Trivialize or Normalize

In reading the work of Swinburne, I was constantly lost in his pretty rhyme schemes. They are always perfect, always finding a word to rhyme with Faustine, always completing each complicated rhyme scheme that he chose for the poem. These constantly perfect rhymes tend to give a sing-song effect to the poems – “A Match” is an excellent example of this. The constant rhyming also made me feel as though the whole of each poem was childish or trivial, just a cute poem that was fun to listen to and then move onto the next one without giving it much in depth thought. But Swinburne challenges this tendency at every turn. His poems talk about very heady topics, love and sex, pain and death, and usually in relation to actions or situations that are not socially acceptable (i.e. necrophilia).

One could argue that discussing these kinds of topics within such strict rhyme schemes that seem to mimic nursery rhymes is an attempt to trivialize the subjects. Love, according to tradition, should be given sophisticated sonnets rather rhyming quatrains, and implications of sex should be veiled with beautiful language about flowers and overpowering love instead of blood and pain. But Swinburne works to invert these traditions through both his rhyme schemes and his subject matter.

The poem “In the Orchard” is no exception. It has a simple rhyme scheme of aabab ccbcb ddbdb, etc. to talk about passionate love. He includes some flower imagery to bring up virginity – “take it then, my flower…/My rose, so like a tender mouth it is” (line 18-19). This in of itself is an inversion from more traditional poetry in that the female has the voice in the poem and is taking agency in initiating sex with her male partner rather than a male telling a female to not be so prudish and to take pleasure, or rather allow him to take his pleasure from her, while she is still desirable to him.

The love story then becomes more graphic, with the speaker wanting to be slain now that she has had sex and reached a sublime.

Art and Immortality in “A Portrait” by Michael Field and Dorian Gray

While reading the poem “A Portrait” by Michael Field, I was immediately reminded of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray – not only because of the shared theme of the portrait, but also the mutual themes of art and mortality vs. immortality. One can see this theme present in the last two lines of the poem:

“The small, close mouth, leaving no room for breath,

In perfect, still pollution smiles – Lo, she has conquered death!”

By posing as the subject of the portrait the woman achieves immortality, having “conquered death.” In effect, she becomes an object, rather than a person – a static, visual representation of herself. This objectification of bodies relates to the Victorian obsession with material objects and the favoring of aesthetics over ethics, as Robert Mighall states in his introduction to the Penguin Classics edition of Dorian Gray: “For Wilde, art is superior to nature and to life, and aesthetics are always higher than ethics.” (xxv) As an object, the woman’s body becomes sexualized:

“To give her fragile shapeliness to art, whose reason spanned

Her doom, who bade her beauty in its cold

And vacant eminence persist for all men to behold!”

Her body becomes simply a “vacant” shell, whose sole purpose is to look beautiful for “men to behold.” By becoming a portrait, she shifts from the realm of mortality and ethics to the realm of immortality and aesthetics.

In Dorian Gray, however, we see a reversal in the role of art and mortality vs. immortality – Dorian’s body stays young and beautiful forever, while the portrait ages and distorts with every sinful act he commits. In this case, Dorian becomes the immortal, aesthetic object, while the portrait becomes the mortal, ethical living-being. The notion of giving life to art occurs throughout the entire novel, in  which, according to Mighall, Dorian “brings his moral life to the portrait, confusing art with life, and ethics with aesthetics.” (xxv) The result of this confusion of ethics and aesthetics “is disastrous for the work of art; what should have been hailed as ‘one of the greatest things in modern art’ is transformed into a horrifying record of corruption, ‘bestial, sodden, and unclean (…).'” (xxv) Dorian’s ethical reading of the portrait takes on a form of “aesthetic heresy,” and could even be interpreted as being “Dorian’s greatest sin.” (xxv)

