Open menu


Open menu


Open menu
three pairs of lovers with space



John Addington Symonds (5 October 1840 – 19 April 1893) was an English literary critic, writer on the Renaissance and biographer.  His autobiography, begun in 1889, was intended for publication only well after his death, if ever, and only finally appeared in print in 1984, edited by Phyllis Grosskurth.[1] Hence, no attempt was made in it to disguise the people and events described.

Until Symonds settled in London in 1864, all of his expressed erotic interest had been directed towards males who were unambiguously boys. Thereafter, however, he speaks regularly of “men and boys” as attracting him, and pointedly of his “inclination for the male sex”, seemingly thus going out of his way not to distinguish between the two.  At first, drawn to both “boys” (aged 17 to 19 when specified) and slightly older “young men”, gradually his focus changed clearly to the latter. Confirmation that such was his middle-aged taste, and a little information about his sexual practices was confided to Havelock Ellis, who made him his Case XVII in his Sexual Inversion (1897), the first medical textbook on homosexuality in English:

A has not informed me what form of homosexual intercourse he practises. He is certainly not simply passive and shows no sign of effeminatio. He likes sound and vigorous young men of a lower rank from the age of 20 to 25. I gather from his conversation that the mode of pleasure is indifferent to his tastes.

Thus, while Symonds’s sex life certainly never conformed to 21st-century gay ideals of being remotely equal-age, from 1864 onwards it is of sufficiently limited Greek love interest that it is not included here, except for one passage in which he describes rapturously the boyish beauty of a youth of 19. Otherwise, the later excerpts presented concern the Greek loves of others.

The prime interest of the Memoirs, at least from a Greek love point of view, lies in Chapters four to five, where he describes the liaisons between older and younger boys at Harrow, his public school, and his betrayal of his friend Alfred Pretor’s love affair with their headmaster, Dr. Vaughan. This part was recounted with most of the detail by John Chandos in his exhaustively researched Boys Together (1984), which is strongly recommended to the reader for its shrewd observations and copious scholarly notes. The latter include biographical details of the boys named in the Memoirs, which have not been repeated here.

The story of Dr. Vaughan, Symonds and co. has also been the subject of an excellent novel, The Fall of Doctor Onslow, by Frances Vernon (1994). Though Vernon said her story was only inspired by Dr. Vaughan’s and she was not sticking to the facts (hence the names of the characters were changed), her account is a least as true to the real story as most historical novels are to their subjects.


Chapter One. Childhood, 1840—51, 7 Berkeley Square, Bristol

When I was eight years old, my father sent me to a tutor, the Rev. William Knight. This gentleman kept a school. His house in Buckingham Villas (now part of the Pembroke Road) was at least a mile from Berkeley Square. I used to perform the journey, going and coming, four times in a working day. The institution was probably not worse than the majority of private schools. How bad it was, I dare not say. Mr Knight had little to do with the teaching. One of his ushers was a whoremonger, and the other a paederast.


Chapter Two. Containing material which none but students of psychology and ethics need peruse

A handsome lad of a full-blown healthy type once masturbated in my presence during the period of childhood. He wanted me to try the game. But though the sight disturbed me not uncomfortably, I shrank with horror from his touch and managed to escape from the room. The attractions of a dimly divine almost mystic sensuality persisted in my nature, side by side with a marked repugnance to lust in action, throughout my childhood and boyhood down to an advanced stage of manhood. […]

John Addington Symonds

A dirty-minded schoolfellow, when I was about nine years old, initiated me into the mysteries of sexual duality, coition, impregnation, childbirth. This interested my intelligence, but did not affect my imagination. My reveries still reverted to the naked sailors, whose physical contact seemed so desirable. And in all these early experiences, the sex which drew me with attraction was the male.

Our earliest memories of words, poems, works of art, have great value in the study of psychical development. They indicate decisive points in the growth of personality. The mere sharp recollection we retain of certain images is a sign of their potency. Now the first English poem which affected me deeply - as it has, no doubt, impressed thousands of boys - was Shakespeare’s ‘Venus and Adonis’. I read it certainly before we left 7 Berkeley Square and, I think, before I was ten years old. It gave form, ideality and beauty to my previous erotic visions. Those adult males, the shaggy and brawny sailors, without entirely disappearing, began to be superseded in my fancy by an adolescent Adonis. The emotion they symbolized blent with a new kind of feeling. In some confused way I identified myself with Adonis; but at the same time I yearned after him as an adorable object of passionate love. Venus only served to intensify the situation. I did not pity her. I did not want her. I did not think that, had I been in the position of Adonis, I should have used his opportunities to better purpose. No: she only expressed my own relation to the desirable male. She brought into relief the overwhelming attraction of masculine adolescence and its proud inaccessibility. Her hot wooing taught me what it was to woo with sexual ardour. I dreamed of falling back like her upon the grass, and folding the quick-panting lad in my embrace.

With regard to Ulrichs,[2] in his peculiar phraseology, I should certainly be tabulated as a Mittel Urning, holding a mean between the Mannling and the Weibling; that is to say, one whose emotions are directed to the male sex during the period of adolescence and early manhood; who is not marked either by an effeminate passion for robust adults or by a predilection for young boys;


Chapter Three.  First period of boyhood, 18514, Clifton Hill House

Describing his time with the same tutor, the Reverend Knight, when he was aged ten to thirteen and lived at Clifton, Gloucestershire:

Mr Knight had generally one or two pupils living in his house, boys who were being prepared for the university. I had not much to do with them. But I remember one well. I think his name was Metcalfe. He had just left Harrow - why, I do not know - and something of the place still clung about him. I liked the big long lad, and sat upon his knees, and felt that it was good to sit there. Once he kissed me; but I sprang away from him with an undefined impulse of pride mingled with resentment and the tumultuous stirring of some perilous sense. He must have been a good youth, for he did not follow up his obvious advantage. He only laughed and said, ‘When you go to Harrow, you will be “sent up for first copy, and you will be some fellow’s . . .”.’ He stopped before the word escaped his lips. But in a year or two I learned what his respect for my innocence had left unuttered. The prophecy was not fulfilled, except as regards my facile successes with bad Latin verses.

With Mr Knight I read a large part of the Iliad. When we came to the last books, I found a passage which made me weep bitterly. It was the description of Hermes, going to meet Priam, disguised as a mortal:[3]                               
          κούρῳ αἰσυμνητῆρι ἐοικὼς
          πρῶτον ὑπηνήτῃ, τοῦ περ χαριεστάτη ἥβη

"Hermes, going to meet Priam, disguised as a mortal": Attic cup ca. 480 BC (British Museum)

[Like a young prince with the first down upon his lip, the time when youth is the most charming.] The Greek in me awoke to that simple, and yet so splendid, vision of young manhood, in the first budding of the down on lip and chin, when youth is at her loveliest. The phrase had all Greek sculpture in it; and all my dim forebodings of the charm of males were here idealized. The over-powering magic of masculine adolescence drew my tears forth. I had none to spare for Priam prostrate at the feet of his son’s murderer; none for Andromache[4] bidding a last farewell to Hector of the waving plumes. These personages touched my heart and thrilled a tragic chord. But the disguised Hermes, in his prime and bloom of beauty, unlocked some deeper fountains of eternal longing in my soul.

          A photograph of the Praxitelean Cupid:
          . . . that most perfect of antiques
          They call the Genius of the Vatican,
          Which seems too beauteous to endure itself
          In this mixed world[5]
taught me to feel the secret of Greek sculpture. I used to pore for hours together over the divine loveliness, while my father read poetry aloud to us in the evenings. He did not quite approve, and asked me why I would not choose some other statue, a nymph or Hebe.[6] Following the impressions made by Shakespeare’s Adonis and the Homeric Hermes, blending with the dream I have described and harmonizing with my myth Phoebus in the sheep-cote, this photograph strengthened the ideal I was gradually forming of adolescent beauty. It prepared me to receive the Apoxyomenos[7] and Marlowe’s Leander, the young men of Plato and much else besides. I was certainly a rather singular boy. But I suppose, if other people wrote down the history of their mental growth with the same frankness and patience, I should not stand alone. What I really wanted at this period was some honest youth or comrade, a sailor or a groom or a labourer, who would have introduced me into the masculine existence for which I craved in a dim shrinking way. My equals repelled me. The Cretan customs of heroic paiderastia had much that was good in them. The love of a robust and manly lad, even if it had not been wholly pure, must have been beneficial to a boy like me. As it was, I lived into emotion through the brooding imagination; and nothing is more dangerous or unhealthy than this.


Chapter Four.  Second period of boyhood, 18548, Harrow on the Hill

Describing his friends at his public school, Harrow, which he attended between the ages of thirteen and seventeen:

Symonds at Harrow

Three of my comrades in the sixth form must be placed upon this list of friends, though they stood distinctly apart from the others. One of these was Alfred Pretor, a fair scholar, but a vain lightheaded and corrupt lad, without intellectual or moral foundation. As he was superficially bright and attractive, I got into the way of passing a good deal of my time with him. We were drawn together by the common interest of schoolwork. Charles Dalrymple of New-hailes, a well-born well-connected Scotchman, Scotch to the backbone, was another. Cat-like and precise, delicate in his tastes, thin in mental quality, but gifted with a certain fastidious distinction, he chimed in with some of my supposed qualities and occupied a fair amount of leisure. Robert Jamieson, a raw youth from Glasgow, with the face of a convict but gifted with a powerful personality - strong in the brain, indolent in the will, wanting in real intelligence of life, essentially perverse and cross-grained - was the third of these friends. Juxtaposition brought us four together - so dissimilar in our temperaments, destined to such different lines in life, fated so soon to be divided by a cruel stroke of fortune. Pretor became a tutor at Cambridge, Dalrymple a leading Scotch Member of Parliament, Jamieson I know not what, I an exile at Davos. […]


Chapter Five.  Painful circumstances connected with the last year of my life at Harrow

One thing at Harrow very soon arrested my attention. It was the moral state of the school. Every boy of good looks had a female name, and was recognized either as a public prostitute or as some bigger fellow’s ‘bitch’. Bitch was the word in common usage to indicate a boy who yielded his person to a lover. The talk in the dormitories and the studies was incredibly obscene. Here and there one could not avoid seeing acts of onanism, mutual masturbation, the sports of naked boys in bed together. There was no refinement, no sentiment, no passion; nothing but animal lust in these occurrences. They filled me with disgust and loathing. My school-fellows realized what I had read in Swift about the Yahoos.

