The Victorian poets were distrustful of the contempt for established religion that is strident in Shelley, pervasive in Byron and Keats, and detectable in muted form even in Wordsworth and Coleridge. They were still more nervous of another characteristic common to the second generation of Romantic poets: their espousal of a sexual freedom that seemed to verge on licentiousness. How is one to imagine poets so devoted to the ideal of marriage as Tennyson and the Brownings responding to, for example, Shelley's Epipsychidion?
I never was attached to that great sect, Whose doctrine is that each one should select Out of the crowd a mistress or a friend, And all the rest, though fair and wise, commend To cold oblivion, though it is in the code Of modern morals, and the beaten road Which those poor slaves with weary footsteps tread, Who travel to their home among the dead By the broad highway of the world, and so With one chained friend, perhaps a jealous foe, The dreariest and the longest journey go.
In this final chapter I will address this, the most dangerous of Romantic legacies, and in its most dangerous form. By 1830 many of the first readers of Thomas Moore's life of Byron were aware, if only by rumour, of Byron's relationship with his half-sister Augusta, and similar relationships figure prominently in poems by Byron and by Shelley. The sexual licence that the younger Romantics claimed extended, so it seemed, even to incest.