Ambiguity and Private Poetry

John Addington Symonds’s poem “A Lieder Kreis IV” capitalizes on the overwhelming ambiguity discussed in the Ledger and Luckhurst Fin de Siecle introduction in a multitude of ways. Tying in themes of love, potentially unclear or forbidden sexuality, and religion, Symonds allows all of these questioned focuses during the time period into his diary-like poem.

Examining the lengthy title included with the work proves an interesting point to look through these notions. According to basic internet translation, “lieder” means “song” and “kreis” means “circle.” Put together, the internet translates the phrase into “a dissolute circle.” The poem’s rhyme scheme and rhythm makes it sound like a song when read, but the “dissolute circle” marks Symonds’s feelings of shame over his homosexuality (which is discussed in the other Ledger and Luckhurst reading) and the fact that he is trapped in this never ending circle of not wanting to be outside what is considered normal, yet feeling unable to exist any other way. Returning to the idea of song, the boy in the poem sings, and the “IV” could indicate this poem is part of a cycle or a series of poems on similar topics. The next part of the title translates from Latin into “fragile and fleeting,” potentially describing his mental state at the time of writing. The most intriguing words are in the last clause: “25 copies printed for the author’s use.” This indicates the diary-like quality and the fact that he perhaps never wanted these emotions to be detected by anyone else. Even in the title alone, ambiguities felt during the period are visible, strengthened by the fact that they are not even confessed in English.

The poem itself is “fleeting” with only 12 lines. The song-like quality is found through the nearly regular line lengths and rhyme scheme, which takes on the form of ABAB CDCD EFEF. The first stanza sees a repetition of “my” and “mine,” the second repeats “his” twice, and the third repeats “he” twice, “me” only once, and “I” twice. This joins the subjects of the poem together, focusing on author, on external subject, and then drawing the two together in conclusion.

The interesting nature of sexuality in this poem takes its form from the first line: “Love sat like a boy by my pillow.” This simile does not declare the boy definitively is love personified, but suggests that to Symonds he might be. Considering that Venus is the goddess of love, something the Michael Fields seized upon many times, it is interesting that Symonds assigns love a different gender, reflecting back upon the “25 copies printed for the author’s use” statement. Perhaps love was classified as male because Symonds did not believe the poem would be seen by anyone else. Continuing to look at the personified “love,” it takes on the form of a boy. Not a man to match its author, but a boy instead. This could, for Symonds, conjure up images from his childhood when he began feeling homosexual desires (Ledger and Luckhurst 309-313), or it could embody youth in a way similar to what is seen in The Picture of Dorian Gray. Furthering these notions, the young boy could even be Symonds reflecting upon himself as a young boy: sweet but full of sorrow (line 5), fearing what tomorrow would bring (line 7), and pained from these notions of what society deems cannot be (line 8). This ties into the third stanza when he declares that this boy/love “kissed me with kisses of air” (line 10). The boy appears in a dream, causing Symonds to wring his hands in vain (lines 11-12), knowing that he is unable to change his sexuality. This “passion of prayer” could be either against his current feelings, or for the day these feelings will be acceptable. This leads to ambiguities of not only love and sexuality, but also religion, knowing that Symonds is gay yet also prays to a god who, at this point in time, likely is not said to condone his behavior.

Within this poem, Symonds expresses ambivalence over his sexuality, but seemingly owns it by calling his figment of love a youthful boy rather than a grown Venus, upsetting the norm in verse as well as in private thoughts. He expresses ambivalence through these declarations, yet rather than publicizing them and openly contributing to the feelings of the period, he hides them inside a poem intended for his eyes only. Through these focuses, Symonds is able to embody the questioning mentality of the Fin de Siecle.