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

Full text of "Percy Bysshe Shelley: A Monograph"





Anyone visiting Eton College, that venerable seat of learning, during the rather numerous play-hours of the students (I am speaking of a time some eighty years ago), might have chanced to be a witness of a strange and suggestive spectacle, illustrative in a remarkable degree of the temper and manners of the average English schoolboy in his gregarious condition.

A crowd of lads of various sorts and sizes, but almost all enlisted from those two great divisions of the genus boy described by a humorous observer as the "beef-faced" and the "mealy-faced," might have been seen encircling, jeering, hooting, pelting, and in every conceivable way annoying and persecuting a solitary individual, whose appearance seemed to indicate that he differed in some essential points of character from the mass of his school-fellows. He was slight and graceful in stature, and in the expression of his face there was something wild and spiritual, yet at the same time full of "exceeding sweetness and sincerity"; the other features that immediately arrested attention were the long dark brown hair and the large, blue, earnest-looking eyes. In spite of his occasional brief paroxysms of rage, caused by the attacks of his tormentors, he did not look like one who had been guilty of any very heinous offence. What then was the crime for which he had been outlawed from the good-will of his fellows?

Alas! it was a serious one; it was none other than the unpardonable sin of rebelling against that great deity of boys and men — custom. This elfish changeling, who answered to the name of Percy Bysshe Shelley, had already commenced, to his infinite discredit and discomfort, to hold and advance certain opinions of his own on the subject of the society in which his life was cast; and these opinions by no means coincided with the established Etonian creed, the full acceptance of which was an indispensable condition of school-boy salvation.

In the first place, he had audaciously violated the fundamental doctrine of the Etonian constitution — he had refused to fag.

Secondly, he had been guilty of the high crime and misdemeanour of neglecting and despising the lawful and necessary practice of athletic games and exercise, and of occupying himself in various frivolous and contemptible amusements; as, for instance, in dabbling and messing with all sorts of chemical compounds, or floating paper boats on ponds in the neighbourhood of Eton, or reading strange books which were wholly unintelligible to his more sensible school-fellows, or, worst of all — incorrigible milk-sop that he was — in taking solitary walks, and even — so it was whispered— visiting a churchyard at Stoke Park, where some poet or other had written an elegy.

The third count in the indictment was that the offender had shown himself indifferent to the amenities of personal adornment, as then practised at Eton, and had often been known to go out without a hat.

It was naturally felt that this rebellion against all that is most sacred to the school-boy mind was an act of positive madness and flagrant atheism. A decree, therefore, had gone forth that the criminal should be known by the name of "Mad Shelley" and "The Atheist" and should be subjected to a course of that vigorous but wholesome treatment which the faithful have so often found effective for the reclamation of those who wander from the fold of orthodoxy. Who shall blame the Eton boys for acting as they did? A public school in such matters is but a microcosm — a reflection of the greater world that lies around it and beyond; and when a herd of school-boys thinks fit to tease and slander one who differs from his fellows, such conduct is but typical of that of the overgrown school-boys of mature life.

But at any rate, it may be thought, the boy might have turned, for the necessary consolation and protection, to the masters who had undertaken the duty of educating him. Unfortunately, there was little or no sympathy with Shelley in that quarter. Why should busy men take any special interest in an apparently half-crazy boy whose Latin verses, although fluently written, were often defective in metrical correctness, and who, instead of seeking distinction in the ordinary channels, persisted in following a line of study of his own, such as translating Pliny's "Natural History," and reading Godwin's "Political Justice." To burn down willow-stumps with gunpowder; to keep an electric battery in one's room, and to send up fire-balloons by night — these, too, are proceedings which are not exactly calculated to win the hearty approbation of a schoolmaster; and it is no wonder that Shelley's tutors, in their dislike of the eccentricities that lay on the surface of his nature, should have failed to discover the underlying wealth.

So the poor elf-child, whose heart even now was full of love for every living being, and whose mind was aglow with the divine thirst for knowledge, could find no favour with either masters or boys, but pined in vain for the seclusion of his green Sussex lanes and the more congenial society of the friendly snake that haunted the lawn of Field Place. Sadly and slowly it dawned upon his mind that this life, which had seemed at first to be all fresh and pure and fair, was blighted by a withering curse — the curse of the tyranny which selfish and sordid natures inflict on the gentle and harmless.

It was in this mood and under these influences that Shelley, as he stood alone one May morning on the "glittering grass" of the Eton Playing Fields, was visited by one of those sudden and Divine impulses by which many a high heroic spirit has been summoned, in the lightning-flash of a moment's inspiration, to take his part, once and for ever, in the battle of life. To be wise, and just, and free, and mild, and by the power thus acquired to help the oppressed to shake off the tyranny of the oppressor — this was the life-work to which he solemnly dedicated himself — he, the shy, gentle, shrinking boy, who had been sent to Eton to acquire that external polish which his father judged to be the chief characteristic of a gentleman!

Never was vow more nobly made, and never was vow more nobly kept. We all know the saying of the Duke of Wellington (it matters little whether it be authentic or apocryphal), that the battle of Waterloo was won in the Playing Fields of Eton. But we have not all laid to heart the fact that a still nobler victory was won in the same fields on that bright spring morning when Shelley, in the first flush of youthful enthusiasm, received, if ever human soul received, a revelation from above, and pledged himself to devote the whole strength of his being to the sacred cause of suffering humanity. Well might his school-fellows call him "Mad Shelley" and "the Atheist" ; for such is the charge, the old, immemorial accusation, that selfish and worldly minds have ever brought against those who refuse to bow the knee in the great temple of hypocrisy and custom.

So the rapturous moments passed, and the darkness of the school life, with its petty tyrannies and wretched meannesses, again settled down on Shelley. But henceforth there was a brighter side to his existence ; he had a hope, a faith, an object before him; and he could bear with greater constancy the many trials that daily befell him during his stormy passage through that great educational establishment, where it is probable that he alone, of boys or masters, was possessed of any absolute love of knowledge, any thorough desire for education. Even in these early days: he was an indefatigable reader; and though his course of study did not lead him in the direction of scholastic honours, he nevertheless acquired a knowledge of Greek and Latin almost by intuition, and rose steadily in the school during the six years he remained there, till he was eventually in the sixth form.

Nor was he destitute of friends, few but affectionate, won from among the mass of school-fellows who for the most part misunderstood him; while in Dr. Lind, a retired physician then living in Windsor, he found what he could find in none of the Eton masters — at once a friend and a teacher, with whom he might hold free intellectual converse without shame or fear of reproof. The elf-child's dream of a hoary-headed alchemist, who would be able to sympathize with the feelings on which others frowned, was thus realized in actual life; and the contrast between the ruffianly bearing of Dr. Keate, the Etonian archimage, whose magic wand was the rod, and whose altar the flogging block, and the gentle benevolence of Dr. Lind, of whom Shelley never spoke in after-life without gratitude and veneration, may suggest some serious thoughts to us, as it doubtless did to Shelley, as to the relative value of fear and love in the process of education.

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