chapter  3
Percy Shelley’s Hermaphroditus: Queer Nature and the Sex Lives of Plants in The Sensitive-Plant and The Witch of Atlas
Pages 41

Eros operates as a reunifying force-of-nature in the poetry of Percy Shelley. The eminent M.H. Abrams once put it this way: if evil is that which divides, love is “the aggregate of what pulls the sundered parts together” (294). Where such togetherness leads in some of Shelley’s works continues to surprise readers since love-objects are not always human. What sets two owery poems of his apart, The Sensitive-Plant and The Witch of Atlas, are that they foreground the power of eros to confound the kingdoms, Animalia and Plantae, in queerly ecological ways. In both the visionary works interpreted in what is to follow, eros and environment are “interfused,” to borrow an adjective from “To Jane. The Recollection,” as in the “Ocean woods” and a “magic circle traced, / A spirit interfused around / A thrilling silent life” (44-6). As such, sexuality is put on a vegetal continuum that binds man and plant by way of radical sympathy. If the sensitive-plant is half human and half plant, his witch (who creates a hermaphrodite out of thin air) is suspended between the mythic and the human, the masculine and the feminine, and, consequently, both conceal themselves in ways that excite the reader’s desire to classify them. Regardless, this ora feels the sheer force of eros, described by Shelley as the “Spirit of love felt every where” (6). True to form, queerness vectors not in a straight line, nor toward a single telos, but backward and sideways. As Bruno Perreau reminds us, the etymology of the word “queer” is derived from the Indo-European root - twerkw, meaning “across” (80). In its deant traversal across biological orders, the hermaphroditic body operates as a vehicle in The SensitivePlant and The Witch of Atlas by which Shelley, at his most playful, challenges the heterosexist assumptions that governed notions of human health and sexuality in the early nineteenth century. The closer a person gets to nature, the healthier he/she/they become since nature, by denition, is queer.