sights on Harmodius and tries in vain to seduce him. Harmodius, however, is already in a relationship with Aristogeiton, who is enraged when he learns of Hipparchus’ advances (Thucydides, xx). Hipparchus, nursing a bruised ego, makes a public suggestion that Harmodius’ sister isn’t a virgin, which inspires the lovers to kill him off. After some thinking, their plans become more ambitious, and what starts as a revenge plot is now instead a plot to kill off both Hipparchus and his tyrant brother Hippias, in order to topple the entire regime (Thucydides, xx). While they do not succeed in destroying the regime, they do manage to kill Hipparchus, for which they are both killed shortly after.
Although the lovers perhaps weren’t quite the radical patriots the Greeks may have imagined them to be, and although their sacrifices didn’t ultimately do much to save Athens (for Hippias became even more tyrannical after the death of his brother), one can certainly read the nobility in risking one’s life alongside their lover in order to get revenge, and it is not difficult to see why they were called heroes for their crime.
Another point of interest in this event is the way heavenly love prevails while earthly love seems almost to be punished. Hipparchus’ interest in Harmodius was based entirely on the love of the body, not the soul, which is evident in his heated reaction to being rejected. He who bore the earthly love, then, was killed off, and the heavenly, heroic love that persisted between Harmodius and Aristogeiton was there until their own deaths.
While Symonds doesn’t tell this story in full, he does share a bit in his Memoirs that relates to the idea of heavenly love being much more ideal than earthly love. He recounts several early exposures to sexual behaviors that repulsed him. One was an encounter with a boy who masturbated in front of him; he describes his reaction as:
The attractions of a dimly divined almost mystic sensuality persisted in my nature, side by side with a marked repugnance to lust in action…
Shortly after he says:
…This [photograph of the Praxitelean Cupid] strengthened the ideal I was gradually forming of adolescent beauty…The Cretan customs of heroic paiderastia had much that was good in them.
While Symonds’s encounter with the representation of the statue of Eros by the Greek sculptor Praxiteles occurred some time before he became very interested in Plato, it’s interesting to note this early idea of being attracted to something more abstract than the physical body.
However, one does need to examine these passages within the context of the time; they were written during a period in which homosexuality (or “sexual inversion,” as it was commonly referred to at the time) was not accepted. While talking about his life at Oxford, Symonds devotes a chapter to a boy he fell in love with while there, a chorister named Alfred Brooke. Despite Alfred’s advances toward him, Symonds found himself unable to act on his attraction to Alfred, claiming:
A respectable regard for my father, an ideal of purity in conduct, a dread of the world’s opinion forced upon me by Vaughan’s and Shorting’s histories, combined to make me shrink from action.
He also claims:
Sins of the body are less pernicious than sins of the imagination.
These passages can be read as indicative of an apprehension of prevalent homophobia, especially when considering the usage of words such as “purity” and “sin.”
In addition, while he says toward the end of the Memoirs that to “pay a man to go to bed with me, to get an hour’s gratification out of him at such a price, and then never to see him again, was always abhorrent to my nature,” he follows this idea by stating:
An element of intimacy is demanded, out of which the sexual indulgence springs like a peculiar plant…But I have not sought it, except in the occasional instances mentioned above, unless I was aware that the man knew I meant to be his friend and stand by him.
The latter statement contradicts his earlier assertion of being repulsed by sexual behaviors altogether; rather, here he seems to avoid sexual behaviors that have no basis in intimacy and love. While Symonds does show his appreciation for aestheticism and displays a tendency to prefer heavenly love, it is difficult to argue that his disgust with sexual behavior was a genuine indication of his own personal feelings instead of a larger societal belief.
Despite this question of sincerity, influence from Plato’s works can still clearly be read in Symonds’s own writings. It is from many early passages in the Memoirs that we can trace the ideas that led to the birth of works such as Greek Ethics, inspired by the theories and heroes of ancient Greek literature and the development of his sexuality that resulted.
Plato, “Symposium.” The Dialogues of Plato: Translated into English, by Benjamin Jowett, 3rd ed., vol. 1, University Press, 1892.
What’s in a name? That which we call a rose By any other name would smell as sweet…
William Shakespeare, The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet (1907, 2.2.43-44)
Though I have heard this line from the Bard many times throughout my years of schooling, I rarely stopped to think critically on the importance of names until, while immersed in The Memoirs of John Addington Symonds, I noticed one important aspect: the repeated and insistent use of names. On every page of his Memoirs, Symonds names not only the people with whom he comes into contact but also the plants he finds attractive, the architectural styles he both adores and despises, the books he reads, and countless other aspects of his world–all of which bring his interest in names into clear focus. However, the name in which Symonds was above all interested was his own. While Shakespeare’s Juliet approaches the issue of names with an idealistic hope for their unimportance to society, Symonds takes the opposite view.