I particularly disliked two boys: a clever Irish lad called W. J. Currey and a brutal clown called Clayton. Of Clayton I need speak no more. He was too stupid and perverse and clumsy to deserve description. Currey, on the other hand, was a better scholar than myself, and possessed a variety of facile talents. He spent much of his time on music and drawing, played games, and loafed. Yet though he never seemed to work, he always took a good place in his form. Unfortunately he was dirty in his dress and person, filthy in his talk, and shamelessly priapic in his conduct. We went through the school side by side. At the end of our time together, I discovered really fine intellectual and emotional qualities beneath his Satyric exterior. I imagine that he may have permanently injured his constitution by his youthful vagaries; for Currey’s career in afterlife has not been as distinguished as might have been expected.

A third boy, named Barber, annoyed and amused me. He was like a good-natured longimanous ape, gibbering on his perch and playing ostentatiously with a prodigiously developed phallus. A fourth, Cookson, was a red-faced strumpet, with flabby cheeks and sensual mouth - the notissima fossa[8] [the most infamous trench] of our house.

Harrow School by George Pyne, 1859

I have seen nothing more repulsive in my life - except once at the Alhambra in Leicester Square, when I saw a jealous man tear the earrings out of the ruptured lobes of a prostitute’s ears, and all the men in the saloon rose raging at him for his brutality - I have seen nothing more disgusting in my life, I say, than the inhuman manner in which this poor creature Cookson came afterwards to be treated by his former lovers. What he did to deserve his punishment I never heard, not being initiated into their mysteries. But, after a certain period - after they had rolled upon the floor with him and had exposed his person in public - they took to trampling on him. Whenever he appeared in that mean dining room, about those dirty passages, upon the sordid court through which we entered from the road into our barracks, Currey and Clayton and Barber and the rest of the brood squirted saliva and what they called gobs upon their bitch, cuffed and kicked him at their mercy, shied books at him, and drove him with obscene curses whimpering to his den.

These four were all at Rendall’s. A fifth fellow, E. Dering, in Steele’s house, both fascinated and repelled me. He resembled a handsome Greek brigand in face. I remember noticing a likeness to his features in the photograph of one of the decapitated Marathon cut-throats. His body was powerful, muscular, lissom as a tiger. The fierce and cruel lust of this magnificent animal excited my imagination. Dering used to come into our house after a plump fair-haired boy, called Ainslie, whom we dubbed Bum Bathsheba because of his opulent posterior parts.

So much had to be said in general about the moral atmosphere into which I was plunged at the age of thirteen. It will appear in the sequel that Harrow exercised a powerful influence over certain phases of my development. But I must not omit to mention that, while I was at school, I remained free in fact and act from this contamination. During my first half year the ‘beasts’, as they were playfully called, tried to seduce me. But it was soon decided that I was ‘not game’.

The distinction in my character between an inner and real self and an outer and artificial self, to which I have already alluded, emphasized itself during this period. So separate were the two selves, so deep was my dipsychia,[9] that my most intimate friends there, of whom I shall soon speak, have each and all emphatically told me that they thought I had passed through school without being affected by, almost without being aware of, its peculiar vices. And yet those vices furnished a perpetual subject for contemplation and casuistical reflection to my inner self.

The earliest phase of my sexual consciousness was here objectified before my eyes; and I detested in practice what had once attracted me in fancy. Personally, I thought that I had transcended crude sensuality through the aesthetic idealization of erotic instincts. I did not know how fallacious that method of expelling nature is. The animalisms of boyish lust sickened me by their brutality, offended my taste by their vulgarity. I imagined them to be a phase of immature development, from which my comrades would emerge when they grew to manhood. Nevertheless they steeped my imagination in filth. I was only saved from cynicism by the gradual unfolding in myself of an ideal passion which corresponded to Platonic love. This ideal was not derived from Greek literature; for I had not yet read the works of Plato and Theocritus. It sprang up spontaneously, proving that my thought was lodged in ancient Hellas.

While my school-fellows, therefore, regarded me as an insensitive student, immersed in what they called ‘swatting’ and incapable of active good or evil, I was theorizing, testing and sublimating the appetites which they unthinkingly indulged.

The Speech Room, Harrow School by George Pyne, 1859

An incident occurred which made a deep impression on my mind. Dering sent a note in school time to a handsome lad, O’Brien, who went by the name of Leila. It informed him that Dering had a good bed ready, and asked him to come there in the interval between third and fourth school — that is from 4 to 5 p.m. This note fell into the hands of the form master, who gave it up to Vaughan. The whole school was summoned to the Speech Room. Here Vaughan met us alone, without any of the other masters. He read the letter aloud, strongly condemned the use of female names for boys, and pronounced sentence on the culprits. Dering was to be ‘switched’ and O’Brien had lines set him — how many I do not recollect.

The conclusion which I drew from this very inadequate form of punishment was that our masters did not realize what the matter meant, and how widespread was the evil in the school. In my own mind I felt sure that these vices were pernicious to our society; and I regarded them as sins which ought to have been harshly dealt with. Accordingly this episode added to my mental and moral confusion.

In the month of January 1858 Alfred Pretor wrote me a note in which he informed me that Vaughan had begun a love affair with him.[10] I soon found that the boy was not lying, because he showed me a series of passionate letters written to him by our headmaster.

When I recovered from the first astonishment into which Pretor’s extraordinary revelation plunged me, I submitted the fact to casuistical analysis. It proved convincingly that I was wrong in imagining that this species of vice formed only a phase of boyish immaturity.

I was disgusted to find it in a man holding the highest position of responsibility, consecrated by the Church, entrusted with the welfare of six hundred youths - a man who had recently prepared me for confirmation, from whose hands, kneeling by the side of Alfred Pretor, I received the sacrament, and whom I had been accustomed to regard as the pattern of my conduct. Disgust, however, was mitigated by a dumb persistent sympathy. My own inclinations, the form which my erotic idealism had assumed, prevented me from utterly condemning Vaughan. I did indeed condemn Vaughan’s taste; for I regarded Pretor as a physically and emotionally inferior being. But the love drama which I now watched daily, perusing the enthusiastic letters submitted to my curiosity by Pretor’s vanity, roused a keen inquisitive interest in my mind. A sense of humour supervened  - ‘What a topsy-turvy world is this that I am living in!’ After all, I think that indignation against our headmaster prevailed. I knew what serious harm the school was suffering from these customs, so ill-adjusted to the spirit of the times we lived in. I felt acutely the moral perplexities which the observation of them bred in me. And here was he, not merely trifling with them, as in the case of Dering and O’Brien, but recklessly indulging his own forbidden impulse.

Charles John Vaughan D.D.

Boys are singular beings in this that they easily accept a situation, however abnormal it may be. I vaguely wondered whether I ought not to tell my father. But the knowledge had already begun to sophisticate my moral sense. I felt also bound to respect the seal of secrecy. At any rate I ought first to use my influence with Pretor. This I did, and begged him to break off the connection. But I soon found it impossible to persuade him. Then I wondered whether I should confront Vaughan, and ask him bluntly what the whole thing meant. I used to take essays and verses at intervals to Vaughan in the study, which was the scene of his clandestine pleasures. It was a fairly sized square room, dark, on the ground floor, looking upon the street. On those occasions my young brains underwent an indescribable fermentation. I remember once that, while we sat together reading Greek iambics, he began softly to stroke my right leg from the knee to the thigh. This insignificant caress, of which I should have thought nothing two months earlier, and which probably meant nothing, seemed then disagreeably suggestive. I never liked the man; he did not possess the intellectual qualities I admired. Now I began positively to dislike him.

Nothing could have been worse for a boy of my temperament than this unhealthy state of things. It poisoned and paralysed my moral nature, confused my judgement, perplexed my thoughts about religion. Had it not been for a strong physical repulsion, I should certainly have taken to bad courses. As it was, I began to coquette with vice. I fell in love with a handsome powerful boy called Huysche, and I remember stealing his hymnbook from his seat in chapel; but I never spoke to him. I also fell in love with Eliot Yorke, who used to come to my room; but I kept at a respectful distance from him. There must have happened some change in my manner or appearance; for a very depraved lad, whom I had known for three years, on one occasion finding me alone in my room, suddenly dared to throw his arms round me, kissed me, and thrust his hand into my trousers. At that moment I nearly gave way to sensuality. I was narcotized by the fellow’s contact and the forecast of coming pleasure. But in this, as in all other cases, the inclination for vulgar lust was wanting. That saved me from self-abasement and traffic with the unclean thing.

A fatigued cynicism took possession of me. My health, which had never been good, suffered. I neglected my work. At the same time, my self-consciousness became enormously developed. I felt a terrible new sense of power. For the first time I seemed able to survey myself and the world, to grasp the facts of human nature from a point of view outside my inner and outer egotism. It is certain that, though I grew unhealthily and perversely during this period, I grew fast and to some purpose. I acquired then a certain disengagement from things which are not essential, a certain habit of doubting appearances and disdaining trifles. This attitude of mind has, I believe, been useful to me. But the price paid in disillusionment and moral befoulment outweighed the gain of mental grit.

The progress of a lad of seventeen has to be reckoned not by years but by months.

Cary's crib of Plato's Apology, 1848

We were reading Plato’s Apology in the sixth form. I bought Cary’s crib,[11] and took it with me to London on an exeat[12] in March. My hostess, a Mrs Bain, who lived in Regent’s Park, treated me to a comedy one evening at the Haymarket. I forget what the play was - except that there was a funny character in it, who set the house in a roar by his enunciation of this sentence:  ‘Smythers please, not Smithers; Smithers is a different party, and moves in quite a different sphere.’ When we returned from the play, I went to bed and began to read my Cary’s Plato. It so happened that I stumbled on the Phaedrus. I read on and on, till I reached the end. Then I began the Symposium; and the sun was shining on the shrubs outside the ground-floor room in which I slept, before I shut the book up.

I have related these insignificant details because that night was one of the most important nights of my life; and when anything of great gravity has happened to me, I have always retained a firm recollection of trifling facts which formed its context.

Here in the Phaedrus and the Symposium - in the myth of the Soul and the speeches of Pausanias, Agathon and Diotima — I discovered the true liber amoris at last, the revelation I had been waiting for, the consecration of a long-cherished idealism. It was just as though the voice of my own soul spoke to me through Plato, as though in some antenatal experience I had lived the life of philosophical Greek lover.

