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Title: Shelley and the Marriage Question
Author: Todhunter, John, 1839-1916
Language: English
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Author of _Notes on "The Triumph of Life," A Study of Shelley, etc._

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Now that marriage, like most other time-honoured institutions, has come
to stand, a thing accused, at the bar of public opinion, it may be
interesting to see what Shelley has to say about it. The marriage
problem is a complex one, involving many questions not very easy to
answer offhand or even after much consideration. What is marriage? Of
divine or human institution? For what ends was it instituted? How far
does it attain these ends? And a dozen others involved in these.

The very idea of marriage implies some kind of bond imposed by society
upon the sexual relations of its members, male and female; some kind of
restriction upon the absolute promiscuity and absolute instability of
these relations--such restriction taking the form of a contract between
individuals, endorsed by society, and enforced with more or less
stringency by public opinion. Its object at first was probably simply to
ensure to each male member of the tribe the quiet enjoyment of his wife
or wives, and the free exploitation of the children she or they
produced. The patriarchal tyranny was established, and through the
sanction of primitive religion and law became a divine institution.
Then, as civilization progressed, the wife and children became less and
less the mere slaves, more and more the respected subjects, of the
patriarch. The paternal instinct (like the maternal) became developed,
and family affection came into existence. At present the whirligig of
time is bringing its revenges. The patriarchal tyranny begins to
totter; parents are often more the slaves than the masters of their
children. And even wives begin to rebel against wifedom, and threaten to
revolutionize marriage in their own interest. Woman, like everybody
else, is beginning to strike for higher wages. There are more than the
first mutterings of that revolution in the Golden City of Divine
institutions prophesied of by Shelley in _Laon and Cythna_. There are a
good many Cythnas ready to rush about on their black Tartarian hobbies,
of whom Mrs. Mona Caird is the one who has recently made most noise.

There is a little design of Blake's in _The Gates of Paradise_, which
represents a man standing on the earth who leans a ladder against the
moon and prepares to mount; the motto underneath being: "I want! I
want!" This is a type of our own age. Never was such an age of
discontent, never such a Babel of voices crying: "I want! I want!" We
have become very conscious of our pain, and are not ashamed to cry out
and proclaim it on the house-tops in these hysterical times--simply
because the ancient sanctions and anodynes have lost their sanctity and
comfort for us. The very "priests in black gowns" who used to "walk
their rounds and bind with briers our joys and desires," have been
themselves corrupted with a longing for a little present happiness, and
that Old Woman in the shoe, Mrs. Grundy herself, instead of whipping us
all round and putting us to bed in the old summary fashion, when we
venture to complain that the shoe pinches here and there, has herself
become lachrymose. We cry out because, having neither the old
repressions nor the old opiates to restrain us, there is no valid reason
why we should hold our tongues. By crying loud enough and long enough we
may get some help. We may even find some good-natured person to stop
crying himself and help us; and then for very shame we may go and do
likewise. In this lies the age's hope. It is really in its best aspect
an unselfish age, an age in which sympathy and justice are vital forces,
in which the miseries of others are felt as our own. There are thousands
now who feel themselves "as nerves o'er which do creep the else unfelt
oppressions of the earth." We are not wise enough yet to conceive and
organize those vital adjustments between conflicting wants, interests,
and principles, which shall be of deeper efficiency than mere
superficial compromises; but this wisdom will come in due time, if we do
not rush into anarchy through that licentious impatience which is the
curse of revolutionary periods.

Now, of all the bitter cries ringing in the air at the present time,
about the bitterest and most persistent is that not merely of women, but
of woman with a capital W. It is the most appalling note of change that
can pierce the ear of self-satisfied Conservatism. The patient Griselda
has begun to protest against the tyranny of her lord and master. Love's
martyr has at last begun to think that her martyrdom must have its
limits. It is as if the Lamb, whose function we thought was to be dumb
before its shearers and even sacrificers, had found a voice of
protestation. It is a portent. And even men are constrained to listen to
the cry; for it sounds like the birth-cry of regenerated Love. Not now
"Love self-slain in some sweet shameful way," but Love the winged angel
who shall finally cast out Lust, the adversary. But many things must
come to pass before this triumph of love can be brought about; and in
many respects the horoscope looks unpropitious enough. The first effect
of the birth, or coming to the surface of a higher ideal, gradually
evolved by the progress of society, is apparently to make confusion
worse confounded. Not peace but a sword is the first gift of the Prince
of Peace. Liberty comes masked like Tyranny, and cries "Fraternity or
death!" Love goes wantonly about with the Mænads of licentiousness at
his heels. But the divine Logos, incarnate as the Son of man, always
comes not to destroy but to fulfil.

