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Symonds, John Addington

Category: Poet


John Addington Symonds (5 October 1840 – 19 April 1893) was an English poet and literary critic. A cultural historian, he was known for his work on the Renaissance, as well as numerous biographies about writers and artists.

He was also bisexual.  He married and had a family - four daughters – but had a number of homosexual affairs before and after he was married.  He also wrote poetry based on his homosexual affairs.

But his spiritual experiences were not achieved via love or love-making, but by relaxation and chloroform, and of the two, that achieved via chloroform - which appears to have been a near death experience - was possibly the more profound for him.


John Symonds was born at Bristol, England in 1840. He attended Harrow school.  Public schools at the time were hotbeds of homosexual activity, as they were single sex schools, in a Victorian age of repression, where public schools often attracted homosexual teachers.  Symonds’ friend Alfred Pretor (1840–1908), for example, had an affair with their headmaster, Charles John Vaughan. Symonds was shocked and disgusted at the time.  As a student at Oxford University, he told the story to John Conington, the Latin professor, but Conington himself approved of romantic relationships between men and boys. He had earlier given Symonds a copy of Ionica, a collection of homoerotic verse by William Johnson Cory, "the influential Eton College master and advocate of pederastic pedagogy (Wikipedia)".


In the autumn of 1858, Symonds went to Balliol College, Oxford and in the spring of that same year, he fell in love with William Fear Dyer (1843–1905), a Bristol choirboy three years younger. “They engaged in a chaste love affair that lasted a year, until broken up by Symonds”.

The friendship continued for several years afterward, until at least 1864. Dyer became organist and choirmaster of St Nicholas' Church, Bristol. 

A ‘chaste love affair’ is simply a close and probably intense friendship, it is not homosexuality.  As such, question marks do linger over Symonds’ professed homosexuality.  He might be better described as a man who was capable of having very deep feelings for other men, where his expression of them involved some physical, but not necessarily sexual, displays of that affection.

There is added evidence for this in the problems he experienced during his time as a Fellow at the conservative Magdalen College. Whilst there he took in a private pupil - a C.G.H. Shorting.  When Symonds refused to help Shorting gain admission to Magdalen, the younger man wrote to school officials alleging that Symonds
 " had supported him in his pursuit of the chorister Walter Thomas Goolden (1848–1901), and that he shared his habits and was bent on the same path."

But Symonds was officially cleared of any wrongdoing.  The betrayal so upset him that he suffered a nervous breakdown from the stress and shortly thereafter left the university for Switzerland.

There he met Janet Catherine North (sister of botanical artist Marianne North, 1830–1890). They married at Hastings on 10 November 1864. They settled in London and had four daughters: Janet (born 1865), Charlotte (born 1867), Margaret (Madge) (born 1869) and Katharine (born 1875; she was later honoured for her writing as Dame Katharine Furse). Edward Lear wrote "The Owl and the Pussycat" for the 3-year-old Janet.

on the Berkshire Downs

But whilst in Clifton in 1868, Symonds met and formed a very deep and intense friendship with Norman Moor, a youth about to go up to Oxford, who became his pupil.  Although this intense friendship lasted 4 years, it too was chaste.  Confirmation yet again that he was capable of very deep feelings for other men.  The friendship occupied a good part of his time and on one occasion he left his family and travelled to Italy and Switzerland with Moor.  It also inspired his most productive period of writing poetry, published in 1880 as New and Old: A Volume of Verse.

Symonds health had never been good.  Whilst he was at Harrow school, for example, he did not take part in games after age 14, as he was ‘considered delicate’.  He had a number of bouts of serious illness.  In 1877, his life was in danger and he only managed to recover after a stay in Switzerland. His recovery at Davos-Platz led him to believe this was the only place where he was likely to enjoy life.  Symonds became a citizen of the town; took part in its municipal business, and made friends with the locals and shared their interests.  He was feverishly active throughout his life. Considering his poor health, ‘his productivity was remarkable’.

Symonds had a passion for Italy and for many years resided during the autumn in the house of his friend, Horatio F Brown, on the Zattere, in Venice. He died in Rome and was buried close to the grave of Percy Bysshe Shelley.

During his life, his health was a continual preoccupation for Symonds and he was prone to understandably melancholic periods.  But in Talks and Talkers, the contemporary writer Robert Louis Stevenson described Symonds (known as "Opalstein" in Stevenson's essay) as

the best of talkers, singing the praises of the earth and the arts, flowers and jewels, wine and music, in a moonlight, serenading manner, as to the light guitar.


At Oxford University, Symonds took a first in Mods and won the Newdigate prize with a poem on "The Escorial"; in 1862 he obtained a first in Literae Humaniores, and in 1863 won the Chancellor's English Essay.


In 1873, he wrote A Problem in Greek Ethics, inspired by the poetry of Walt Whitman, with whom he corresponded. The work, "perhaps the most exhaustive eulogy of Greek love," remained unpublished for a decade, and then was printed at first only in a limited edition for private distribution. 

Aware of the taboo nature of his subject matter, Symonds defined "Greek love" in the essay itself as

"a passionate and enthusiastic attachment subsisting between man and youth, recognised by society and protected by opinion, which, though it was not free from sensuality, did not degenerate into mere licentiousness."

and in this we probably have the confirmation that Symonds was not a homosexual in the way it is defined today.  He appears to have practised 'Greek pederasty'. Pederasty in ancient Greece was a socially acknowledged erotic relationship between an adult male and a younger male.

Symonds lectured at the college and ladies' schools in Clifton and from his lectures, he prepared the essays in his Introduction to the Study of Dante (1872) and Studies of the Greek Poets (1873–1876).

Over a century after Symonds' death his first work on homosexuality Soldier Love and Related Matter was finally published by Andrew Dakyns (grandson of Symonds' associate, Henry Graham Dakyns), Eastbourne, E. Sussex, England 2007. This translation of a German version and edition by Dakyns is the only version ever to appear in the author's own language.

by Orsi

New and Old: A Volume of Verse, published in 1880, and his most productive period of writing poetry, was inspired by his deep friendship with Norman Moor.

Meanwhile he was also occupied with his major work, Renaissance in Italy, which appeared in seven volumes at intervals between 1875 and 1886. It was based on his prize essay on the Renaissance at Oxford.

Animi Figura (1882) is a collection of sonnets.

Our Life in the Swiss Highlands (1891) describes his time at his home in Davos.

There he wrote most of his other books: biographies of Shelley (1878), Philip Sidney (1886), Ben Jonson (1886) and Michelangelo (1893).  His translations of Michelangelo's sonnets to the painter's beloved Tommaso Cavalieri restore the male pronouns which had been made female by previous editors.

Several volumes of poetry and essays followed along with a translation of the Autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini (1887).  There, too, he completed his study of the Renaissance, the work for which he is chiefly remembered.

Two works, a volume of essays, In the Key of Blue, and a monograph on Walt Whitman, were published in the year of his death. His activity was unbroken to the last.



Symonds left his papers and his autobiography in the hands of his friend, Horatio F Brown, who wrote a biography in 1895.

Unfortunately, Edmund Gosse stripped it of 'homoerotic' content before publication. In 1926, upon coming into the possession of Symonds' papers, Gosse also burned everything except the memoirs, to the dismay of Symonds' granddaughter.

Paintings on this page

The paintings on this page are by Alexander Mann (22 January 1853 – 26 January 1908) , a Scottish landscape and genre painter. He was a member of New English Art Club and Royal Institute of Oil Painters.

The sheepfold


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