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Symonds, John Addington (1840-1893)  
 
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John Addington Symonds was the most daring innovator in the history of nineteenth-century British homosexual writing and consciousness though some of his work was not entirely unprecedented and was also part of a more widespread movement in the earlier modern West toward greater homosexual frankness.

Because of homosexuality's official "unspeakableness" in his time, Symonds's plainest homosexual work had to remain private, and within that realm he produced some pioneering work, including several firsts.

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The "Private" Works

The poems that poured from him in the 1860s and 1870s and that he distributed to friends in private pamphlets of the mid- and late-1870s and the early 1880s--such as Lyra Viginti Chordarum, The Lotos Garland of Antinous, and Diego, Pantarkes, Rhaetica, Tales of Ancient Greece, Crocuses and Soldanellas, Old and New, Fragilia Labilia--are some of the frankest Victorian homosexual writing, if not always distinguished as literature.

He also wrote what he and his audiences thought were the first essays in defense of homosexuality in English, the privately printed and distributed A Problem in Greek Ethics (written in 1873, published 1883), based in the proficiency in the classics he gained at Oxford, and A Problem in Modern Ethics (1891), which focuses on later history as well as on the new sexology and ends with proposals for legal reform.

Perhaps most important, between 1889 and 1893 Symonds composed his unprecedented Memoirs, the first self-conscious homosexual autobiography known to us now, which remained unpublished until 1984 and which is an indispensable text in gay studies (and from which most of the personal quotations by him here are taken).

Moreover, the many letters Symonds wrote to other homosexuals--starting in 1863 with his friend Graham Dakyns and continuing with Horatio Brown, Walt Whitman, Edmund Gosse, Charles Kains-Jackson, and Edward Carpenter--though certainly not the first frank homosexual letters by a Western writer, are the first surviving examples in history of extensive and candid homosexual correspondence. They are a goldmine of Victorian homosexual experience and consciousness.

Furthermore, the private circulation of Symonds's work, especially of A Problem in Modern Ethics, whose fifty original copies were passed to many more hands, helped create toward the end of his life a confidential network of informed homosexuals who regarded him as a liberationist leader, "the Gladstone of the affair" as Henry James, one of that network's most interested members, dubbed him in an 1893 letter.

The Published Works

Symonds also included homosexual implication or direct content in his published work from relatively early in his career and increasingly in his final years.

In his 1876 Studies of the Greek Poets, Second Series, Symonds's effusive praise of Greek "friendship" and his brief remark that in ancient Greece "even paiderastia had its honourable aspects" led to a withering 1877 review essay, "The Greek Spirit in Modern Literature" by Richard St. John Tyrwhitt.

The critic's persistent use of coded language suggests that Symonds's homosexuality was already known to some resourceful Victorian readers: Tyrwhitt refers to Symonds's praise of "phallic ecstasy," to his "palpitations at male beauty," and to "the divine youths whose beauties he appreciates so thoroughly."

Symonds's complete translation of Michelangelo's sonnets in 1878 was the first in English and the first based on the accurate 1863 Gausti text, which corrected Michelangelo the Younger's heterosexualizing of the poems in his 1623 edition. Although not blunt about the sonnets' homosexuality, Symonds comes closer to divulging it than ever before by mentioning the earlier bowdlerizing of the poems about "masculine beauty" and by translating the sonnets to Tommaso Cavalieri in their true, male-male, form for the first time.

In addition, the four books of poems Symonds published publicly--Many Moods (1878), New and Old (1880), Animi Figura (1882), and Vagabunduli Libellus (1884)--have some protective heterosexual or sexually undifferentiated pieces but also contain enough frankly ardent male-male declarations that it is difficult to see how readers could not have been startled by them.

For example, in "The Meeting of David and Jonathan" (Many Moods), Jonathan takes David "In his arms of strength / [and] in that kiss / Soul into soul was knit and bliss to bliss"; and in "The Ponte di Paradiso" (New and Old), a male speaker in contemporary Venice frankly evokes a lost male love: "Once more, a living god, he stands, / . . . what electric thrill, / 'Twixt me and him, / Shot with a sudden ache that still / Makes daylight dim."

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