Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, in her introduction to Between Men: English literature and Male Homosocial Desire, argues that the relationship between male homosexuality and homosociality is “radically discontinuous,” while female homosexuality represents more of a continuum with female homosociality. (Sedgwick 5) While her argument is an effective one, and her conclusion holds true in many cases, nineteenth-century poems like John Addington Symonds’ “From Friend to Friend” represent an intriguing effort to smooth over the discontinuity between homosociality and homosexuality – not in the relationships themselves, but in public perception of them.
Symonds’ poem is full of passionate language to his friend: they spend “aching nights” (Symonds 1) together, they look for “unspeakable delights,” (Symonds 4), they are caught in “the tide of turbulent appetites.” (Symonds 8) Indeed, any reader looking for textual evidence of this erotically charged language may as well cite the whole poem! But though Symonds’ language is blatantly romantic, even sexual, his choice of title and beginning of the poem (“Dear Friend…”) are not. This presentation of the idea of friendship before the reader has read a full line of the poem is odd, considering that the rest of the poem is not exactly in the key of “just friends.” Is this a serious attempt to characterize the depicted relationship as a merely friendly one, or is it simply providing plausible deniability if Symonds’ writings were ever used to make a case against him – like Wilde’s later were?
It is hard to answer this question without any knowledge of how the average late-Victorian reader would read the poem. To a modern eye, accustomed not only to openness about homosexuality but also to the sexualization of nearly everything, the poem is obviously not about “just friends.” Also obviously, Symonds’ friends, and those who moved in the same circles, would have known what he was writing about. But would the average reader of the time think so?
The other complicating factor in the attempt to work out what the poem is about, is its lack of any names or pronouns. We assume the poem is about a relationship between men because that is what we have been reading about (and certainly looking at Symonds’ own life and relationships, that is its likely subject). But the text itself offers no such interpretation. The speaker may be a man or a woman; the addressee may be a man or a woman. While we can say the two are plainly more than friends, we cannot say whether their relationship is straight, gay, or lesbian. Thus our immediate characterization of the poem as one about love between men must be examined.
Both of these techniques – the cover of friendship, and the lack of definite genders in the poem – would have been effective defense mechanisms should anyone start asking questions about Symonds’ personal life. In fact, he had many love affairs with other men, though he was also married with four daughters. But the necessity of providing a “safe” interpretation of his work certainly affected the construction of this particular poem.