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

Full text of "Percy Bysshe Shelley: A Monograph"





We do not read that there were any great or memorable rejoicings at Field Place when Shelley came of age in August, 1813. Mr. Timothy Shelley, presumably, did not regard the event as one that called for any festive celebration; while the Sussex farmers doubtless shook their heads portentously over the doings of the young heir, whose escapades were rumoured to be so wild and incomprehensible. The eccentricities of the younger Bysshe certainly seemed likely to surpass those of the elder. On an occasion when most young men of his position and expectations would have been receiving congratulatory addresses from their fathers' tenants, and making polite speeches in return, this misguided youth was residing in a cottage in a Berkshire village, with his wife and an infant daughter, receiving nothing in the way of congratulation, and brooding over schemes in which polite speeches had no part.

If he looked to the future, his prospects were far from encouraging; if he looked to the past, he could find little comfort or reassurance in the retrospect of his two years of married life. His campaign against social and religious intolerance had failed to produce the slightest mitigation of the evils which he sought to cure, its only apparent result being to embitter his own relations with society, and thereby to disturb his security and peace of mind. His early ideals of personal excellence had been in some cases rudely shaken — in others entirely destroyed. If there was one plan which, above all others, had been often present in his mind after the elopement with Harriet, it was to choose some beautiful yet unpretentious home, and there, in the neighbourhood of friends and sympathizers, to dwell "for ever," and devote his powers to the study of poetry and philosophy. Yet, instead of securing this blissful home of rest, he had roamed for two years from place to place, and led a life like that of the wandering Jew, whose character he was already fond of introducing in his writings.

The sojourn at York, short as it was, had been long enough to disillusion Shelley's mind respecting the virtues of his friend Hogg, whose conduct to Harriet had necessitated a sudden departure to Keswick; the "noble being," whose lifelong companionship Shelley had so ardently desired, being now left behind to pursue his legal duties in solitude and remorse, while Shelley himself found material for much sorrowful reflection in this unsuspected baseness on the part of his first and most trusted friend. At Keswick, Shelley made the acquaintance of Southey, for whose writings he had long felt a strong admiration, and in whom he now thought to find a kindred spirit, inspired by the same passionate enthusiasm for intellectual freedom; he found instead a kindly, middle-aged gentleman, who could not always see the point of a discussion, and whose mainstay in argument was his "Ah, when you are as old as I am!"

Disappointed in these personal experiences, Shelley had then begun to turn his eyes towards the field of politics, and his interest had been naturally directed to Ireland as the scene which illustrated most forcibly and unmistakably the fatal effects of a policy of tyranny and repression.

Yet what benefit could he conceive to have resulted from his two months' visit to Dublin in the early part of 1812? He might indeed feel confident in his own heart of the justice and truth of the opinions set forth in his "Address to the Irish People," but he could not be unaware that the publication of the pamphlet had failed to produce the immediate effect which he anticipated for it, nor could he foresee, by way of comfort for temporary failure, that the history of the next half-century would amply illustrate the essential wisdom of his views. At Dublin, too, as at Keswick, his youth had been much against him; and, as if nineteen were not an early enough age at which to begin the work of reforming the world, his Irish servant had given out that he was only-fifteen, thus throwing an increased appearance of juvenility over an enterprise which had been undertaken in a very serious spirit.

Moved by the remonstrances of the veteran and cautious philosopher, Godwin, with whom he had commenced a correspondence, he had presently withdrawn from further interference in Irish affairs, and wandered for a time through the picturesque parts of Wales and the coast of North Devon, amusing himself meanwhile by sending forth copies of his "Declaration of Rights," and other revolutionary documents enclosed in floating bottles, or attached to fire-balloons, or engaged in the more serious occupation of writing his "Queen Mab."

During these wanderings Shelley had been reluctantly compelled to sacrifice another of his youthful ideals of human excellence. As he had once mistaken Hogg for the paragon of manly virtue, so for a longer time did he idealize his correspondent, Miss Hitchener, until she became, to his imagination, "a mighty intellect which may one day enlighten thousands." The addition of her presence to Shelley's household had long been looked forward to as an event of blissful augury ; but when it had become a reality, a sad disappointment had ensued, with the result that the "Portia," whose genius Shelley had invoked to stimulate his own, was discovered to be "a woman of desperate views and dreadful passions," and was induced after a few months to return to her Sussex home, to the unspeakable relief of her former friend and. fellow-enthusiast.

As he looked back in 1813 over this restless period of desultory schemes and broken ideals, Shelley's heart must sometimes have been filled with a feeling akin to despair. It was indeed a strange and chequered experience that had been amassed by a youth of twenty-one. Well might he point out in his "Notes to Queen Mab" that time is not to be measured only by its duration, nor length of life merely by number of years, and that " the life of a man of virtue and talent, who should die in his thirtieth year," may be, by comparison, a long one.

It was, however, in his domestic affairs, that about this time Shelley began to find his chief cause for disquietude. His money troubles, the result in part of the small allowance made him by his father, in part of his own lavish generosity and total inability to economize, were now beginning to press heavily on his mind. But this was not the worst of his anxieties.

Hitherto his marriage with Harriet had perhaps been a happier one than its origin could have warranted him in expecting, a sincere affection having gradually grown up between them, owing in great measure to Harriet's easy good temper and ready compliance with her husband's habits and opinions. But the fatal seed of disunion was already sown in the fact that those revolutionary speculations, which were the life and soul of Shelley's being, were to Harriet nothing more than a matter of passing interest and temporary excitement. As she grew up to full womanhood, the true bent of her character, latent hitherto and merged in Shelley's stronger personality, was slowly but surely developed and manifested. In addition to the disenchantment of his boyish ideals, and the failure of his philanthropic crusade, it was becoming evident to Shelley that he was soon likely to lose even the consolation of home sympathies and domestic tranquillity. There was a trait of coldness and insensibility in Harriet's nature which was in painful contrast with the impassioned warmth and loving earnestness of his own; while the presence of Eliza Westbrook, at first tolerated as a necessity, was every day becoming a more insufferable burden and annoyance.

Small wonder, then, that Shelley was dejected and despondent during the days which he spent in his cottage at Bracknell, for he must have felt that a sharp crisis was approaching in his fate. He was destined yet to rise to nobler efforts, and wiser methods of warfare; but first there was a valley of deep humiliation to be crossed, and a heavy penalty to be paid for the error which he had committed two years before. Whatever some men of the world may do, a champion of humanity and freedom cannot, with impunity, yoke himself to that most galling of social bondages — marriage without love — which has given the death-blow to many lofty aspirations. Shelley had already learnt the force of this lesson, or was about to learn it very shortly.

In the meantime the years had not passed without their natural pleasures and consolations. Through all the vicissitudes of his wanderings, through all the embarrassments of his pecuniary anxieties, he had contrived to satisfy that innate love of reading and craving for self-instruction which were to him a lifelong instinct and positive necessity of his existence. What matter if he had not " completed his education "?

For what more could Oxford have taught him than to read as he had always read from the beginning? Scarcely less powerful, even at this early age, was that other instinctive desire which prompted him to give his own thoughts and opinions to the world. Even as a schoolboy, Shelley had found his way to the publishers, and the speedy publication of his writings was naturally an aim and object of one whose idealistic speculations went side by side with a singularly practical disposition, and by whom theory was regarded as almost identical with performance.

Among the various productions of this youthful period, the majority of which Shelley could not but acknowledge to be failures, "Queen Mab," at any rate, must have given some satisfaction to its author, who could not have been left quite in ignorance that a few sympathetic hearts had here and there been thrilled by this eloquent expression of the gospel of free thought and humanity. Whatever else he had done, or failed to do, this strange youth of one-and-twenty had penned the most notable and spirited protest of his generation against that religious bigotry which stifles and stunts the fair growth of the human intellect, and against that moral depravity which tramples out all the gentler instincts of life. Never before in English poetry had the tyranny of the rich over the poor, of the strong over the weak, been so indignantly, and, withal, so truthfully, denounced. Never before had such consistent and eloquent witness been borne against the heedless cruelty of man, who "slays the lamb that looks him in the face," in order to satisfy a gluttonous appetite at the cost of his humble fellow-creatures.

The vigorous enthusiasm which had inspired "Queen Mab" was a proof that Shelley possessed that happy union of sensibility and determination which alone could enable him to go through the trials and troubles of life without either abating the keenness of his sympathies, or withdrawing in despair from a crusade which might well have seemed to be hopeless and quixotic. In a word, his chief support in this darkest period of his lifetime was to be found in the inflexible tenacity with which he still clung to his early boyish vow — to be wise and just, and free and mild.

To the comforts thus derived from a single-hearted integrity of purpose were added those of friendship. Shelley was soon reconciled to his old college comrade; and though their intimacy could never be restored on the former confident footing, Hogg was a frequent and welcome visitor both at Bracknell and in London. In the novelist Peacock Shelley had lately made another friend, a man of more literary and cultured tastes than Hogg, but fully as sarcastic and cynical, and furnishing an equally striking illustration of the singular attraction which Shelley could exercise on minds of a wholly alien cast from his own. By this time, too, the correspondence with William Godwin had led to a personal acquaintance, and Shelley frequently enjoyed the conversation of the philosopher whose moral and political writings had influenced him so profoundly.

But the friendship in which, above all others, Shelley found a solace and delight at this period of his life, was that of the Newtons and Boinvilles, two families whose humane and refined tastes were in close accordance with his own, and who undoubtedly stimulated him very strongly in the direction of that simplicity of living and vegetarian diet to which he had long been inclined, and which he had now actually adopted. To such confirmed mockers and bon vivants as Peacock and Hogg the principles of the reformed diet were necessarily unintelligible ; and it must often have been a relief to Shelley to turn from their sarcasms and witticisms to the congenial society where he met with a more liberal and sympathetic intelligence. Mrs. Boinville, the sister of Mrs. Newton, had a house at Bracknell, and it was for this reason that Shelley was staying in that neighbourhood in 1813.

Such was his position at the close of his first campaign against intolerance.

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