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John Addington Symonds to Walt Whitman, 3 August 1890

 loc_vm.00347_large.jpg My dear Master

I received your card of July 201 in due course two days ago. It makes me feel how very remiss I have been in not acknowledging the volume of your Complete Works,2 which I am already in the habit of calling to myself "Whitman's Bible," & which remains the colossal monument of your arduous life-labours—monumentum aere perennius, as Horace says.3

Reading this great book, I found on p: 291 in "Collect"4 the passage I quoted from the essay known to me under its old title of "Poetry of the Future." But it was then too late to alter the reference in my own essay on "Democratic Art" w. had been printed a considerable time before it was published.5 I hope to have a second edition of my "Essays Speculative & Suggestive" (for only 750 copies were printed); & if I do so, I shall remodel the whole drift of that article.

Now I must thank you for the generous & to  loc_vm.00348_large.jpg me most highly acceptable, by me most reverently guarded, gift of your portraits—a sheaf of portraits unique in their significance & interest.6 Many friends have shared with me the pleasure & profit of studying & comparing them. If you have no objection to the idea, I should like to have some of the photographs of middle & later life reproduced by a permanent process, which has recently been invented by a very able chemist at Munich: Obernetter.7 I will send you a specimen of his skill, the reproduction of one of Rembrandt's etchings,8 which will bear the closest comparison with the original.

I want next to ask you a question about a very important portion of your teaching, which has puzzled a great many of your disciples & admirers. To tell the truth, I have always felt unable to deal, as I wish to do, comprehensively with your philosophy of life, because I do not even yet understand  loc_vm.00349_large.jpg the whole drift of "Calamus."9 If you have read Mr. Havelock Ellis' "New Spirit,"10 w. contains a study of your work in thought & speculation, you may have noticed on p: 108 that he expresses some perplexity about the doctrine of "manly love", & again on p: 121 he uses this phrase "the intimate & physical love of comrades & lovers".

This reference to Havelock Ellis helps me to explain what it is I want to ask you. In your conception of comradeship, do you contemplate the possible intrusion of those semi-sexual emotions & actions which no doubt do occur between men? I do not ask, whether you approve of them, or regard them as a necessary part of the relation? But I should much like to know whether you are prepared to leave them to the inclinations & the conscience of the individuals concerned?11

For my own part, after mature deliberation, I hold that the present laws of France & Italy are right upon this topic of morality. They place the personal relations of adults of both sexes upon the same foundation: that is to say,  loc_vm.00350_large.jpg they protect minors, punish violence, & guard against outrages of public decency. Within these limitations, they leave individuals to do what they think fit. But, as you know, these principles are in open contradiction with the principles of English (and I believe American) legislation.

It has not infrequently occurred to me among my English friends to hear your "Calamus" objected to, as praising & propagating a passionate affection between men, which (in the language of the objectors) has "a very dangerous side," & might "bring people into criminality."

Now: it is of the utmost importance to me as your disciple, & as one who wants sooner or later to diffuse a further knowledge of your life-philosophy by criticism; it is most important to me to know what you really think about all this.

I agree with the objectors I have mentioned that, human nature being what it is, & some men having a strong natural bias toward  loc_vm.00351_large.jpg persons of their own sex, the enthusiasm of "Calamus" is calculated to encourage ardent & physical intimacies.

But I do not agree with them in thinking that such a result would be absolutely prejudicial to social interests, which I am certain that you are right in expecting a new Chivalry (if I may so speak) from one of the main & hitherto imperfectly developed factors of the human emotional nature. This, I take it, is the spiritual outcome of your doctrine in Calamus.

And, as I have said, I prefer the line adopted by French & Italian legislature to that of the English penal code.

Finally, what I earnestly desire to know is whether you are content to leave the ethical problems regarding the private behaviour of comrades toward each other, to the persons' own sense of what is right & fit—or whether, on the other hand, you have never contemplated while uttering the Gospel of Comradeship, the possibility of any such delicate difficulties occurring.

Will you enlighten me on this? If I am not allowed to hear from yourself or from some one who will communicate your views, I fear I shall never be  loc_vm.00352_large.jpg able to utter what I want to tell the world about your teaching, with the confidence & the thorough sense of not misinterpreting you in one way or the other which are inseparable from truly sympathetic & powerful exposition.

The precise drift of "Whoever you are"—what the one indispensible thing is—I cannot get at; & I am not sure what the drift of "Earth my likeness" is.—Ah, if I could only once have spoken to you, you would certainly have let me know.—Lieber Mann, geehrter Meister, das fehlt mir doch!12

It is perhaps strange that a man within 2 months of completing his 50th year should care at all about this ethical bearing of Calamus. Of course I do not care much about it, except that ignorance on the subject prevents me from forming a complete view of your life-philosophy.

