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Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822)
Shelley's Vegetarianism

Full text of "Percy Bysshe Shelley: A Monograph"





It has been the main object of the foregoing chapters to depict Shelley not, according to the common notion, as merely an impassioned singer and wild-hearted visionary, full of noble though misdirected enthusiasm, and giving promise of better things if his brief life had been prolonged ; but rather as one who was charged with a sacred and indispensable mission, which was seriously undertaken and faithfully fulfilled. His life and writings were a mirror held up to our present social system from without; he came like a messenger from another planet to denounce and expose the anomalies that exist on this terrestrial globe, to show the glaring contrast between might and right, law and justice, ephemeral custom and essential piety.

It was formerly the humour of imaginative moralists to illustrate this contrast between the conventional and the natural by the narration of a supposed visit to some fabled "Utopia" or "Oceana" or "New Atlantis'' ; but in later times the process has been reversed, and the follies and frailties of artificial society have been pointed out through the medium of some "Chinese Philosopher,'' or " New Adam and Eve," or intelligent "traveller from New Zealand" But Shelley actually embodied in his own person and feelings what other writers have only fancifully suggested, and the moral at which they
vaguely hinted was by him directly and persistently enforced. He was himself the visitor from another region, but the Utopia from which he came was temporal rather than geographical, being, indeed, nothing else than a future phase of our own civilized society. He anticipates in his ethical teaching the next period of social and moral evolution ; his gospel of humanity is the creed of the new era that slowly, but surely, is dawning on mankind.

It is a mistake to suppose that Shelley's moral and ethical opinions are incompatible with the scientific theory of evolution; for though he sometimes sings, as all poets have sung, of a golden age in the past, there is ample evidence in his writings to show that he knew this to be merely a poetical legend, and the exact contrary of the truth. "Their doctrine," he says (speaking of the poets who had celebrated this Saturnian age), "was philosophically false. Later and more correct observations have instructed us that uncivilized man is the most pernicious and miserable of beings. . . . Man was once a wild beast; he has become a moralist, a metaphysician, a poet, and an astronomer."In fact, Shelley's doctrine of the perfectibility of man, so far from being antagonistic to evolution, is as fully in harmony with it as any pre-Darwinian utterance could be, being based on the intuitive belief that man's progress in the future will be not less amazing than his progress in the past.

Shelley himself, as I have already said, might almost be regarded as a representative of the future and nobler social state, a prophet and forerunner of the higher intellectual development, a soul sent on earth before its due season by some strange freak of destiny, or rather, let us say, by some benignant disposition of Providence. The religion which he preached, with love for its faith, and natural piety towards all living things for its commandment, has this supreme advantage over the creed of the theologian — that it can look with confidence, instead of suspicion, on the advance of science, and find a friend instead of an enemy in time.

But this religion, being a religion of the future, is for that very reason unintelligible and unacceptable to those who, by sentiment or circumstances are upholders of the present order of things — that is to say, the great bulk of society. Many people are naturally incapable of sympathizing with Shelley's ideal philosophy and humanitarian enthusiasm, perceiving in it nothing but a cold and brilliant display of intellectual subtleties; while others are roused to positive hostility by their dislike of his revolutionary opinions and aggressive attitude. All this is natural and inevitable; for it was not to be expected that the full significance of Shelley's career should be appreciated by that very society whose displacement he heralded, since the prophet is proverbially without honour among the mass of his own generation. Shelley's good fame, both as regards the rightness of his personal conduct and the soundness of his views, can afford to wait till the new wave of social evolution has swept away the present barriers of prejudice and intolerance.

In the meanwhile, he will not be unhonoured of the discerning few, who, reading the signs of the times, can already perceive that the great social and ethical questions, which are gradually being recognised as of primary importance to the welfare of the community, are precisely those on which Shelley instinctively fixed his attention. It is for this reason, and not only because he is our greatest lyric poet, that Shelley's life and doctrines are deserving of more general study than is at present accorded them ; and those who love and admire him are not likely to be affected by the idle taunt, so often levelled at them by their opponents that they are attributing an absurd infallibility to his opinions, and an absurd perfection to his character. Shelley, the votary of liberty and free-thought, who, in spite of his wide reading, was so entirely devoid of the academic spirit, was the last person in the world who would have wished to found a "school " and be regarded as a "master " ; and the respect that is now felt for his writings is not based on any superstitious or sentimental reverence for the ipse dixit of the poet, but simply on the belief that his opinions are being more and more corroborated by time and experience.

In the same way not even the most uncompromising admirers of Shelley's character and conduct need be suspected of the intent to endow him with an unnatural and impossible perfection, merely because they decline to subscribe to that modern fear of hero-worship, which makes most of our critics, disbelieving in the existence of any truly heroic figure in this age of mediocrity, so careful to mete out praise and blame in nicely balanced portions, like a grocer dealing out his wares in a succession of sweets and acids. However justifiable our dread of mere sentimental eulogy, we may surely venture to speak generously and unreservedly in our praise of a man whose great primary qualities of unworldliness and sincerity drew unstinted tributes of admiration from those who knew him personally, whether they chanced to be cynical lawyers, satirical novelists, ardent reformers, misanthropic poets, dilettante dawdlers, bluff sailors, or retired cavalry officers.

Such homage paid to such a character does not imply that we are blind to the many foibles, eccentricities, and minor blemishes by which even the noblest nature may be crossed and chequered, and from which Shelley was certainly not exempt. We are well aware that his life, except in its one dominant feature, was a strange mixture of contrary tendencies and varying moods. He was hopeful and despondent; strong and weak; graceful and awkward; frugal and lavish; serious and playful; wise and whimsical; forbearing and charitable to a singular degree in his intercourse with friend or foe, yet on rare occasions hasty and unjust in his judgments ; by habit candid and trustworthy, yet sometimes led on by a predilection for mystery, and by an extreme dislike of causing pain or disappointment, to be evasive and circuitous in his dealings. But while he was thus, to some extent, the creature of conflicting moods and circumstances, "chased by the spirit o£ his destiny," as he himself expressed it, " from purpose to purpose, like clouds by the wind," it is important to remember that these contradictions and weaknesses lay, so to speak, on the surface of his nature, and not at its core ; for his character, in all vital and essential points, was strikingly firm and consistent, his innate and solid virtues standing him in good stead in
all the great and fateful crises of his mature life.

Few lives have been subjected to such a searching scrutiny as that which Shelley's has undergone, and still fewer have come forth from the ordeal so nearly unscathed.

But, as I have insisted all along, he must, in common honesty, be judged by his own standard of morality, and not by that which it was his special object to discredit and overthrow. This is the only key to a right understanding of Shelley's career, and if this rational principle be adopted, it will be found to explain much that has hitherto seemed unaccountable to many readers. Difficulties there must always be ia estimating so subtle and complex a character; but, whatever mystery may still hang over certain isolated episodes and scenes, the general effect and leading purpose of Shelley's life will be seen to be singularly harmonious and clear.

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