In the study of “Greek love,” one comes across many euphemisms. I like this bit of how Symonds talks around a particular issue, in an 1869 letter to A.H. Clough’s wife Blanche:
I like your MS. on Shakespeare’s Sonnets. The analysis of the gradual improvement in stability and elevation of feeling is very good. You quote rather awkwardly and do not enough comment on the passage quoted. What makes you credit [Shakespeare critic Richard] Simpson with ‘authority’? He has only stated an ingenious hypothesis; and in his attempt, I fancy, to screen Sh. from a vile imputation has not noticed the palpable intensity of personal, historically biographically personal, emotion the sonnets contain. I think he has written the best book on the subject. But you have detected one point which, I think, he forgets and which rather breaks down his argument—the low opinion expressed for women. Now if Sh. had meant only to follow the Italians, he would not have addressed a man and shown coldness to women. He took their form of art and their subtleties of emotional analysis; but what he felt was radically different—a passion which, as in Greece, bred a contempt for the weaker sex. At least, I cannot help thinking this. At the same time he is not the mouthpiece of Platonism. It is all original, fresh sentiment. The great problem is: how near was he after all to his idol? Were they real companions? Or did Sh. worship at a distance? This, alas! we shall never know; and the sonnets must always be a mystery to us.
I am, as regular readers will no doubt know, continually fascinated by the language Victorians writing about sexuality use to disguise or elide the fact that they’re writing about sexuality. This is still more interesting because Symonds is writing to an older woman, and yet it is quite easy to read between the lines and see that he is being as frank as he feels he can be to Mrs Clough about the nature of the Sonnets and their mysterious dedicatee.
As the Oxford system is giving me a lot more time to sit around in reading rooms mulling over Victorians, expect more posts of this nature to come, at least until I need to start writing about the Victorians as well. I find it useful to try out brief readings and explications as I figure out what my Symonds project is actually going to pursue, and I hope this won’t prove uninteresting to the reader.