We here at The Jade Sphinx are always interested in the lives of great artists; and if the biography is written by one of the preeminent aesthetes of his day, all the better.
Sadly, outside of a handful of devotees, few remember the great writer, biographer, poet, essayist and aesthete John Addington Symonds (1840—1893). Like most aesthetes, Symonds had a personal and emotional connection to the Italian Renaissance. He would write a masterful, seven volume history of the era (Renaissance in Italy, 1875-1886), a splendid biography of Michelangelo (1893), and translations of Cellini’s autobiography (1888) and Michelangelo’s sonnets (1878; the first English translation of the painter’s poetry).
Symonds was also deeply devoted to Hellenism, writing Studies of the Greek Poets (1873-1876), which more closely aligned him with the Aesthetic Movement, and he wrote several volumes of poetry, as well.
A mind and aesthetic so protean, however, ranged across history to find congenial subjects. He wrote of Ben Johnson (1886), Sir Philip Sidney (1886) and Walt Whitman (1893). However, one of his more interesting biographies is of the Romantic poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley (1878).
It may seem strange that we are emphasizing more the biographer than the biographee, but for Symonds biography and criticism were merely a mode of autobiography. While we learn a great deal about Shelley (1792-1822) in this volume, we learn even more about Symonds.
Shelley was one of the greatest of Romantic poets. He was a political radical and champion of the underdog. He was an important part of a circle of poets and writers that included Leigh Hunt, Lord Byron, Thomas Love Peacock and his wife, Mary Shelley (author of Frankenstein). He was also involved with other politically progressive thinkers of the day, including William Godwin (Mary’s father), and influenced the political thinking of Henry David Thoreau. After his death, Shelley became the idol of figures as diverse as Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw and W. B. Yeats.
Though he died just before his 30th birthday, Shelley’s literary output is remarkable for its virtuosity, its lyricism and its breadth of intellectual scope. What might have been had he lived longer must remain a mystery, as the poet drowned in a sudden storm off the Gulf of Spezia in his sailing boat, the Don Juan. The boat had been custom-built for the poet, and sank. Shelley’s body was cremated on the beach near Viareggio. Surprisingly, the poet’s heart would not burn, no matter the degree of heat and flame, and his widow took it away with her.
The Funeral of Shelley
Such a Romantic figure would be irresistible to a sensibility like Symonds’, and it is clear that the later aesthete falls, to some degree, in love with his subject. Here is Symonds on Shelley’s boyhood:
Such as the child was, we shall find the man to have remained unaltered through the short space of life allowed him. Loving, innocent, sensitive, secluded from the vulgar concerns of his companions, strongly moralized after a peculiar and inborn type of excellence, drawing his inspirations from Nature and from his own soul in solitude, Shelley passed across the stage of this world, attended by a splendid vision which sustained him at a perilous height above the kindly race of men. The penalty of this isolation he suffered in many painful episodes. The reward he reaped in a measure of more authentic prophecy, and in a nobler realization of his best self, than could be claimed by any of his immediate contemporaries.
Here Symonds describes the physical appearance of the poet: His eyes were blue, unfathomably dark and lustrous. His hair was brown; but very early in life it became grey, while his unwrinkled face retained to the last a look of wonderful youth. It is admitted on all sides that no adequate picture was ever painted of him. Mulready is reported to have said that he was too beautiful to paint. And yet, although so singularly lovely, he owed less of his charm to regularity of feature or to grace of movement, than to an indescribable personal fascination.
It is clear that Symonds was besotted by Shelley, and that his feelings for the poet cloud his vision. He blithely excuses some of the poet’s most egregious behavior, and sponges away sometimes deadly effect he had on others. Shelley becomes, for Symonds, an ideal; a swain of infinite beauty and even greater promise. Near the close of the book, Symonds writes:
Shelley in his lifetime bound those who knew him with a chain of loyal affection, impressing observers so essentially different as Hogg, Byron, Peacock, Leigh Hunt, Trelawny, Medwin, Williams, with the conviction that he was the gentlest, purest, bravest, and most spiritual being they had ever met. The same conviction is forced upon his biographer. During his four last years this most loveable of men was becoming gradually riper, wiser, truer to his highest instincts. The imperfections of his youth were being rapidly absorbed. His self-knowledge was expanding, his character mellowing, and his genius growing daily stronger. Without losing the fire that burned in him, he had been lessoned by experience into tempering its fervour; and when he reached the age of twenty-nine, he stood upon the height of his most glorious achievement, ready to unfold his wings for a yet sublimer flight. At that moment, when life at last seemed about to offer him rest, unimpeded activity, and happiness, death robbed the world of his maturity. Posterity has but the product of his cruder years, the assurance that he had already outlived them into something nobler, and the tragedy of his untimely end.
Like many who value art above mere fact, Symonds was incapable of resisting Shelley’s romantic charm. The book remains a revealing portrait of both subject and author.