A similar example of the confusion of ethics and aesthetics occurs with Dorian’s love for Sibyl Vane – he falls in love with Sibyl’s acting, rather than her person. When Sibyl ties her love for Dorian with her acting, her art is destroyed – she performs badly in the play, and Dorian loses his love for her, because she becomes a “person” rather than an object. The influence of life on Sibyl’s art ultimately leads to her death when she commits suicide, proving that “art is destroyed by life and morality, and that ethics and aesthetics belong to separate spheres of thought and judgement.” (xxvii)

This notion that the realm of art and the realm of life should be kept separate is the basis of the Aesthetic belief, as Oscar Wilde writes in his Preface of The Picture of Dorian Gray: “To reveal art and conceal the artist is art’s aim.” (3) According to the Aesthetic movement, art should exist solely as an aesthetic entity, removed from the intention of the artist – ultimately, it should exist purely as “art for art’s sake.”

Old Fashioned Forms Are Fashionable

As we discussed in class, Fin de Siecle poetry was often lamented and described with frustration as heard by T.S. Elliot and other critics. These ideas surrounding the late century’s poetry stemmed within its consistency of feeling contested by existing within traditional forms yet wanting to be more modern. Many questioned why these poets did not fully embrace modernity since that was what many of them expressed, yet worked through a means of the traditional. As exemplified in Fin de Sielce poet John Symonds,’From Friend to Friend’ represents exactly what many critics dislike about the poetry of the turn of the century. Symonds writes a poem within the neat and organized formal structure of the Octavian Sestet while following its rhyme scheme to a tee. However, while the form is of traditional its content is not. Symond’s utilizes consistent contradiction by pairing words such as, “know not”, “sweet strange”, “unspeakable delights”, and “twin minds”. He also includes insistent repetition with the words “or” and “our” which purposefully causes the reader to confuse whether or not the speaker and the friend are both being described as one or as separate individuals. His prose creates a kind of unusual disruption for the reader and further gets at what Symond’s is expressing within his poem, that of a homosexual relationship that can’t safely exist within the reality of the era, “That sway both breasts in harmony, have wrought/ Our spirits to communion: but I swear/That neither chance or change nor time nor aught/That makes the future of our lives less fair,/”. The two cannot be together as desired, “sway both breasts in harmony” because there is an anxiety revolving around it as suggested in the words, “That makes the future of our lives less fair,”. Therefore, Symond is creating as well as expressing a new ideology and desire that is not allowed within the Victorian society. However, Symond is expressing these ideas through traditional form which suggests his undoing of the conventionalities.

Despite, many critics who lament this poetry of the fin de siecle I would like to argue that they purposefully wrote within modes of the traditional in order to express new ideology because they had too in order to be published. Had these poems been completely void of the traditional framework and express atypical ideas then they wouldn’t have been able to be published. Additionally the forms of the traditional are undoubtedly beautiful and using them was just as much of a desire to write within them as it was necessary. However, through using the traditional to express the unconventional poets, as well as other authors, were able to play the system by working within the system to achieve their repressed desires that couldn’t be otherwise expressed without the use of the traditional forms.

Natural vs. Unnatural Corruption in Symonds’s “The Valley of Vain Desires” and Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray

John Addington Symonds’s poem “The Valley of Vain Desires” uses natural imagery and metaphors to describe the process of descending into sin, a condition that is figured as a physical location, the “valley of vain desires.” When we look at Symonds’s poem through the lens of Oscar Wilde’s novel The Picture of Dorian Gray, we see that there is a striking contrast between the way that descent into sin is described. While Dorian is corrupted by the influence of Lord Henry and by the ideas of the book that Lord Henry gives to him, Symonds’s poem depicts temptation and the act of sinning as a natural event. I want to suggest that the two different depictions of descent into sin in Dorian Gray versus “The Valley of Vain Desires” relate to the outcome of each text. In Dorian Gray, Dorian’s corruption by human influence manifests itself in a desire to collect material objects and in the harm that he does to others, and he is undone by his own desire to destroy his soul.  In Symonds’s poem, the speaker and the beautiful youth are drawn down into the valley by the lure of strange fruit and are held captive by its seductive poison, but are then spiritually resurrected. What I think the contrast between the depictions of descent into sin and the outcome of descent suggests is that while being seduced by natural forces, as in Symonds’s poem, is a redeemable offence, falling prey to corruption brought about by other humans and material objects, as in Dorian Gray, is not.

