John Addington Symonds: A Platonic Ugly Duckling

Children’s books are, in a way, life guides for their impressionable readers. Being a source of knowledge other than closely related family and friends, these books are written to be relatable and inspirational. It is inevitable that hints of the philosophies that children’s books intend to teach remain influential in the children throughout their lives. Throughout John Addington Symonds’s first twenty-five years of life, a childhood tale, Hans Christian Andersen’s The Ugly Duckling, returned to his mind from time to time. Symonds used to “sympathized passionately with the poor bird swimming round and round the duck-puddle” (Memoirs, 67). Just as most children have empathized with the ugly duckling (for it is only typical and natural to believe in a destined happy ending), Symonds has likened himself to the ugly duckling for his inherent belief in his capability to establish his own place in the world.

Part of page 28 of Hans Christian Andersen, Danish Fairy Legends and Tales (London: William Pickering, 1846). This edition is chosen as a possible digital surrogate for John Addington Symonds’s childhood reading with respect to the language, the publication date, and the publication location.

From his childhood, John Addington Symonds demonstrated outwardly a bright activity, as substantiated by a letter from his sister’s Governess, Sophie Girard (Memoirs, 124). Nevertheless, to Symonds’s own perception, he was never one of spirited and congenial nature. “Being sensitive to the point of suspiciousness,” he constantly imagined that he “inspired repugnance in others,” most possibly due to his nervous character and “many physical ailments” (Memoirs, 67-68). This belief urged him to unconsciously dissemble his most intimate feelings and put on a common disguise.

Symonds’s development of personality greatly intertwined with his development of sexual consciousness. After the first revelation to the sexual sentiments by his nurse and fellows, Symonds realized through his early experiences that the “sex which drew [him] with attraction was the male”(Memoirs, 100). Since an early age, Symonds realized vaguely that the recurring reveries and dreams of robust and masculine men indicated some difference in himself. This awareness, accompanied by his distinct character, made him unlike his peers.

I felt that my course, though it collided with that of my schoolfellows, was bound to be different from theirs.

The Memoirs of John Addington Symonds, 134

Symonds’s experience can be compared side by side with that of the ugly duckling, in more ways that have been mentioned so far . In his Memoirs, Symonds describes his time (1854–58) at Harrow School for boys, as follows:

Living little in the open air, poring stupidly and mechanically over books, shut up for hours in badly ventilated schoolrooms and my own close study, I dwindled physically…It is no wonder that I came to be regarded as an uncomradely unclubbable boy by my companions.

The Memoirs of John Addington Symonds, 135-136

It would be preposterous to assert that Symonds has gained no respect or formed no friendships at Harrow, for he has devoted a portion of his Memoirs to portray these valuable experiences. However, it is reasonable to say that Symonds was not generally sociable during these four years, and that, like the ugly duckling, he was regarded by the majority of his peers as feeble and different.

The years at Harrow School, though not all joyful, contributed to a phenomenal internal growth in Symonds. Close interactions with young boys of his age allowed him to explore and become more aware of his idea of sex. At the meantime, upon witness of daily obscenity in the dormitories and degrading treatment of “every boy of good looks” “either as public prostitute or as some bigger fellow’s ‘bitch,'” Symonds was filled with disgust for lustful and obscene characters (Memoirs, 147). More than once has Symonds mentioned the influence that the Greek in him has brought to his aesthetics and conduct of life. Even before reading much of Greek literature, he had, he claims, “an ideal passion which corresponded to Platonic love” (Memoirs, 149).

In Symonds’s first mention of The Ugly Duckling, he explains what moved him greatly in the story:

I cried convulsively when he flew away to join his beautiful wide-winged white brethren of the windy journeys and the lonely meres.

The Memoirs of John Addington Symonds, 67
Illustration of a symposium. Greek same-sex love. Fresco from the Tomb of the Diver. 475 BCE. Via Wikimedia Commons.

In the Memoirs, the night when Symonds read Plato’s Phaedrus and Symposium can be juxtaposed in importance to the time when the ugly duckling fledged into a beautiful swan. Despite the fact that he was born in 19th century England, Symonds was not granted a sense of belongingness to his own surroundings, partly because his sexual orientation could not be discussed or professed publicly without him being criticized by contemporaries. Instead, he was able to reconcile himself with Greek literature from over two thousands years ago:

For the first time I saw the possibility of resolving in a practical harmony the discords of my inborn instincts.

The Memoirs of John Addington Symonds, 152

The good creature felt himself really elevated by all the troubles and adversities he had experienced. He could now rightly estimate his own happiness, and the larger swans swam around him, and stoked {check} him with their beaks.

Danish Fairy Legends and Tales, 42

It is remarkable that this children story had such a great impact in Symonds that the ugly duckling is mentioned even in recollection of his university life. In Chapter 6 of the Memoirs, which speaks of his life in the University of Oxford, Symonds recounts once more how he “was still the ugly duckling”, because he was sustained by “a dim consciousness of latent ability” (171). This feeling reflects that from his childhood, and presumably it lasted beyond his youth.

Symonds’s academic and personal connection to Greek literature led to his deeper studies about Greek society and works. While John Addington Symonds grew to be full-fledged as a translator and an author, he also achieved self-discovery and remained loyal to a sentiment that he believed to be antenatal:

My soul was lodged in Hellas.

The Memoirs of John Addington Symonds, 155


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

Andersen, Hans Christian. Danish Fairy Legends and Tales. London: William Pickering, 1846

The Case of the Missing Marginalia

Clifton Hill House loomed large over the life of John Addington Symonds. This structure, with its bright neoclassical facade and its dark Victorian interior could stand in for Symonds himself. The scholar’s luminous career also hid a brooding and tortured inner life. Clifton Hill House’s paneled living rooms full of curiosities formed the backdrop for the development of Symonds’ unique aesthetic sense, as well as his first introduction to the beauty of the male body in the art books of his family’s library. It is no surprise then that, when he sold the house his father had bought years ago, he let go of rather more than he bargained for.

