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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
John Addington Symonds (1840–1893)
Critical and Biographical Introduction
THE RESTRAINING and fructifying power of culture receives an adequate illustration in the writings of John Addington Symonds. There are few critics of this century who approach him in catholicity of artistic taste, and sensitiveness to the claims of humanity above all other claims. He is a humanist in the true sense of the word; preferring the study of man to the study of man’s works, or rather seeking always for the human element in a monument of art. He is also an exponent of the highest culture, of that self-effectuation which is the fruit of knowledge married to sympathy. In him, as in Walter Pater, liberal education has carried talent almost to the domain of creative genius—almost but not quite: he remains a critic, whose criticism is always illumination. He describes his own development in his essay on ‘Culture,’ when he defines culture as—
        “the raising of intellectual faculties to their highest potency by means of conscious training;… it is a psychical state, so to speak, which may be acquired by sympathetic and assimilative study. It makes a man to be something: it does not teach him to create anything. It has no power to stand in the place of nature, and to endow a human being with new faculties. It prepares him to exert his innate faculties in a chosen line of work with a certain spirit of freedom, with a certain breadth of understanding.”
  Mr. Symonds’s life was singularly uneventful, being devoted entirely to the quiet industries of scholarship. He inherited not a little of his literary taste from his father of the same name, who was a practicing physician at Bristol and afterwards at Clifton; and whose ‘Miscellanies,’ selected and edited by his son, were published in 1871. That son was born in Bristol, October 5th, 1840. In 1860 he was graduated from Balliol College, Oxford, winning the Newdigate prize. On account of ill health he lived for many years at Davos-Platz in Switzerland. He died at Rome, April 19th, 1893.  2
  The thirty-three years between the taking of his degree and his death were occupied chiefly with study, and with the production of works of criticism. Many of these deal with Italian men of genius; with the period of the Renaissance, and with those personages in whom the Renaissance spirit found most significant embodiment. ‘An Introduction to the Study of Dante,’ published in 1872, was one of the first fruits of Mr. Symonds’s scholarship. His poetical temperament, his sensitiveness to beauty, above all, his intense interest in human development, fitted him peculiarly to understand the temper of Italy in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. He entered with full sympathy into that highly colored, highly vitalized world, which was the product of the marriage of mediæval Faust with Helen, of the romance of Italy with the classicism of Greece.  3
  His ‘Renaissance in Italy’ is a historical record of the development of this world, interspersed with subtle and penetrative criticism. This monumental book is in five parts. The first, ‘The Age of the Despots,’ was published in 1875; the second, ‘The Revival of Learning,’ in 1877; then followed ‘The Fine Arts,’ ‘Italian Literature,’ and lastly in 1886, ‘The Catholic Reaction.’ The comprehensiveness of this work is scarcely less remarkable than its conscientious scholarship, and its subtle insight into one of the most complex periods in modern history. He portrays a great age, as it can only be portrayed, through the medium of personality. He sees the individualism of the Renaissance expressed in Dante, in Petrarch, and in Boccaccio; he sees its strength in Michaelangelo, and its sweetness in Raphael. His ‘Life of Michael Angelo’ is written in this spirit of sympathetic criticism, so that it is less a historical record than a portrait of a man. His knowledge of Renaissance conditions enabled him also to breathe with freedom the glowing air of the England which brought forth the phœnix brood of the dramatists. His ‘Studies of Shakespeare’s Predecessors in the English Drama’ are luminous with appreciation, as are also his ‘Life of Sidney’ and his ‘Life of Ben Jonson.’ The chivalry of renascent England is embodied in the one, its humanism in the other. To Mr. Symonds the man is the age.  4
  As was natural with a student of the Renaissance, Mr. Symonds was also a student of Greek life and thought. His ‘Studies of the Greek Poets’ is a unique work; because it approaches the genius of Greece, as embodied in her singers, on the side of personality. It is a book requiring little scholarship in the reader, and it is therefore popular in the widest sense. It tells of the Greek poets as of men whose individuality gave color to their age. The reader is brought into contact with them rather than with remote historical conditions. Over the whole record lies the beautiful light of a fine and penetrative sympathy. The author loses readily his nineteenth-century temper of the desire of the impossible, and enters with full harmony into the mellow objective world of Greece, into its reasonableness and its temperance. His style attains its greatest perfection in this book. It is warm and pulsating with his sympathies.  5
  The poetical and appreciative side of Mr. Symonds’s nature was not developed, however, at the expense of the purely intellectual and scientific. His culture was broad enough to make of him a complete critic, living his artistic life in the Whole as well as in the Good and in the Beautiful. Yet he maintains that the scientific spirit, the outgrowth of the rediscovery of the world, must be subordinate to the humanistic spirit, the outgrowth of the rediscovery of man. This is so because man is greater than the universe in which he lives. In his ‘Essays, Speculative and Suggestive,’ he has embodied much of his critical thought concerning the scientific tendencies of the century.  6
  He is also a subtle critic of his contemporaries. His life of Shelley reveals this; as does also a chapter on Zola’s ‘La Bête Humaine,’ in which he maintains that Zola is an idealist.
          “The idealism which I have been insisting on, which justifies us in calling ‘La Bête Humaine’ a poem, has to be sought in the method whereby these separate parcels of the plot are woven together; and also in the dominating conception contained in the title, which gives unity to the whole work. We are not in the real region of reality, but in the region of the constructive imagination, from the first to the last line of the novel. If that be not the essence of idealism,—this working of the artist’s brain, not in but on the subject-matter of the external world and human nature,—I do not know what meaning to give to the term.”
  Besides the works already referred to, Mr. Symonds published ‘A Study of Boccaccio,’ ‘A Study of Walt Whitman,’ ‘Studies in Italy and Greece,’ a volume of poems entitled ‘Many Moods,’ another entitled ‘New and Old,’ a translation of the autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini, a volume of essays with the title ‘In the Key of Blue,’ a translation of the sonnets of Michaelangelo, ‘Sketches, and Studies in Italy,’ ‘Wine, Women, and Song: Mediæval Songs in English Verse,’ and a volume of sonnets entitled ‘Vagabundi Libellus.’  8

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