Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Symonds, John Addington (1840-1893)
SYMONDS, JOHN ADDINGTON (1840–1893), author, born at 7 Berkeley Square, Bristol, on 5 Oct. 1840, was the only son of John Addington Symonds (1807–1871) [q. v.], by his wife Harriet, eldest daughter of James Sykes of Leatherhead. He gave great intellectual promise, though associated with an incapacity for abstractions and a delight in the concrete betokening the future historian and the artist which he became rather than the thinker which he would have liked to be. At Harrow, whither he was sent in May 1854, he took little or no share in the school games, read with monotonous assiduity, but without the success commensurate with his ability, held aloof until his last year from boys of his own age, and became painfully shy. At Balliol, where he matriculated in 1858, his beginnings were not altogether promising; but soon, under the personal influence of Conington and Jowett, and of a host of friends whom his attractive personality brought about him, he made rapid progress and gained brilliant distinction, obtaining a double first class in classics, the Newdigate prize for a poem on ‘The Escorial’ (Oxford, 1860, 12mo), and an open fellowship at Magdalen College (27 Oct. 1862, after a failure at Queen's). Next spring he won one of the chancellor's prizes for an English essay upon ‘The Renaissance’ (Oxford, 1863, 8vo). The mental toil required by these achievements and still more mental restlessness and introspection impaired his health, developing the consumptive tendencies inherent in his mother's family. Six months after his success at Magdalen he broke down altogether. Suffering from impaired sight and irritability of the brain, he sought refuge in Switzerland, and spent the winter in Italy. On 16 Aug. 1864 he exchanged betrothal rings on the summit of Piz Languard with Janet Catherine North, sister of Marianne North [q. v.] They were married on 10 Nov. at St. Clement's Church, Hastings. He settled in Albion Street, London, and afterwards at 47 Norfolk Square, where his eldest child, Janet, was born on 22 Oct. 1865. He began to study law, but soon found that this vocation suited neither his taste nor his health. The symptoms of pulmonary disease became more pronounced, and he was obliged to spend the greater part of several years on the continent, visiting the Riviera, Tuscany, Normandy (1867), and Corsica (1868). At length, in November 1868, he settled near his father at Victoria Square, Clifton, and devoted himself deliberately to a literary life.
Symonds had already, in intervals of comparative health, contributed papers to the ‘Cornhill Magazine’ and other periodicals; some of these, with other essays, were collected and published in 1874, under the title of ‘Sketches in Italy and Greece’ (London, 8vo, 2nd edit. 1879). Further travel papers were collected in ‘Sketches and Studies in Italy’ (London, 1879) and in ‘Italian Byways’ (London, 1883, 8vo). His excellent ‘Introduction to the Study of Dante’ (London, 1872, 8vo; 2nd edit. 1890, French version by Auger) was the result of lectures to a ladies' college at Clifton, and other lectures delivered at Clifton College produced his ‘Studies of the Greek Poets’ in two series (1873 and 1876, both three editions). He edited the literary remains of his father, who died in 1871, and in the following year performed the same pious office for those of Conington, whom, after Jowett, he always considered his chief intellectual benefactor. In the spring of 1873 he visited Sicily and Greece. With returning health his literary ambition rekindled. The first volume of the history of the ‘Renaissance in Italy,’ ‘The Age of the Despots,’ appeared in 1875 (2nd edit. 1880). ‘It was,’ he says, ‘entirely rewritten from lectures, and the defect of the method is clearly observable in its structure.’ The second and third volumes, ‘The Revival of Learning’ (1877 and 1882) and ‘The Fine Arts’ (1877 and 1882; Italian version by Santarelli, 1879), were composed in a different fashion, with great injury to the author's health, which compelled him to work principally abroad. He gave three lectures at the Royal Institution in February 1877 upon ‘Florence and the Medici,’ and then, after a tour in Lombardy, when he began translating the sonnets of Michael Angelo and Campanella, he returned in June to Clifton; there he broke down with violent hæmorrhage from the lungs.
Symonds left England with the intention of proceeding to Egypt, but, stopping almost by accident at Davos Platz, derived so much benefit from the air during the winter 1877–8 that he determined to make that then little known resort his home. Symonds contributed his experiences in an attractive article to the ‘Fortnightly’ of July 1878. The essay powerfully stimulated the formation of English colonies not only at Davos but elsewhere in the Engadine, and it formed the nucleus of an interesting series of chapters on Alpine subjects, collected in ‘Our Life in the Swiss Highlands’ (London, 1891, 8vo; five of the papers were by his third daughter, Margaret).
