John Addington Symonds was a distinguished—even an important—writer who was also a homosexual. Mrs. Grosskurth has written a most excellent, sensitive and humane biography of a homosexual who also wrote books. To justify such an emphasis she can call on much influential support: on Symonds himself, perhaps, who seems to have thought that his (still unpublished) Memoirs were his most significant contribution to literature, and certainly on those many recent reviewers of her biography in the London press who have treated his writings with patronage or contempt. Though she herself clearly respects his achievement, Mrs. Grosskurth talks of Symonds “having long since slipped into semi-oblivion,” and it would be ironical if the undoubtedly fascinating picture she skillfully gives us of his hidden life should distract attention still further from what surely remains his most valuable legacy to the world: his books.
The life itself was, on the surface, materially successful and was apparently wrecked only by the lingering “consumption” which was ultimately responsible for his death in 1893 at the early age of 53. He was born into the professional middle class, son of an eminent British doctor, and though sensible and sensitive enough to loathe his public school, Harrow—then in its heyday under the reforming headmaster Dr. Vaughan (one of Dr. Arnold’s favorite pupils)—he did reasonably well there. At Oxford he went to Balliol, lived it up, met intelligent friends for the first time, won the Newdigate Prize with a poem on the Escorial, and inevitably traveled extensively on the Continent, had religious doubts, made friends with many of his most interesting contemporaries and married the daughter of an M.P., who gave him four daughters. He wrote a large number of books and articles, mainly on literature and the Italian Renaissance, grew excited by Walt Whitman whose reputation in England he helped to foster, and won a considerable reputation as historian and man of letters. He was, however, driven by ill health to spend the last fifteen years of his life at Davos in Switzerland where he became friendly with Robert Louis Stevenson and whence he made periodic sorties to Italy and to stay with distinguished families in England.
This on the surface—underneath it was all very different. As with Gide, certain pleasures could be traced back to his earliest memories. Choirboys he discovered just before going to Oxford, but already at Harrow he had stumbled into a community of promiscuous thuggery, in which the “reforming” Dr. Vaughan (for inverted commas must be inserted at this stage) was himself involved. Though terribly shaken Symonds was also intrigued, and this double reaction never left him when faced with lust—his own or others’. Thereafter he lived half his life in circumstances which would (as he knew with delight) have horrified the pleasantly cultured audiences to whom he lectured on Florence, which alarmed or titillated most of his friends (though he was always in touch with a wide circle which shared his tastes) and which caused him untold misery. Mature shoolboys, soldiers, Swiss peasants and gondoliers (“an old peasant, who has been with me for ten years,” he cautiously described one of them when proposing to stay with a friend) he loved rapturously—and often unhappily. Scandals always threatened, but were just kept at bay, probably thanks to his prudence in living outside England. And, inevitably, he wrote (largely in collaboration with Havelock Ellis) a great deal about “the problem.”
Symonds wrote obsessively, as he and his critics realized; but it was his obsessions that give his writings their merit and that have, pace Mrs. Grosskurth, saved them from oblivion. He wrote at a time when the accumulation of accurate facts was considered to be the most important duty of historians aiming to be scientific, and he himself unearthed a vast amount of new and important material (his Life of Michelangelo was, apart from its other virtues, the first reliable account of that artist, and it remains one of the best), but—like many other historians of distinction—he used his material to give shape to his own feelings about the world. He was drawn to the Italian Renaissance, as Stendhal had been before him, because the spectacle of violent and wilful men defying what he considered to be the constricting bonds of conventional ethics both excited him in itself and presented him with a series of dark psychological mysteries. He had his personal reasons for such an attitude, but most imaginative men of the nineteenth century also disliked the suffocating morality of their age, and to that extent Symonds’s homosexuality represented only an extreme case of a widespread phenomenon. He viewed these tyrants with a mixture of fascination and horror, because he never could (or wholly wanted to) shed the relative security of being a Victorian gentleman. When he writes with distaste of some Pope or Cardinal indulging in “unnameable vices” which we now know that he not only named (he adopted the curious word “Urning” coined by a German investigator) but also practised, we should not dismiss his horror only as hypocrisy—the tribute that vice pays to virtue—but should recognize in it also his awareness of his own degraded lapses from his Platonic ideal—exemplified by the disgust with which he hurried away from an assignation with a soldier whom he had picked up in a male brothel.
