George Santayana and his friendship with Frank Russell

Jo Pires-O’Brien

The Spanish-American philosopher George Santayana (1863-1952) described Frank Russell, (1865-1931), the 2nd Earl Russell and the older brother of Bertrand Russell (1872-1970), as the most extraordinary of his friends. They met in 1886, in circumstances that can be described as extraordinary, too. Santayana was 22 years old and in his last year as an undergraduate at Harvard University. The young Earl Russell had been sent to Boston by his paternal grandmother to seek a tutor. His guide in Boston, Herbert Lyman, a friend of Santayana, took Russell to meet Santayana at his student accommodation in Hollis Hall. In his memoirs, Santayana reveals that he never knew for sure why Lyman thought that Russell might have liked to meet him. Could it be because his room in Hollis Hall had a view of a picturesque brick path? Was it because Lyman thought that Santayana was a comparatively articulate bloke and known to write poetry? Or could it be because Lyman was his friend? Perhaps Lyman took all of these things into account. Here is Santayana’s description of Russell, taken from his 1947 book The Middle Span:

He was a tall young man of twenty, still lithe though large of bone, with abundant tawny hair, clear little steel-blue eyes, and a florid complexion. He moved deliberately, gracefully, stealthily, like a tiger well-fed and with a broad margin of leisure for choosing his prey. There was precision in his indolence; and mild as he seemed, he suggested a latent capacity to leap, a latent astonishing celerity and strength, that could crush at one blow. Yet his speech was simple and suave, perfectly decided and strangely frank. He had some thoughts, he said, of becoming a clergyman. He seemed observant, meditative, as if comparing whatever he saw with something in his mind’s eye. As he looked out of the window at the muddy paths and shabby grass, the elms standing scattered at equal intervals, the ugly factory-like buildings, and the loud-voiced youths passing by, dressed like shop assistants, I could well conceive his thoughts, and I said apologetically that after Oxford all this must seem to him rather mean; and he replied curtly: “Yes it does.” I explained our manner of life, our social distinctions, our choice of studies, our sports, our food, our town amusements. He listened politely, obviously rather entertained and not displeased to find that, according to my description, all I described might be dismissed for ever without further thought. Then he sat good-naturedly on the floor and began to look at my books – a rather meagre collection in some open shelves. He spied Swinburne’s Poems, and took out the volume. Did I like Swinburne? Yes, perhaps he was rather verbose; but did I know the choruses in Atlanta in Calydon? No? Then he would read me one.  And he read them all, rather liturgically, with a perfect precision and clearness, intoning them almost, in a sort of rhythmic chant, and letting the strong meaning shine through the steady processional march of the words. It seemed the more inspired and oracular for not being brought out by human change of tome or of emphasis. I had not heard poetry read in this way before. I had not known that the English language could become, like stained-glass, an object and a delight in itself.

He stayed a long time, until, the daylight having decidedly failed, he remembered that he was to dine with the James’. My own dinner was long since cold. He was off the next day, he said; but I must look him up whenever I come to London. I saw no more of him at that time; but I received through the post a thin little book bound in white vellum, The Bookbills of Narcissus, by Richard Le Gallienne, inscribed “from R.” And William James not long afterwards took occasion to interrupt himself, as his manner was, as if suddenly thought had struck him, and to say to me: “I hear you have seen this young grandson of Lord John Russell. He talked about you; you seem to have made an impression.” The impression I had made was that I was capable of receiving impressions. With young Russell, who completely ignored society and convention, this was the royal road to friendship. (pp. 51-52)

The opportunity for a second meeting between Santayana and Russell came in March 1887, when Santayana, who had been studying in Germany since the fall of 1886, travelled to England. Russell was not in London but in Reading, looking after the Royal, his 100 tons steam yacht, that was moored at the Kennet Canal. It was there that Santayana met him. When Santayana arrived, Russell was discussing boating matters with the mechanic, and only after he finished he greeted Santayana properly. On that occasion Santayana noticed that Russell had a knack for the latest mechanical novelties such as the small dynamo used for the illumination of the yacht.  When Santayana asked Russel what electricity was, Russell pulled him to stand close to the dynamo’s large magnet, and when Santayana felt the pull, he said to him: ‘That is what electricity is.’ The two young friends spent a couple of nights at the local inn, and when the yacht was ready, Russell and Santayana sailed it down the Thames towards London, while Santayana did his best to learn what was required of him as a second mate.

Later that same year Santayana met Russell again in Marseilles, for another trip on the Royal. To Santayana, that second trip sealed their friendship, for it enabled the two young men to get to know each other better. Here is Santayana’s recollection of it.

Two men in their early twenties eating and sleeping for three weeks in the same cabin, seeing the same sights and living through the same incidents without one moment of boredom, without one touch of misunderstanding or displeasure, could not but become very good friends. But we were predestined to become friends before, in fact ever since our acquaintance; and I don’t think this trip through Burgundy made such a difference. Friendship in any case didn’t mean for Russell what it meant to me. There was no dramatic curiosity in it for him, no love of speculation and unanimity. He cared nothing about what other people might be in themselves or in their feelings and careers; nor did he have the least need of embosoming himself. He was frank enough and didn’t take the pains to disguise facts in his own life, when the interest of the moment led him to refer to them.

In spite of their different social circumstances, the friendship that Santayana had with Russell lasted for many years. Santayana explained that on the fact that neither of them were a nuisance to the other. As he wrote in his memoirs, “he respected my freedom unconditionally and gladly, and I respected his.”


Santayana, G. The Middle Span: The background of my life. London, Constable, 1947.