An example of marginalia: manicules from an edition of Gilbert Burnet’s An exposition of the Thirty-nine articles of the Church of England (1700) at the University of Cardiff (source: the University of Cardiff special collections blog)

So begins our archival mystery. In the finding aide to the John Addington Symonds Archive at Bristol University, a chimeric document made piecemeal from handwritten inventories, typescript accounts, and small computer files describing donations of Symonds’ ephemera to the college after his death, we find a curious item on page 122:

Scan of page 122 in the Bristol University Finding Aid

3) Letter, MS.28.6.1881. Davos-Platz, Hotel & Pension Buol. JAS to Mr George, Bristol, asking for the return of certain annotated and association copies of books formerly offered for sale, presumably after Clifton Hill House was disposed of (1880)

Bristol University Finding Aid

Unraveling the complex poetics of this archive gives us a series of clues:

1. This piece of paper is the third item in a larger box containing documents related to Symonds.

2. It was handwritten on the twenty-eighth of June, 1881.

3. It was not written in England, but rather across the sea in Switzerland.

4. The letter is addressed Mr. George, a bookseller in Bristol, asking for the return of some books that were mistakenly sent out for sale. The modern archivist at University of Bristol conjectures based on the date of the letter that they were part of Symonds’ library at Clifton Hill house, and were given to the bookseller as the rest of the Symonds property was being “disposed of.”

This disposal held great significance for Symonds, as he recounts in a letter to Henry Sidgwick on July 8, 1880:

‘I have parted with my past by destroying nearly the whole of my correspondence…It was rather pretty to see Catherine and my four children all engaged in tearing up the letters of a lifetime! We sat on the floor and the old leaves grew above us mountains high. By the same fell stroke I destroyed the correspondence of my forefathers from the 17th century–from an old Independent Minister who had known Bunyan–downwards…I feel rather like a criminal to have burned the tares and the wheat together of this harvest. I was driven to do so by having to break up this our home, and to go forth homeless. Old letters must have been put into a box to be rummaged and destroyed by my executors. I preferred a solemn concremation in my garden underneath the trees, attended with the conclamatio [shouting] of my spirit as I said to the flaming pages “Avete atque valete.” [“Goodbye and farewell.” ref. Catullus, Carmina 101] So you see we are about to leave Clifton Hill house: “To be let or sold”!’ (Letters 1186)

Symonds, Letters 2:639-641, to Henry Sidgwick (Clifton July 8 [1880]).

When he lit the match in the garden that day, Symonds freed himself from his own past. However, he says goodbye with pointed reference to another, more remote past, that of the ancient Roman poet Catullus. The phrase “avete atque valete” directly recalls the final line Catullus Carmina 101 (linked above), which portrays the poet returning to Rome for the funeral of his brother and weeping over the “mute ash” of the funeral pyre. With Catullus in mind, Symonds’ bonfire is more than a documentary concern to him. This reference shows that the Victorian viewed the pieces of paper that made up his heritage as a body to be consumed by the flames, as a collection of voices to be made silent. Disposing of the remains of Clifton Hill house, then, was for Symonds a funeral rite, an act of mourning that perhaps would allow him to move into a new chapter of his life.

Advertisement from the March 26, 1881 edition of the 19th century periodical The Academy by William George Booksellers: 26 Park Street, Bristol. (source: Google Books)

5. In the letters throughout the following months, Symonds discusses auctioning off his father’s valuable collection of books and art objects. Although he doesn’t mention George by name, this advertisement in The Academy is presumably for the sale of at least a piece of the Symonds estate from Clifton Hill house. It identifies our Mr. George as William George, founder of William George and Sons bookshop in 1847. This shop, having been bought by the chain store Blackwells in the 1920s, still sold books on Park street in Bristol until 2012, when the Blackwells location was bought by Jamie Oliver’s fast casual restaurant “Jamie’s Italian.” (Image of the shop’s new look available here. For an entertaining review of “Jamie’s Italian” click here.) What will become of the building after the ignominious demise of Oliver’s foray into the restaurant business remains to be seen.

This leaves one pressing question: What was Symonds’ letter to William George really about? If Symonds was trying to make a new start, why did he need these books back so badly?

6. A perusal of the year 1881 in The Letters of John Addington Symonds, edited by Schneller and Peters, reveals that this letter to Mr. George is conspicuously absent. However, he is mentioned by Symonds one other time, and what he says about him and the missing books provides at least a partial solution to our question above:

I have been receiving letters from Mrs Wilson (School House) about a book wh once belonged to me & is full of Ms notes–how many of such indiscretions had got into circulation I am afraid to think. The Wilsons bought it of George the bookseller [in Bristol].

Symonds, Letters 3:365 (1709), to Henry Graham Dakyns (Am Hof, Davos Platz, Switzerland: March 27, 1889).

From this we can conjecture that it wasn’t the loss of the books themselves that had upset Symonds, but the exposure of the handwritten notes left in the margins. To someone that reads with pen in hand, the things written in a book are an extension of the mind. We can only imagine the horror that gripped Symonds, who thought he had made a definitive break with his English past, at the thought of his private thoughts spreading through the bookshops of England like a slick of oil on a London puddle. What would he feel now, given that our task, as not only detectives but historians, is to track down those very thoughts and lay them bare?

So where did the books go? Is the solution in the estate of Mrs. Wilson, wife of the head of Clifton College at the time, or perhaps in some catalogue kept by Mr. George and lying in wait for us in a digital repository somewhere? The truth remains to be seen, and the Symonds lab is on the case!

Ionica, Love, and Loss

In his Memoirs, John Addington Symonds writes of his relationship with his Classics Professor John Conington at Harrow as an “almost wholly good” friendship (170). He describes Conington as a “scrupulously moral and cautious man,” yet also as someone that “sympathized with romantic attachments for boys” (170). Based on Symonds’ account, their relationship was not erotically charged, yet we can infer that Conington likely saw elements of himself reflected in Symonds’ interest in his male peers. This is further supported by the fact that Conington gave Symonds a copy of Ionica by William Johnson, later known as William Johnson Cory. 