For if the Italian Renaissance allowed Symonds one escape from conventions that he found stifling, the ideals of Greek antiquity suggested another. The study of classical literature had long formed the core of the education of the English upper middle class to which Symonds belonged, but now, during this last phase of its total but already threatened supremacy, Symonds was only one of many who saw that the Greek and Latin classics could provide not—as Dr. Arnold and the public school reformers had hoped—a reinforcement of the Christian moral code, but rather a refutation of it. Plutarch and the Stoics were not the only writers whose ethics need be taken seriously; Virgil had not only written-of the pius Aeneas. In all the arts the influence of pagan authors came to stand increasingly for joyous release rather than disciplined suffering. Symonds was intrigued—as many have been since—by the spectacle of Jowett struggling with the moral implications of the Phaedrus and the Symposium, and he well knew that the love Plato exalted was hardly just “a matter of metaphor.” In his A Problem of Greek Ethics and Studies of the Greek Poets he proclaimed out loud what many dons and schoolmasters must often have thought but ne’er so well expressed. Out loud? Perhaps not. The Problem was printed for private circulation only, and the implications of the Greek Poets seem to have been missed by the reviewers. None the less, more openly than the far more subtle Pater (whose essays he found “a little faint and sickly”), Symonds did manage to give to the classics a wide life-enhancing and, at times, hedonistic significance that they had largely lost and that must have helped later to enrich the work of such men as the young E. M. Forster and Norman Douglas in whose writings the combination of Italy and pagan values played a vital role. And, guilt-ridden though he often was, Symonds was less alarmed by what he discovered in Italy than had been Nathaniel Hawthorne, whose Marble Faun was published just before his first visit to that country. In this way Symonds acted as a truly liberating force, for though sexually frustrated and in constant ill-health he was frenziedly on the side of life and high spirits, whether he found these in the Swiss peasants among whom he lived at Davos or in the Latin drinking songs of medieval students which he introduced to English readers.
Such an attitude conditioned his approach to Italian history, and explains—as fully as his aversion to the Roman church—his rhetorically expressed detestation of the Counter Reformation when the tyranny and hatred which so thwarted him seemed to be closing in. As a historian of Renaissance Italy he cannot be compared to Burckhardt—but who can? His intellectual equipment for the purpose was negligible, and like all romantic and committed historians his sense of proportion was precarious. None the less his scope was enormous. He was one of the last historians to dare write on such a scale and to try and cover political history, Italian and Latin literature, and the developments of philosophy and the fine arts with equal assurance. His reading was vast, and Mr. John Hale (who has written the wisest estimate of Symonds’s magnum opus) has rightly pointed out that the sections of the book on literature “remain the fullest literary history of the period obtainable in English.” He is never deep, often repetitive, and has little to say of real originality, but in one essay at least he can claim to have broken new ground: he was the first Englishman to write a sensitive and enthusiastic appreciation of Tiepolo. Though he took little interest in contemporary art, it is noteworthy that he called him “the true Italian pioneer of the most modern aims and sentiments in painting” at very much the same time as Renoir also was discovering Tiepolo, and Degas was asking a friend to describe to him that artist’s frescoes in the Palazzo Labia.
At one time or another nearly everyone of interest in Middle and Late Victorian England had contacts with Symonds, and a great deal of fascinating light is thrown on a huge variety of characters and institutions in this biography: we hear of Gosse distracted by an erotic photograph during Browning’s memorial service at Westminster Abbey; the “perhaps-already-too-indiscreet” Henry James so zealous in destroying any records of his own private life, “devoured with curiosity” about possible revelations of Symonds’s activities; and there are countless others. The “problem” that caused Symonds such misery—and also inspired him to psychological exploration—caused far less panic among his intellectual and non-committed friends than might have been expected, though there are some comic moments in his exchange of letters with Walt Whitman which show neither man to best advantage. On the whole this tortured egoist seems to have been an amiable man, warmly liked by a number of discerning friends, who can be reproached (if reproach is really necessary) more for thoughtless cruelty to his wife than for anything else. However, his private and public lives have been so admirably discussed by Mrs. Grosskurth (who has most sensibly been allowed by the London Library to read and summarize Symonds’s Memoirs which are deposited there and cannot be published until 1976) that one can only recommend anyone interested in any aspect of Victorian England to get hold of her book.
April 8, 1965