Harrow vanished into unreality. I had touched solid ground. I had obtained the sanction of the love which had been ruling me from childhood. Here was the poetry, the philosophy of my own enthusiasm for male beauty, expressed with all the magic of unrivalled style. And, what was more, I now became aware that the Greek race - the actual historical Greeks of antiquity - treated this love seriously, invested it with moral charm, endowed it with sublimity.

For the first time I saw the possibility of resolving in a practical harmony the discords of my instincts. I perceived that masculine love had its virtue as well as its vice, and stood in this respect upon the same ground as normal sexual appetite. I understood, or thought I understood, the relation which those dreams of childhood and the brutalities of vulgar lust at Harrow bore to my higher aspiration after noble passion.

The study of Plato proved decisive for my future. Coming at the moment when it did, it delivered me to a large extent from the torpid cynicism caused by the Vaughan episode. At the same time it confirmed my congenital inclination toward persons of the male sex, and filled my head with an impossible dream, which controlled my thoughts for many years.

What I have just written will perhaps surprise those who may happen to read these pages after I am dead. My friend Professor Jowett, with whom I revised his translation of the Symposium at Davos in 1888, wrote to me not long ago expressing his astonishment at my regarding the study of Plato as dangerous to certain characters in youth. The following copy of a letter I addressed to him in reply will not inappropriately close this chapter.


Am Hof,
Davos Platz,
1 February 1889

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.

Benjamin Jowett, Master of Balliol College, Oxford, by Sir Leslie Ward, 1876

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 in 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 first 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 imaginative 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 law 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 paiderastic 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 overstatement. But I do not think I have exaggerated, and I hope I have not spoken rudely. It is indeed impossible to exaggerate the anomaly of making Plato a textbook 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
J.A. Symonds

March came to an end, and brought this eventful term to its conclusion. In April, at the very beginning of the month, I went to Clifton for the Easter holidays. They lasted three weeks. It was an early spring that year - mild, clear and beautiful; with swift and unchecked unfolding of all fair things in nature.

The change from Harrow to my home always tranquillized and refreshed me. It renewed that sense of dignity, repose and beauty in existence which was absolutely necessary to my spiritual being.

This time I felt the change more strangely than was usual. Clifton did not offer the same simple satisfaction as before. I was jaded, restless, disappointed, perplexed. The recent quickening of my intellect by casuistry, the knowledge of the secret which I carried, the revelation I had found in Plato, removed me almost suddenly away from boyhood. I was on the verge of attaining to a man’s self-consciousness.

Bristol Cathedral, engraving by H. Winkles

On the first Sunday morning after my arrival, I attended service in Bristol Cathedral. It was a radiant forenoon and the light streamed in from those large southern windows. My ritualistic pranks with Vickers at Harrow had this much of reality in them, that they indicated a natural susceptibility to the aesthetic side of religion - I felt a real affection and natural reverence for grey Gothic churches. The painted glass and heraldries in this cathedral, crusaders cross-legged on their tombs, carved woodwork and high-built organ lofts, the monuments to folk long dead, and, over all, the quiring voices and reverberations of sweet sacred music, touched me to the quick at a thousand sensitive points. There was no real piety, however, in my mood. My soul was lodged in Hellas; and the Christian in me stirred only, like a torpid snake, sunned by the genial warmth of art.

On this, the morning of all mornings in my life, my eyes fell on a chorister who sat nearly opposite the stall which I had taken. His voice charmed me by its sharp ethereal melancholy. In timbre and quality it had something of a wood instrument; and because of my love for it, I have ever since been sensitive to the notes of hautbois and clarinet. As I gazed and listened through the psalms and service and litany, I felt that a new factor had been introduced into my life. The voice dominated. But the boy who owned that voice seemed the only beautiful, the only flawless being I had ever seen.

From the church I walked home, enveloped in a dream. All that afternoon and evening I dreamed of Willie Dyer. I have forgotten how I discovered his name. At earliest daybreak I leaned from my bedroom window, sending my soul out to him, greeting the cathedral tower beneath me. This went on for two or three days. Ah, those April mornings - that hush of thin-leaved trees and dewy lawns, those notes of blackbirds, the stillness of the sleeping town, the poetry of flooding light, the steady thrill of flooding love!

There had been nothing like to this emotion in my past experience. It precipitated the turbid mixture of my blood and brains. I saw ahead of me the goal to which I had been tending. The close blind alley into which I had blundered at Harrow, and from which there was no escape, seemed now to expand into infinities of free and liberal experience.

I was so intoxicated with the moment that I demanded nothing from the future. I did not inquire how - my present mood of feeling squared with the philosophy of love I had imbibed from Plato.

Looking at the boy in church, hearing him sing, dreaming of him at home, were not enough. For the first time in my life, I knew that I must take possession of the dream and clasp it. The experience of the last few months had brought me so far forward that I was capable of acting. My will demanded that the boy and I should be united. What I meant to do had to be done by and for myself alone. There was no question of making any member of my family or his an intermediary.

Rustic Music by Frederic Leighton, 1861

I wrote to Willie Dyer and asked him for his portrait. I gave my address ‘A.B., Clifton Post Office’. He responded with a photograph. Next I begged him to meet me. He replied that I might find him in the cathedral cloisters at 10 a.m. upon the 10th of April. Why the boy corresponded to my wishes in this way, I do not know. I only know that he was simple and guileless; and I adored him so that his father and his friends had subsequently nothing to complain of in my treatment of him. Looking back across so many years, it seems to me strange, however, that we should have been permitted to meet together for the first time in this way.

We met then on the morning of 10 April 1858. Swallows were reeling in sunlight round the tower. The clock struck. I took Willie’s slender hand into my own and gazed into his large brown eyes fringed with heavy lashes. A quite indescribable effluence of peace and satisfaction, blent with yearning, flowed from his physical presence and inundated my whole being with some healing and refreshing influence.

From that morning I date the birth of my real self. Thirty-two years have elapsed since then; and still I can hardly hold the pen when I attempt to write about it.

Much sentimental nonsense has been talked about first love. Yet I am speaking the bare truth when I say my affection for this boy exhausted my instinctive faculty of loving. I have never felt the same unreason and unreasoning emotion for any other human being.

I could not marry him; modern society provided no bond of comradeship whereby we might have been united. So my first love flowed to waste. I was unable to deal justly with him; the mortification of the anomalous position he and I were placed in did much to degrade my character.

These things, however, were not felt at once. From 10 April in that year 1858, for many months to come, I used either to see Willie or wrote to him daily. He returned my affection with a simple loyal love. Our intimacy, though clandestine - though we two boys, the elder by three years and the younger, met together and exchanged our hearts without the sanction of family or friends - was wholly respectful and absolutely free from evil. More than a year elapsed before I dared to do more than touch his hand. Twice only in my life did I kiss him on the lips. The first time I did so I almost fainted from the intense rapture of the contact. We were together alone, I well remember, in a clearing of Leigh Woods - where the red quarries break down from tufted yews and dwarf peaches and wych elms plumed upon the cliff to the riverside. The afternoon sunlight fell upon glassy ivy, bluebells and late flowering anemones. We were lying side by side. The plash of paddle wheels and the chant of sailors working a seagoing vessel down the Avon, rose up to us between the two long kisses which I took.[13]

View of Clifton from Leigh Woods by Francis Danby

Leigh Woods used to be our favourite resort. In those days there was no suspension bridge. We crossed the ferry, and clambered up the sides of Nightingale Valley until we found some coign advantage where we rested. Not a soul disturbed our solitude. The wild rabbits were not more innocent of guile than we were.

I still possess a white anemone gathered on the spot of that first kiss. It marks the place in my Theocritus, where this phrase occurs:
     ἠ ῥα τότ' ἠσαν Χρύσειοι πάλιν ἄνδρες, ὅτ᾽ ἀντεφίλησ᾽ ὁ φιληθείς.
[‘Men were of the Golden Age long ago, when the beloved boy returned one’s love.’][14] Gratitude mingled with my love for Willie. He had delivered my soul from the Egyptian house of Harrow bondage. He enabled me to realize an ideal of a passionate and yet pure love between friend and friend. All the ‘rich foreshadowings of the world’[15] which filled my boyhood with the vision of a comrade, seemed at the time to be made actual in him. He restored me to a healthy state of nerves by the sweet magnetism of his presence. In him too I found the final satisfaction of that dim aesthetic ecstasy which I called religion. Music and the grandeur of Gothic aisles, the mystery of winter evenings in cathedral choirs, when the tumultuous vibrations of the organ shook the giant windows and made the candles in their sconces tremble, took from him a poetry that pierced into my heart and marrow.

My love enisled me in an enchanted garden, round which the breakers of the world of fact fretted without disturbing the delightfulness of dreaming. I no longer cared for work. I ceased to be ambitious. It was enough to live. My love seemed to me more real than aught in life beside. I came even into sympathy with Harrow — not indeed into harmony with what had poisoned and perplexed me there — but with the comely aspects of the place, the swiftness of young cricketers, the bodies of divers curving for their plunge, the mirth of laughing boys, the rich empurpled distance of the champaign when the sun sank over those immeasurable fields. These things I hitherto foolishly, arrogantly, neglected. My senses had been blind to them. Now love unsealed the eyes of my soul.

I kept my love secret, and hugged the treasure jealously. It was the final flower of my long cherished inner self. Secrecy added charm to its romance. Thus it came about that I practised much deceit, and had a lover’s lies often on my lips at home. But I said to myself that Harpocrates and Eros[16] are one deity. Unhappily there was a grain of evil conscience in the mixture of love’s medicine. My thoughts were lodged in Hellas; but centuries rolled between my soul’s home in Athens and the English places I was born again to live in. Only too well enough I knew, alas! that if I avowed my emotion to my father or his friends, I should meet - not merely with no sympathy or understanding or credence - but that I should arouse horror, pain, aversion.

At this period of my youth, I devoured Greek literature and fed upon the reproductions of Greek plastic art with which my father’s library was stored. Plato took the first place in my studies. I dwelt upon the opening pages of the Charmides and Lysis. I compared these with the Clouds of Aristophanes and the erotic dialogues of Lucian and Plutarch. I explored Theognis[17] and the Anthology;[18] learned Theocritus by heart; tasted the fragments of Anacreon and Ibycus and Pindar.[19] I do not reflect upon the incongruity of this impulse which threw me toward medievalism. The Confessions of St Augustine lay side by side upon my table with a copy of the Phaedrus. I fancied that I was realizing the antique amorous enthusiasm, while kneeling in a cathedral stall, listening to antiphones, gazing on a beautiful face.

The confusion of ideas was grotesque enough; and gradually it introduced a discord into my life. Yet it marked a period of vigorous development. If the modern man is destined to absorb and to appropriate the diverse strains which make him what he is, some fresh fermentation cannot be avoided. He emerges from it with a mind determined this way or that, and retains a vital perception of things that differ, grounded in his personal experience.

My mental and moral evolution proceeded now upon a path which had no contact with the prescribed systems of education. I lived in and for myself. Masters and schools and methods of acquiring knowledge lay outside me, to be used or neglected as I judged best. I passed my last term at Harrow, between that April and the ensuing August, in supreme indifference. I left the place without regret, and looked forward to the university without ambition. Life was neither here nor there for me. The lord of my life was love, by whom I had been inducted into a world of wonders and who had opened my eyes and fortified my understanding.


Chapter Six. Adolescence, life at Oxford, and the painful incidents of my first year there

Balliol College

Describing his earliest days at Balliol College, Oxford, where he went in the autumn of 1858:

[…] There were two sides to my life. One was healthy and stimulative, the other unwholesome and relaxing. Urquhart, a Scotchman of perfervid type, developed a violent personal affection for me. He had High Church proclivities and ran after choristers. Vickers was a man of somewhat similar stamp. In their company I frequented antechapels and wasted my time over feverish sentimentalism. But when I perceived that Urquhart was making a dead set at me, I broke off the connection. Whatever I felt about comradeship I was not prepared to be made love to; and Munro did me the good service of pointing out how easily I might be compromised by Urquhart’s attention. There was no harm in the man. On the contrary, I have every reason to believe that he grew up a good clergyman and excellent husband. But he had acquired the unpopularity which attached to awkward excitable enthusiasts in a mixed society of young men.

The association with Conington[20] was almost wholly good. It is true that I sat up till midnight with him nearly every evening, drinking cup after cup of strong tea in his private lodgings above Cooper’s shop near University. This excited and fatigued my nerves. But the conversation was in itself a liberal education for a youth of pronounced literary tastes. Now and again it turned on matters of the affections. Conington was scrupulously moral and cautious. Yet he sympathized with romantic attachments for boys. In this winter he gave me Jonica; and I learned the love story of its author William Johnson (now Cory) the Eton master, and the pretty faced Charlie Wood (now Lord Halifax)[21] of Ch. Ch. who had been his pupil. That volume of verse, trifling as it may appear to casual readers, went straight to my heart and inflamed my imagination. It joined on in a singular manner to my recent experiences at Harrow, and helped to form a dream world of unhealthy fancies about love. I went so far as to write a letter to William Johnson, exposing the state of my own feelings and asking his advice. The answer, addressed to O.D.Y. at the Union, duly came. It was a long epistle on paiderastia in modern times, defending it and laying down the principle that affection between people of the same sex is no less natural and rational than the ordinary passionate relations. Underneath Johnson’s frank exposition of this unconventional morality there lay a wistful yearning sadness — the note of disappointment and forced abstention. I have never found this note absent in lovers of my sort and Johnson’s, unless the men have cast prudence to the winds and staked their all on cynicism. […]

John Conington (1825-69), classical scholar

In the summer term of this year, 1859, I was talking one hot afternoon with Conington about Jonica and what I then called Arcadian love. Heaven forgive the innocent euphemism! I took it from an oracle from Herodotus which had attracted my attention by its simple strength and beauty: Ἀρκαδίην μ᾽ αἰτεῖς· μέγα μ᾽ αἰτεῖς· οὐ τοι δώσω. [‘You ask me for Arkadia; a great request you make of me. I will not grant it.’][22] This and another oracle which I only remember in the Latin version - Spartam nactus es, hanc orn:. [‘You have received Sparta; look after her’][23] - remained in my head like maxims, and were always applied to my outward lot in the domain of the emotions. Well: some turn in the argument - for we were discussing the casuistry of unrecognized passion between male persons - forced me to blurt out what I had so long concealed about Vaughan’s story. Conington was deeply moved. He shrank into himself, and told me that such things ought not to be lightly spoken of. I replied that I could support what I had said by evidence, and that I was certain of my facts. This happened at the end of term, when we were both going to join a reading party at Whitby. Green, Rutson, Puller, myself and Conington formed the party and we had engaged a lodging house, kept by a woman called Storm, whom Conington christened λαῖλαψ [violent storm, hurricane]. By the way, I may mention that the village churchyard at Whitby is full of graves erected to captains and sailors of the name of Storm, many of whom had perished as whalers and fishers on the northern sea. The church itself was an old-fashioned edifice built on the cliff’s brow, with galleries in which the choir sat and droned out hymns and anthems to the accompaniment of a string and brass band. It affected my imagination with the feeling of generations of shipwrecked seamen, as though it had been itself a hulk stranded up there and redolent of marine reminiscences. This church was the place in which I passed many poignant hours of mental tension and moral scrutiny in the company of Conington, Green, Rutson, Puller, boxed up together in a narrow wooden pew.

For here, at Whitby, when we had settled down to our academic studies — Conington to his notes on Virgil, Rutson to his modern history, Green to his German philosophy, Puller and I to our Greek and Latin poets and copies of verses - the question about Vaughan was reopened. I remember a forenoon conversation on the cliff, during which I convinced Conington that I had spoken the truth. He recommended me to go at once with Pretor’s letter and my Harrow diaries to Clifton. My father ought to know the fact, whatever happened.

I took two solitary journeys that summer from Whitby to Clifton and back upon this business. I remember reading Alton Locke[24] on one of them, and seeing a grand evening sky behind the towers of Lincoln Cathedral, the pathos and the calm of which sank into my troubled soul with soothing. It was a singular position for a youth of eighteen. I had become the accuser of my old headmaster, a man for whom I felt no love, and who had shown me no special kindness, but who was after all the awe-inspiring ruler of the petty state of Harrow. My accusation rested solely upon the private testimony of an intimate friend, whose confidence I violated by the communication of his letter to a third party. To complicate matters, I felt a deeply rooted sympathy with Vaughan. If he had sinned, it had been by yielding to passions which already mastered me. But this fact instead of making me indulgent, determined me to tell the bitter truth. At that period I was not cynical. I desired to overcome the malady of my own nature. My blood boiled and my nerves stiffened when I thought what mischief life at Harrow was doing daily to young lads under the autocracy of a hypocrite.

So I went through with the business of exposure, painfully but steadily. It took as little to convince my father as it had taken to convince Conington. The evidence was plain and irrefragable.

The drawing room at  Clifton Hill House, the Symonds's home, perhaps the very room where Dr. Vaughan was confronted with his love letters to Pretor

What eventually happened was this. My father wrote to Vaughan, intimating that he possessed proofs of his correspondence with Alfred Pretor. He promised not to make a public exposure, provided Vaughan resign the headmastership of Harrow immediately and sought no further advancement in the Church. Otherwise the facts would have to be divulged. On the receipt of my father’s ultimatum, Vaughan came down to Clifton where he inspected Pretor’s letter. He accepted the terms dictated to him. Mrs Vaughan followed after a few days and flung herself at my father’s knees. ‘Would Dr Symonds not withhold the execution of his sentence? Her husband was subject to this weakness, but it had not interfered with his usefulness in the direction of the school at Harrow.’ My father remained obdurate though he told me he suffered keenly at the sight of this unhappy woman - a Stanley - prostrate on the ground before him. He judged it would be wrong to hush up such a matter of such grave importance to a great public school. In this view of his duty, he was supported by Conington, and also by the friends whom Vaughan employed in the transaction - his brother-in-law Arthur P. Stanley and Hugh Pearson, afterwards Canon of Windsor.

Vaughan then had to withdraw from Harrow; and he did this with consummate skill. No one knew the reason of his sudden abdication except Conington, my father, myself, and a few undergraduates at Cambridge and Oxford, of whom I shall have to speak.

Dr. Vaughan, 1870s (National Library of Wales)

At the banquet given in his honour when he left Harrow to the care of Montagu Butler[25] (now Master of Trinity, Cambridge) Vaughan said that fifteen years of headmastership was as much as a man’s strength could stand and quite enough for the welfare of the school he governed. The public acclaimed this act of resignation with enthusiasm. The government offered him two bishoprics in succession - those, I think, of Worcester and Rochester. He declined the former though it was well known that he was ambitious for a seat as bishop in the House of Lords. He accepted the latter. But my father telegraphed, on hearing of the news, that he must cancel the act of acceptance. Accordingly, Vaughan again retired, somewhat ambiguously, from the post of honour which the ministers of the Crown wished to force upon him. Both Stanley and Pearson, his advocates and friends, were of opinion that the English Church might suffer by Vaughan’s advancement to the episcopacy. Therefore they approved of my father’s Rhadamanthine justice. The withdrawal of Dr Vaughan into private life, and his refusal of two sees, were, however, so mysterious and so dramatic that the suspicions of worldly people awoke and we had some difficulty for several years to suppress the real history of the case.