According to a note from a reprinting of the 1891 volume, the 1858 edition of Ionica that Symonds possessed contained forty-eight poems, which were formally published by Smith, Elder, and Company. One of the preeminent publishers of the era, Smith, Elder, and Company were most well-known for publishing Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë (albeit under a pseudonym). Thus, it isn’t entirely shocking that they were willing to risk printing Ionica despite its references to love between men. As for Johnson himself, we might imagine that his highly respected status as the head of Eton afforded him the benefit of the doubt to a greater degree than most. 

Still, it appears that by 1877 even Johnson felt the need to exercise greater caution. He privately printed a second, anonymous volume of twenty-five poems under the title of “Ionica II.” This second collection did not even include a title page. Interestingly, it also did not contain punctuation, extending a kind of non-conformity to its structure. Evidently, as is supported by Symonds’ Memoirs and the need for multiple reprintings, Ionica and Ionica II captivated an engaged readership. Given this, in 1891, a volume combining both sets of poems – eighty-five in total – was formally published. Hopkins possesses a copy of this edition in its Special Collections

Symonds writes in his Memoirs that it was through reading Ionica that he first learned of Johnson’s “affair” with Charlie Wood, one of his “pupils” (170). This “love story” struck Symonds, “straight to my heart” and “inflamed my imagination” (170). Lines such as “For him who led me through that park; / And though a stranger throw aside / Such grains of common sentiment, / Yet let your haughty head be bent” from the poem “Desiderato” resonated with Symonds (Cory). However, their influence was not benign. In his own words, Symonds writes that they “helped to form a dream world of unhealthy fancies about love” (170). 

He was so moved by Ionica, that Symonds wrote to William Johnson Cory seeking advice on “the state of my own feelings,” his love for his male peers (170). According to Symonds, Johnson replied with a letter on the practice of Greek “paiderastia in modern times” (170). This correspondence seems likely to have influenced Symonds’ essay on the topic of male love in Ancient Greece, “A Problem in Greek Ethics,” which, although it was initially printed only privately, found a similarly enthusiastic audience as Ionica.    

Ionica not only left an indelible impact on Symonds and his mode of thinking about sexuality, it also played a role in facilitating a conversation between Symonds and Conington that would alter several of their peers’ lives. It was during a discussion of “passion between male persons” spurred by Ionica that Symonds revealed to his professor that his former headmaster, C.J. Vaughan, and his classmate at Harrow, Alfred Pretor, had engaged in an affair (171). While his friends, including Pretor himself, felt betrayed and ended their relationships with Symonds, Symonds viewed revealing what he knew as his moral obligation. The subsequent chain of events led to Vaughan stepping down from his position at Harrow and declining two bishoprics (174). It is ironic that, rather than existing as a bridge between Symonds’s concept closer to an empathetic understanding of his peers’ affairs, Ionica figured prominently in his memory as associated with the ruin of several of his closest friendships. 

Works Cited:

Cory, William Johnson. Ionica. London: G. Allen, 1891.

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

The “Insanity” of Symonds’ Genius

In John Addington Symonds’ Memoirs, a passing comment and marginal note regarding J. F. Nisbet’s The Insanity of Genius and the General Inequality of Human Faculty subtly reveals Symonds’ contention with the theories of his contemporaries regarding a cause for differences in sexuality.

The Insanity of Genius and the General Inequality of Human Faculty,  John Ferguson Nisbet, published by Ward & Downey, image via Hathi Trust

In the second chapter of his Memoirs, titled “Containing Material Which None but Students of Psychology and Ethics Need Peruse,” Symonds meditates on his first stirrings of sexual instinct. Here is where he realizes his “inborn craving after persons of [his] own sex” (p. 101, Memoirs). He goes on to cite Paul Moreau, Benjamin Tarnowski, and Richard von Krafft-Ebing, interpreting their sexologist arguments as tying sexual inversion to a neurotic disorder. After considering this theory, Symonds admits that he exhibits many of the symptoms that Krafft-Ebing recognizes as hereditary neuroticism that predisposes its subject to sexual inversion. 

However, Symonds denies that he is the victim of an “exceptional neurotic malady” (p.102, Memoirs) and opposes Krafft-Ebings theory by arguing that his high degree of nervous energy has in fact been useful in his success in writing and scholarship.

“It is notorious that in literature I have done a very large amount of work, not only brilliant, but solid and laborious, which has placed me in the front rank of English authors.” (p. 102, Memoirs)

In reading Symonds’ works, A Problem in Greek Ethics, for example, it is easy to see the meticulous treatment with which he combs through Greek literature, so perhaps his self-recognition of his “brilliant” work is valid. The point of tension Symonds sees is the notion of a pathological or biological reason for sexual inversion. Specifically, he finds Nisbet’s The Insanity of Genius paradoxical. 

Here we approach too near to the paradox that genius is a species of madness. (p. 103, Memoirs)

Symonds’ marginal note refers to Lombroso’s Man of Genius and Nisbet’s Insanity of Genius as works that are “upholding the hypothesis I attempted to combat” (p. 104, Memoirs). This hypothesis expands past just a tie with intelligence, as Symonds applies these principles to his ideas of the reason for sexual inversion.

It is likely that the circumstances under which Symonds read Scottish journalist and author John Ferguson Nisbet’s 1891 The Insanity of Genius was to critique the general notion that someone who exhibits traits of genius are mad. Broadly, Symonds finds fault in the general concept advanced by pathological psychologists that abnormality (sexual inversion in his case) is a sickness or hereditary disease. He sees sexual inversion as a complex variety of type exhibited by nature.  

Nisbet’s work contains theories that Symonds would have disagreed with based on his personal beliefs about his own sexuality (quoted below) and his beliefs that male-male relationships were of benefit to society and had spiritual value (Ch. I, A Problem in Greek Ethics)

I have no feminine feelings for the males who rouse my desires. The anomaly of my position is that I admire the physical beauty of men more than women, derive more pleasure from their contact and society, and am stirred to sexual sensations exclusively by persons of the male sex. (p. 103, Memoirs). 