From 1878 Symonds spent the greater part of his life at Davos. On 20 Sept. 1882 he settled in a house which he had built during the summer of 1881, and named Am Hof. The change was in many ways highly advantageous to him, especially as it gave him a more definite outlet for the charitable instincts which had always formed a leading element in his nature. Becoming intimately acquainted with the life of the small community around him, he took a leading part in its municipal business, and was able to render it service in many besides pecuniary ways, though here, too, he was most generous. Notwithstanding his habitual association with men of the highest culture, no trait in his character was more marked than his readiness to fraternise with peasants and artisans. He always made a point of providing relief for others, when possible, from his own earnings as a man of letters, leaving his fortune intact for his family. Literary commissions thronged upon him. He had already written the life of Shelley (1878) for the ‘English Men of Letters’ series, and in 1886 the life of Sir Philip Sidney was added. Both are fully up to the average level, but neither possesses the distinction with which some writers of abridged biographies have known how to invest their work. His Elizabethan studies bore fruit in ‘Shakespeare's Predecessors’ (1884, new edit. 1900), in a ‘Life of Ben Jonson’ (1886 and 1888), and in several minor studies for the ‘Mermaid Series’ (prefixed to ‘Best Plays’ of Marlowe, Thomas Heywood, Webster, and Tourneur). The ‘History of the Italian Renaissance’ was completed in 1886 by four further volumes, ‘Italian Literature’ (London, 2 vols. 8vo, 1881) and ‘The Catholic Reaction’ (2 vols. 1886). He computed that the work, which was abridged by Lieut.-Col. A. Pearson in 1893, and reissued in 7 volumes in 1897–8, occupied him the best part of eleven years.
Meanwhile Symonds had followed up his translations of Michael Angelo's and Campanella's sonnets (London, 1878, 8vo) with several volumes of verse, a form of composition for which, conscious probably of the mastery which he had actually acquired over poetic technique, he felt more predilection than his natural gifts entirely justified. ‘Many Moods,’ a volume of poems, had been published in 1878. ‘New and Old’ followed in 1880, ‘Animi Figura’ (of special autobiographic interest) in 1882, and ‘Vagabunduli Libellus’ in 1884. His excellent translations from the Latin songs of mediæval students appeared, with an elaborate preface upon Goliardic literature, under the title ‘Wine, Women, and Song,’ with a dedication to R. L. Stevenson (London, 8vo, 1884 and 1889). He was next induced to undertake a prose translation of the ‘Autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini,’ published in 1887 (London, 2 vols. 8vo; also 1890 and 1893). It is a masterly performance; a version of ‘The Autobiography of Count Carlo Gozzi’ (1890) is not inferior, and is accompanied by a valuable essay on the Italian impromptu comedy. He also contributed to the ninth edition of the ‘Encyclopædia Britannica’ articles on Italian history, the Renaissance, and Tasso. In 1890 he published, under the title of ‘Essays, Speculative and Suggestive’ (London, 1890, 2 vols. 8vo, and 1893), a selection from the articles he had long been industriously contributing to reviews. Four of these essays are on ‘Style,’ a subject to which they pay a somewhat ambiguous tribute; but two at least of the total number are excellent, one on ‘The Philosophy of Evolution’ and the other a parallel between ‘Elizabethan and Victorian Poetry.’ In 1892 Symonds issued the ‘Life of Michelangelo Buonarroti’ (London, 2 vols. sm. 4to, 1892; 2nd edit. 1893). This was attempted on a scale involving an amount of toil in the collection of material from which, in his biographer's opinion, Symonds never recovered. The result was inadequate to the sacrifice; for although Symonds's work was meritorious, the new information he brought to light was not of paramount importance, and it was hardly worth his while to rewrite Michael Angelo's life unless he could treat it from a novel point of view. In 1893 he published another volume of detached criticisms, fancifully entitled ‘In the Key of Blue.’ This book was remarkable, among other things, for an essay upon Edward Cracroft Lefroy, an unknown poet whose merits Symonds had detected, and whom he generously snatched from oblivion. In 1893 also, and upon the very day of Symonds's death, appeared ‘Walt Whitman: a study’ (London, 8vo). It would hardly have been expected that such a rigid cultivator of poetic form as Symonds would find so much to admire in so amorphous a writer as Whitman, and in truth it was not so much the American's poetry that attracted him as identity of feeling on two cardinal points—democratic sympathy and the sentiment of comradeship.