The main conduct of this affair lay in my father’s hands. He consulted Conington at every important turn, while Vaughan, as I have said, was advised by his brother-in-law Arthur P. Stanley and by his old friend Hugh Pearson. Alfred Pretor naturally did not remain in ignorance of what was going on. He informed Charles Dalrymple and Robert Jamieson, both of whom highly disapproved of the course which I had taken. In their eyes nothing could justify the disclosure of Pretor’s letter upon which the whole case rested. They did not take into account the danger which Vaughan incurred so long as he remained at Harrow, although they were aware that Pretor was in the habit of confiding the story with incredible levity and imprudence to anyone he thought it would impress. They were in fact irreconcilable upon the point of honour. All three broke off communications with me, and I have had nothing to do with them since that summer of 1859.[26]

It was inevitable that this view taken of my action by my three most intimate Harrow friends – each of whom I visited in their homes the year before — should cause me grave disquietude. My father, Conington, Stanley and Pearson approved what I had done emphatically. But the approval of these elder men and the thanks expressed by Vaughan’s advisors for what they considered my discharge of a public duty and a private service were not sufficient to relieve me from painful heart-searching. Conscience, it is true, supported me. I felt that the course I had followed was right. But I could not shake off the sense that I appeared disloyal to my friends. I still think that I ought to have informed them of the step I meant to take - in fact that there were other ways of dealing with the problem. Until I told Conington at Oxford what I knew, I had not planned a formal disclosure. Having told him, it was evident that the matter could not rest there. It virtually passed out of my hands. His advice that I should deliver it over to my father was sound. They both held that the importance of the affair for Harrow, for English society and the Established Church annihilated all considerations of confidence between two boys in statu pupillari [of student status]. They were undoubtedly right; and I do not know how I could have acted otherwise than I did in the summer of 1859, after I had made my first impulsive communication to Conington. Nevertheless, I suffered deeply both in spirits and in health from the long exhausting correspondence with Pretor and Jamieson and Dalrymple, crossing and confusing the correspondence carried on by my father with Conington and Vaughan and Stanley. My brain and moral consciousness - the one worn with worrying thought, the other racked by casuistical doubts - never quite recovered from the weariness of those unprofitable weeks.

One thing which rendered the charge of broken confidence ridiculous, was the comparative levity with which Pretor himself and his other confidants had whispered Vaughan’s story about. Several irresponsible lads were acquainted with it; and precautions had to be taken lest they should still further divulge the secret.

Samuel Wilberforce, Bishop of Oxford, by George Richmond, 1868

Hugh Pearson, with whom I became intimately befriended, told me a singular anecdote which illustrates the delicacy of the situation. The Bishop of Oxford, Samuel Wilberforce, came to him one day at Sonning on the Thames and said, ‘I am certain that Vaughan had some grave reason for leaving Harrow and refusing two mitres. An ugly story must lie behind. You had better make a friend of me. If I discover the truth I shall be an enemy.’

Pearson replied, ‘Even if I knew something, it would be my duty to withhold it. But you have no right to suppose that I do.’

‘Very well,’ said the Bishop, ‘I shall find out. And I have warned you.’

Some while afterwards he came again, and told Pearson that he had learned the whole secret. ‘How and where?’ asked Pearson.

‘At a dinner party from a lady next whom I was sitting,’ answered the Bishop.

‘And what have you done?’

‘Oh, I’ve told the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Prime Minister.’[27]

It is singular that a secret possessed by several people should not have transpired while curiosity was still alive.[28] So many years have now elapsed that its disclosure would neither startle nor shock. Vaughan still lives;[29] and I have not heard that Pretor is dead. My father, Conington, Stanley and Pearson have passed away. What became of Jamieson I do not know. Charles Dalrymple is an active Conservative Scotch Member of Parliament. The documents relating to the affair were enclosed in a sealed packet by my father. This I have never opened. It lies among my private papers endorsed for destruction by my executors. {Note appended in margin: ‘We took this as a proof that J.A.S. could not have intended his autobiography to be published in extenso. H.F.B., 40 Margherita Ligeme, 28 February 1903.}

It was not to be expected that Stanley should feel cordially toward me. He asked me to his rooms at Ch. Ch. and afterwards to the deanery at Westminster. I used to go there because my father wished that appearances should be kept up and, in case of public exposure, that my recognition by the Dean should be a matter of notoriety. But I always felt extremely uncomfortable in his society, and could neither act nor talk with freedom.

Vaughan I never saw again. This was owing partly to accident and partly to my steady avoidance of Speech Day at Harrow. When his nephew T. H. Green married my sister, I had to inform Green, in order that a possible collision might be obviated. It is curious, I think, that we have never met at the Athenaeum. But I go there very little even when I am in London.

Pearson, as I said, became my friend. I owed much to his companionship. He was a man of the most cordial character - sweet, gentle, wise and sociable and charming. To an extensive knowledge of good literature he added genial humour and considerable insight into character. A sound churchman, of liberal and tolerant views, he made Sonning a model parish by his human sympathy and tolerance.

It was a severe strain upon my nervous and moral strength - this probing of Vaughan’s case, this separation from old friends on a question of casuistry, this forced envisagement of my own emotional attitude. I do not think that I have ever quite recovered tone and equilibrium after the tension of those weeks; in the course of which I learned much about human nature and the world’s opinion, without sacrificing a point of my volition or reconciling the discords of my individuality in any compromise.

Symonds's father, a doctor and author, who bore the same names

The chief good which emerged from so much evil for me was that I grew to be an intimate friend of my father. No veil remained between us. He understood my character; I felt his in sympathy and relied upon his wisdom. We joined hearts, not only as son and parent, but also as men of diverse temperaments and ages aspiring to the higher life in common.

When my father learned the truth about my romantic affection for Willie Dyer, he thought it right to recommend a cautious withdrawal from the intimacy. The arguments he used were conclusive. Considering the very delicate position in which I stood with regard to Vaughan, the possibility of Vaughan’s story becoming public, and the doubtful nature of my own emotion, prudence pointed to a gradual diminution or cooling-off of friendship.

At that important moment of my life, I could not understand, and I’ve never been able to understand, why people belonging to different strata in society - if they love each other - could not enter into comradeship. But my father made me see that, under the existing conditions of English manners, an ardent friendship between me (a young man, gently born, bred at Harrow, advancing to the highest academical honours at Balliol) and Willie (a Bristol chorister, the son of a Dissenting tailor), would injure not my prospects only but his reputation. The instincts of my blood, the conventionalities under which I had been trained, the sympathy I felt for sisters and for brothers-in-law, the ties which bound me to the class of gentlefolk, brought me to look upon myself as an aberrant being, who was being tutored by my father’s higher sense of what is right in conduct. Furthermore, I recognized that in my own affection for Willie there was something similar to the passion which had ruined Vaughan. I foresaw the possibility, if I persisted in my love for him, of being brought into open rupture with my family, and would involve my friend thereby in what would hamper his career by casting the stigma of illicit passion on our intercourse.

Under this pressure of arguments from without, of sense of weakness within, and of conventional traditions which had made me what I was, I yielded. I gave up Willie Dyer as my avowed heart’s friend and comrade. I submitted to the desirability of not acknowledging the boy I loved in public. But I was not strong enough to break the bonds which linked us or to extirpate the living love I felt for him. I carried on our intimacy in clandestine ways and fed my temperament on sweet emotion in secret. This deceit, and the encouragement of what I then recognized as an immoral impulse, brought me cruel wrong.

{Instructions to omit this passage from original ms.} Here I feel inclined to lay my pen down in weariness. Why should I go on to tell the story of my life? The back of my life was broken when I yielded to convention, and became untrue in soul to Willie.

But what is human life other than successive states of untruth and conforming to custom? We are, all of us, composite beings, made up, heaven knows how, out of the compromises we have effected between our impulses and instincts and the social laws which gird us round.

Had Willie been a boy of my own rank, our friendship need not have been broken; or had English institutions favoured equality like those I admire in Switzerland, he might have been admitted to my father’s home. As it was, I continued for some years to keep up an awkward and uncomfortable intercourse with him, corresponding by letters, meeting him in churches where he played the organ and going with him now and then to concerts. I paid the organist of Bristol Cathedral fifty guineas as premium for Willie’s musical education, and thus was responsible for starting him in a career he wished to follow.

In the autumn of 1859 there came a young man from Rugby to Oxford who was destined to exercise a good deal of influence over my life. His name was C. G. H. Shorting. After trying for the Balliol scholarship without success, he obtained one at Corpus. We soon became intimate and I discovered that he shared my Arcadian tastes. He was rather good-looking, with a mass of curly shining yellow hair. For scholarship in the technical sense of the word he showed considerable ability; but he had little or no gifts for the severer studies of the university. There was something attractive about him, in spite of a difficult temper and an obstinate perverse will. The men of my set — Conington, Edwin Palmer, C. C. Puller, A. O. Rutson, Francis Otter, Robinson Ellis - took a fancy to him. We became intimate friends, until his conduct with regard to boys, especially the choristers at Magdalen, brought him into serious trouble. Reading through the diaries which I then kept, I see that my whole nature was harassed by the quarrels, reconcilements, jealousies, suspicions, which diversified our singular sort of comradeship.

In the summer of 1860:

Conington formed a second reading party. He and Green and Rutson and Puller and myself went to live in a farmhouse upon the lake of Coniston, facing the shore which Ruskin has since made classical. Shorting came to see me there, and brought his peculiar atmosphere of boy-love into my neighbourhood. This signified little; for the deep seas of my soul, so sorely troubled by Vaughan’s affairs last year, were now subsiding.

The quest of ideal beauty, incarnated in breathing male beings, or eternalized in everduring works of art, was leading me to a precipice, from which no exit seemed possible except in suicide or what I then considered sin.


Chapter Seven. An important episode in my Oxford life: Alfred Brooke

In the summer of 1862, towards the end of Symonds’ time as an undergraduate:

[…] In the midst of this home life I fell violently in love with a cathedral chorister called Alfred Brooke. The passion I conceived for him differed considerably from my affection for Willie Dyer. It was more intense, unreasonable, poignant - at one and the same time more sensual and more ideal. I still think that this boy had the most beautiful face I ever saw and the most fascinating voice I ever heard.

The days and nights were horrible sometimes. It was a sustained conflict between desire and conscience, in which the will exercised a steady empire over action, while dreams and visions inflamed the fancy and irritated the whole nervous constitution — a maddening mixture of Thucydides and Livy, Aristotle and Mill, with burning memories, feverish reveries, brain-thrilling songs, the tempting of the inner voice: ‘Stretch forth thy hand and pluck and eat!’ And all this had to be controlled and covered up under my masked manner of self-presentment to my father and his friends. Truly I wrote out of my own heart’s experience when I thus described the Genius of Greek Love poring upon a magic beryl. . . .