The problem Symonds likely saw in The Insanity of Genius was Nisbet’s assumption that sexual selection is directly tied to Charles Darwin’s survival of the fittest argument. Symonds probably saw the hole in Nisbet’s argument that if natural selection (the principle that the fittest will survive and reproduce to preserve the variations most beneficial to the community) is directly correlated with intelligence, then a “genius” like Symonds would not “fit” in and any sexual inversion would deny him the opportunity to reproduce (p. 327, The Insanity of Genius). This supports Symonds’ denial of a physical/pathological basis of sexual inversion as well as genius. Nisbet as well as Darwin would classify Symonds, even if a genius, as “unfit” or as an error of sexual instinct. 

A particularly interesting moment in The Insanity of Genius is when Nisbet analyzes nineteenth century French novelist Gustave Flaubert’s correlation between the development of intellectual power and his increased epileptic attacks. Nisbet claims that without his malady, Flaubert would have been relegated to the life of a more menial occupation like a lawyer instead of a writer. The place where I believe Symonds could feel a relation while reading this is when Nisbet characterizes Flaubert as a laborious and obsessed writer having “no passion for the fair sex, to whom, indeed, throughout his life he appears to have cherished an absolute repugnance” (p.140, The Insanity of Genius). This strikes a certain resonance with the way Symonds characterizes his own genius. Additionally, Symonds’ references to Flaubert’s distaste of women suggests a familiarity with this sort of sexually inverted (or perhaps asexual) genius.

I believe that what would have bothered Symonds is that whether the genius person is vain and egotistical, licentious, or only shows genius in certain areas, Nisbet uses a general theory of faculty and character as a catch-all to define all those who he considers genius. However, I think that Symonds would have taken solace in Nisbet hedging his own theory by saying “If it could be shown that all men, great and small, distinguished and undistinguished, were equally subject to nerve-disorder, the theory of genius as a neurosis would fall to the ground” (p. 315, The Insanity of Genius).

Work Cited:

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

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

Nisbet, John Ferguson. The Insanity of Genius and the General Inequality of Human Faculty: Physiologically Considered. New ed. London: Ward & Downey, 1891.

Hopkins acquires precious copy of “A Problem in Greek Ethics”

JASPers, invited guests, and the press were on hand Thursday, November 21, to welcome the arrival of one of the ten copies Symonds privately printed in 1883 of his groundbreaking essay, A Problem in Greek Ethics. Until just a few weeks ago, only five of the original ten were known to survive, but when a sixth appeared on the antiquarian book market, Gabrielle Dean, William Kurrelmeyer Curator of Rare Books and Manuscripts and co-PI of JASP, moved quickly to acquire it for Hopkins. This is in fact copy #6, as Symonds numbered the set, and it once belonged to Richard Burton, translator of the Arabian Nights. With the book came a pair of letters between Symonds and Burton on the occasion of the loan. (In his letter, Symonds asks Burton to return the copy when he has finished reading it.)

We’ll be posting more about this exciting discovery in the coming weeks and months, so stay tuned!

Symonds’ Comradeship through Leaves of Grass

Title page of Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass. Boston: Thayer and Eldridge, year 85 of the States [1860-61]. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

John Addington Symonds exchanged many letters throughout his life with American poet Walt Whitman. He records his first interaction with Whitman’s Leaves of Grass with fervor: “The book became for me a sort of Bible… I … tried to invigorate the emotion I could not shake off by absorbing Whitman’s conception of comradeship” (Memoirs, 368). The idea of comradeship is something that continued to permeate Symonds’ interaction with Whitman.

Through correspondence between Whitman and Symonds, we can see that Symonds used Leaves of Grass specifically as a catalyst for his interaction with an expanding community of interlocutors. In January of 1877, Symonds wrote to Whitman,

“I do so now [i.e., write you], however, begging you to send me copies of Leaves of Grass & Two Rivulets… I shall then have copies for myself & copies to give to a friend.”(1)

This letter shows us that Symonds is beginning to expand his social circle using Whitman’s poetry. Throughout the next few years, Symonds continued to write to Whitman, developing an infatuation with the poet and his work. Through these letters we see that Symonds uses the writings as a means to interact with the kind of people to whom Whitman refers in “In Paths Untrodden” as “all who are, or have been, young men.” (2)

In June of 1886, Whitman wrote to Symonds, “I write a line to introduce & authenticate a valued personal & literary friend of mine, Wm Sloane Kennedy, who will send you this. He is every way friendly & [sic] rapport with ‘Leaves of Grass’ & with me.” (3) Whitman is responsive to Symonds’ sentiment and widens the circle of men bonding over Leaves of Grass. Within Symonds’ world this collection of poems becomes a way to unite people across countries and continents. Perhaps for Symonds this meant feeling less alone as he thinks about his sexuality.

Leaves of Grass is a way to make new connections as well as to deepen already established relationships. Symonds tells Whitman that, “I gave him [Symond’s nephew] a copy of Leaves of Grass in 1874, & he knows a great portion of it now by heart.” (4) Symonds also included some of his nephew’s poetry in the letter. The collection allows Symonds to share a sort of emotional vulnerability with people. Symonds clearly hoped that the people with whom he chose to share the poet’s words would interpret the words as he had. Symonds thus allows Whitman’s words to express his own feelings.

Symonds’ equating of Leaves of Grass to the Bible reveals that, in a way, he uses the collection as some use religious texts. It is a medium by which to spread a message and create a community. Symonds specifically cites the “Calamus” cluster of poems. He writes, “Inspired by ‘Calamus’ I adopted another method of palliative treatment, and tried to invigorate the emotion I could not shake off by absorbing Whitman’s conception of comradeship,” (Memoirs, 368) this last word being the term Whitman used and Symonds adopted as a kind of code for male-male attachment. It may have been this idea that prompted Symonds to do his best to connect with as many men as possible through the text. The poem, “In Paths Untrodden” in particular would likely have resonated with Symonds:

“That the soul of the man I speak for, feeds, rejoices only in comrades…
I proceed, for all who are, or have been, young men,
To tell the secret of my nights and days,
To celebrate the need of comrades.”(5)

Symonds’ interaction with Leaves of Grass provides us the ability to understand how he used the text to create a community. It is undeniable that the collection of poems is something profound that Symonds wishes to share.


