Sex in history, by Gordan Rattray Taylor

It was a thought which Poe was to express more insistently in “The Raven” and other poems, and which was to lend a sense of nostalgia to English romantic poetry which perhaps attained its most exquisite form in the work of Beddoes.

Thee we mean, soft Drop of Roses
Hush of birds that sweetest sung
That beginn’st when music closes
The maiden’s dying!

The desire to find within marriage both intellectual companionship and sexual passion leads naturally to an alternative solution — the three cornered marriage, or menage-a-trois. Jacobi, who himself lived with two women, one whose task was to satisfy his body, the other satisfying his soul, described such an arrangement in his novel Woldemar. Goethe recommends something similar in his Stella. Here is the romantic conception attempting to incorporate the older tendency to separate Eros and Agape, and arriving at an echo of the Greek solution. Historically, however, the marriage à trios is not strictly a romantic conception but is a relic of the ‘Sturm und Drang‘ period. The marriage à trios is quite distinct, of course, from the practice, said to be usual in France, of maintaining a wife as well as a mistress, for in the former, not only do the two women live in the same household — and supposedly in amity — but each gives something to the relationship; and if there are to be children, it is the partner in passion, not the companion, who bears them.

The idea of delicate and dreamy men, free and daring girls, was enthusiastically accepted among the English — Romantics, and is perfectly exemplified by the case of Shelley and Mary Godwin. And Shelley’s lengthy series of passionate encounters — each of them the great love which justified dropping the earlier without hesitation — not only exemplifies the romantic conception but precisely echoes, in a higher key, the amorous versatility of the early Celts. Not that Shelley ceased to feel any fondness for the discarded partner — when he ran off to Switzerland with Mary, he wrote to Harriet, his wife, suggesting that she should join them. It was simply that he totally lacked the patrist sense of exclusive property right in women. He even seems to have urged his friend Hogg to establish a relationship with Harriet, and this during the time when he was satisfactorily married to her. (164)

The personality of Shelley is of great psychological interest, and well illustrates the general thesis that Romanticism is to be regarded as a reaction from father-identification. Shelley was certainly in violent reaction from his father, an unperceptive country squire but not an ill-meaning man: even in his Oxford days he used to propose toasts “to the confusion of my father and the King!” (We can also find evidence of father rejection in other Romantics — for instance Blake, whose poem “To Nobodaddy” expresses an attempt to annihilate the father.) Shelley was always very close to his sisters, and as a child seems to have been strongly possessive towards his mother. One feels it almost too perfect a demonstration of one’s thesis when one finds that Shelley, enraged with his mother because she sided with his father in opposing his marriage, wrote to her accusing her of adultery!