Friday, April 19, 2013

A splendid liquid sky

One hundred and twenty years ago today died John Addington Symonds, a writer remembered largely for leaving behind literary works full of allusion to his secret homosexuality. He travelled frequently on the Continent, keeping diaries of his journeys, and in them he would often wax lyrical about his experiences. The diaries were used by his literary executor and friend, Horatio Brown, to write a biography, but were destroyed after Brown’s death.

Symonds was born in Bristol in 1840, the only son of a physician, and educated at Harrow School and Balliol College, Oxford, where he won the Newdigate prize with a poem The Escorial. In 1862 he was elected to an open fellowship at Magdalen but his health broke down, perhaps because of rumours he was having an affair with a male student, and he travelled to Switzerland to recuperate. On returning to London in 1864, he married Janet Catherine North. During the following five years she gave birth to three daughters. However, the couple appear to have led fairly separate emotional lives, with Symonds always pursuing young men as soul mates. In the second half of the 1860s, he had further mental problems, and travelled to the Continent again.

In 1867, Symonds moved to Bristol, where he did some lecturing. It is only in the 1870s, that he began to publish significant volumes, many on poetry, such as An Introduction to the Study of Dante and Studies of the Greek Poets. In 1875, Catherine gave birth to their fourth daughter. Symonds major work, Renaissance in Italy, was published in several volumes, starting in the early 1880s. He also wrote a book called A Problem in Greek Ethics which is today given the title Male Love, as well as biographies of Shelley, Jonson and Michelangelo. He died on 19 April 1893. Further information is available from Wikipedia, NNDBRictor Norton’s web pages, or the Dictionary for Art Historians.

Symonds also kept diaries and wrote memoirs, all of which he handed to his literary executor, Horatio Brown. Subsequently, Brown wrote a biography of Symonds - John Addington Symonds, a biography published first by J. C. Nimmo in 1895, readily available at Internet Archive - using many extracts from the diaries. After Brown’s death, though, the diaries were destroyed. Here are several of those extracts, as culled from Brown’s biography, the first few from 1861, when Symonds was still a young man and travelling with his father, and the last from over a quarter of a century later.

27 January 1861
‘Breakfasted with L. Stanley, and had an amusing party. Met Owen - old Balliol man, returned from Bombay College - Wordsworth, Green, Jackson, Ford, Wright, White, Bethel. Talked about “Essays and Reviews,” and the storm brewing for them; about Jowett’s parentage - Ford knows his mother and sister slightly, they live at Torquay; then of De Quincey, without some allusion to whom I hardly remember any intellectual Oxford breakfast go off; then about historic portraits - Wycliffe’s at Balliol, Chaucer’s from an old illumination, Dante’s in the Arundel Society’s publications. Sat on till 11.15. I went and wrote a long letter to papa about myself.’

16 June 1861, Macon
‘We left at five for Geneva, where I now am. The journey from Amberieu to Belle Garde was extremely fine. It winds through a pass cut by the Rhone, between Jura and some other mountains. After breaking fast we drove out to see Geneva. First we went to the cathedral, a small and symmetrical building of most interesting transition Romanesque. It has curious specimens of the use of round and pointed arch in combination, and borrows more from Roman models in the capitals than any I have seen. There is the pulpit, beneath whose sounding-board Calvin, Knox, and Beza preached. We sat in Calvin’s chair. The church is perfectly bare, and Protestant. It was more injured in five weeks of French occupation, when 10,000 men garrisoned Geneva and made it a hospital, than in its three centuries of Protestantism. A little Roman Catholic glass is still left in the windows of the apse.