There are several striking parallels between The Picture of Dorian Gray and “The Valley of Vain Desires.” In both the poem and the novel, a beautiful youth is corrupted, and the two youths are both described as possessing classical beauty. In the first chapter of Dorian Gray, Lord Henry likens Dorian to two Greek gods in one sentence. Comparing Dorian to Basil, he says, “I really can’t see any resemblance between you, with your rugged strong face and your coal-black hair, and this young Adonis, who looks as if he was made out of ivory and rose-leaves. Why, my dear Basil, he is a Narcissus” (ch. 1). Symonds’s also likens the beautiful youth of the poem to a figure from Greek mythology. The speaker states,

I saw– yea, even now my cheeks are blenched

With thinking of the sorrow of that sight–

A youth Phoebean, whose fair brows, entrenched

With scars untimely, bore the branded blight

Of shame ‘neath withered bay-leaves: his long hair

Once crisped in curls that mocked the morning light

By calling the youth “Phoebean,” the speaker likens him to Phoebus, also known as Apollo, the god sun, light, and knowledge, among other things. The reference to the “withered bay-leaves” on the youth’s head solidify the comparison; in ancient Greece, bay leaves were seen as a symbol of glory and achievement. In both Symonds’s poem and Wilde’s novel, beautiful youths are described as possessing classical beauty.

Symonds’s description of the effects of the fruit is similar to the descriptions of Dorian’s use of opium in Wilde’s novel. The speaker of Symonds’s poem describes eating the “corpse-cold clusters” of the fruit as a kind of oblivion: once one eats the “Flesh-parching poison,” one experiences “pain that was pleasure,” a temporary oblivion. Similarly, when Dorian travels to the opium dens, he is driven by a “hideous hunger,” and the desire to “cure the soul by means of the senses” (ch. 16). Although the effects of both agents of corruption are similar, however, Symonds’s poem describes temptation as a natural force, while Dorian is driven to consume the opium by an idea that he received from human sources.

In Symonds’s poem, the speaker claims that his “feed were led,/ Down the slow spirals of those deadly stairs:/ And I too in my inmost spirit bred/ Desire of that fell fruit.” The speaker’s claim that he was “led” down into the valley by desire for the “fell fruit” indicates that the force of temptation is natural, not generated by humans. In Dorian Gray, by contrast, Dorian is corrupted the ideas in a book that Lord Henry lends him: “The mere cadence of the sentences, the subtle monotony of their music… produced in the mind of the lad… a form of reverie, a malady of dreaming, that made him unconscious of the falling day and the creeping shadows” (ch. 10). Although Dorian also has no control over the effect of the book on his mind, the effect is generated by an object produced by humans, rather than the fruit of mysterious origins in Symonds’s poem.

The difference between the sources of corruption in Dorian Gray and “The Valley of Vain Desires” is the reason for the vastly different outcomes of the novel and poem. While Dorian’s belief in his ability to save his soul by awakening his senses eventually drives him to stab the painting of himself, thus killing himself, the speaker and the beautiful youth in Symons’s poem are absolved by a divine force. The final stanza of Symond’s poem suggests that corruption by natural forces is a forgivable transgression:

From the first fount of Thy felicity,

Through all the ocean where those myriad streams

Commingle, ‘twere an easy task to see

Concorde above the discord of our dreams.

The image of commingled streams suggests that the corrupting fruit springs from the same sources as the divine “felicity” that has intervened on behalf of the corrupted speaker and youth. The words concorde and discord form a syllabic and aural parallel, emphasizing that the two forces that the words represent (sin and virtue) exist in balance with one another. In the universe that the Symonds poem creates, benevolent divine forces stand by to intervene should one fall prey to corruption by natural forces. In Dorian Gray, however, the characters are at the mercy of the corrupting forces of the novel, as they have all been created by themselves.