Just now that highly moral being, Man in the masculine gender, is much
shocked at the strangely immoral conduct of his feminine counterpart. In
the first place, she has dared to look at the realities of things with
her own eyes, not through the rose-coloured spectacles with which he has
been at pains to provide her; and not only that, but to peep behind the
sacred veil which man has modestly cast over many ugly things. Secondly,
she has begun to talk openly about these ugly things, and to call them
by non-euphemistic, ugly names, in a manner quite unprecedented.
Thirdly, she has dared to attempt her own solution of things insoluble,
her own achievement of things impossible. And fourthly, she has dared to
formulate a demand for liberty, equality, fraternity on her own
account--a demand which every day comes more and more within the sphere
of practical politics. Here are pure women making common cause with
prostitutes, married women crying out against the holy institution of
matrimony, mothers rebelling against the tyranny of the beatific
baby--nay, absolutely on strike against child-bearing, or at least
demanding limited liability as regards that important function. Finally,
here is Woman, whether as virgin, wife, or widow, demanding independence
as to property and a fair share of the world's goods in return for a
fair share of the general work of the world outside of her special
womanly functions. "D----n it, sir, I say that women are unsexing
themselves--unsexing themselves, by Jove!" as Major Pendennis might
exclaim. And the worst of it is that there are so many men, traitors to
their sex, who are casting in their lot with women in this terrible
Women's Rights movement--"unsexing themselves," too, no doubt--so that
we shall all soon become either a-sexual or hermaphrodite beings! And
here let us leave for a moment the more or less limited and prosaic
Cythnas of the day, the terrible women who ride about upon Tartarian
hobby-horses in novels and magazine articles, who spout on platforms and
practise medicine and other dreadful trades--the scientific Mrs.
Somervilles, and medical Mrs. Garrett Andersons, and pious Mrs.
Josephine Butlers, and impious Mrs. Mona Cairds, and get back to Shelley
himself, the poet of this shocking social aberration.

Shelley, as Mr. Cordy Jeafferson has taken great pains to demonstrate,
was an exceedingly immoral young man. He outraged the conventional
morality of his day by his actions as well as in his writings in the
most shameless manner; but this shamelessness was due to his intense
conviction that he thus outraged _conventional_ in the interests of
_ideal_ morality. His life and writings are so full of the paradoxical
character which I have ascribed to the social agitation of the present
day, and some of his utterances are so prophetic of it, that we may
fairly regard him as its precursor.

Shelley, as we know, started rather as an anarchist than as a mere
reformer. His ideas were cataclysmal rather than evolutional. But he was
an optimistic not a pessimistic anarchist, and he endeavoured to destroy
in order to rebuild with all possible expedition. The kingdom of heaven
was, for him, at the very doors, ready to take shape as soon as man
willed it; and man _would_ will it as soon as the mind-forged fetters of
his mind were loosed. Accordingly he endeavoured to loose them. He
dethroned God that the Spirit of Nature might be enthroned; and then he
proceeded to abolish marriage that free love might regenerate mankind.
He believed in regeneration by incantation--a few words murmured in
men's ears would make them as obedient to the ideas those sacred words
represented as spirits to the spells of a magician. Abolish marriage
(and what could be easier?), and love, being set free, prostitution
would cease. We may pass by such puerilities of inexperienced idealism,
to be found by the score in _Queen Mab_, and pass on to Shelley's more
mature utterances, always remembering that he died, as the _Triumph of
Life_ shows, in the very process of maturation. His whole history is
that of an idealist, who first seeks his ideal in the actual, and not
finding it endeavours to bring the actual into harmony with his ideal.
His imagination hacks at the rude block of the world with the divine
fury of a Pygmalion; thinking at first that he has but to remove the
dull superfluous husks of custom to find the living idea in the centre;
but gradually perceiving it was but created an inanimate image, which
can only come to life by the invocation of Venus Urania. All the
weaknesses, faults, and follies of his life and his writings, as well as
that "power in weakness veiled" which he felt himself to be, come from
this. He is driven to reform society by attacking the conventional
morality of marriage, because he is first a transcendental lover; just
as Mr. William Morris is driven into socialism, because he is first a
very practical decorative artist. To speak irreverently, both men want
elbow-room for their fads. But Shelley's fad is of even more importance
to us than Morris's. It is better to have a beautiful love, than to have
a beautiful house to put him in. Shelley is, above all things, the poet
of modern love. Dante's love, fantastic and supersensuous, was not
modern love. We do not want angels, either in heaven or in the house, to
condescend to our depravity and lead us upward. We do not want the
divine school-mistress to bring us to something not ourselves which may
or may not make for righteousness, but the divine mistress, passionate
as well as pure, to bring us to our best selves, and live with us in
perfect union. Shakespeare showed us glimpses of this love defeated by
circumstances in _Romeo and Juliet_, triumphant over circumstances in
Posthumus and Imogen; but Shelley has had a fuller vision of it. Since
Shakespeare's time both manhood and womanhood, and especially womanhood,
have by pressure of circumstances become more self-conscious, and the
conditions of their union through love more complex.

And what is this modern ideal of love, of which Shelley is the exponent?
What is this strange affection, love, whether ancient or modern? It is
that most paradoxical of passions, that compound of selfishness and
self-renunciation, that forlorn desire which strives to reconcile all
things, and found an eternal home on the shifting sands of time, of
which we all know something. Blake has expressed this paradoxical
character of love once for all in his little poem "The Clod and the

  "Love seeketh not itself to please,
    Nor for itself hath any care,
  But for another gives its ease,
    And builds a heaven in hell's despair.

  Love seeketh only self to please,
    To bind another to its delight,
  Joys in another's loss of ease,
    And builds a hell in heaven's despite."

We may call these the masculine and feminine elements in love; though of
course both exist in all love, whether of man to woman or woman to man.
Both sexes give more than they receive, and receive more than they
give. In all love, from the first step beyond mere physical appetite, to
the most transcendental Platonism, there are these two antagonistic
elements. If the merely self-indulgent element prevails, we tend in
the direction of lust, one of the most cruel diseases that plague
humanity, which Milton rightly places "hard by hate." If the merely
self-renouncing, we tend in the direction of monastic chastity, which
though not so distinctly an evil thing, may become cruel and inhuman,
and a bar to human progress. Asceticism is not, like lust, a disease,
physical and spiritual, but it may lead to disease, spiritual if not
physical. There is an asceticism, the Greek [Greek: aschêsis], a
training of the lower faculties to act in subordination to the higher,
which is the strait gate by which we enter upon the arduous ascent
toward noble passion and noble action. There is another asceticism which
if not truly Christian, came in the wake of Christianity, which, denying
the rights of the body, was less a training than a mortification. Both
unrestrained sensuality and monastic chastity, in their injustice to the
body outrage the sexual principle, the former by regarding it as a toy
to be polluted by base pleasure, the latter by regarding it as a thing
unclean in itself to be cast out and killed, or at best tolerated and
cleansed by the Church's holy water. To the present day the average
man's, or at least the average Englishman's great temptation is to sin
against love, through dull unimaginative lust, the average
Englishwoman's through dull unimaginative chastity. Men live too much in
the sensuous, and women in the supersensuous, to meet fairly. Love, the
reconciler, himself is too weak fully to reconcile them and to bring
them together in that perfect ecstasy, body to body, spirit to spirit,
soul to soul, that "unreserve of mingled being," which Shelley, giving a
voice to the desire of all ages, but especially to modern desire, sighed
for. To understand Shelley's protest against marriage, we must
understand his ideal of love--the unconstrained rush together of two
personalities of opposite sexes, in whom the body is but the vehicle of
the spirit. This love is not born merely of the flickering fire of the
senses. It is a divine flame, kindled alike in body, soul, and spirit,
and fusing them into unity. Of course, if this love is to be the great
end of life, marriage is somewhat of an impertinence. While the divine
fire burns, what need of artificial ties to keep the two lovers
together? If it goes out why should they be kept together? To which the
prosaic moralist replies: "Your ideal of love is very beautiful, no
doubt. Get as much as you can of this divine flame into your Hymen's
torch; and after all, every young couple start with some such high-flown
notions in their heads; but I must have some guarantee that your wife
and children are not left as burdens upon the parish, when you begin to
feel the pinch of real life, and the glamour of your imagination fades
from your 'divine mistress.' Marriage was not ordained to be the
paradise of ideal love, but for the sober discipline of the affections
of men and women, and above all for the production and rearing up of
good citizens of the commonwealth. To judge by your own writings, Mr.
Shelley, you seem to have been running after a will-o'-the-wisp all your
life in this ideal love. And if _you_ did not catch it, is it likely
that Tom, Dick, and Harry will? In any case the pursuit of it seems just
as likely to make inconstant lovers as that sensuality you affect to
look down upon. You always had the word 'for ever' on your tongue; but
how long did your for evers last? No, no, my dear sir, the good of
society demands fidelity to incurred responsibilities, and we find by
practical experience that both men and women, but especially men, are
inclined to shirk the responsibilities which indulgence of the sexual
passion brings in its train. Hence the marriage contract. It does not
concern itself primarily with either love or lovers, but it helps to
keep husbands and wives together, and women and children maintained
decently without coming upon the rates. And, mind you, it does not by
any means leave love out in the cold. It may not rise to your
transcendental ecstasy; but it is love all the same, good honest
domestic affection, when your young couples get well broken to harness.
Did you not say yourself that one might as well go to a gin-shop for a
leg of mutton as to you for anything human? Well, give me the wholesome
leg of mutton--none of your gin for me. Egad, sir, when I see some
honest couple going to church of a Sunday morning, with half-a-dozen
pretty children about them, I call that a poem--ay, and a better poem,
Mr. Shelley, than all the fantastic Epipsychidions you ever put upon
paper. Hang it all, sir, let a man make love to his own wife, and stick
to her when he has got her. I'm a plain man, sir, but I hope a moral
man, and them's my sentiments." To all which, let Shelley reply as best
he may. The fact is that he has given no satisfactory reply, simply
because it was only just before his death that he realised the
complexity of the problem of life. He did, however, see clearly that the
bringing of men and women into more complete harmony, by raising the
ideal of love, was the most important step towards that renewal of the
world, that living of the most perfect life attainable by man, for which
he sighed and after which he strove; and he saw clearly that our
solution of the marriage problem was imperfect, not merely in practice,
but to some extent in theory. As regards the subjection of women, he
seems to have considered this wholly an artificial product of religious
dogma, and not, as it is, the natural result of an imperfect
civilization. Man protects woman because, on the whole, she adds to his
comfort. Protection implies subjection, and subjection to a tyrant is
slavery; and man, if not altogether a tyrant in these later times, has
always the temptation to become one, and the tyrannical traditions of
bygone times have a strong tendency to persist. Laws and even customs
lag far behind the highest public opinion of the day.

Now, men being in possession of the capital of the world, the material
means of life, women stand to them in the position of what the
socialists call wage-slaves. They must do what their employers require
of them on pain of starvation, and there is no true freedom of contract.
And so far men have almost without exception required of them
concubinage or menial service, or a mixture of both. English marriage,
while recognizing the existing fact of the subjection of women, has done
something to raise their status, chiefly by making the bond between the
contracting parties theoretically, and to a great extent practically,
one of love and mutual service. It has indeed been much more than
Shelley seems to have realized, the _nidus_ of a love pure and
wholesome, if not very passionate. Theoretically strictly monogamic, it
has been so practically to a very respectable extent. It has put a
perceptible curb upon the strong polygamous instinct of men, and it has
fostered the monogamous habit in women enormously. English women are for
the most part faithful wives. Even transitory prostitution does not kill
the monogamous propensity in them. They settle down into marriage, or
live faithfully with one man, if they get the chance.

Still, Englishwomen are not satisfied with marriage as it exists. Let us
hear Mrs. Mona Caird on the subject. She is much more prosaic than
Shelley; she looks at the subject, chiefly from the standpoint of
practical comfort. She sees that from this standpoint, from various
reasons, which may be summed up in the phrase "incompatibility of
temper," marriage does not induce even that amount of mutual toleration,
not to say happiness, without which it is impossible for man and wife to
live decently together. She therefore asks, What good purpose is served
by keeping two people together who are evidently unfit to live together?
Why indeed? if, as Mrs. Caird says, "The matter is one in which any
interposition, whether of law or society, is an impertinence." But,
unfortunately, law and society are the most impertinent things in the
world, always binding with briers our joys and desires, and poking their
ugly noses into our private affairs in the interests of the British
ratepayer. We shall never be happy until we have got rid of them--if
even then, and it is quite impossible to get rid of them for some time
to come. Now the British ratepayer cares nothing about women and
children, except in so far as there is a danger of their coming upon the
rates. And he is a little scared about giving greater liberty of
divorce, "saving for the cause of adultery," as he piously ejaculates.
He does not like stray women and children going about the world. But
after all, adultery is only a particular, perhaps even a minor, case of
incompatibility. Marriage was made for man, and not man for marriage,
and although marriage may work well in nine cases out of ten, the tenth
case must be considered, and relief given if possible. The individual is
right to demand relief, and the mode of giving relief is a question for
the legislator. Greater facility of divorce must come, and will come,
now that both men and women demand it.

Mrs. Caird's demand for greater laxity of the marriage bond _ab initio_,
the nature of the contract being left to the contracting parties, like a
marriage settlement, is quite outside the sphere of practical politics,
as she is herself quite aware. If men were but educated up to the
Shelleyan ideal, then we might try all sorts of delightful experiments
in marriage, and gradually arrive at absolute freedom of contract, which
would _not_ mean that absolutely unsentimental hygienic promiscuity
which is the ideal of the highly advanced physiologist. But men are not
yet harmonious creatures, like Wordsworth's cloud, which "moveth
altogether if it move at all." They are torn by their lusts which war in
their members. Hence these bonds. Lust, lust, lust: this is the most
concentrated form of selfishness--the undying worm at the root of the
Tree of Life. This is the tyrant that women have at last begun to
recognize as their deadly adversary and to fight against. Shelley, a
better physician than Goethe, laid his finger on this plague-spot, and
told the age plainly: "Thou ailest here." But he did not see that
instead of saying, "Abolish marriage and prostitution will cease," he
ought to have said, "Abolish prostitution and marriage will
cease"--marriage without love being only a particular form of
prostitution. He did not see that the abolition of marriage would no
more get rid of lust than the abolition of private property would get
rid of selfishness. We have already, in monogamic marriage, struggled
painfully upward to the level of the higher animals; let us not imperil
this progress rashly.

The Cythnas of the present day have felt their burthens more directly
than Shelley did. Hence their demand for economic independence, that
they may not be forced into marriage or prostitution by the various
degrees of starvation. Their demand is a just one, and must be satisfied
somehow, even if we have to put a bonus upon womanhood and pay women,
not merely fair wages for their work of all kinds, but a tribute to them
as women, as potential mothers, which shall fairly handicap the sexes
in the struggle for existence, and put men more on their good behaviour.

Shelley, the mystic, who looked for a miraculous change in nature
coincident with a miraculous change in man, seems to have seen, almost
as little as the average socialist of the present day, who believes in
the spiritual efficacy of a purely material revolution, that the ideals
and interests of the two sexes are widely apart, more so now than ever
before probably. He, like the socialist, in his impatience to arrive at
a practical solution of the life-problem, did not take the trouble to
understand the true bearing of the doctrine of Malthus. He did not see
that whether Malthus's figures be right or wrong, it is a fact that the
population of any given district (be it an English barony, or the world
itself) tends to increase up to the limits of its food-supply, taking
the word _food_ in its very widest sense to signify all the means of
well-being; and that this tendency is a fundamental element in all
social problems, just as friction is in all mechanical problems. He did
not see that, other things being the same, a higher standard of comfort,
while, finally tending to diminish the rate of increase of population,
first increases its pressure. He did not contemplate that strike against
child-bearing on the part of women, which is induced, not merely by the
desire for personal comfort, but is largely due to the vague influence
of those new ideals of which he was himself the prophet. He, like the
socialist, thought that we might go on increasing and multiplying _ad
libitum_, till we reached the ultimate limit of standing-room on the
earth, and of miraculous chemical food out of the air, and began, as
astral bodies, to emigrate to Mars. Women know better than this; and
feel the pinch of population, when what they just now consider their
higher life is hampered by children. The woman who has one child more
than she wants is an over-populated woman; and the advanced woman of the
present day, having her own higher culture, and the culture of humanity,
on the brain, possibly with a high ideal of the duties of maternity, and
frequently a sickly and weary creature, morbid in body and mind, is very
easily over-populated. Hence much social discomfort. Shelley does not
seem to have contemplated this, nor seen that the good-natured
acceptance of the feminine ideal by man might lead him, like poor St.
Peter in his old age, "whither he would not." How all this is going to
end I confess I don't know. I trust in more delicate adjustments, a
higher and more wholesome life all round; but the ascent of man is
always a painful process. Meanwhile it is quite time for this bald,
disjointed chat of mine to come to an end.

  Printed by Richard Clay & Sons, Limited, Bread Street Hill.
  September, 1889._

      *      *      *      *      *      *

Transcriber's note:

Text in italics is enclosed by underscores (_italics_).

The original text includes Greek characters. For this text version these
letters have been replaced with transliterations.

The misprint "tempation" has been corrected to "temptation" (page 15).

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