17 June 1861, Hotel de L’Union, Chamonix
‘We started at seven this morning in a carriage and two horses. The journey has been one of uninterrupted beauty. The natural splendour of the country was heightened by the massy clouds which kept ever changing from peak to peak, altering the effect of light and shade, and making the distance clear and brilliant. The wild flowers are innumerable, orchids, rhododendrons, columbines, saxifrage, salvias, vetches, pinks. We broke the journey at Bonneville, where we had breakfast. Up to this point the road was comparatively tame, though behind us rose the Jura, and in front the Alps were shadowy. But at Bonneville is the very port of the Mont Blanc Alps, and of this stands sentinel the great green Mole. From Bonneville to St. Martin, the valley of the Arve is narrow, one series of vast precipices cut by rivulets and pine-clad hills on either side. At St. Martin we first saw Mont Blanc, swathed in clouds, which slowly rose and left the monarch nearly bare. He did not seem quite so huge as I expected. The amphitheatre of mountains from the bridge over the Arve is splendid; especially that corner where stands the Aiguille de Varens. Here we learned that a bridge on the road to Chamonix had been swept away by a torrent, and that no carriages could pass. However, they telegraphed for carriages to meet us on the other side of the temporary plank bridge, and we set off, through avenues of apple-trees bordering gardens of wild flowers, beneath the park-like swellings of the hills, among whose walnut-bowered hollows slept innumerable chalets. Soon the ascent began, every turn discovering some great snowpeak or green mountain furrowed with the winter streams. At the bridge we found a one-mule carriage, and continued our journey, Mont Blanc growing on us momently. As we came into the Valley of Chamonix the highest peak was very clear, and all along the bold sharp crags swaddled in clouds, and glorified by the far setting sun, were gorgeous in their brilliancy and colours. We arrived at 7.30, and got two high rooms with a good [vi]ew of the mountains.’

18 June 1861
‘About nine, M. A. Balmat, Professor James Forbes’s guide, to whom papa has an introduction, arrived. He is a pleasant, intelligent man, of about fifty, who, when he had read the Professor’s letter, greeted us warmly. He no longer acts as professional guide, but volunteered to take us about for the sake of our friendship with Mr. Forbes. Balmat is a curious instance of a man refined by the society of great and philosophic men. Having begun life as a guide, he is now the respected friend and guest of Forbes, Hooker, Murchison, and many others. Indeed, he is intimate with all the savants of Europe. We were surprised at the ease with which he spoke to us, and to the commonest people. The same bonhomie pervaded his address to both; but in the one he never fell into familiarity, nor in the other did he lose dignity. Having got alpenstocks, we set off walking to the Glacier des Boissons, which we crossed. I enjoyed picking my way among the crevasses. The glare was just what I expected, but it produced a curious effect of making the pine hills seem quite black and sombre, adding to their majesty. It is hard to estimate the height of these mountains, and this is the one disappointing thing about them. They do not displace as much sky as the summer thunderclouds, nor can we fancy that two Ben Nevises might be piled one on the top of the other below snow level (which is at the foot of the Aiguilles). However, the higher you get the more you can estimate the height above. Mont Blanc is himself so far retired that he appears small, while atmospheric differences, the want of an Alpine standard, and the size of the pine trees all tend to confuse English eyes, and lessen both height and distance. Balmat told me just the contrary of himself. In Wales and Scotland he always made mistakes, thinking, with his Alpine standard, the heights and distances much greater. He allowed some time to ascend Arthur’s Seat, and found himself immediately at the top of it.’

21 June 1861
‘We set off this morning at seven for the Flégère. Papa and I rode mules - stupid beasts, that stopped at every bush and rivulet to eat and drink. Balmat was charming through the day. He is a perfect gentleman in manners and feeling, nor is there the least affectation or parvenuism about him. When I compare him with [some] specimens of English travellers, I blush for my countrymen. Here is a guide of Chamonix, the son of a guide (who would not allow him to go to school or to learn the geology for which he has always had a passion, for fear he might leave Chamonix), whose manners are better, sentiments more delicate, knowledge more extensive, views more enlightened, than most of these soi-disant gentlemen and educated men. It is a great pity that his father would not allow him to study when young, for he might have become one of the first geologists of Europe, such fine opportunities for discovery do these mountains afford, and such an advantage his skill and intrepidity have given him. Though a mountaineer, he never brags, and is always considerate for weaker brethren like papa and me. I like very much to see him walking before our mules with his green spectacles, and old brown wideawake upon his grizzled hair, nodding kindly to the old men and women, joking with the guides, and smiling at the little children. He is patriarch of the valley, and nothing can be done without the advice of M. Balmat. After an ascent of two hours we arrived at at La Flégère, and saw before us the whole Mont Blanc range. For the first time we appreciated the height of the king himself. Now he towered above all the peaks. The names of most of the aiguilles and glaciers I knew. Balmat told us the rest in order. The Aiguille de Charmoz is still my favourite, guarding the entrance to the Mer de Glace. Here papa read ‘Come down, maid,’ from the  Princess. It was appropriate, for never were mountains better described than in that idyll.’

