10. The Romantic Quest
From Sex In History by Gordon Rattray Taylor (1954)

THE notion that marriage is the proper outcome of the close personal preoccupation which we ambiguously call "love" is of course a modern one. I can still remember the astonishment which I felt, at about the age of twenty, when I first learned that this conception had never existed in any other period of history and that it was confined, for all practical purposes, to Britain and the United States. At about the same time I became aware of Romanticism as a literary movement: if I had been asked to define Romanticism I should have done so, I expect, in terms of its lyrical quality and I should certainly have made some reference to the braving of physical dangers in order to win the hand of a fair lady. But why a rather short-lived literary fashion should have given rise, a century later, to a convention affecting actual behaviour, I had no idea. Nor could I have said why the word "romantic" was applied to it. The word "romancing" is sometimes used to mean fabricating stories which are untrue, and the implication is that they are wish-fantasies; so presumably a romantic marriage is the sort of successful love-match which we should all like to have but which few of us do. However, at this date, the idea that marrying for love and living happily ever after was not a thoroughly feasible proposition had scarcely entered my head; and the sinister suspicion that what I called "love" might be something which endured only as long as desire was frustrated had never occurred to me.

Such are the defects of a system of education in which literary movements are discussed solely in terms of "historical influences" and with no reference to the general psychological and social trends of the time; and in which all reference to specifically sexual attitudes is rigidly excluded. This is a book about sexual attitudes and love makes only incidental appearances in it, but it is necessary to pay some attention to romanticism because it reflects a psychological shift of attitude of just the sort which we have been discussing. It represents, in fact, a movement towards matrism; a rather abortive movement, it is true, since it occurred at a time when the majority of persons, after a chaotic period in which little introjection had taken place, were moving towards patrism.

The beginning of the swing back to patrism in England may be dated from the founding, in 1757, of the second Society for the Reformation of Manners. The new movement was officially endorsed by the monarch in the time of George III, who issued a Proclamation against Vice. This trend developed successfully and led to the restrictive period we call Victorianism — rather inaccurately, as a matter of fact, since it reached its peak before Victoria ascended the throne and was on the ebb throughout her reign. I shall discuss the peculiar ethos of this movement in the next chapter.

Parallel with this went a much less extensive matrist movement. Literary critics, thinking in terms of "influences" place the date of the beginning of the Romantic movement anywhere from 1720 to 1790, according to the criteria they choose to employ. But if we treat it as a social manifestation, we can date it quite accurately. We first find the word "romantic" being used by people in an approving sense in 1757 — interestingly enough, since this is precisely the year from which we have dated the patrist reaction also. Before this date romantic was only used in conjunction with such adjectives as bombastic or childish. (192) The word means "like the old romances", which suggests that people were beginning to turn their minds from a present which seemed disagreeable to a past in which feelings seemed to have been simpler and nobler. This was, of course, unrealistic — the past was never as simple and noble as it appeared in the old romances — and betrays a certain sentimentality and escapism. These "old romances" were the Christianized and sentimentalized versions of the Celtic myths — that is, of the stories of physical violence and sexual passion invented in a fully matrist age. The publication of Percy's "Reliques" in 1765, and of Macpherson's Ossianic Poems just afterwards, catered for this new taste and also gave it a powerful stimulus.

Perhaps it was the misfortune of coinciding with a patrist trend which restricted the English movement to a primarily literary and artistic expression, and to a sentimental interest in the past, expressed in such forms as a revival of the Gothic. In France and Germany, in contrast, it emerged as a definite advocacy of the introduction of new social forms. In particular, the Romantics put forward a systematic demand for the introduction of a new conception of marriage: marriage was to be based upon mutual love of both parties, and on the proposition that men and women had equal rights. Not only did the Romantics reject the Christian assumption of feminine inferiority which (except among Jurist minorities, such as the troubadours) had ruled for more than a millennium, but they went further and put forward the claim that romantic love should be the "raison d'être" of the marriage relationship.

It was a further consequence of this proposition that the Romantic rejected the classic distinction between Eros and Agape, between physical desire and chaste affection. He maintained that both should be simultaneously present, and that the lover should enjoy with his beloved both sensual passion and platonic companionship. Indeed, one might say that he went further: for the Greeks had distinguished three functions for women — to supply sexual satisfaction, companionship and children, and had developed three classes of women to fulfil these functions — slaves, hetaerae and wives. The Romantic demand was that a single woman should carry out all three roles. (144) In Germany, Schlegel and Schleiermacher — the latter a clergyman — were the most prominent exponents of this view. Furthermore, they held that sexual experiment was necessary if one was to find the ideal mate — which is to say that they abandoned the Christian doctrine of strict pre-nuptial chastity. Moreover, they revived Plato's theory that every individual is but one half of a complete entity, so that somewhere there is to be found the twin soul, the missing half, the only person in the world who provides the full complement for one's own personality. Here was born the sentimental notion, to be enshrined in popular song when matrist ideas finally triumphed in the twentieth century, of "the only girl in the world" — an idea in complete contrast with the view previously obtaining that any two people, not obviously antipathetic, could probably make an effective marriage.

Since anthropologists tell us that the children of polygamous peoples (who can always run to a second mother if the first is preoccupied) hold with equal enthusiasm to the belief that there is always another girl round the corner, we can understand easily enough that the twin-soul theory is the product of matrist ideas operating within a monogamous society: and we scarcely need Freud's observation that loved persons are mother surrogates to realize that the "only girl in the world" — the ideal love-object — is the idealized mother, and hence that the ideal is unattainable.

When the ideal partner has been found (the new doctrine held), no mere mundane obstacle such as one of the parties being married already — must be allowed to stand in the way of fulfilment. Both Schlegel and Schleiermacher attempted to apply these principles in their own lives with, naturally, discouraging results. Significantly enough, each contrived to fall in love with a married woman. Schlegel was the less fortunate, for his inamorata obtained a divorce and he was obliged to marry her: the marriage soon became commonplace. Schleiermacher, after maintaining for some time a sentimental friendship for Henriette Herz, when it looked as if he might have to marry her, fell in love with Elizabeth von Gunderode, the wife of another clergyman; she never brought herself to the point of getting a divorce. When Schleiermacher finally did marry, it was a young girl whose relationship with him was primarily filial. (144) (252)

The man who prefers to fall in love with married — and therefore officially unattainable — women is well known to psychoanalysts today, and this, as we have already seen, was the custom of the troubadours, for psychologically identical reasons; this is why the German Romantic's preference for married women seems something more than coincidental.

A further sign of the matrist basis of this movement was that the Romantics advocated a lessening of the difference between the approved conceptions of the two sexes. The man was to develop his feminine characteristics, the woman her masculine ones. The German Romantic thought Schiller's women who "swam in an ocean of femininity and his men, parading the masculinity," ridiculous and ugly. He preferred Goeth heroes and heroines: delicate and dreamy men, free and daring girls. (144)

As with the mother identifying troubadours, there was element of yearning, a love of being in love, in their protestations, as if they were aware that the most poignant sensations were those of longing, and that fulfilment could only prove an anti-climax. Thus in Tieck's Sternbald, which has obvious analogies with the story of Tristan, Woldemar exclaims to a friend:

"How fortunate you are in still having to seek for your unknown happiness. I have found mine!"

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!

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.

Possession of the mother necessitates defiance of the father: or, if we prefer to express the idea in practical terms, the matrist ends to be in revolt against authority. When matrists are brought up in a world substantially patrist in pattern, they naturally find themselves in a state of protest: that protest becomes quite explicit when they are saddled with strongly patrist parents — as in the case of Shelley. Thus it is entirely in keeping with our analysis that Romantics like Byron and Shelley should have sympathized, as they did, with the under-dog and inveighed against tyranny. It is equally natural that they should find in the story of Lucifer's revolt against God a sympathetic myth; and it is understandable, therefore, to find Blake expressing sympathy — was he the first to do so? — for Milton's Satan. Shelley, similarly, praised Dante as "the Lucifer of his age", a comparison which is ludicrous if we think of Lucifer simply as the embodiment of evil, but which makes sense when we think of him as the "bringer of light" and of Dante as the passionate but distant worshipper of the unattainable Beatrice, the almost Gnostic Sophia, or wisdom.

Dissatisfaction with society may also lead to the propounding of plans for its reconstruction, as it did in the case of Rousseau, another character of great psychological interest. Rousseau taught that man is naturally good, and is only made bad by circumstances or civilization — the logical counterpart to the patrist claim that man is by nature wicked: this alone would be enough to make us suspect some degree of mother-identification. Rousseau sought to arouse sympathy for the concept of the natural man in harmonious relations with his surroundings — a concept rather recalling Rabelais's "company of upright men". But Rabelais had seen that they would have to be "bien instruictz", whereas Rousseau, more fully in reaction from patrism, felt that all instruction harmed. It would be interesting to study the psychology of Rousseau at great length — for instance, it seems relevant that he always called his mistress, Mme. de Warens, "mother" — but he is so complex a character that to do so would involve an unduly long digression.

It is not necessary to pursue the argument further in order to establish the point that the Romantic Movement was, at bottom, a small-scale matrist reaction in favour of greater spontaneity, freer sexual morality, higher status for women and all the other attitudes which we have seen to be associated with mother fixation. But it was a reaction which took place within the framework of a larger movement towards patrism, and especially so in England. This gives it its peculiar character. It had no time, before it was strangled, to establish new customs and values and to modify the legal formulations through which accepted values were expressed. It was forced primarily into expression in literary form, where it dominated the field; in the real world it appears in the form of a limited number of acts of defiance of accepted law, and necessarily has the character of a revolt.

The stock "explanation" of the Romantic Movement is that it was a reaction against the growth of industrialism, and sought to substitute aesthetic values for utilitarian ones. This may be true, as far as it goes, but it does not explain why some people felt this necessity at a time when the bulk of the population was hurrying ever more rapidly in pursuit of utilitarian values. Still less does it explain why the spirit of revolt extended to the fields of politics and sex. Russell's phrase, to the effect that Darwin praised the useful earthworm whereas Blake praised the tiger, is exceedingly apt, but gets one nowhere.

Blocked of outlets, Romanticism turned more and more to fantasy: the Gothic horrors of the Castle of Otranto were succeeded by the echoing caverns of Xanadu. And since growing public Puritanism denied the frank expression of libidinal motifs, the imagery became more and more generalised and more and more allusively sexual. Nineteenth's century poetry is full of waves beating on rocks: the alternatives are an infantile pretence that babies are found under gooseberry bushes or a retreat to the unpublishably pornographic. And since we have seen how, in periods of repression, the death instinct becomes excited by the repressed libido, it is not surprising to find a prolonged Romantic Decadence. The Movement which started-out with such noble hopes, terminates in the degraded attempt to gain an extra 'frisson' from perversion. If the doctrine that one must feel powerful emotions was responsible for such incidents as Byron's trying to wreck his wife's peace of mind by insinuating that he was living incestuously with his sister, and the Princess Belgiojoso keeping the embalmed body of her lover, Gaetano Stelzi, in the cupboard, the doctrine that one must conceal them was responsible for the even more depressing flagellatory poetry of Swinburne and the appalling sadistic fancies of de Lautreamont. (192)

Nevertheless, to the Romantics belongs the fame of having placed the ideal of romantic love within marriage on a respectable footing. It was a major achievement.