(1) “John Addington Symonds to Walt Whitman, 23 January 1877.” The Walt Whitman Archive. Gen. ed. Ed Folsom and Kenneth M. Price. Accessed 14 October 2019. <>.

(2)Whitman, Walt. “In Paths Untrodden.” Leaves of Grass, Whitman Archive, 1860-1861. <>.

(3) “Walt Whitman to John Addington Symonds, 20 June 1886.” The Walt Whitman Archive. Gen. ed. Ed Folsom and Kenneth M. Price. Accessed 14 October 2019. <>.

(4) “John Addington Symonds to Walt Whitman, 12 July 1877.” The Walt Whitman Archive. Gen. ed. Ed Folsom and Kenneth M. Price. Accessed 14 October 2019. <>.

(5) Whitman, Walt. “In Paths Untrodden.” Leaves of Grass, Whitman Archive, 1860-1861. <>.

Works Cited:

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

“The Walt Whitman Archive.” Edited by Ed Folsom and Kenneth M. Price, The Walt Whitman Archive,

Symonds, Ulrichs, and German Sexology

Karl Heinrich Ulrichs’ series of twelve pamphlets, Forschungen über das Rätsel der mannmännlichen Liebe (“Research on the riddle on male-male love”), published between 1864 and 1870, comprise a seminal work in the history of sexuality. For Symonds, Ulrichs’ texts lay the foundation for his understanding of “sexual inversion,” the more common term and concept before they were supplanted by “homosexuality,” which Symonds himself was the first to borrow from the language of German sexologists.

Symonds references the idea of “Urnings,” a term that Ulrichs uses to describe men who are attracted other men. In particular, Symonds references “Uranian Love,” as it is described in Plato’s Symposium, in A Problem in Greek Ethics:

“The offspring of the heavenly Aphrodite is derived from a mother in whose birth the female has no part. She is from the male only; this is that love which is of youths, and the goddess being older, has nothing of wantonness.”

(Plato, Symposium 181, trans. Jowett, quoted in Symonds, Greek Ethics XIII)
Portrait of Karl Heinrich Ulrichs. Artist unknown. 1899. Engraving. Jahrbuch für sexuelle Zwischenstufen, vol. 1 (1899), p. 35. Wikimedia Commons.

The etymological origin for the term “Urning” is Uranus, based on the idea that Aphrodite’s origin is from Uranus’s testicles, as Plato explains in the Symposium. For Ulrichs, Urnings “form a sex apart—having literally a feminine soul included within a male body,” in reference to Aphrodite’s contrasting lineage and form (Symonds, Sexual Inversion, 102). This framing is epitomized by the “woman in male form” motif in Ulrichs’ explanation of sexual inversion. Ulrichs’ use of a classical framework resembles Symonds’ use of a classical framework in his Memoirs. Symonds states that:

Our earliest memories of words, poems, works of art, have great value in the study of psychical development.

(Memoirs, 101).

For Symonds, classical art provides a place where an analysis of the kind that all of the sexologists of his day try to do with psychological theories because it focuses on the individual lived experience. The response to art—in Symonds’ case, art from classical antiquity—provides an insight into what Symonds perceives as the ideal form of human relationships. Most psychological studies of Symonds’ time dealt with explanations of phenomena like sexual inversion from the outside looking in, figuratively speaking, by using theoretical models to explain behaviors. Symonds inverts that paradigm, by building out from experience toward a larger theory of sexology. When one views artistic depictions of bodies, there can be an underlying sexual reaction to the artistic representation of the body.

In A Problem in Modern Ethics, Symonds references Ulrichs as the first scholar to offer “serious and sympathetic treatment” of the topic of sexual inversion (159). For Symonds, Ulrichs “proceeds to argue that the present state of the law in many states of Europe is flagrantly unjust to a class of innocent persons, who may indeed be regarded as unfortunate and inconvenient, but who are guilty of nothing which deserves reprobation and punishment” (ibid. 159). In large part, Symonds agrees with Ulrichs’ view of the legal oppression of same-sex relations, and in that sense, Symonds sees Ulrichs as one of the first scholars to take a more research-based approach to the issue.

Symonds notes that the German lawyer wrote his pamphlets with the intention of establishing “a theory of sexual inversion upon the basis of natural science, proving that abnormal instincts are inborn and healthy in a considerable percentage of human beings” and therefore “that they do not owe their origin to bad habits of any kind, to hereditary disease or to wilful depravity” (ibid. 159).

Symonds argues that of the twelve pamphlets that were published, the seventh is the one that introduces the major concepts of Ulrichs’ theories: “Memnon may be used as the textbook of its author’s theories” (ibid. 159). In his seventh pamphlet “Memnon,” Ulrichs states that:

“The primitive hermaphrodite is reshaped into an Urning. There arises a man, but not in the strict sense, endowed with a female sexual drive, who, therefore, although he has testicles, feels himself attracted through the inner sexual drive, not to women, but to (young) men, hence an Urning.”

(Ulrichs 303)

Ulrichs’ theory then splits the Urning into different types, distinguished based on the behaviors of the Urning: “the Mannling and the Weibling. Mannlings’ physical characteristics…are completely masculine; only the bare mental sex, the direction of the yearning towards the male sex, is feminine,” while Weiblings are physically and sexually “completely feminine; only the biological sex is masculine” (ibid. 306). To these basic categories he added a series of subcategories and hybrid categories.

“Uranisimus”. John Addington Symonds. 1891. A Problem in Modern Ethics. Wikimedia Commons.