These Words Mean Something Different than What They Are

One of Rene Magritte’s most famous paintings is The Treachery of Images, though most simply know it by the writing on the work itself: “Ceci n’est pas une pipe”. The basic idea of the piece is that the pipe that Magritte painted is not actually a pipe, simply a representation of one. Therefore, the pipe and the representation are separate entities. The same thought process can be read in Michael Field’s poem “L’Indifferent” in which the authors describe a painting of a boy who is dancing. “Though old enough for manhood’s bliss,/ He is a boy,/ Who dances and must die.” These lines, while they could easily mean that the subject of the painting is physically old enough to be a man but still behaves like a boy and in general his own mortality is imminent, however these lines could be displaying the relationship between the subject and the art. The subject is old enough for “manhoods bliss” because so much time has passed since the rococo period in which the subject would have been a boy. Therefore, the representation of the boy is bound to dance for eternity, while the boy himself must die, because his youth and joy can not last forever.

In a way, this is similar to Saussure’s concept of the signifier and the signified in his ‘theory of the sign’, only instead of words, its is the painting itself that is the arbitrary signifier. The signifier, usually a word, is a jumble of letters used to represent a physical thing or a concept. The signified is the actual ‘thing’ be it conceptual or physical. What this ‘thing’ is internal to an individual because it is the way that they process or perceive it. Therefore the signifier is meant to portray the perceptions attached to the signified, but the sign can never be universal because the signified is perceived in different ways by each individual and therefore the signifier will have a different effect on each person. The painter would have their own thoughts behind why each stroke should be placed as it is, however the colors and lines that would have represented the abstract idea of this boy’s dancing in Watteau’s mind, can be interpreted with different subtleties by the individual. They might have different associations with the concepts that Watteau is portraying that impact their emotions or perceptions of the scene.

Therefore, the poem by Michael Fields is actually a signifier, or a signified, of a signifier, of a signified. The boy dancing is the original concept, the signified, which is then signified by the painting, which is then the signified of the poem, since the poem is a signifier of Fields’s perception of the painting. Therefore, Cooper and Bradley had their own thoughts and ideas about the painting itself that they then attempted to explain in the poem, which can never guarantee the same understanding from the reader, because the reader will have their own internal understanding of the poem that they’ll never fully be able to explain because words are arbitrary and will never have the exact same effect on each individual. Therefore, we, as readers, are so far removed from the feeling of the original moment itself, that we can only base our perception of the event on someone else’s inherently biased representation of it. Which I find fascinating, because even as you, as a reader, read this, you’re reading a concept or idea that means something ever so slightly different to you than it does to me, because of the way that we perceive and understand the words I’ve chosen to represent this idea. 

Fear in Deviation: the Taboo in Dracula and Swinburne

Throughout Bram Stoker’s classic horror tale Dracula, much of the contemporary fear came from the novel’s deviation from accepted Victorian ideals of sexuality.  This fear also manifests in a similar manner throughout the poetry of Charles Algernon Swinburne, renowned for his taboo themes.  These parallels become particularly evident in his poem A Match, where the relationship between blood, death, and pain with love takes center stage.  Dracula, both by virtue of his undead nature and proclivity to blood as a vampire, fits the poem admirably, and the two works echo similar fears which would have scandalized “proper” Victorian readers.

