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John Addington Symonds

John Addington Symonds was the name of a father and son, both English writers.

The father, John Addington Symonds MD (1807-1871) was the author of an essay on Criminal Responsibility (1869), The Principles of Beauty (1857) and Sleep and Dreams (2nd ed., 1857). He married Harriet Sykes of Leatherhead, Surrey.

Their only son, John Addington Symonds (October 5 1840 - April 19, 1893) was a critic and poet.

He was born at Bristol. Considered delicate, he did not take part in games while at Harrow School, and showed no particular promise as a scholar. In 1858 he proceeded to Balliol College, Oxford as a commoner, but was elected to an exhibition in the following year. At Oxford, Symonds began to reveal his academic ability. In 1860 he took a first in "Mods," and won the Newdigate prize with a poem on The Escorial; in 1862 he obtained a first 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 proved too great for him, and, immediately after his election to a fellowship, his health broke down, and he left for Switzerland.

There he met Janet Catherine North. After a romantic betrothal in the mountains, he married her at Hastings on November 10, 1864. They settled in London and Symonds hoped to study law, but his health again broke down and forced him to travel. Returning to Clifton, he lectured there, both at the college and to ladies' schools, and the results can be seen in his Introduction to the Study of Dante (1872) and his Studies of the Greek Poets (1873-1876). Meanwhile he was occupied with his major work, 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 this had aroused a desire to produce a more complete picture of the reawakening of art and literature in Europe. His work, however, was again interrupted by illness, this time in a more serious form. In 1877 his life was in danger, and the recovery he made at Davos Platz led to a belief that this was the only place where he was likely to be able to enjoy life.

He practically made his home at Davos, and a charming picture of his life there is drawn in Our Life in the Swiss Highlands (1891). Symonds became 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 essays, and a translation of the Autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini (1887). There, too, he completed his study of the Renaissance, the work for which he is mainly remembered. He was feverishly active throughout his life, and the amount of work he achieved was remarkable considering his poor health. 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 in Rome, and was buried close to Shelley.

He left his papers and his autobiography in the hands of Brown, who published a comprehensive biography in 1895. Two works, 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, but with a capacity for action. 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." Beneath his good fellowship lurked a haunting melancholy. He was tormented by the riddles of existence.

This side of his nature is 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 lacks the harmony and unity essential to the conduct of philosophical argument. 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.

This entry was originally from the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica.