Sex in history, by Gordan Rattray Taylor

As we have seen, the unconscious preoccupation of the matrist is incest, and one would therefore expect to find signs of this in the literature of the Romantics — just as one found it in Elizabethan drama — since it is in literature that the unconscious finds expression. Such an expectation would not be disappointed: as Lucas primly says:

“Another neurotic strain in Romanticism was its preoccupation with incest — a subject not much discussed by the normal civilized person.”

(One might say as much of regicide, infanticide or homosexuality and dismiss as “neurotic” Shakespeare, Euripides and the Old Testament.) Shelley said that incest was “a very poetical circumstance”. Incest themes become explicit in his “Laon and Cythna” as well as in “The Cenci“; the same is true of other romantic works, such as Walpole’s “The Mysterious Mother” or Byron’s “Manfred“, and perhaps his “Parisina“.

Byron’s preoccupation with incest is well known. Whether he actually lived with his half-sister Augusta, or whether (as Praz believes) he only attempted to make his wife believe that he was doing so in order to torture her, is obscure. As Lady Byron’s letters reveal, he was possessed by an extraordinary desire to horrify and shock her. He told his wife on her wedding night that if they had a child he would strangle it; when it was born, he greeted her with the words, “It was born dead, wasn’t it?” (173)

The fact that Shelley devoted himself in turn to a long procession of women has sometimes been interpreted as a sign of his unconscious homosexuality, on the argument that he could never be satisfied with any woman, since what he really wanted was a man. At one level of interpretation this is obviously justifiable, since homosexual elements are present in everyone — but it is probably more to the point to make the simpler suggestion that he could never find the woman whom he was seeking, because that woman was his mother. The search for the mother and the search for wisdom is the romantic quest, as the search for the father and for the stability of a traditional order is the quest of the realist.