Believe me truly gratefully & affectionately yours John Addington Symonds

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 postal card has not been located. [back]
  • 2. Whitman's Complete Poems & Prose (1888), a volume Whitman often referred to as the "big book," was published by the poet himself—in an arrangement with publisher David McKay, who allowed Whitman to use the plates for both Leaves of Grass and Specimen Days—in December 1888. With the help of Horace Traubel, Whitman made the presswork and binding decisions for the volume. Frederick Oldach bound the book, which included a profile photo of the poet on the title page. For more information on the book, see Ed Folsom, Whitman Making Books/Books Making Whitman: A Catalog and Commentary (University of Iowa: Obermann Center for Advanced Studies, 2005). [back]
  • 3. "A monument to outlast bronze," comes from the first line of Horace's Ode 3.30: My Monuument. [back]
  • 4. The first issue of Whitman's Specimen Days and Collect was published by the Philadelphia firm of Rees Welsh and Company in 1882. The second issue was published by David McKay. Many of the autobiographical notes, sketches, and essays that focus on the poet's life during and beyond the Civil War had been previously published in periodicals or in Memoranda During the War (1875–1876). For more information on Specimen Days, see George Hutchinson and David Drews "Specimen Days [1882]," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]
  • 5. Whitman was largely unimpressed with Symonds's "Democratic Arts." For his remarks on the essay, see Horace Traubel, With Walt Whitman in Camden, Tuesday, July 29, 1890. [back]
  • 6. These and other photographic portraits of Whitman can be found in The Walt Whitman Archive's Image Gallery. Symonds could be referring to either of these two photographs: zzz.00118, zzz.00117. He mentions the portraits again in his December 22, 1890, letter to Dr. John Johnston, where he expresses a desire to see Johnston's photograph of Whitman and "Warry" (Warren Fritzinger 1867–1899), the poet's nurse since the beginning of October 1889 (Horace Traubel, With Walt Whitman in Camden, Monday, February 9, 1891). See also Whitman's August 19, 1890, letter to Symonds, in which the poet writes that he would "cheerfully endorse the Munich reproduction." [back]
  • 7. Johann Baptist Obernetter (1840–1887) was a German chemist and photographic manufacturer. [back]
  • 8. Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn (1606–1669), usually known as Rembrandt, was a Dutch visual artist. He is known primarily for his paintings and etchings. [back]
  • 9. "Calamus" was first published in the 1860 edition of Leaves of Grass. The poem cluster is known for its homoeroticism and celebration of "the manly love of comrades." [back]
  • 10. Havelock Ellis (1859–1939), a physician and pioneer in the study of human sexuality, devoted a chapter of The New Spirit (1890) to Whitman. Symonds' page references are consistent with the first edition published in London by George Bell and Sons, 1890. [back]
  • 11. Whitman addresses Symonds' concerns over the "semi-sexual" implications of comradeship in his drafted August 19 letter: "Ab't the questions on Calamus pieces &c: they quite daze me. L of G. is only to be rightly construed by and within its own atmosphere and essential character—all of its pages & pieces so coming strictly under that—that the calamus part has even allow'd the possibility of such construction as mention'd is terrible—I am fain to hope the pages themselves are not to be even mention'd for such gratuitous and quite at the time entirely undream'd & unreck'd possibility of morbid inferences—wh' are disavow'd by me & seem damnable."

    Symonds' reply on September 5 concealed his disappointment. As a disciple he thanked the poet for stating "so clearly & precisely what you feel about the question I raised." But his opinion remained unchanged: "It seems to me, I confess, still doubtful whether (human nature being what it is) we can expect wholly to eliminate some sensual alloy from any emotions which are raised to a very high pitch of passionate intensity." The same reservation appears in A Problem in Modern Ethics (1896): "No one who knows anything about Walt Whitman will for a moment doubt his candour and sincerity. Therefore the man who wrote 'Calamus,' and preached the gospel of comradeship, entertains feelings at least as hostile to sexual inversion as any law-abiding humdrum Anglo-Saxon could desire. It is obvious that he has not even taken the phenomena of abnormal instinct into account. Else he must have foreseen that, human nature being what it is, we cannot expect to eliminate all sexual alloy from emotions raised to a high pitch of passionate intensity, and that permanent elements within the midst of our society will emperil the absolute purity of the ideal he attempts to establish" (Symonds, A Problem in Modern Ethics: Being an Inquiry into the Phenomenon of Sexual Inversion [London: 1896], 119).

  • 12. Symonds's sentence, translated from the German, reads "Dear one, honored master, I am missing something!" [back]
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