16 July 1862
‘The people of Milan are very unquiet to-night. They have been excited by a speech of Garibaldi, in which he denounced Napoleon, called him ‘traditore,’ ‘mosso da libidine,’ ‘capo di briganti, di assassini.’ The Milanese hate the French, and are beginning to weary of the Sardinian government, and because they have to pay heavier taxes they regret the Austrians. This promulgation of Garibaldi has roused them against France and Sardinia, and made them furious for a Republic. To-night they propose a demonstration; all the soldiers - cavalry, infantry, and National Guard - are in readiness to suppress it. While I was writing, a confused murmur reached our ears. We got up and ran to our window, which looks both up and down the street. Instantly we perceived that a large band of men, with lighted torches, were rapidly advancing up the street. A crowd formed in front of them. We saw men behind and at the sides. The bright red torches swayed about, burning and smoking with a glare upon the houses crowded with faces. Something seemed to interrupt their progress. A great noise arose, and the crowd increased. It was picturesque to see them toss their flambeaux up and down to make them shine, and in the distance each man looked like a shape of flame. Eschmann came up and told us that this was one of four divisions of the demonstration; 400 of another had been taken prisoners, and these were surrounded with soldiers. The soldiers forced them to break up, the crowd dropped away, and so ended the émeute. I often wondered what a demonstration meant. This is a pretty and picturesque specimen.’

12 April 1889
‘After some days of indecision, Catherine and I left Davos this morning for Sus by the Flégère. It was misty, yet I thought with the promise of a fine day in it. A large post and four passengers, and six luggage sledges, with only four drivers to all the ten horses. We were in the conductor’s sledge. Up to the Hospiz things went well, and the heat was absolutely awful. It burned more than I ever felt it burn, except upon the névé of a glacier in midsummer. A splendid liquid sky, full of the spring, seeming to portend storm. The road to Sus combines all the dangers of an Alpine road - avalanches, upsettings, falling stones; and they were all imminent to-day. When the first four sledges plunged into the great gallery I felt comparatively safe, but the rest did not arrive. After about ten minutes a fifth horse came plunging down the dark passage over the ice, with a pack-sledge and no driver. When he reached our train, he kept whinnying, neighing, and looking back as though to tell us that something had happened. We waited another five minutes, and still the rest did not arrive. The conductor had sent the chief postillion back. He could not leave the five horses alone in the tunnel - yet he was now anxious. Accordingly, I proposed to run back and see what had happened. The tunnel was pitch dark and as slippery as glass. It took me some time to slip along with my gouties on. When I emerged into the blaze of sunlight and snow, I saw nothing at first; then met Herr Lendi of Davos Dorfli walking to me. One of the sledges (with a driver) had been upset. The two passengers, a man and woman, and the postillion, had all been flung over a wall on to snow and rocks, and had fallen and rolled about fifty feet down the steep place. The woman was badly cut about the head; the young man, a Swiss, had sprained his hand; the postillion was all right.

‘Fortunately,’ added Lendi, ‘the horses and sledges remained above the wall, else they would all have been smashed together.’ I saw the girl, dazed and faint, and the place where she had fallen; then ran back to tell the conductor. But it was bad going in that tunnel with my gutta-percha shoes, and soon I heard the rest of the sledges come thundering into the pitch dark passage. I tried to keep close to a wall, and in moving shufflingly onward as fast as I could go, fell once heavily upon the rock and ice, bruising my right arm and loins. I did not think much of it at the time, being eager to get to my own sledge before the rest of the train arrived.

I ought to mention the curious optical phenomenon in this black gallery - black because fallen avalanches had stuffed up all its apertures with snow. On entering it, with eyes dazzled by the brilliance of the outer day, any object which caught a reflex of light from behind looked as green as emerald or sun-illuminated lake-water. In the middle there was no colour, nothing but night. Toward the end, when light again caught icicles and snow-heaps from the furthermost opening, these points shone bright crimson, as though a score of red Bengal lights had been lighted far ahead.

We reached Sus without further accidents. There, while I was talking to Herr Patt, I found that I had lost a ring from my watch-chain, to which was hung these objects - 1, funeral gold ring of John Symonds, my great-grandfather; 2, alliance ring of my great-grandfather and great-grandmother Sykes, two clasped hands opening, one heart inside; 8, a ring belonging to Admiral Sykes, with the name of his friend Captain Gathorne; 4, my father’s guard-ring; 5, my seal ring of bloodstone engraved with the crests of Symonds and Sykes; 6, my gondolier’s ring engraved with the arms of Symonds; 7, a Napoleon Rep. Fr. 1848; 8, a cow-bell given me by Patt.’

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