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John Addington Symonds to Walt Whitman, 28 November 1884

 loc_vm.00325_large.jpg Dear Mr. Whitman

One of your always welcome & ever venerated tokens has reached me here tonight (closely following a predecessor); in the shape of "The Critic" for Nov 8, containing lines by you, which show that the old Master has not lost his own inimitable cunning.2

I also hear from a dear friend of mine Edward Clifford3 that he has been seeing you, & (what is very valuable news) that he has made a drawing of you. This I shall get a sight of, doubtless, soon after his return to England—in photograph at least.

Now I want to tell you why it is I have never lately sent you tokens in the shape of work by me. It is not from want of love for you, not because I am not always in communion with you:—that I am, & so are all my friends; there is a fine young fellow, son of Col Brackenbury,4 lying dead now in my neighbor's house, whose mother brought  loc_vm.00326_large.jpg me back to day a copy of Leaves of Grass wh.​ I had lent him last March & wh.​ had been his constant companion ever since.

No: it is not that I do not love you, & do not dwell with you, that I have sent no token of my work. One reason is that I judge my work unworthy of you in the first place, & in the second place so contrary to your canons of literary production that I can hardly imagine you can care for it.

Now, however, I hurl from 3 several publishers three little books at your devoted (most sacred) head:—just to show you that the chord of sympathy wh.​ finds me as disciple in soul to you is still glowing; even though the conditions in wh.​ I have been developed, prevent me from following your precepts further than in the resolute endeavor to be sincere & thorough.


You will see that I have stamped my two books of Sonnets with the heraldic coat borne by my ancestors for the last five hundred years. The 3 trefoils signify for me "The Whole, the Good, the Beautiful," as is shown by the motto from Goethe. You may not object to the "feudalism" of these arms, if I tell you that our patriot John Hampden5 bore them by right of his wife (my Maternal ancestress), & that Samuel Symonds6 brought them to America in 1639 or thereabouts as Depty Govr​ . of New England under Winthrop. He gave the names to Ipswich & Toppesfield (ancestral places of England) in that state.

I have made this discourse to conquer any prejudice wh.​ you might feel against books stamped with so effete & obsolete a gimcrack as a coat of arms! One Sonnet on p: 145 of "Vagabunduli Libellus"7 explains the meaning of that coat for me.

In sections "Among the Mountains" & "Envoy to a Book", you will find many Sonnet-references to my life up here, 5200 feet above sea-level. It is not a bad life. I have wife & children around me, home of my own, nearly all the peasants for familiar  loc_vm.00328_large.jpg friends (especially young fellows, drivers, teamsters, post officials, farmers), & have besides a heap of books & plenty of literary work to do—this last, however, not remunerative.

I suffer from a chronic disease of the lungs, the result of breaking an artery seven years ago while riding a stubborn horse in England. But I find that much exercise in the open air & regular habits give me a fair amount of physical vigour yet; enough to enjoy the society of simple folk & to carry on the sort of work I have selected.

I will send you photos of my house, myself (done by Clifford), & 3 of my daughters.

I am sincerely glad to hear that you are still tolerably hearty & around among your friends. Believe me most sincerely yours

John Addington Symonds—

I always feel Calamus more deeply than any part of your work; & the reason why I have not published much that I have written about your poems, is that I cannot get quite to the bottom of Calamus. I wish I had your light upon it!

 loc_vm.00323_large.jpg  loc_vm.00324_large.jpg from J. A. Symonds | Davos Platz | Switzerland | Nov. ’84.

John Addington Symonds (1840–1893), a prominent biographer, literary critic, and poet in Victorian England, was author of the seven-volume history Renaissance in Italy, as well as Walt Whitman—A Study (1893), and a translator of Michelangelo's sonnets. 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. See Andrew C. Higgins, "Symonds, John Addington [1840–1893]," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998).


  • 1. This letter is addressed: W. Whitman | 328 Mickle Street | Camden New Jersey | Pensylvania | America U.S.A. It is postmarked: DAVOS PLATZ | 28 XI.84[illegible]; DAVOS [illegible] | 28 XI.84[illegible]; NEW YORK | DEC | 7; PAID | F | ALL; CAMDEN, N.J. | DEC | 8 | 8 AM | 1884 | REC'D. [back]
  • 2. Symonds is referring to Whitman's poem "The Dead Tenor," which appeared in The Critic that day. [back]
  • 3. Edward Clifford (1844–1907) was an English artist and friend of Symonds. Whitman had sat for a portrait at the home of Robert Pearsall Smith in October 1884. [back]
  • 4. Henry Brackenbury (1837–1914) was a British Army officer and historian. [back]
  • 5. John Hampden (1595–1643) was an English parliamentarian and was remembered for his role in challenging the rule of Charles I. [back]
  • 6. Samuel Symonds (c.1595–1678) was a politician in colonial Massachusetts and Deputy Governor of the commonwealth. According to Herbert Harlakenden Gilchrist, John Addington Symonds was a descendant of Samuel (Anne Gilchrist, Her Life and Writings [London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1887], 5). [back]
  • 7. Vagabunduli Libellus [1884] was the title of one of the books of sonnets that Symonds sent Whitman; the sonnet on p. 145 is titled "A Coat of Arms" and begins, "Three golden trefoils starred on an azure field. . . ." [back]
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