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John Addington Symonds to Walt Whitman, 5 September 1890

 loc_vm.00353.jpg My dear Master

I am sincerely obliged to you for your letter of August 19.1 It is a great relief to me to know so clearly & precisely what you feel about the question I raised. Your phrases "gratuitous & quite at the time undreamed & unrecked possibility of morbid inferences—which are disavowed by me & seem damnable," set the matter as straight as can be, base this doctrine of Calamus upon a foundation of granite.2

I am not surprised; for this indeed is what I understood to be your meaning, since I have studied Leaves of Grass in the right way—interpreting each part by reference to the whole & in the spirit of the whole. The result of this study was that the "adhesiveness" of comradeship had no interblending with the "amativemess" of sexual love.

Yet you must not think that the "morbid inferences," which to you "seem damnable," are quite "gratuitous" or outside of the range of possibility. Frankly speaking, the emotional language of Calamus is such as hitherto has not been used in the modern world about the relation between friends. For a student of ancient literature it presents a singular analogue to the early Greek loc_vm.00354.jpg enthusiasm of comradeship in arms—as that appeared among the Dorian tribes, & made a chivalry for prehistoric Hellas. And you know what singluar anomalies were connected with this lofty sentiment in the historic period of Greek development.

Again, you cannot be ignorant that a certain percentage (small but appreciable) of male beings are always born into the world, whose sexual instincts are what the Germans call "inverted". During the last 25 years much attention, in France, Germany, Austria & Italy, has been directed to the psychology & pathology of these abnormal persons. In 1889 the Penal Code of Italy was altered by the erasion of their eccentricities from the list of crimes.

Looking then to the lessons of the past in ancient Greece, where a heroic chivalry of comradeship grew intertwined with moral abominations (I speak as a modern man), & also to the Contemporary problem offered by the class of persons I have mentioned—who will certainly have somehow to be dealt with in the light of science, since the eyes of science have been loc_vm.00355.jpg drawn towards them: looking, I say, to both these things, it became of the utmost importance to know for certain what you thought about those "morbid inferences". For you have announced clearly that a great spiritual factor lies latent in Comradeship, ready to leap forth & to take a prominent part in the energy of the human race. It is, I repeat, essential that the interpreters of your prophecy should be able to speak authoritatively & decisively about their Master's Stimmung, his radical instinct with regard to the emotional & moral quality of the comradeship he announces.

I am sorry to have annoyed you with this discussion. But you will see, I hope now, that it was not wholly unnecessary or unprofitable.

With the explanation you have placed in my hands, in which you give me liberty to use, I can speak with no uncertain voice, & with no dread lest the enemy should blaspheme.

The conclusion reached is, to my mind, in every way satisfactory. I am so profoundly convinced that you are right in all you say about the great good which is to be expected from Comradeship as you conceive it, & as alone it can be a salutary loc_vm.00356.jpg human bond, that the power of repudiating those "morbid inferences" authoritatively—should they ever be made seriously or uttered openly, either by your detractors or by the partizans of some vicious crankiness—sets me quite at ease as to my own course.

I will tell my bookseller in London to send you a copy of the "Contemporary" in which there is an essay by me on the "Dantesque & Platonic Ideals of Love." You will see something there about the Dorian Chivalry of Comradeship to wh. I have alluded in this letter. 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. But the moralizing of the emotions must be left to social feeling & opinion in general, & ultimately to the individual conscience.

I am greatly interested in your "Rejoinder"3 (wh. by the way has been reprinted in the PMG). Anything you say about the inception & performance of your great life-work has value.—I have been ill; six days in bed with high fever, a lung-inflammation serious to me; only just up again for a few hours.

Ever yours with deep gratitude & true affection. 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. Symonds is referring to Whitman's letter of August 19, 1890, a draft of which is extant. [back]
  • 2. In response to Symonds' points over the "semi-sexual" implications of comradeship in his letter of August 3, Whitman wrote in a draft letter of August 19: "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 Studies in Sexual Inversion (1897): "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".

  • 3. Whitman commented on Symonds' chapter, "Democratic Art," from Essays Speculative and Suggestive (London: Chapman and Hall, 1890), 237–268, in "An Old Man's Rejoinder," which appeared in The Critic 17 (August 16, 1890), 85–86. Whitman's "Rejoinder" was also reprinted in Good-Bye My Fancy (Prose Works 1892, Volume 2: Collect and Other Prose, ed. Floyd Stovall [New York: New York University Press, 1964], 655–658). [back]
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