Within Victorian social structures, the elite was comprised of multiple social levels. This included both the wealthy but untitled members of society, like Symonds’s family; the gentry, or the members of society that often inherited land and wealth; and the peerage, who held titles and had family coats of arms. Even as Symonds was raised within the upper echelons of Victorian society due to his father’s “professional success,” he records in his Memoirs his aunt’s view that physicians “have no rank in society” (Symonds 2016, 121). The younger Symonds, therefore, remained a world apart from his titled peers, all of whom came from well-named families. Symonds felt this divide acutely. While he viewed himself as a possessor of “physical ugliness, common patronymic, undistinguished status, and mental ineffectiveness,” he considered his classmates “possessors of beauty, strength, birth, rank or genius” (2016, 122). In what can be seen as an attempt to bridge this divide between himself and his peers, Symonds began researching his family genealogy in his teens, attempting to find his family’s coat of arms. As part of this research, he even asked his sister, Charlotte, to copy passages from library books on different lines in their family’s history (e.g., Letters 1:115-116 (45) to Charlotte Symonds (Harrow, September 20, )). Symonds’s concern over name and rank in society followed him into adulthood. For example, when thinking upon the early years of his courtship of his wife, Symonds wrote the following:
I deeply felt my own unworthiness of [Janet Catherine North]. […] In social position and birth I was hardly her equal. I carried an ugly surname.
To Symonds, names were powerful. They marked identity and therefore status within society. The perceived lack in his own name led him to question what he could bring to their union, though he decided to pursue the match regardless of these worries.
Though the teenage Symonds derided his family name as both “common” and “ugly” (2016, 122, 258), he still appeared to take pride in his ancestry. Examples of this pride are riddled throughout his Memoirs, even beyond the entire chapter he devoted to this subject (see p. 12 of editor Amber Regis’s “Introduction” for details). Within the Memoirs, Symonds wrote not only of the relatives that had a rather lasting impact on his life, such as his sister, Charlotte, but also of his ancestors with whom he never had contact. For example, while traveling through Normandy, on June 3, 1867, Symonds wrote to his wife about the supposed travels of one of his ancestors relating to a nearby town (2016, 294-295). This serves as just one such example of the presence Symonds felt of his ancestors and living relatives within his life.
But I vowed to raise myself, somehow or other, to eminence of some sort. […] My ambition took no vulgar form. I felt no desire for wealth, no mere wish to cut a figure in society. But I thirsted with intolerable thirst for eminence, for recognition as a personality.”
Symonds 2016, 122
From an early age, Symonds aspired to greatness, to make a name for himself. In fact, one of his regrets in life was that his father died before Symonds had “made [his] mark and won a name” (2016, 438, 445). Throughout the Memoirs, Symonds writes freely about their close relationship and the great influence his father had in his life. He even goes so far as to say that his father’s death provided him some level of freedom professionally, as his father’s opinions meant the world to him (2016, 439). While some relationships, like that with his father, were obviously too profound for Symonds to distance himself from as he created his own identity as an author, others could have quite easily been kept separate from his professional life. For example, his untitled, non-elite ancestors could have been left behind. Instead, Symonds chose to embrace them, even writing: “if I have any grit in me, I owe it to [the] proud humility of my forefathers” (2016, 86). In openly acknowledging and admiring his connections to these ancestors, he laid claim to that part of his history and his own identity. Symonds was only able to accept this part of his history by learning more about it. A change in perspective likely began when Symonds was a teenager as he traced his family genealogy and defined his family heraldic symbol, but the full change in perspective seems to have occurred later in his life, after the death of his father. By that point, Symonds had friends and comrades who came from all walks of life and all levels of society. While the exact reason for his change of heart is only known to Symonds himself, his new understanding is clearly visible when he describes burning the letters of his ancestors. As he puts it: “I could not bear to think of my own kith and kin, the men and women who had made me, liv[ing] in this haunted cavern” (2016, 85). Whatever his reasoning, whether a reassessment of family after the death of his beloved father or an acknowledgement that the character of a person is more important than their social rank, during his adulthood, Symonds accepted and took pride in the family history he derided in his earlier years.
I will leave the conversation about the intricacies of elitism within Victorian society and its effects on Symonds’s views of himself and others for another day. For now, I leave you with this: What’s in a name? For John Addington Symonds, Jr., a name provided connections to one’s own past and the freedom to express oneself through these connections, while simultaneously limiting one due to the expectations of a hierarchical society.
References: Shakespeare, William. 1907. Shakespeare’s Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet. Edited by William J. Rolfe. New York: American Book Company. 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.
On December 5, 2019, students, faculty, staff, and friends celebrated the opening of Queer Connections: The Library of John Addington Symonds. The exhibition was curated by the fall 2019 cohort of JASP student researchers (shown in the photo), under the supervision of project directors Shane Butler and Gabrielle Dean.
The exhibition features nearly two dozen rare books, magazines, and letters that document Symonds’s life and the network he constructed through a lifetime of reading and writing. Included are actual copies of books he owned or gave to others, as well as copies of other works he is known to have read or inspired.
The star of the show is the library’s newly acquired copy of the 1883 first edition of A Problem in Greek Ethics, privately printed in just ten copies. Displayed alongside it are letters between Symonds and Richard Burton, the adventurer and translator of The Arabian Nights, to whom this particular copy briefly belonged.
Some of the other items on display:
a rare copy of the first, suppressed edition of Sexual Inversion (1897), the posthumous publication of Symonds’s collaborative work on homosexuality with Havelock Ellis
the first edition of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886), which Stevenson partly modeled on Symonds, whom he had met and befriended in Davos, Switzerland
two early editions (1855 and 1860-61) of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, a major source of inspiration to Symonds and others of his time
The exhibition, located the main floor of the Eisenhower Library on the Homewood Campus of Johns Hopkins University, is open to the public and will remain on display until March 2020. Please check the library’s main website for opening hours, and note that a photo ID is required for entry.