English critic and poet
Born 1840 Died 1893
John Addington Symonds was born at Bristol, on the 5th of October 1840. He was the only son of John Addington Symonds, M.D. (1807-1871), the author of an essay on Criminal Responsibility (1869), The Principles of Beauty (1857) and Sleep and Dreams (2nd ed., 1857). His mother, Harriet Symonds, was the eldest daughter of James Sykes of Leatherhead.
He was a delicate boy, and at Harrow, where he was entered in 1854, took no part in school games and showed no particular promise as a scholar. In 1858 he proceeded to Balliol as a commoner, but was elected to an exhibition in the following year. The Oxford training and association with the brilliant set of men then at Balliol called out the latent faculties in Symonds, and his university career was one of continual distinction. In 1860 he took a first in 'Mods', and won the Newdigate with a poem on The Escorial; in 1862 he was placed in the first class in Literae Humaniores, and in the following year was winner of the Chancellor's English Essay. In 1862 he had been elected to an open fellowship at Magdalen.
The strain of study unfortunately proved too great for him, and, immediately after his election to a fellowship, his health broke down, and he was obliged to seek rest in Switzerland. There he met Janet Catherine North, whom, after a romantic betrothal in the mountains, he married at Hastings on the 10th of November 1864. He then attempted to settle in London and study law, but his health again broke down and obliged him to travel.
Returning to Clifton, he lectured there, both at the college and to ladies' schools, and the fruits of his work in this direction remain in his Introduction to the Study of Dante (1872) and his admirably vivid Studies of the Greek Poets] (1873-1876). Meanwhile he was occupied upon the work to which his talents and sympathies were especially attracted, his Renaissance in Italy, which appeared in seven volumes at intervals between 1875 and 1886. The Renaissance had been the subject of Symonds' prize essay at Oxford, and the study which he had then given to the theme aroused in him a desire to produce something like a complete picture of the reawakening of art and literature in Europe. His work, however, was again interrupted by illness, and this time in a more serious form. In 1877 his life was in acute danger, and upon his removal to Davos Platz and subsequent recovery there it was felt that this was the only place where he was likely to be able to enjoy life.
From that time onward he practically made his home at Davos, and a charming picture of his life there will be found in Our Life in the Swiss Highlands (1891). Symonds, indeed, became in no common sense a citizen of the town; he took part in its municipal business, made friends with the peasants, and shared their interests. There he wrote most of his books: biographies of Shelley (1878), Sir Philip Sidney (1886), Ben Jonson (1886), and Michelangelo (1893), several volumes of poetry and of essays, and a fine translation of the Autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini (1887). There, too, he completed his study of the Renaissance, the work by which he will be longest remembered. He was assiduously, feverishly active throughout the whole of his life, and the amount of work which he achieved was wonderful when the uncertainty of his health is remembered. He had a passion for Italy, and for many years resided during the autumn in the house of his friend, Horatio F. Brown, on the Zattare, in Venice. He died at Rome on the 19th of April 1893, and was buried close to Shelley.
He left his papers and his autobiography in the hands of Mr Brown, who published in 1895 an excellent and comprehensive biography. Two works from his pen, a volume of essays, In the Key of Blue, and a monograph on Walt Whitman, were published in the year of his death. His activity was unbroken to the last. In life Symonds was morbidly introspective, a Hamlet among modern men of letters, but with a capacity for action which Hamlet was denied. Robert Louis Stevenson described him, in the Opalstein of Talks and Talkers, as "the best of talkers, singing the praises of the earth and the arts, flowers and jewels, wine and music, in a moonlight, serenading manner, as to the light guitar". But under his excellent good-fellowship lurked a haunting melancholy. Full of ardour and ambition, sympathy and desire, he was perpetually tormented by the riddles of existence; through life he was always a seeker, ardent but unsatisfied. This side of his nature stands revealed in his gnomic poetry, and particularly in the sonnets of his Animi Figura (1882), where he has portrayed his own character with great subtlety.
His poetry is perhaps rather that of the student than of the inspired singer, but it has moments of deep thought and emotion. It is, indeed, in passages and extracts that Symonds appears at his best. Rich in description, full of "purple patches", his work has not that harmony and unity that are essential to the conduct of philosophical argument. He saw the part more clearly than the whole; but his view, if partial, is always vivid and concentrated. His translations are among the finest in the language; here his subject was found for him, and he was able to lavish on it the wealth of colour and quick sympathy which were his characteristics. He was a lover of beauty, a poet and a philosopher; but in his life and his work alike he missed that absolute harmony of conviction and concentration under which alone the highest kind of literature is produced. (A.W.A.)
Being the entry for SYMONDS, JOHN ADDINGTON in the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica, the text of which lies within the public domain.