The first stanza of the poem begins with a conditional view of love, imagining love as a rose, and the speaker a leaf.  While the rose, typically evocative of love and romance, comes also equipped to prick and harm one who comes too close with its sharp thorns.  However, Swinburne, in line 6, equates the green part of the rose (where the thorns would grow) with pleasure: “Green pleasure or grey grief”.  This lends the stanza the first indication of a sexuality which runs contrary to acceptable Victorian ideals.  Instead of finding pleasure in the beauty of the rose petals themselves, the poem equates the prick of the thorns with romantic desire- connecting pleasure and pain.  This follows with one of the central themes in Dracula, where the love three of the main characters feel can only be realized through the mixing of blood; in the pain of Lucy’s passing.  They all demonstrate love for her beauty, and all of them express a desire for her as such, but the closest they come to each other comes after her death, with the mixing of the blood.  This bridges into Swinburne’s third stanza, where love is death and the speaker is life.  This can be read either as the three suitor’s love for the deceased Lucy, or as Lucy’s enthrallment by the undead, by Dracula himself.  In both cases, there is a relationship between the living and the (un)dead, raising scandalous questions of necrophilia and forbidden desire.  Taking the Lucy/Dracula relationship further, the next stanza shows lovers as opposites yet again, both indentured to the other: “If you were thrall to sorrow, // And I were page to joy”.  Again, Lucy’s vitality and life can stand for the joy, enthralled to the Gothic gloom of Dracula’s sorrow.  The final stanza, perhaps the most obviously taboo to Victorian readers with its themes of S&M, offers yet another interpretation of the Lucy/ Dracula relationship.  Dracula, the innocent-ruining vampire invading England, takes the role of king of pain.   Lucy, meanwhile, becomes the queen of pleasure with her widely desired beauty and life.

What strikes as most interesting, however, is the vastly disparate receptions of the two works.  Stoker’s Dracula was widely loved, while Swinburne was labeled as taboo.  Yet both works deal with similar themes of attraction and sexuality.  In both works, pleasure/pain and life/death revolve around each other, yet one is loved and the other not.  It would seem expected that the poem would be better received, as one could simply excuse the themes as one interpretation and make believe there was another meaning.  However, Dracula also presents a solution to this challenging form of desire.  The protagonists kill off the king of pain, and put the queen of pleasure to rest.  The story ends with both halves of this taboo relationship unable to continue, and as such offers a reassurance to Victorian readers: this type of love ends poorly, England will not tolerate it.

From Friend to Lover

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.

Beautiful Agony: The Taboo Nature of Religious Art

Icons have often served as outlets for desires and emotions, especially within the Catholic Church. The Virgin Mary represents a form of goddess worship, which helped promote the participation of queer women within the church. However, there are many forms of religious iconography that allow people outside of Catholicism to satisfy their homoerotic and BDSM desires as an appreciation for art. Images of saints and other religious figures undergoing some form of violence present an aesthetically pleasing vision of agony as ecstasy.

John Gray’s poem “A Crucifix: To Ernest Dowson” portrays the image of Jesus on the cross in a highly sensual manner. “Long fluted golden tongues of sombre green, like four flames joined in one, around the head, and by the outstretched arms, their glory spread” (Gray 6-8). He also goes into detail to describe the convulsions of Christ and the throbbing of his Sacred Heart, but it is peculiar that his verses are written to a specific person. Ernest Downson, to whom this poem is addressed, was fellow poet and member of the Decadent movement (as was Oscar Wilde). The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography [1]notes that some of his letters and works contained themes of pedophilia (and while this is still very much a terrible thing we can look at it in context with homosexual desires as two things that were considered taboo and often unfortunately joined together). Gray served as a priest to many prominent queer writers like Wilde and Michael Field aka Katherine Bradley and Edith Cooper, so perhaps his letters served as a means of showing Dowson how to write about unsavory desires[2] by using art and iconography as a mask.

Michael Field also delves into this, although it is an interesting perspective. Now we have two women with their own mindsets who occupy a space reserved typically for men. However, they are queer women and offer that insight into homoeroticism that society would try to deny existed in art. Their poem “Saint Sebastian” (in reference to the Antonello Da Messina painting) describes the body of the martyr as a playground for sexual appetite “He, with body fresh for use, for pleasure fit, with its energies and needs together knit in an able exigence” (Field 79-81). It is a type of BDSM art, the mix of both pleasure and pain hidden as piety and what it means to be a devout Christian saint.