How his lips quivered as with eyes of fear
And fascination o’er the filmy sphere
He pored, and read his own deep thoughts thereon -
Fables and symboled shapes of joys forgone
And longings strangled! All the sterile years,
The vain expense of salt soul-draining tears,
The keen divisions of quick thoughts, the void
Of outstretched arms, the subtle suicide,
The pale recurrences of palsying dreams,
The broodings and the ecstasies, the schemes
That never can be counted, the despair
Of hope or health or comfort anywhere,
The yea and nay twinned in a single breast,
The feverish pillow and the blank unrest
Of solitary midnight - all were there,
Limned on the sphere as by a painter’s care.
Then could I see how to his side there came
Twin forms, the one with eyes of eager shame,
The other with quenched orbs, children of Hell,
Named Vain Desire and Everlasting Farewell.
I looked and loved him, for he is the Lord
Who on his knees hath nursed me, who hath stored
My soul with tenderness and slumbering fire,
Who with his earnest eyes hath quelled desire
Or fanned it flaming, who hath set my feet
Upon the barren path, where bitter-sweet
Grow the love-apples ruddy to the core,
Whereof who tasteth slumbers nevermore,
But knows the secret of forbidden things,
And thirsts with thirst unslaked by any springs.

The state of my mind during this preponderance of an ever-recurrent, ever-repressed longing for Alfred Brooke will be shown by the following prose dithyramb I find among my papers. It was written down, I think, in the year 1865 when the tyranny had been overlived but still vibrated in memory.

Quemadmodum desiderat cervus ad fontes aquarum {1} [‘Just as the hart longs for the water springs . . .’]


Of Alfred Brooke: of the face that ceases not to haunt me — the body, voluptuous and stalwart, that deprives me of my natural rest.

Light hair; bright purple-blue eyes; pale delicately flushed complexion; firm bold level gaze; square white forehead; large red humid mouth; vibrating voice; athletic throat and well-formed breast; broad hard hands; poise of trunk upon massive hips; thick and sinewy thighs; prominent and lusty testicles; brawny calves; strong well-planted feet.

Womanly whiteness and fullness in spite of all this; softness mingled with audacity; lasciviousness beneath the virile bosom; love-languor in the large bold steady eyes; invitation in the ringing voice; readiness to grant favours; knowledge and appreciation of sensual delight.

I roll on my bed in the night watches; I clench my fists and beat my brow. The flesh rises within me, and the soul is faint through longing. I thirst for him as the hart panteth after water brooks. I cry after him from whom I turn aside. I scorn myself when I remember what he offered and I refused.


Before my study window he passed one morning. {‘This incident happened on Monday, Oct. 7, 1861. I find two sonnets written immediately after Alfred had passed by, in my diary under that date. They have since been printed in Vagabunduli Libellus under the title of “Renunciation”, pp. 136, 137. Only she has been substituted for he:’ - J. A. S.} I raised my head from the desk where Plato lay. He looked from the pavement, nodded and smiled. Even now I can see him with the frank and open face, the face of invitation, the body that exhaled delight, the glance that said ‘I wait for you.’

I let the lad pass, held my breath tight, and caught at the window-curtain. He was gone. Down into the street I rushed; dared not cry out nor follow; flung myself upon the grass and dead leaves of the garden; groaned aloud for him, and wrestled.

I knew that he was waiting to assuage my soul’s thirst. Yet I refrained.


To my bedroom at another time he came. {ln ms. ‘To offer himself he came’ crossed out. — Editor.} His voice was husky, and his lips seemed drowthy for kisses.

I was in my dressing-gown. My bed stood in a corner of the room.

I spoke to him reservedly — sent him away without one kiss. He met my father on the staircase.

I lay awake all that night, kissing the bed on which he sat, watering the coverlid with tears, praying and cursing in one breath.

In the morning my father said: ‘Son, you have a fever.’ That day I left home, and returned not for many weeks.


Shall I speak of a third time? — Late in the evening of a dull October day the hunger to see Alfred came upon me. I walked to his house, three miles away. I found him with his father and his brothers; he was in his shirt-sleeves, copying attorney’s parchments. Down to the hall-door he came, athletic, radiant, the sweetest and the strangest sight to see.

Royal Promenade, Clifton, 1871

I took him with me. Out into the night we went, the Clifton night, the night of moist west winds and flaring gas lamps. We stood at gusty corners, looked at each other’s faces by the quivering light. The magnetism of his hand was on my arm; the fascination of his voice and breathing drowsed me.

We drove together; up and down in the dark night we drove. He knew what I desired. I felt what he was willing to grant. Yet the shyness of my heart raised a barrier between us. Our words fell like straw flakes down a deep well.

At midnight I released him. Of my money he took good store. He walked away, careless, scornful, disappointed. There was that he loved better than gold, and I had not offered that. Yet he liked gold too, and what gold bought, wine, good cheer, pleasure.

He called me a simpleton no doubt. Yet he feared and respected me. Verily I think he loved me.

But I, when I was left without him, balked, ashamed, regretful, thrilling - and how shall I describe the tension of the aching brain and overwrought nerves, the blushing cheek and burning head, the parched throat, the self-scorning and deeply degraded soul, the thirst and stretching out of wistful arms, empty, never to be filled, the desire, despair, prostration, godlessness, the tyranny of the flesh, the aspiration of the spirit?

They called my ensuing illness the result of overwork and religious perplexity.


College Green by Nathaniel Everett Green

Shall I speak of a fourth time? - George Riseley and Alfred Brooke were sauntering in College Green. It was a May morning; their arms were interwoven.

George Riseley’s arm lay on Alfred’s neck, and Alfred’s arm rested on George Riseley’s waist. Lovingly, like comrades, they sauntered on the pavement.

Lime leaves trembled in the branches over them; the cathedral wall behind their sun-lit faces made a grey and shadowy background.

Then I knew what jealousy the heart can feel — the jealousy of things we may not share.

To have been a third between them, I would have sold my scholarship, my prizes, my first classes, my fellowship.


Shall I speak of a last time? - I stood alone on the bare Durdham Down. By three boundary stones, at the edge of the gully which goes down to the Avon stream, I stood. Alfred passed, smiled, beckoned with his eyes, bade me leave the stones and be with him. But I moved not.

I saw him go: that white face offered to my mouth for kisses, the red lips paling with passion, the splendid eyes and throat, athletic and magnificent curve of broad square shoulders, and imperial poise of sinewy trunk upon well-knitted hips and thighs.

His dress concealed him not. With my soul’s eyes I grasped his body in all its parts. He knew this; and therefore he smiled, beckoned, invited, promised, wooed. For he too was lascivious; my soul was not more lascivious than he; and he had many lovers.

Still I suffered him to pass. Wherefore? O Soul, thou canst tell. Thou knowest, O my soul, when with faithful and infallible eye thou didst search the secrets of his flesh, that even then thy cry was one of bitterest disappointment. The flesh could not content thee, nor assuage the hunger which it stirred. In the moment of longing and lust, in that gaze of devouring curiosity and desire, thou didst perceive that he could only yield thee shame and want and hunger reborn after short satiety.

View from Durdham Down by Samuel Jackson, ca. 1837

Thereupon the three boundary stones became for me a symbol; as it were a triple Hermes; a Hermes of Uranian Eros, Priapus and Persephone, Uranian Eros, thwarting his next neighbour appetite. Persephone darkening both with fate and death and the anguish of rebelliousness.

That day, the day on which I set up those three memorial symbol stones upon the edge of the grey valley, was in some sort a day of victory. But the victory was even such a one in which the captain falls and the victorious hosts are smitten to the earth.

I cease not to be troubled by Alfred Brooke. In my visions he perturbs me. Oftentimes the beast within roars angrily for that its hunger was not satiated.

Who knows, who knows how long the victory shall last? Peradventure, Alfred Brooke, if not himself, yet in spirit, shall return and conquer — standard-bearer of legions stronger than the soul which triumphed at that moment — general of armies which shall overwhelm resistance?

It is indubitable that this passion for Alfred Brooke was a very real thing. It runs like a scarlet thread through the diaries of several years. It was the chief preoccupation of my mind during the period when I gained the Magdalen Fellowship and began to write regularly for the Saturday Review. Yet, looking backward from the vantage ground of middle life, I feel unable to explain the disastrous hold it took upon my nature. I cannot comprehend how I trifled with it in the way I did. Unjust to myself and him, I sought no proper opportunity of fusing this vehement craving in a natural comradeship. Experience teaches me that had I done so, I should perhaps have sinned, perhaps have involved myself in some scrape. But I should have emerged from the close unwholesome labyrinth of tyrannous desires and morbid thoughts in which I wandered. A respectable regard for my father, an ideal of purity in conduct, a dread of the world’s opinion forced upon me by Vaughan’s and Shorting’s histories, combined to make me shrink from action. Still I could not suppress my inborn unconquerable yearnings. I went on accumulating fuel for my own damnation.

Sins of the body are less pernicious than sins of the imagination. Vicious act is not so baleful to the soul as vitiated fancy. Many a man who never stooped to any carnal deed has wallowed in the grossest sensuality of thought. Inside the sphere of their desires such men are agent and patient, double-sexed, immersed in epicene voluptuousness, for ever longing, for ever picturing delights, for ever unassuaged. In waking and sleeping dreams they run the whole round of desire, beginning with reveries that hardly raise a blush, advancing toward pruriency, dallying with the sensual ware, at last wading in chin-deep, deeper and deeper in, until no bottom is untried, and no part or portion of the deflowered soul is pure. A day comes when they would rather bear the remembrance of brothels than carry about with them the incubi and succubi of their own creation — incestuous broods, defiling the spirit which begat them, despotic, insatiable, that may no longer be denied.

I do not for a moment doubt that Alfred Brooke lived a far more natural life than I did. I am sure that whatever he may have felt and acted, he remained a healthier man. My conception of him, contaminated by my own unwholesome fancy, would have vanished like a vision at the first touch of physical and moral contact. But this I shrank from for a score of unpractically prudent reasons. And I believe that the picture I have drawn of him as the dream object of my permanent desire is a gross libel upon the flesh-and-blood being he was. . . .

I take farewell of the purely ideal being whom I have called Alfred Brooke. I cannot call him by another name; for a real boy growing into superb adolescence and the beauty of young manhood under my fascinated eyes evoked this figment of my fancy. This boy owned the name of Alfred Brooke. But the real Alfred Brooke was probably quite different from the creature who attracted me. Let no one imagine that the man who bore or peradventure still bears this name, corresponded in any essential particular to the dream around which my unhealthily repressed desires crystallized. Would to God that I had fraternized with him! Would to God that I had sought and he had suffered that carnal union, which the world calls sin, but which leads, as I know well, in frequent cases to brotherhood and mutual good services through life. {Added to margin in original ms. - Editor.} Then I should certainly not have penned these pages, which may, in spite of all I assert to the contrary, cast a shadow of unmerited blame upon him from my own dark and brooding self.

