The following is a selected archive of responses to Shelley. While Shelley held a fairly contentious relationship with contemporary reviewers, partly due to his politics, his perceived lifestyle, and his belief that those reviewers caused Keats’s premature death, I have selected reviews and scholarship below in order to demonstrate the recurring images of mirrors and reflections, and the extent to which these mirrors and reflectiosn have been associated with Shelley’s sexual morality. These responses, which range from those of his contemporary reviewers to the those of the late twentieth century, demonstrate both the transhistorical and transgender properties of the mirror, which reflects and multiplies histories and responses. In part, I intend to demonstrate how reviewers have devalued poetic forms that, insofar as it seeks intentionally to mirror, reflect, and disperse, are seen as too closely mirroring unacceptable forms of sexual behavior.
The latent, implied narcissism and incestuousness of doubled and reflecting forms troubled Shelley’s contemporary reviewers, who also used these forms as opportunities to attack Shelley for both his political and religious ideologies. The Edinburgh Monthly Review, for example, found The Cenci particularly disturbing due to the suggestion of paternal rape in the poem, followed subsequently by patricide by the main character:
In an evil hour does the pleasure of exhibiting might, first tempt the hand of genius to withdraw the veil from things that ought for ever to remain concealed…In two poems which have already rendered his name well known to the public, the same lamentable perverseness of thought and belief was sufficiently visible...(May 1820, 592).
These attacks on Shelley’s politics, and consequently his character, lasted well into the twentieth century. (See, for example, Reiman and Freistat’s “Shelley’s Reputation Before 1960” found in the Norton critical edition of Shelley’s Poetry and Prose.)
In earlier reviews, Blackwood’'s acknowledged Shelley’s poetic genius while attempting to separate his political and moral beliefs; in later issues, such as in a review of Rosalind and Helen, the author(s) in turn became increasingly frustrated by Shelley’s lack of reformation and found it impossible to read his poetry without seeing its moral perversity:
...he often writes like a man angry and dissatisfied with the world, because he is angry and dissatisfied with himself—impotently striving to break those bonds which he yet feels are riveted by a higher power—and because his own headstrong and unhappy frets and fevers within the salutary confinement of nature’s gracious laws, impiously scheming to bring these laws into disrepute, by representing them as the inventions and juggleries of tyranny and priestcraft. (June 1819, 268)
The end of the review spends a great amount of space lamenting Shelley’s religious and political views, which they feel interrupt his genius’s otherwise natural tendency toward high beauty. At the end, however, they ask turn to an entirely different matter than one of religious or civil politics:
What is it that he can propose to himself by his everlasting allusions to the unnatural loves of brothers and sisters? In this poem there are two stories of this sort…Such monstrosities betoken a diseased mind... (June 1819, 274).
Reviewers in both the nineteenth and twentieth centuries also recognized the incestuous undercurrents of Shelley’s philosophy on love (notably written about in his essay, “On Love”), and, moreover, seemed uncertain about how much Shelley as a poet mirrors the poem, or vice versa. In a now-iconic description of Shelley, Matthew Arnold offers his own answer to this dilemma:
To all this we have to add the charm of the man's writings—of Shelley's poetry. It is his poetry, above everything else, which for many people establishes that he is an angel. Of his poetry I have not space now to speak. But let no one suppose that a want of humour and a self-delusion such as Shelley's have no effect upon a man's poetry. The man Shelley, in very truth, is not entirely sane, and Shelley's poetry is not entirely sane either. The Shelley of actual life is a vision of beauty and radiance, indeed, but availing nothing, effecting nothing. And in poetry, no less than in life, he is 'a beautiful and ineffectual angel, beating in the void his luminous wings in vain.' (The Nineteenth Century, A Monthly Review, Jan. 1888)
Arnold explicitly connects Shelley’s life and personality to his style and effects, or lack thereof, as a poet. Shelley’s “want of humour and self-delusion” must have some “effect upon a man’s poetry.” “In poetry, no less than life,” Shelley is “‘a beautiful and ineffectual angel, beating in the void his luminous wings in vain.’” Here, Arnold quotes his own earlier description of Byron, creating a kind of intertextual mirroring between Byron and Shelley. The passage as a whole positions Shelley’s poetry as a corollary or mirror to Shelley the man—what flaws or beauties in Shelley necessarily appear in his poetry as well. Moreover, this mirroring means that Shelley’s inability to effect anything, his not-entirely sane and superficial personality, is reflected in his poetry.
Several scholars in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries have deployed the image of the mirror to describe the relationship not only between form and body, but also between two sexed bodies in Shelley’s work. Many reviewers in both the nineteenth and twentieth centuries also recognized the incestuous undercurrents of Shelley’s philosophy on love (notably written about in his essay, “On Love”). In her 1985 monograph The Romantic Body: Love and Sexuality in Keats, Wordsworth, and Blake, Jean H. Hagstrum writes:
In a similar psychoanalytic study, Diane Lang Hoeveler’s in Romantic Androgyny: The Women Within (1990) describes incest in Shelley and Byron as a mirror:
...love for the sister as a mirrored manifestation of the self…The male Romantics were not so much fleeing the demands of self-consciousness or identity as seeking a new and redeemed/expanded self in an androgynous ideology that stressed union with one’s complementary opposite.
Hoeveler describes incestuous relationships as mirrors, as reflecting the self; indeed, in Shelley’s Defence, poetry is described as that which reflects and allows others to achieve self-reflection. Poetry becomes a means not for creating an “other,” but a sort of amplifying of the beautiful through repeated mirroring throughout the ages. Perhaps, then, what has troubled some reviewers and responses is Shelley’s refusal of difference; that one need only look in the mirror in order to see one’s likeness.