Symonds relates to Ulrichs’ sexological theories at a personal level, not just on an academic level. “With regard to Ulrichs, in his peculiar phraseology, I should certainly be tabulated as a Mittel Urning , holding a mean between the Mannling and the Weibling ; that is to say, one whose emotions are directed to the male sex during the period of adolescence and early manhood; who is not marked either by an effeminate passion for robust adults or by a predilection for young boys” (Memoirs , 103).

While Ulrichs’ influence on Symonds can been seen in his understanding of sexual inversion and the common connection with the classical framework of Uranian love, Symonds was by no means completely in agreement with Ulrichs. In his Memoirs, Symonds notes some of these disagreements and explains his own understanding of sexual inversion: “It does not appear to me that either Ulrichs or the school of neuropathical physicians have solved the problem offered by individuals of my type” (102). Specifically, Symonds agrees with Ulrichs’ general hypothesis about the natural origin of sexual inversion, but he sees a disconnect between Ulrichs’ theories and his own lived experience and personal view of idealized love between men.

As a result of his disagreement with previous scholarship on sexual inversion, Symonds argues “that the abnormality in question is not to be explained either by Ulrichs’s theory, or by the presumptions of the pathological psychologists. Its solution has to be sought far deeper in the mystery of sex, and in the variety of type exhibited by nature” (Memoirs, 103). In other words, Symonds places himself as a descendant and a critic of the ideas put forth by previous scholars.

Works Cited

Plato. Jowett, Benjamin, translator. Symposium. MIT. Internet Classics Archive,

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

Symonds, John Addington. A Problem in Greek Ethics. Sexual Inversion. Bell Publishing Company, 1984.

—. Symonds, John Addington. A Problem in Modern Ethics.

Ulrichs, Karl Heinrich. The Riddle of “Man-Manly” Love: The Pioneering Work on Male Homosexuality. Translated by Michael A. Lombardi-Nash, vol. 2, Prometheus Books, 1994.

Love and Destiny Intertwined

In his Memoirs, Symonds wrote that his “house was well stocked with engravings, photographs, copies of Italian pictures and illustrated works upon Greek sculpture” and more.  He considered “the two large folios issued by the Dilettante Society” as “among his chief favorites” (118). The Society of Dilettanti, the group of men that compiled such collections, was founded in 1734 and consisted of young, educated Brits who had been on a so-called “Grand Tour” of Italy, as was fashionable at the time. The impact of the collections of engravings and sculptures that they published is evidenced by Symonds’ passion for consuming such compilations and, later, his own time abroad in Italy. 

The Society of Dilettanti, Specimens of Antient Sculpture, Egyptian, Etruscan, Greek and Roman: Selected From Different Collection in Great Britain (London: W. Nicol, Pall Mall, 1835). From the Sheridan Libraries, Johns Hopkins University. Photograph by Katherine Logan.

The image above is a unique art object featured in one of the Society’s catalogs. While it shows a relief that currently adorns a vase, the work was believed by the Society to have originally been a Περιστομιον, a decorative engraving around the mouth of a well. It portrays the introduction of Paris to Helen by Venus, who shares in the task with the three muses, Polyhymnia, Erato, and Euterpe, and, of course, Love himself (as personified by the winged boy) (31). The presence of this Cupid-like vision of Love is what makes this image particularly striking, as we know from Symonds’ memoirs that he was so enraptured with Plato’s the Phaedrus and the Symposium, two of the most well-known dialogues on the subject of love,that he read them in one-sitting, until “the sun was shining on the shrubs outside the ground-floor room in which I slept” (152). 

Today, while they may take on new forms like Instagram poetry or advice columns, conversations surrounding the nature of love live on and retain the power to offer us perspective that help us to feel less alone. One hotly debated topic remains whether or not falling in love is something we can control. In their description of the image above, the Society of Dilettanti writes that “the conduct of Helen is invariably represented as the effect of an irresistible destiny” (Specimens). In other words, Helen’s position, surrounded by those conspiring to make her fall for Paris, leaves her vulnerable; there is nothing she can do to resist her fate. Interestingly, in his Memoirs, Symonds expresses a similar lack of agency, writing that his “enthusiasm for male beauty” has “ruled him from childhood” (152).

While this image portrays Love acting upon a man and a woman, we can imagine Symonds identifying with the kind of experience of an all-encompassing, undeniable attraction depicted. This is all the more powerful when considered in conjunction with Plato’s Symposium, especiallyPausanias’ argument that “there is dishonor in yielding to the evil, or in an evil manner; but there is honour in yielding to the good, or in an honourable manner” (181a). Helen herself may have met a dire end, but the Symposium emphasizes that so long as one’s love is characterized by noble qualities, succumbing to the influence of its larger-than-life power can better both of the parties involved. As Symonds writes, through reading this ancient text, he realized the “moral charm” and “sublimity” in the love he shared for other men and, in this way, discovered a means of beginning to find “harmony” (152).  

Works Cited 

Dorment, Richard. “The Dilettanti: Exclusive Society That Celebrates Art.” The Telegraph, Telegraph Media Group, 2 Sept. 2008,

Plato. Symposium, Translated by B. Jowett, 2013. Project Gutenberg,

Specimens of Antient Sculpture, Ægyptian, Etruscan, Greek and Roman: Selected From Different Collection In Great Britain. London: Printed by T. Bensley for T. Payne, and J. White and co., 1809.

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

Symonds on Gothic Architecture

It is clear that John Addington Symonds was more than inundated with images of classical-style architecture from large-form sketches to more nuanced blueprint-like drawings—images like those from the Society of Dilettanti’s Ionian Antiquities. The images pictured below display conventional elements of Classical architecture: Ionic columns, measured forms that are easy to read, golden ratio proportions, and marble construction. What is particularly interesting though is the pure volume of classical architecture and classicizing forms he was exposed to through books in his father’s collection, including not only the volumes of the Society of Dilettanti, but also illustrations by Flaxman and reproductions of Hamilton’s vase collection. In his Memoirs, Symonds gives us detailed descriptions of architecture, but upon a closer look, he rarely mentions classical architecture; the overwhelming majority of his architectural passages describe a Gothic style. So despite his early exposure to classical architecture and obvious affinity for classical Greece and antiquity why does he home in on some of the complexities and forms of Gothic architecture?

