This last slog toward a finished thesis and a finished bachelor’s degree is proving much more arduous than I expected. Despite what a cushy life I lead, this year has not always been so happy, especially this winter. Sometimes it’s made me strongly doubt whether I really can sentence myself to a life sentence of reading and writing and be content with that.
But then I read beautiful things, and I am sincerely grateful that I get paid to be an intellectual and literary historian and that I am currently at an institution where the librarians will special-order recently-published and very expensive volumes for me, such as the new Philip Gardner-edited edition of E.M. Forster’s diaries and journals. My thesis ends with Forster, who is one of the most interesting twentieth-century readers of Symonds, and the following entry in Forster’s “Locked Diary” explains why. He wrote it on 10 January 1912, after a visit to Symonds’ old friend Graham Dakyns reminded him of Symonds himself:
J.A. Symonds. Feel nearer to him than any man I have read about — too near to be irritated by his flamboyance which I scarcely share. But education — (Classics, Renaissance, Eng. Lit.) — , health — (tendency to phthysis) — literary interest in philosophic questions, love of travel, inclination to be pleasant and above all, minorism. True, he married,but he had better not have. His contrary inclinations only dragged him asunder till the strongest triumphed. He was a brave & intelligible man, and I am proud to be in some ways so like him, & mean to think of him in difficulties, though having a weaker brain and a stronger sense of humour, I may get through life more easily. Such a fine passage — end of Vol I of his life — about never acting from moral reasons. What wouldn’t I give to read the Autobiography entire but Horatio Brown will never let me. ‘Rough handsome young man.’ It is odd. He has met Walt Whitman by now, if the dead are meetable, and has rebuked him for his hypocritical letter, & on that supposition I too shall meet them, and though Whitman will have most to say to me, I shall have most to say to Symonds. Samuel Butler would be nice for a little. Then there are the big people whom one feels one has to want to meet, like Keats and Petrarch and Michelangelo.
Reading that means something human. Accessing the universal through the particular. The promise that even three floors underground, elbow-deep in books at a little boxy desk, reading others’ commonplace books and filling in my own, the books and the world will, on the best of days, work together—and I will learn how to connect.