Ian Venables on John Addington Symonds


All heroes are teachers in some extraordinary way and for me John Addington Symonds is without doubt one such hero. A name that is now only occasionally mentioned in the margins of history but who through his life has taught me so much about what it is to be human and what it is to have ‘courage’. The ‘courage to be’, the ‘courage to face adversity’ and the ‘courage to become’. These special qualities he had in abundance and through his life and work he has been for me a fixed point and a mentor.  My chance discovery of him in 1991 was a revelation and it quickly developed into a something of a passionate obsession. Like so many wonderful discoveries in life it led me in a new creative direction. I think it is no coincidence that my re- discovery of the art of song writing was to a great extent ignited by my intense desire to respond musically to Symonds’s poetry. What lay behind my passionate enthusiasm for his work was closely bound up with my own deep-seated feelings about my sexual identity. The world seems to have credited Havelock Ellis with the first ground-breaking work on the subject of homosexuality, but there on the cover of the first edition of ‘Sexual Inversion’ (1897) for all to see, stands the name of John Addington Symonds. It was he who started the initial research and made contact with Ellis and through their voluminous correspondence the idea for a book immerged. Sadly, Symonds died before he could see the book in print but nevertheless he is the unsung hero and pathfinder from which our contemporary understanding of the subject has been shaped.  My apologies for this rather long-winded digression but I think it is important to explain what motives lay behind Symonds’ own creative work and especially his poetry. Without going into too much detail, the major part of his published poetry was drawn from a reservoir of  unpublished ‘gay’ poetry that he had been writing throughout his adult life. However, when he came to publish it, he had to emasculate it by changing all the pronouns to the feminine so as not to ‘give the game away’. This is why his verse sounded an inauthentic note to his Victorian readership. I am not in any way suggesting that he is a first rank poet whose genius has somehow lain undiscovered all these years, but rather that his true poetic voice has been obscured by this fact. It is this ‘L’amour impossible’ that lies at the heart of both my Love’s Voice Op.22 and ‘Songs of Eternity and Sorrow’ Op.36 cycles. Although John Addington Symonds has been an important influence upon my creative life, in the end his true significance is his humanness. In 1998, there was convened, the first ever conference at Bristol University to commemorate Symonds’s life and works. I spent the year before in collaboration with Annie Burnside - the Warden of Clifton Hill House – Symonds’s former home, organising the guest speakers and bringing the programme together. I count this memorable event as one of the highlights of my life and at the end of a magical weekend the conference concluded with a song recital given by the tenor Kevin McLean-Mair and my partner Graham Lloyd, that included my Symonds settings. Just before the recital began, I said a few words to the audience that summed up what Symonds meant to me. “Little more than a century separates us from his world, however, his particular qualities as an individual stand out as an example to us all – his unflinching devotion to the Truth and his continual fight against hypocrisy and prejudice has a special relevance to our society in its search for meaning”. I ended my introduction with Symonds’s own words: ‘Experience of life, often extremely bitter, at times unexpectedly blissful, has taught me that there is nothing extraordinarily great in the greatest of achievements, nothing mean in the meanest of occupations; briefly that human life is not to be estimated by what men perform but by what they are’.


Ian Venables ©

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