Examples of Classical elements from Ionian Antiquities published by The Order of the Society of Dilettanti. Image via Hathi Trust

Here is Symonds’ first instance of an architectural description of a Gothic-style space. I have bolded the most salient phrase for emphasis. 

The sense of meanness which annoyed me in our house, afflicted me far more keenly in the Chapel of the Blind Asylum, where we attended service twice on Sundays. The bastard Gothic lancets, dead grey, rough-cast walls and ugly painted wood-work of that paltry building gave me absolute pain. It suffocated my soul and made me loathe evangelical Protestantism. Most of all, at night, when gas-lamps flared in open jets upon the sordid scene, I felt defrauded of some dimly apprehended birthright. (Memoirs, p. 67)

Laden with negative words to describe Gothic forms, Symonds refers to the Gothic lancets as “bastard,” augments the color grey to “dead grey,” and inconspicuously calls the painted wood-work “ugly,” saying it gave him pain. Symonds lays it out for us in his line condemning soul-suffocating evangelical Protestantism. These recollections belong to a young Symonds most likely under ten years old. At this point in his childhood, we know his relationship with God is similar to superstition more than piety.

So I kept perpetually mumbling: ‘Oh, God, save me from the cholera!’ This superstitious habit clung to me for years. I believe that it obstructed the growth of sound ideas upon religion; but I cannot say that I ever was sincerely pious, or ever realized the language about God I heard and parroted. (Memoirs, p. 69)

As Ellen Harty points out in a 2019 blog post, Symonds would have had exposure to some disturbing depictions of hell as a child, possibly adding to his negative perception of Church services, and, transitively, Gothic architecture. Symonds makes his divisive relationship with God evident in his writings as well.

In a dim way I felt God more. But I did not learn to fling the arms of soul in faith upon the cross of Christ. That was not in me. And it would be unfair to expect from any sacrament of the church that it should work a miracle on catechumens. (Memoirs, p. 141)

Employing no effort to hide his distaste, Symonds continuously takes opportunities within his Memoirs to point out his dislike of Gothic architecture. In the quote below you can see how he perceives Gothic-revival as tacky. 

In those days Clifton must have been beautiful and wild indeed. The few houses of the gentry clustered around the humble village church— not that ugly building which now perpetuates the bad taste of the incipient Gothic revival, and the dismal piety of the Simeon trustees—but a rustic West of England chapel, with narrow windows and low sloping roof. (Memoirs, p. 107)

From these examples, it is easy to assume a connection between the drab yet imposing Gothic architecture that Symonds perceives and his negative feelings about going to Church as a child, but as we look at more of his architectural descriptions, we can see a much more complex relationship. 

Because his youth meditations on the Gothic style are related to churches, at first it seems that the church is the object that fuels his contempt for Gothic. But one instance at the Bristol Cathedral, originally a Gothic church with Gothic revival editions in the 19th century, Symonds viewpoint radically changes. In the quote below Symonds has recently been “awoken” by the concepts of love in Plato’s Phaedrus and Symposium and is about to be charmed by his first love Willie Dyer.

On the first Sunday morning after my arrival, I attended service in Bristol Cathedral. It was a radiant forenoon, and the light streamed in from those large southern windows. My ritualistic pranks with Vickers at Harrow had this much of reality in them, that they indicated a natural susceptibility to the aesthetic side of religion—I felt a real affection and natural reverence for grey Gothic churches. The painted glass and heraldries in this cathedral, crusaders cross-legged on their tombs, carved woodwork and high-built organ lofts, the monuments to folk long dead, and, over all, the quiring voices and reverberations of sweet sacred music, touched me to the quick at a thousand sensitive points. There was no real piety, however, in my mood. My soul was lodged in Hellas; and the Christian in me stirred only, like a torpid snake, sunned by the genial warmth of art. (Memoirs, p. 155)

Symond’s newly found reverence for the Gothic comes at a point in his life when he “was on the verge of attaining to a man’s self-consciousness.” When meditating on his relationship with Willie he realizes that 

In [Willie] too I found the final satisfaction of that dim aesthetic ecstasy which I called religion. 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 him a poetry that pierced into my heart and marrow. (Memoirs, p. 156)

I would argue that this is the turning point in his life where not only has he accepted Gothic architecture as a noble and reverent form, but in a less superficial way, he begins to understand the Gothic style as more than just imposing forms. About ten years later, Symonds comes to a realization while reflecting on the music in the presence of sacred architecture and explaining that a cathedral without music to fill the space with “invisible presences” makes the architecture seem dead and cold (Memoirs, p. 288).

The church of St Ouen might be almost called provokingly perfect: a full-sized, elaborately designed Gothic cathedral, finished on one plan down to its minutest details. Some of the romance of old church-building is lost by this completeness. The precise way in which it has been isolated from surrounding houses and planted at one end with pleasant trees, destroys the pathos of the picturesque. Nothing is left to the imagination. But for gaining an insight into the working of the medieval brains which planned these structures, St Ouen is invaluable. Here the veriest child can see that the spirit of Gothic art is not anarchy, but symmetry and order. Only the parts here forced into correspondence are almost infinite; not, as in the case of Greek work, select and few. (Memoirs, p. 289)

Symonds completely flips his perception of Gothic architecture throughout his life concluding that the inherent spirit of Gothic architecture is in the symmetry and order of its forms. From this point on, Symond’s descriptions and meditations on Gothic architecture are generally positive. He calls out fine distinctions between different regions’ Gothic styles telling us that he finds the early pointed style more tasteful than the later iterations of Gothic (decorated style). And from here, his descriptions of Gothic become nothing less than poetic. For example: 

On a second visit to the cathedral, by dint of staying there in quiet thought for two hours, I harmonized my mind to its severe and heaven-aspiring beauty. This church has the bloom and freshness of adolescence; the strength of the old Norman with the delicacy and luxuriant loveliness of early Gothic. The huge round arches of the nave are adorned with diapers and traceries, not yet formed into flowers or foliage, but rich like gured brocades. The transept and the choir expand into the beauty of clustered columns, soaring to a vast height and feathering with fantastic leafage, while the long pointed windows of clerestory and chapel hold wheels, cut into hexagons and quatrefoils by pure crisp cusps, the very models of expanded summer blossoms. (Memoirs, p. 294). 

