When people ask me that question—as a colleague did, the other day, in the British Library café—I tell them the story chronologically: how years ago I won an essay competition and the prize was Michael Robertson’s book Worshipping Walt: The Whitman Disciples, and how in that book I first read about Symonds and his poignant efforts to get Whitman to agree that his adhesive love and the Platonic eros were really one and the same. How it was just happenstance, and then I got hooked, and the rest is history. I leave out, when I tell that story, the hours spent wading through the immense paper trail Symonds left behind, the hundreds of pages of notes on Homer and the hundreds of pages of letters about how boring Davos Platz, Switzerland is and how tiresome the politicking of being the President of the Committee for the International Toboggan Race is. I leave out the moments when, slogging through heavy-handed Hegelian narratives of 16th-century Italian sculpture, or equally heavy-handed metaphors about desire strung through Petrarchan sonnet after Petrarchan sonnet, I come to doubt whether this guy I’m spending my life with actually matters, and whether the man who I first encountered in Robertson’s book ever existed at all.
But humanistic endeavor is a kind of religion, and through doubt we come again to faith. Here is a long letter that Symonds wrote in 1889 from his Swiss exile to his old tutor and lifelong friend, Benjamin Jowett, Master of Balliol:
My dear Master,—I am glad to hear from the last letter you wrote me that you have abandoned the idea of an essay on Greek love. Little good could come of such a treatise in your book.
It surprises me to find you, with your knowledge of Greek history, speaking of this in Plato as “mainly a figure of speech.”—It surprises me as much as I seem to surprise you when I repeat that the study of Plato is injurious to a certain number of predisposed young men.—
Many forms of passion between males are matters of fact in English schools, colleges, cities, rural districts. Such passion is innate in some persons no less than the ordinary sexual appetite is innate in the majority. With the nobler of such predetermined temperaments the passion seeks a spiritual or ideal transfiguration. When, therefore, individuals of the indicated species come into contact with the reveries of Plato, (clothed in graceful diction, immersed in the peculiar emotion, presented with considerable dramatic force, gilt with a mystical philosophy, throbbing with the realism of actual Greek life), the effect upon them has the force of a revelation. They discover that what they had been blindly groping after was once an admitted possibility—not a mean hole or corner—but that the race whose literature forms the basis of their higher culture, lived in that way, aspired in that way. For such students of Plato there is no question of “figures of speech,” but of concrete facts, facts in the social experience of Athens, from which men derived courage, drew intellectual illumination, took their fist step in the path which led to great achievements and the arduous pursuit of truth.
Greek history confirms, by a multitude of legends and of actual episodes, what Plato puts forth as a splendid vision, and subordinates to the higher philosophic life.
It is futile by any evasion of the central difficulty, by any dexterity in the use of words, to escape from the stubborn fact that natures so exceptionally predisposed find in Plato the encouragement of their furtively cherished dreams. The Lysis, the Charmides, the Phaedrus, the Symposium—how many varied and unimaginative pictures these dialogues contain of what is only a sweet poison to such minds!
Meanwhile the temptations of the actual world surround them: friends of like temper, boys who respond to kindness, reckless creatures abroad upon the common ways of life. Eros Pandemos is everywhere. Plato lends the light, the gleam, that never was on sea or shore.
Thus Plato delays the damnation of these souls by ensnaring the noblest part of them—their intellectual imagination. And strong as custom may be, strong as piety, strong as the sense of duty, these restraints have always been found frail against the impulse of powerful inborn natural passion and the allurements of inspired art.
The contest in the Soul is terrible, and victory, if gained, is only won at the cost of a struggle which thwarts and embitters.
We do not know how many English youths have been injured in this way. More, I firmly believe, than is suspected. Educators, when they diagnose the disease, denounce it. That is easy enough, because low and social taste are with them, and because the person incriminated feels too terribly the weight of law and custom. He has nothing to urge in self-defence—except his inborn instinct, and the fact that those very men who condemn him, have placed the most electrical literature of the world in his hands, pregnant with the stuff that damns him. Convention rules us so strangely that the educators do all this only because it always has been done—in a blind dull confidence—fancying that the lads in question are as impervious as they themselves are to the magnetism of the books they bid them study and digest.
Put yourself in the place of someone to whom the aspect of Greek life which you ignore is personally and intensely interesting, who reads his Plato as you would wish him to read his Bible—i.e. with a vivid conviction that what he reads is the life-record of a masterful creative man—determining race, and the monument of a world-important epoch.
Can you pretend that a sympathetically constituted nature of the sort in question will desire nothing from the panegyric of paederastic love in the Phaedrus, from the personal grace of Charmides, from the mingled realism and rapture of the Symposium? What you call a figure of speech, is heaven in hell to him—maddening, because it is stimulating to the imagination; wholly out of accord with the world he has to live in; too deeply in accord with his own impossible desires.
Greek love was for Plato no “figure of speech,” but a present poignant reality. Greek love is for modern students of Plato no “figure of speech” and no anachronism, but a present poignant reality. The facts of Greek history and the facts of contemporary life demonstrate these propositions only too conclusively.
I will not trouble you again upon this topic. I could not, however, allow the following passage in your letter—”I do not understand how, what is in the main a figure of speech should have so great power over them”—to go unnoticed without throwing what light I can upon what you do not understand.
I feel strongly on the subject, and where there is strong feeling, there is usually the risk of over-statement. But I hope I have not spoken rudely. It is indeed impossible to exaggerate the anomaly of making Plato a text-book for students, and a household-book for readers, in a nation which repudiates Greek love, while the baser forms of Greek love have grown to serious proportions in the seminaries of youth and in great centres of social life belonging to that nation.
Ever most sincerely yours
This is the man who a few short years before told the Harvard professor T.S. Perry that his “essay on Greek Morals” would never see the light of day, who shrouded his intense desire for sundry young men in dense overwritten spiritually-inflected metaphor, whose amour de l’impossible dogged his life and assuredly exacerbated his ill health. But the so totally cool thing about him—the reason why he is more than the repressed, tortured Victorian Phyllis Grosskurth claims—is that this is the man who, finally, almost thirty years after first reading the Symposium, finally writes to the tutor who coached him to his First and tells him that there is something that he doesn’t understand. I am writing a thesis about how one of the most amazing things that Symonds does is that he finds a way out of metaphor into literality, out of idealism into realism, whether in his own poetry or in Jowett’s lit crit. Despite the endless discussion of tobogganing, that’s why I keep on.