I had been taught that the sort of love I felt for Alfred Brooke was wicked. I had seen that it was regarded with reprobation by modern society. At the same time I knew it to be constitutional, and felt it to be ineradicable. What I attempted to do in these circumstances was to stifle it so far as outward action went. I could not repress it internally any more than I could stop the recurrence of dreams in sleep or annihilate my native instinct for the beauty of the world. Nothing remained but to relegate it to the sphere of the imagination. The result was what I have above described.


Chapter Eight. End of my Oxford life, wanderings in Switzerland, Rosa Engel and Catherine North, Italy

Soon after graduating, in 1862:

[…] In the autumn I was elected to an open fellowship at Magdalen College. I had long wished to enter that establishment on the foundation - attracted by its medieval beauty, its solemn chapel and the choiring voices of the singing boys. These were not perhaps the best reasons for seeking a fellowship at Magdalen; but beyond the vulgar ambition to win a coveted prize, and to beat Lyulph Stanley, Chavasse, Marshall,[30] and twenty more competitors of distinction, I had no better.

May Morning on Magdalen Tower by Holman Hunt: the choir of Magdalen College, Oxford, 1890

Here are some passages from my diary, written during the examination. It took place in the Hall, which is only separated from the chapel by a wall; so that I could hear the ground reverberations of the organ and the lyric cry of the boys’ voices, clamboring in antiphones or riding on the wings of fugues, while I was writing papers on philosophy and history:

On Thursday I heard ‘Let the bright Seraphim’ sung divinely by Goolden (a chorister). Oh, how I long to enter here! Quam dilecta sunt templa Magdalenae! Numquam aliquid alius adeo desideravi.[31] [How lovely are the temples of Magdalen! Never have I desired anything so much.] Still I recognize that it might be a blessing in disguise to be rejected. […]

It would have been indeed for me a blessing in disguise if I had been rejected at Magdalen. One name occurs frequently in my diary of those days - the name of C. G. H. Shorting. I had promised to coach him in philosophy; and when he found that I was elected Fellow of Magdalen, he hoped to use his opportunities as my pupil for gaining access to the college and carrying on flirtations with the choristers. After I entered into residence, occupying rooms in the cloister quad nearly opposite the state apartments, I perceived that it would not be loyal or convenient for me to introduce Shorting into Magdalen. He was regarded by the dons and the men with aversion and suspicion, having already intrigued tactlessly and pertinaciously with one of their choristers, Goolden. Accordingly, I told him that I felt obliged to coach him in his lodgings. But this provoked an angry letter of expostulation.

Meanwhile I began to make friends with the tutors and fellows of Magdalen, and endeavoured to get work in the college as a lecturer. I made the acquaintance of Richard Congreve,[32] which afterwards developed into a close intimacy. I received an invitation through the Hon. and Rev. W. Fremantle[33] to go as tutor to Lord Pembroke,[34]  then a boy of fifteen, which I sagely refused. And so it happened at this juncture that Gustavus Bosanquet wrote to me from Cambridge, informing me that A. Pretor had been blabbing to him about Vaughan’s troubles. This information I copied out and sent through Conington to Arthur Stanley.

Shorting, on his side, was planning mischief.

20 November. I went to an Italian lesson at C. D. Cobham’s and stayed afterwards to talk. He told me that Shorting had been dining at University, and said that he was going to take his revenge on me; Cobham would soon know what it was. Urged with the baseness of such conduct, he replied that he did not expect his friends to ‘cut him’, and that ‘he could do me great harm, though he could not suffer anything himself’. I felt that what Shorting said was only too true. He might damage me at Magdalen. Before going to bed, I saw Conington who reassured me, and I read in the green book of texts belonging to my mother these verses for the day: ‘As one whom his mother comforteth, so will I comfort you,’ and ‘Blessed be God who comforteth us in all our tribulation.’

Small comfort was I to have for many days and weeks and months - nay years. But such comfort as I got came from God in solitude, and from the image of God, the love of friends.

The Dining Hall, Magdalen College, Oxford, by Joseph Nash the elder, 1856

I was in London, staying with A. O. Rutson at 7 Half Moon Street, when the storm broke on Monday 24 November. A letter from Cobham brought me news that Shorting had sent a document defamatory of myself, and containing extracts from my private correspondence and my poems, to six of the Magdalen fellows. His object was to prove that I had supported him in his pursuit of the chorister Goolden, that I shared his habits and was bent on the same path. All my letters of expostulation and reasoning with him he had destroyed, and had cut out and pieced together little hints and fragments which gave a plausible colour to his charges.

Fortunately for me, my conscience was absolutely clear. I knew that I had done nothing that was wrong, and that the whole tenor of my action with regard to Shorting - perfectly well known to Conington, F. Otter, Edwin Palmer, A. O. Rutson and a score of other friends — had been salutary and dissuasive. Yet I had to stand my trial, and Magdalen at that time was so antagonistic to the liberalism of Balliol and so averse to the system of open fellowships based upon it by the last commission, that things were not unlikely to go hard with me. At the same moment I was grieved by hearing that Lyulph Stanley, whom I beat at Magdalen, was elected Fellow of Balliol. I would sooner have gained the Balliol fellowship; but a modest estimate of my own capacity, in relation to certain competitors, especially G. A. Simcox,[35] had made me resolve to try for the first that came. And so I won Magdalen - not without aesthetic gratification.

30 November. Green breakfasted with me, and said they had elected Stanley at Balliol. Simcox turned out a feeble delusion. They were sorry I had slipped through their fingers. Thus the unlucky resolve to stand for fellowships in order, Conington’s exaggerated opinion of Simcox, the peculiarities of Magdalen society, my feeling of delicacy about coaching Shorting there, his unparalleled treachery, have all worked to one end. My name is soiled with an unbearable suspicion; my usefulness in the college is destroyed, and Oxford is made an impossibility. All has come by folly. Of guilt I feel none, and only wonder. The dons wish me to go down tomorrow and to prepare some defence.

I did go down, and received letters of support from some of the most distinguished men in Oxford and in England — numbers of them — which were placed in the President of Magdalen’s hands, together with my own statement, which I wrote at Earley Court near Reading (the home of my friend Stephens) with a burning head, sore eyes, and heavy heart in indignation. After some time, on 18 December, a general meeting of the College of Magdalen acquitted me of the charges brought by Shorting. I have a copy by me of the note which was inserted in the President’s book, and which Dr Fisher,[36] one of the oldest fellows, described as ‘a complete acquittal, the terms not quite as I should wish’. In fact, two of the letters in my handwriting which Shorting sent in were ‘strongly condemned’. My father regarded the verdict of the college as ‘an act of meagre justice’; and certainly if Shorting had exploded the same hand grenade against me in the Balliol common room, it would have merely stirred the air. But Magdalen, as I have already said, was hostile to Jowett’s pupils and suspicious of the clever young liberals whom their new statutes forced them to receive.[37]

Of Shorting, I need not say that I have heard and seen nothing since that time. He left Oxford in disgrace, and has lived a life of obscurity. […]


Chapter Twelve. Emotional development

Describing his friend Claude Delavai Cobham, whom he first knew at Oxford in 1861 and who professed himself throughout life an ‘anderastes:’

This man told me that, while he was a boy of thirteen, a friend of his brother seduced him at his mother’s house, and that he had never afterwards been able to conceive of love except under the form of rude and lustful masculine embraces. Both Noel and he were, I believe, among those individuals for whom this kind of passion is instinctive, not acquired. […]


Chapter Thirteen. Norman

In December 1868, Symonds was introduced to a good-looking 17-year-old youth at Clifton College, “whom I will call Norman, though that was not his real name.”[38]

John Addington Symonds

I now deliberately engaged in an amour with Norman. It was romantic, delicately sentimental, but at the same time passionate and tinged with unmistakeable sensuality. During its whole course this leading type prevailed; but the sensual element was held in check. Nothing occurred between us which the censorious could rightly consider unworthy of two gentlemen.

Norman reciprocated my affection to a considerable extent. He was himself sensitive to the attraction of the male; but his mode of feeling corresponded to my own - that is to say, he already loved boys younger than himself. This prevented our union from becoming that of lover and beloved in the deeper sense of mutual satisfaction.

February 1869:

Now I began to perceive that Norman was, and for some while past had always been, more or less sentimentally in love with one or other of his comrades. This added to my unrest.

Then my family and I moved into our house in Victoria Square, which was nearer to the college and the Downs. But the work and play of the summer term absorbed Norman’s time; and I noticed also that, under the sweet influences of the season, he had begun to love, as was his former wont, a boy.

Diary entry, just before Norman, 19 that month, went away to Oxford, as an undergraduate:

28 January 1870. Norman came to me on Wednesday night at 11. […]

I have had two perfect midnight hours with him: one on each of the two past nights. The house was still; the windows of his room were curtained; the fire burned dim, but warm; a candle shaded from our eyes gave twilight, so that we could see. We lay covered from the cold in bed, tasting the honey of softly spoken words and the blossoms of lips pressed on lips. Oh, the strain of those delicate slight limbs and finely moulded breasts - the melting of that stately throat into the exquisite slim shoulders — as of the Genius of the Vatican - the οτέρνα θ' ὡ'ς αγάλματος κάλλιατα [and his most lovely breast, like that of a statue].[39] I find it hard to write of these things; yet I wish to dwell on them and to recall them, pen in hand: — the head that crowned all, pillowed with closely cut thick flocks of hair and features as of some bronze statue, sharp and clear — the chiselled mouth, the short firm upper lip, the rounded chin, the languid eyes black beneath level lines of blackest brows, the low white forehead over-foamed with clustering hair and flakes of finest curls.

I stripped him naked, and fed sight, touch and mouth on these things. Will my lips ever forget their place upon his breast, or on the tender satin of his flank, or on the snowy whiteness of his belly? Will they lose the nectar of his mouth - those opened lips like flower petals, expanding neath their touch and fluttering? Will my arms forget the strain of his small fragile waist, my thighs the pressure of his yielding thighs, my ears the murmur of his drowsy voice, my brain the scent of his sweet flesh and breathing mouth? Shall I ever cease to hear the metallic throb of his mysterious heart - calm and true - ringing little bells beneath my ear?

by Duncan Grant

I do not know whether, after all, the mere touch of his fingers as they met and clasped and put aside my hand, was not of all the best. For there is the soul in the fingers. They speak. The body is but silent, a dumb eloquent animated work of art made by the divine artificer.

