Symonds, John Addington

views updated


SYMONDS, JOHN ADDINGTON (1840–1893), English critic, historian, and poet.

From a contemporary perspective, the Victorian man of letters John Addington Symonds, best known for his monumental Renaissance in Italy (7 vols., 1875–1886), is chiefly distinguished as one of Western society's first gay militants. Homosexuality remained officially "unspeakable" throughout Symonds's life (unless mentioned in defamatory contexts). But, unlike even the near-transparent homosexual writers before him (e.g., Walt Whitman), from early in his career Symonds worked consciously to combat his culture's denial of homosexuality, striving to "speak" its presence—in himself, his society, and earlier history—to as large an audience as possible within the constraints of his time.

Symonds's emancipatory work took place in the midst of the double life typical of most homosexuals before the modern liberation movement. Outwardly a husband, father, and conventionally successful author, he privately struggled with his same-sex feelings and ultimately acquired a series of never entirely reciprocating male lovers. Writing became Symonds's primary means of understanding and communicating his homosexual concerns, in two ways. In his public work, Symonds often undertook subjects that allowed him to allude to homosexuality and sometimes directly represent it, from his early Studies of the Greek Poets: Second Series (1876) to his late Walt Whitman: A Study (1893). Symonds similarly played a crucial role in furthering frankness about Michelangelo, whose homosexual poems had been published accurately for the first time in 1863 after centuries of censorship. Symonds published a faithful English translation of Michelangelo's love poems to Tommaso Cavalieri in 1878 and discussed the subject relatively daringly in his bestselling 1893 biography of the artist.

Given the enforced social silencing of homosexuality in his time, however, Symonds's most assertive work inevitably remained private. From the early 1870s on he produced an unprecedented set of homosexual writings (including some of the frankest Victorian homosexual poetry) that were commercially unpublishable but that he determinedly issued as private pamphlets for circulation to interested others. Most influential were what were understood at the time to be the first polemical essays in defense of homosexuality in English (similar earlier work by Jeremy Bentham was still unknown): A Problem in Greek Ethics (written 1873, privately printed in 1883), and A Problem in Modern Ethics (1891), which focuses on later history and the new sexology and urges legal reform. The circulation of the latter especially helped create a confidential network of informed homosexuals in the 1890s who regarded Symonds as a liberationist leader, "the Gladstone of the affair," as the novelist Henry James, one affiliate, dubbed him in a 7 January 1893 letter.

The increasingly "open secret" of Symonds's activism led Havelock Ellis (1859–1939) to invite him to collaborate on Sexual Inversion (1897), the first published volume of what became Studies in the Psychology of Sex. Symonds died before the book's appearance, and his scandalized family had his name removed as coauthor after the first printing, but A Problem in Greek Ethics appeared in public for the first time as "Appendix A" and most of the book's male homosexual "cases" came from Symonds's sizable correspondence in response to A Problem in Modern Ethics. Symonds's major achievements of this kind, however, remained known to only a few acquaintances, though he left arrangements for their posthumous publication. These were his many letters to other homosexuals (including Sir Edmund Gosse, Edward Carpenter, and a skittish Whitman), the first surviving examples in history of extensive and candid homosexual correspondence, and his singular Memoirs (composed between 1889 and 1893 but not published until 1984), the first known homosexual autobiography and required reading for everyone interested in the history of sexuality.

Symonds's accomplishment must ultimately be seen in relation to the similar work of other nineteenth-century European homosexual thinkers, particularly Heinrich Hössli and Karl Heinrich Ulrichs. Furthermore, Symonds's liberation should not be overstated. He had inherited—particularly from his father, a respected and powerful Bristol physician who epitomized Victorian rectitude—the full panoply of official Victorian ideals, like "purity of conduct" and "respect for social law" (Symonds, 1984, pp. 127, 283), and he was never able to free himself completely from his culture's damning views; at one point in his Memoirs, for instance, Symonds calls his homosexuality a "besetting vice" (p. 283). Still, prompted by the new openings for homosexual expressiveness created by the individualist strains in Enlightenment and Romantic thought, Symonds persisted as no one before him in crafting a body of emancipatory homosexual writings aimed purposefully at "men constituted like me, [to] put on record the facts … so that [they] should feel that they are not alone" (pp. 266, 182–183). His achievement is all the more remarkable given the more openly menacing period in which he worked: 1885, just four years before Symonds began his Memoirs, saw the passage of the so-called Labouchere Amendment to the Criminal Law Amendments Act, whose new category of "gross indecency between men" made it easier to prosecute male homosexuals than ever before, and in 1895, two years after Symonds's death, Oscar Wilde (1854–1900) was convicted under the act and given the maximum sentence of two years at hard labor.

Symonds's work is further significant for the light it sheds on current issues in the new field of gay studies. For instance, in terms of the debate between "essentialists" and "constructionists" (i.e., between those who hold that sexual orientation is something "essential" to the person, constitutional and fundamentally unchangeable, and those who view it as a "cultural construction" and a personal choice assumed at will), Symonds is clearly the former. In his Memoirs, he reveals himself as attracted to other males from his earliest erotic recollections and as failing to "convert" to heterosexuality despite rigorous efforts. Furthermore, Symonds's flickerings of self-knowledge come not from the late-nineteenth-century sexology to which "constructionists" largely attribute the "modern invention" of homosexuality (a historical impossibility, since that field that did not even exist in Symonds's youth) but from literature, particularly his readings of Plato, Renaissance poetry, and Whitman. Relatedly, though Symonds was familiar with the new sexological literature by the time he was writing his Memoirs, he uses its scientistic terminology ("inversion," "homosexuality") reluctantly and sparingly in the text. Instead, Symonds's favorite terms for his orientation there are either earlier, affective, categorical language like "masculine love" (p. 99), or terminology derived from classical culture (e.g., "Greek love," p. 102), or extended descriptive phrases in everyday language that amount to de facto denotations of the subject, like "passion between males" or "a man's love for a man" (pp. 101, 266).

See alsoEllis, Havelock; Homosexuality and Lesbianism.


Primary Sources

James, Henry. Henry James Letters. 3 vols. Edited by Leon Edel. Cambridge, Mass., 1974–1984.

Ellis, Havelock, and John Addington Symonds. Sexual Inversion. London, 1897. Reprint, New York, 1975.

Schueller, Herbert M., and Robert L. Peters, eds. The Letters of John Addington Symonds. 3 vols. Detroit, Mich., 1967–1969.

Symonds, John Addington. Memoirs. Edited by Phyllis Grosskurth. New York, 1984.

Secondary Sources

Cady, Joseph. "'What Cannot Be': John Addington Symonds's Memoirs and Official Mappings of Victorian Homosexuality." Victorian Newsletter 81 (spring 1992): 47–51.

——. "John Addington Symonds." In The Gay and Lesbian Literary Heritage, edited by Claude J. Summers. New York, 1995.

Grosskurth, Phyllis. The Woeful Victorian: A Biography of John Addington Symonds. New York, 1964.

Robinson, Paul. Gay Lives: Homosexual Autobiography from John Addington Symonds to Paul Monette. Chicago, 1999.

Joseph Cady