This slice of today’s research is brought to you by the Euphemism of the Day: “Aesthetical Sybaritism.”
And now the main course: Symonds to Whitman, 7 February 1872:
I have pored for continuous hours over the pages of Calamus (as I used to pore over the pages of Plato), longing to hear you speak, burning for a revelation of your more developed meaning, panting to ask—is this what you would indicate?… Yet I dared not to address you or dreamed that the thoughts of a student could abide the inevitable shafts of your searching intuition.
Have you ever seen that much focus of eroticized language on a problem of close-reading, dear reader? I haven’t. (Also, I am in a good position to appreciate now that in this letter Symonds describes Oxford as “an over refined University.”)
According to Horace Traubel, the poet reacted thus to Symonds’ letters: “Symonds has got into our crowd in spite of his culture: I tell you we don’t give away places in our crowd easy—a man has to sweat to get in.”
Reader, read that line carefully a few times and then tell me it isn’t one of the most interesting lines in the entire Symonds-related corpus. The implication that there are two, competing, cultures of emerging homosexuality here—one in which you read Plato, one which you “sweat to get in”—is very interesting. One of the themes various advisors have suggested I explore in this project is Symonds’ relationship to Culture with a Victorian capital C, and where his efforts to define culture and to write cultural history fit into broader ideas about Victorian culture, such as Matthew Arnold’s. In A Problem in Greek Ethics and A Problem in Modern Ethics, Symonds pulls together a lot of different threads in order to create a representation of a unified homosexual culture; by distributing those essays and corresponding with a wide network of fellow intellectuals about them and about related themes, he does a lot to further the instantiation of the interpersonal networks that themselves constitute a society and a culture. It’s really interesting to think of someone like Whitman resisting not just Symonds’ efforts to label him as an endorser of παιδεραστια but also a lot of other trappings Symonds brings with him, like the tendency to write “παιδεραστια” without transliterating it (see, even when I do that here, it looks exclusionary!), and an education at “an over refined University.” Symonds’ efforts to be embarrassed about his bourgeois upbringing and his enthusiastic endorsement of the Whitman-and-Carpenter model of homoerotic democratic socialism don’t really erase the fact that he’s coming from a really different place from Whitman, and nevertheless trying to assimilate Whitman into his admittedly quite bourgeois understanding of what the love of comrades is.
So yes, as I’ve been saying for about the past two years, Whitman’s “I have six illegitimate grandchildren” line isn’t a disavowal of his love of men, or, in 1970s terms, a self-closeting. It’s a counterattack in a battle about what homosexual literary and intellectual culture is going to be, heading into the last decade of the 19th century. I guess the interesting thing, then, is that Whitman dies in 1892 and Symonds dies in 1893, and then the Wilde trials are in 1895. Wilde’s love-of-comrades speech from the witness box pretty well eclipses, in the public and newspaper-reading eye, anything Edward Carpenter et al. are running around saying about Urningliebe and socialism. The question is, then, how Wilde read Symonds, how Wilde read Whitman, and whose understanding of the meaning of “Culture” he is disseminating when he introduces the British public to the love that dare not speak its name.