John Addington Symonds, a prominent biographer, literary critic, and poet in Victorian England, was in his time most famous as the author of the seven-volume history The Renaissance in Italy. But in the smaller circles of the emerging upper-class English homosexual community, he was also well known as a writer of homoerotic poetry and a pioneer in the study of homosexuality, or sexual inversion as it was then known.
After receiving his B.A. degree from Oxford, Symonds became a fellow of Magdalen College in 1862. However, within a short time charges of homosexuality were leveled against him. Symonds, though cleared of the charges, was forced to leave. Soon after this he began his career as an independent scholar and reviewer, and over the next thirty years produced studies of Dante, Shelley, Shakespeare, Michelangelo, various other Renaissance figures, and Walt Whitman.
In 1891 Symonds published A Problem in Modern Ethics, which explored the notion of sexual inversion. This work gave him his first widespread exposure as a homosexual. He was subsequently sought out by the young psychologist Havelock Ellis to write a scientific exploration of homosexuality. The work, titled Sexual Inversion, was first published in Germany in 1896, and a year later in England. Symonds, however, had died in Rome on 19 April 1893, the same day on which his biography of Walt Whitman was published in London.
Symonds first read Whitman in 1865, and began corresponding with him six years later. His most famous letter was written in August of 1890 wherein, after years of indirect questioning, Symonds directly asked Whitman about the homosexual content of the "Calamus" poems. This prompted Whitman's famous reply in which he denied the "morbid inferences" (Whitman 282) and, as way of proof, claimed to have fathered six children, apparently unaware that Symonds himself had fathered four. Whitman's fantastic paternal claim has since been the source of many a wild goose chase on the part of Whitman biographers intent on proving the poet's heterosexuality. Critics who acknowledge Whitman's homosexual leanings have also given this letter much thought, offering a range of reasons for its tone and exaggeration, from Whitman's concern about his public image and literary reputation to his hostility to Symonds's rigid conception of sexuality.
Grosskurth, Phyllis. John Addington Symonds. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1964.
Symonds, John Addington, Jr. The Letters of John Addington Symonds. Ed. Herbert M. Schueller and Robert L. Peters. 3 vols. Detroit: Wayne State UP, 1967–1969.
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____. Walt Whitman: A Study. 1893. New York: Dutton, 1906.
Whitman, Walt. Selected Letters of Walt Whitman. Ed. Edwin Haviland Miller. Iowa City: U of Iowa P, 1990.