Beneath his armpits he has no hair. The flesh of his throat and breast is white as ivory. The nipples of his breasts are hardly to be seen, they are so lost in whiteness and so soft. Between them, on the breastbone, is a spot of dazzling brightness, like snow or marble that has felt the kisses of the sun. His hips are narrow, hardened where the muscles brace the bone, but soft as down and sleek as satin in the hollows of the groin. Shy and modest, tender in the beauty-bloom of ladhood, is his part of sex κύπριν ποθοῦσαν ῆδη [now longing for passion] — fragrant to the searching touch, yet shrinking: for when the wandering hand rests there, the lad turns pleadingly into my arms as though he sought to be relieved of some delicious pang.

If I could only paint him, as he lay there white upon the whiteness of the bed, and where he was not white, glowing to amber hues, and deepening into darkness of black eyes and hair - dawn of divinest twilight - only one rose upon his flesh, and that the open, passionate, full-perfumed mouth, the chalice of soul-nourishing dew. Norman is all in all and wholly ‘μελίχλωρος’ [‘honey-golden’].[40]

Ah, but the fragrance of his body! Who hath spoken of that scent undefinable, which only love can seize, and which makes love wild mad and suicidal?

Now come the nonchalances and superb abandon of repose. How his head drooped on one shoulder, and how his arm lay curved along flank and thigh, and how upon the down of dawning manhood lay his fingers, and how the shrinking god was covered by his hand! […]

The slender well-knit body of a lad: why is it so beautiful to me - more beautiful than Aphrodite rising from the waves, or Proserpine upon the meads of Enna?


[1] The obvious reason for non-publication even under heavy disguise was the extreme sensitivity of the homosexual subject matter.  It was bequeathed by Symonds’ literary executor to the London Library with instructions that it should not be published for fifty years after his own death, which took place in 1926.

John Addington Symonds by Carlo Orsi 1880s

[2] Carl Heinrich Ulrichs (1825—95). His specialties were jurisprudence and theology but under the pseudonym ‘Numo Numantius’ he wrote pamphlets on homosexuality. [Editor’s note]

[3] Homer, Iliad XXIV. 347—8. The context is of the god Hermes, disguised as a youth, coming to meet King Priam on his way to reclaim from Achilles the body of Hector. [Editor’s note]

[4] Andromache, wife of Hector, mother of Astyanax who had been killed by the Greeks. [Editor’s note]

[5] Praxiteles, Athenian mid-fourth-century sculptor. Symonds is quoting from his poem  ‘The Genius of the Vatican’ in Many Moods. [Editor’s note]

[6] Hebe, daughter of Zeus and Hera, and wife of Heracles, was renowned for her beauty. [Editor’s note]

[7] Apoxyomenos is a statue of an athlete scraping himself with the strigil, by the fourth-century sculptor Lysippus (Vatican Museum). [Editor’s note]

[8] Juvenal n. 10 — from a bitter satire upon homosexual behaviour, the full quotation reads, ‘How can you criticize immorality, when you are the most infamous trench among the Socratic buggers?’ [Editor’s note]

[9] Symonds is probably thinking of Clough’s Dipsychus, representing the conflict between a tender conscience and the world. The reference is to ‘dipsychos’, a rare Greek word meaning ‘twin-souled’. [Editor’s note]

[10] Pretor was born on 10 January 1840 (Alumni Cantabrigiensis 1752-1900 by J. A. Venn (Cambridge, 1944), vol. 4 p. 190), so revealed the affair around the time of his 18th birthday.

[11] There is probably a confusion here. Henry Cary (1804—70) translated Herodotus and Plato in 1848-9. The well-known crib man was W. B. Kelly who produced a series of Kelly’s Keys to the classics from 1848 onwards. [Editor’s note]

[12] The term ‘exeat’ is used for any occasion when boys leave the school premises. [Editor’s note]

[13] A little more concrete information about Symonds’ love affair with Willie, including the latter’s age emerges from the description of the former as Case XVII in Sexual Inversion by Havelock Ellis (1897):

Next year [his 19th] he formed a passionate but pure friendship with a boy of 15. Personal contact with the boy caused erections, extreme agitation, and aching pleasure: not ejaculation however. Through 4 years of intimacy A never saw him naked, or touched him pruriently. Only twice he kissed him. A says that those two kisses were the most perfect joys he ever felt.

[14] Theokritos xn. 15—16. Most modern scholars read πάλιν for πάλαι which would be rendered, ‘Men are back in the Golden Age, when the beloved boy has returned one’s love.’ [Editor’s note]

[15] Unable to trace. [Editor’s note]

[16] Harpocrates (Egyptian Horus), youthful sun born afresh each morning, represented as sitting with his finger in his mouth, symbolic of childhood. The Greeks and Romans called him the god of silence. [Editor’s note]

[17] Theognis — Greek elegiac poet of the late sixth or early fifth century BC. Two volumes of his poetry survive. Book II and some of Book I contain pédérastie overtones. [Editor’s note]

[18] The Anthology — Greek epigrams begun by Meleager in first century BC. The original title, Garden Anthology, means a garland or collection of flowers. [Editor’s note]

[19] Anacreon — c. 570 BC, was a lyric poet writing in Ionic dialect. Ibycus was a sixth-century lyric poet, while Pindar, writing in the fifth century, was a great choral lyricist. [Editor’s note]

[20] Prof. John Conington, just mentioned as one of the elder men Symonds had become acquainted with.

[21] William Johnson (later Cory), author of Jottica (1858); his pupil was Charles Wood, later Viscount Halifax. [Editor’s note]

[22] Herodotos 1.66; from the Oracle of Apollo given to the Spartans asking for success in their planned campaign against Arkadia. [Editor’s note]

[23] A Latin version of a Greek saying: Σπάρτην ἕλαχες, ταύτην κόσμει (Euripides fr. 7323, from the lost play Telephos), also cited in Greek by Cicero (ad Atticum 4.6.2). [Editor’s note]

[24] Alton Locke (1850), a novel by Charles Kingsley. [Editor’s note]

[25] Henry Montagu Butler succeeded Vaughan as headmaster at Harrow, 1859—85. [Editor’s note]

[26] It is curious that Dalrymple later contributed a chapter on Dr Vaughan for Howson and Warner’s Harrow School. Symonds continued late in life to refer affectionately to him in his letters. [Editor’s note]

[27] In 1859 the Archbishop of Canterbury was John Bird Sumner. In June 1859, the Prime Minister, Lord Derby, was succeeded by Lord Palmerston. [Editor’s note]

[28] No remotely satisfactory explanation of Dr. Vaughan’s resignation from public life having been presented, it continued to baffle historians until Symonds’s Memoirs were published. The wealth of verifiable detail, the resolution of the otherwise inexplicable mystery, and Symonds’s  cathartic intent in writing left no reasonable doubt as to his veracity.
     Nevertheless, a recent biography, “Noli Episcopari”: a life of Charles John Vaughan, 1816-1897 by Trevor Park (2013) has insisted that Symonds’s sexual allegation could not be true, though the only new evidence advanced, mention by Charles Dalrymple (another of the friends in whom Pretor confided) in his diary  of “some startling things” he had heard about Vaughan at the relevant time, provides strong corroboration of Symonds.    
     Hence the only interest of Park’s book is as a remarkably good example of the myopia clouding most 21st-century minds when it comes to trying to understand anything historical involving Greek love.  He accepts that Vaughan loved boys in a non-sexual way, and the only arguments he advances against a sexual dimension are the general high esteem of Vaughan’s character and the strong, lifelong loyalty to him of those like Pretor and Dalrymple who, according to Symonds, knew of the love affair. Apparently it is simply beyond Park’s imagination that sex between a high-minded man and boy might forge lasting bonds and admiration rather than destroy them.

[29] Dr Vaughan did not die until 1897. [Editor’s note]

[30] The Hon. L. S. Stanley, who succeeded to the title of Lord Stanley in 1909, became involved in various forms of social work. Albert Sidney Chavasse, also at Balliol, later became a barrister and eventually a proctor of the university in 1880. James McCall Marshall later became a master at Dulwich College, 1865—84, and headmaster of Durham School, 1884. [Editor’s note]

[31] The first line is a version of the first line of the Latin of Psalm Eighty-four: ‘How lovely are thy temples O Lord of hosts!’ [Editor’s note]

[32] Richard Congreve (1818—99) was an ardent disciple of Comte’s positivism. [Editor’s note]

[33] Hon. and Rev. W. Fremantle (1831—1916) was Dean of Ripon 1895—1915. [Editor’s note]

[34] Lord Pembroke (1850—95) was the thirteenth earl. [Editor’s note]

[35] G. A. Simcox became a distinguished classical scholar but even more distinguished as an eccentric. In 1905 he disappeared mysteriously during a walking tour in Ireland. [Editor’s note]

[36] John Fisher (1809—96) was bursar of Magdalen. [Editor’s note]

[37] After rigorous resistance the terms of the Oxford University Bill were accepted by Magdalen’s new president, Frederic Bulley, in 1854. This complicated struggle is described in Charles E. Mallet’s A History of the University of Oxford (London, 1927) and H. A. Wilson’s Magdalen College (London, 1899). [Editor’s note]

[38] His real names were Edward Norman Peter Moor, and he was born on 10 January 1851 (Western Daily Press, 11 March 1895).

[39] Probably by Symonds. [Editor’s note]

[40] From Plato, Republic 474 e (as a love-term between homosexual lovers). [Editor’s note]




If you would like to leave a comment on this webpage, please e-mail it to greek.love.tta@gmail.com, mentioning either the title or the url of the page so that the editor can add it.


Anon. 37,   11 March 2021

I remember reading an excerpt from the memoirs of I think a roughly contemporary figure (quoted in some sort of scholarly book), about how older boys were having sex with tarts on the school train (possibly in the mail car or something like that?), and something about people slipping and sliding from all the sperm on the floor. I thought it was Addington Symonds, but evidently not. Do you happen to have any idea what/whose that account might be?

* * *

Editor,   12 March 2021

No, I'm afraid not. The nearest I've heard to that was Lytton Strachey telling in one of his letters of an Eton school tart who went to the lavatory as soon as the school train departed so that he could receive every boy there in turn before the train arrived.