The intellectual and even physical activity of Symonds's life at Davos was cheered by the society of many other invalid refugees. Of these Robert Louis Stevenson [q. v.] was the most remarkable. ‘Beyond its splendid climate,’ says Stevenson in an unpublished letter, ‘Davos has but one advantage—the neighbourhood of J. A. Symonds. I dare say you know his work, but the man is far more interesting.’ Stevenson celebrated Symonds as Opalstein (in ‘Talk and Talkers’ in Memories and Portraits, 1887, p. 164). But serious lapses into ill-health and sad domestic bereavements caused Symonds much depression. His brother-in-law, Thomas Hill Green [q. v.], who had married his sister Charlotte, died on 15 March 1882; his sister, Mary Isabella, wife of Sir Edward Strachey, bart., on 5 Oct. 1883; and his eldest daughter, Janet, in April 1887. During a visit to Rome in April 1893 a chill developed into pneumonia, and he expired on 19 April. He was interred in the protestant cemetery, close by Shelley; the Latin epitaph on his gravestone was written by Jowett. The posthumous works the publication of which he desired, ‘Blank Verse’ and ‘Giovanni Boccaccio, Man and Author’ (London, 1894, 4to), did not add to his reputation. He bequeathed his papers to the care of Mr. Horatio F. Brown, the historian of Venice, who, by a skilful use of the autobiography (which Symonds had commenced in 1889), of diaries, and of letters contributed by friends, has produced a model biography, executed on a large scale, but deeply interesting from beginning to end.
There are two men in Symonds whom it is hard to reconcile. His friends and intimates unanimously describe him as one endowed with an ardour and energy amounting to impetuosity, and their testimony is fully borne out by what is known of his taste for mountain-climbing and bodily exercise, his quick decision in trying circumstances, his ability in managing the affairs of the community to which he devoted himself, and the amount and facility of his literary productions. The evidence of his own memoirs and letters, on the other hand, would stamp him as one given up to morbid introspection, and disabled by physical and spiritual maladies from accomplishing anything. The former is the juster view. Despite his tendency to abstract speculation, he had no capacity for it, although one of his essays, ‘The Philosophy of Evolution,’ is a masterly presentation of the thoughts of others. When, however, he has to deal with something tangible, such as an historical incident or a work of art, whether literary or formative, he is invariably stimulating and suggestive, if not profound. Himself an Alexandrian, as one of his best critics has remarked, he is most successful in treating of authors whose beauties savour slightly of decadence, such as Theocritus, Ausonius, and Politian. His descriptive talent is especially remarkable, and his permanent reputation must mainly rest, apart from his translations, upon his ‘History of the Italian Renaissance.’ Symonds's book, a labour of love, is not vivified by genius. It is a series of picturesque sketches rather than a continuous work, and the diverse aspects of the Renaissance, presented separately, are never sufficiently harmonised in the writer's mind. Detached portions are admirable, and if Symonds appears to have sometimes consulted his authors at second hand, it should be remembered that his access to libraries was greatly impeded by his captivity at Davos. As an original poet Symonds belongs to the class described by Johnson as extorting more praise than they are capable of affording pleasure. It is impossible not to admire the skill and science of his versification and the richness of his phraseology; but everything seems studied, nothing spontaneous; there is no sufficient glow of inspiration to fuse science and study into passion, and the perpetual glitter of fine words and ambitious thoughts becomes wearisome. He is much more successful as a translator, for here, the thoughts being furnished by others, there is no room for his characteristic defects, and his instinct for form and his copious vocabulary have full play. His versions of Michael Angelo's sonnets overcome difficulties which had baffled Wordsworth. Campanella, a still more crabbed original, is treated with even greater success, and difficulties of an opposite kind are no less triumphantly encountered in his renderings of the bird-like carols of Tuscany. His version of Benvenuto Cellini is likely to be permanently domesticated as an English book.
Portraits of Symonds while at Harrow and Balliol, about 1870, in 1886, and 1891, are reproduced in the ‘Life’ (1895). Another portrait is prefixed to ‘Our Life in the Swiss Highlands,’ 1890.[The chief and virtually the sole authority for Symonds's life is Mr. Horatio Brown's admirable biography (1895), embodying his own memoirs and diaries as far as possible. An excellent criticism of Symonds as man and author, by Mr. Herbert Warren, president of Magdalen College, Oxford, appears in Miles's Poets and Poetry of the Century.]