This poem is not written as a letter, but it still addresses a specific piece of art so in some ways Michael Field is addressing not only the museum which houses this work, but the art historians who deny the homoerotic nature of these paintings. Michael Field is also two women who have gained access to an area of art and culture that was reserved for men, and as queer women they have a rare insight into this world as well as the bravery and wit to address it. Like John Gray they look at the art as a vessel to hold and fulfill desires. Being a mix of both pleasure and pain these works represent the culmination of aestheticism: experiencing everything, leaving no sense without nourishment and oversaturation. The pain comes with the pleasure, just as enacting these taboo desires unfortunately goes hand in hand with the backlash from society. Thus these pieces pose a question: Is the experience worth the price?


[2] Again, not condoning pedophilia. They just happen to be unfortunately coupled together as two taboo subjects of the 19th century.

Below is a link to the Wikipedia page for a film based on the cult following and homoeroticism surrounding the iconography of Saint Sebastian. The film is available online but it is also very graphic and might not be appropriate for an academic blog.

Sebastiane (1976)


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.

Child-like Fantasy or Poetic Writing?

At the turn of the century, a time when emotions are high and panics are often, many people used different outlets to express their true feelings and make claims about the changing times and shifting attitudes. Writing transformed into a vehicle to not only transfer thoughts and feelings to its readers, but also as a way to uncover the developing themes of the Fin De Siècle – like personal freedom to express sexuality.

John Addington Symonds utilizes this technique through his poems to express sexual desire that has not yet been wholly publicly acknowledged. Symonds, in his poem “From Friend to Friend”, rhythmically addresses a friend in which he shares a very close, almost intimate relationship with – making us wonder if Symonds was subtly revealing a romantic lover with a particular friend.

Symonds writes “Dear Friend, I know not if such aching nights / Of sweet strange comradeship as we have spent” (Lines 1-2), revealing the relationship between the writer and the reader, as well as their shared – and potentially romantic – camaraderie.

Symonds goes on further in the octave of his sonnet, stating “of heart with heart on hope sublime intent / Or if the tide of turbulent appetites” (Lines 7-8), suggesting two hearts sharing the same feelings of a raging and unstable romance that is forming, despite the times where love like this is very secretive and not yet fully accepted.

During the Fin De Siècle, many main themes of the previous century were facing upfront confrontation by many components of society, challenging the “persistent residues of the past “ (Ledger, Luckhurst xvii). Among those themes was “questions of contemporary identity […] sexually identity, or conceptions of subjectivity itself” (Ledger, Luckhurst xvii). In the midst of the introduction of the New Women and the feminist movement came the “image of sexual freedom” (xvii) that allowed many people, much like Symonds, to express their personal sexual preferences more openly, yet still in a subtle manner as the idea slowly integrates itself into society.

However, because the idea of sexuality that was beyond the bounds of traditional, heterosexual, monogamous love was very new and fairly challenged by critics of the past century, Symonds, and other writers like him, created these fantasies that embody the feelings of the writer in a hidden format, revealing their sexual desires in a less straightforward manner.

Freud talks about this idea of “fantasy” (Freud 145) in his piece “Writers and Daydreaming”, where he concludes that “phantasies […] are [his] most intimate possessions” (145) where adults can express their true emotions in ways much similar to the way children create make-believe games in order to promote and act upon their own desires.

Symonds expresses his own fantasy through his poetic writing, bringing to light his desire to openly express his sexual craving in society. He states in the sestet that “neither chance or change nor time nor aught / That makes the future of our lives less fair” (Lines 11-12), placing emphasis on the fact that despite the way this particular sexuality is looked at currently, he will still seek to honestly express this lust for the friend which he is addressing.

Symonds fantasizes about a world in which he can express outwardly his sexual preferences without criticism, much like what Freud points in his analysis of day-dreaming and fantasy creation. Symonds returns to his childish roots to create a similar fantasy that allows him the freedom to fully portray his sexuality.