Symond’s fascinating relationship with the Gothic poses many questions. There is a clear turning point where Symonds is touched by religion, love, and the Gothic architecture he once felt a bold distaste for. So why are all these different aspects of Symonds’ psyche connected?  It is interesting to think about his childhood exposure of Gothic style juxtaposed with the overwhelmingly classical collection of his father’s library. Perhaps Symonds’ notion of the visual culture of antiquity holds a different place in his mind compared to the emotional and religious sacredness of the Gothic that he only first realizes when he feels his first romantic connection. It is possible that his romanticizing of Gothic architecture after his “awakening” and encounter with Willie Dyer in the Bristol Cathedral positively paints his perception of Gothic architecture allowing him to not only see the beauty in the physical forms, but the more sacrosanct nature of Gothic’s symmetry and order. 

While it seems at first that Symond’s childhood distaste of the Gothic comes from a dislike of church, his early relationship with the style could easily be attributed to a lack of exposure. Regardless, it is noticeable that the further Symonds gets from his childhood, his father’s library, and the classical imagery on which he would place great academic value, the more he experiences the profound nature of the Gothic style and the more he comes to revere it in a manner that goes deeper than purely taste or preference for form and style.

Works cited:

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

Chandler, Richard, Nicholas Revett, and William Pars. Ionian Antiqvities. London: Printed by T. Spilsbury and W. Haskell, 1769.

Apollo: From the Page to the Mind of J. A. Symonds

John Addington Symonds was exposed to classical Greco-Roman art through the large illustrated folios in the library in his childhood home in Clifton. In his Memoirs, Symonds recalls that his house “was well stocked with engravings, photographs, copies of Italian pictures, and illustrated works upon Greek sculpture.” (118). From this large collection, Symonds mentions that “the two large folios issued by the Dilettante Society were among my favorites” (ibid). The Dilletante Society that Symonds refers to, more properly known as the Society of Dilettanti, was an academic society that focused on studying ancient Greek and Roman art.

One of these folios is most likely Specimens of Ancient Sculpture, Ægyptian, Estruscan, Greek, and Roman: Selected from Different Collections in Great Britain published by the Society of Dilettanti published in 1809. Specimens is filled with engravings that reproduce pieces of sculpture obtained by the British Museum from private donors of ancient Greek sculptures, including the figure of Apollo, whose representations in art and literature became an inspiration for Symonds throughout his life. Symonds describes the attraction as follows:

“The kernel of my inspiration was that radiant figure of the young Apollo, doomed to pass his time with shepherds, serving them, and loving them. A luminous haze of yearning emotion surrounded the god. His divine beauty penetrated my soul and marrow”


These descriptions of Apollo come from the mythological story of Apollo’s servitude to King Admetus as punishment for rebelling against Zeus (Apollodorus, The Library): “So he went to Admetus, son of Pheres, at Pherae, and served him as a herdsman, and caused all the cows to drop twins” (Apollodorus). This description of Apollo is one that sets the deity in a pastoral landscape, with the god interacting with nature and potential lovers of both genders. The erotic implications of such a setting are well illustrated in “The Herdsmen of Admetus” painted by Constance Phillott.

“The Herdsmen of Admetus” by Constance Phillott. 1890. Watercolor. Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

Symonds’ understanding of Apollonian beauty was not just one based on literary understanding of the mythological figure, but also on visual representations which portray the figure of Apollo. In Plate V of the Specimens, the figure of Apollo is depicted; as the description notes:

“The muscles of the limbs and body are full and prominent after the antient manner of representation”

(Society of Dilettanti)

In this depiction of the god, he seems to be engaging in something related to nature, like hunting. According to the text in the book, “the right arm might have rested on a quiver, the left seems to have held a bow, which has been in contact with the leg on the left side.” (Society of Dilettanti).

In the corner of the plate, is the inscription “J.S. Agar”, referring to John Samuel Agar, a painter and engraver in the early nineteenth century, close to the publication date of this book. Unlike John Flaxman, another engraver of the time, Agar utilizes a style of engraving depicts Apollo’s full form in a realistic style. This depiction of Apollo, with its sharp details, displays his physicality, not his intellect or his association with the arts, comparable more to “patron of pugilism than to the leader of a celestial orchestra” (Society of Dilettanti).

Symonds equates Apollo with masculinity and his association with nature, such as the legends of Apollo’s travels among shepherds. For Symonds, “the god of my adoration drank life and love among the sheep-cotes of Admetus” (Memoirs, 114). Symonds understands Apollo as both an abstracted deity of the arts, but also as a representation of ideal male beauty. This view of Apollo is one that depicts idealized beauty which Symonds uses to judge what he perceives in others.

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

Symonds’s view of art also influenced his view of real life. When he describes his relationship with William Dyer, Symonds describes his friend as: “the boy who owned that voice seemed the only beautiful, the only flawless being I had ever seen” (Memoirs, 155). This description of Dyer reflects the view that Symonds holds in his mind about ideal beauty, which he contrasts to the social relationships that prevailed at Harrow.  

He writes that Dyer “had delivered my soul from the Egyptian house of Harrow bondage. He enabled me to realize an ideal of a passionate and yet pure love between friend and friend” (Memoirs, 158). This use of the “ideal” clearly manifests itself in the way that Symonds translates his love for William into the classical framework.

Works Cited:

Apollodorus. Apollodorus, The Library, with an English Translation by Sir James George Frazer, F.B.A., F.R.S. in 2 Volumes. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1921.

Specimens of Antient Sculpture, Ægyptian, Etruscan, Greek and Roman: Selected From Different Collection In Great Britain. London: Printed by T. Bensley for T. Payne, and J. White and co., 1809.

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