Victorian Literature John Addington Symonds
by
Howard J. Booth
  • LAST REVIEWED: 24 May 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 20 September 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199799558-0096

Introduction

John Addington Symonds (b. 1840–d. 1893) is now best known as the earliest significant writer on homosexuality in Britain; he was also a major cultural critic. His work is coming to be viewed as occupying a pivotal point between old models inherited from the Enlightenment and romanticism and modern, post-1900 structures of thought. It receives attention from, among others, those working in queer studies, art historians and theorists, scholars of aestheticism and British Hellenism, and historians of the Renaissance. His output has been seen as part of a historical project that aimed at self-effectuation, especially for those condemned as sick and sinful. His writings about his own life—his Memoirs were first published in edited form in 1984—have been much discussed in lesbian and gay studies and in auto/biographical studies. Symonds’s exploration of ancient Greek culture, where his major work is Studies in the Greek Poets (Volume 1, 1873; Volume 2, 1876), have made him an important figure in debates on Victorian Hellenism. Ancient Greece also informed his account of “the Renaissance.” Symonds played a major role in disseminating the work of cultural historians such as Jules Michelet and Jacob Burckhardt to English-speaking readers; he also gave them his own inflection. Criticism addressing Symonds and other writers—whether these were writers he admired, such as Walt Whitman and Arthur Hugh Clough, or those with whom he had difficult and fraught relationships, such as Algernon Charles Swinburne and Walter Pater—has begun to address Symonds’s relationship to aestheticism, decadence, and a nascent modernism. Symonds’s response to Italy and Switzerland, which includes volumes of travel writing, has so far received less attention; the same is true of his extensive body of verse. The same broad base of existing scholarship is not found in work on other Victorian writers. Symonds’s sexuality meant that for many years key texts were not available, and critics did not want to discuss those texts that were. From the mid-1980s, however, his life and writing came to be of scholarly interest precisely because of his sexuality.

Bibliographies

Babington 1925 and Markgraf 1975 remain useful despite their age. Consulting more recent critical texts can help overcome the absence of an up-to-date, full bibliography.

  • Babington, Percy L. Bibliography of the Writings of John Addington Symonds. London: John Castle, 1925.

    E-mail Citation »

    Babington’s remains the only bibliography of Symonds’s writings. Its listing of Symonds’s numerous contributions to periodicals is particularly useful, as many had appeared anonymously. (Babington liaised closely with Symonds’s friend, literary executor, and first biographer Horatio F. Brown.) Caution is needed, however: it is incomplete as well as inaccurate. Babington ascribes an essay on Johann Joachim Winckelmann to Symonds that is in fact the first journal publication of an influential essay by Walter Pater.

  • Markgraf, Charles. “John Addington Symonds: An Annotated Bibliography of Writings about Him.” English Literature in Transition, 1880–1920 18.2 (1975): 79–138.

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    Markgraf’s impressive piece is still very useful, especially for the entries on the reviews that Symonds (and later volumes about him) received in Britain and North America to the mid-1970s. Even brief references to Symonds are recorded. Inevitably, since Markgraf published his bibliography further texts have been identified. Also more of the reviews that appeared anonymously can be attributed.

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