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

from: Percy Bysshe Shelley: A Monograph (1888) by Henry S. Salt, Appendix pp 241-245 (originally published in The Vegetarian Annual, 1887):


The importance of a man's dietetic tastes and habits in their bearing on his intellectual development and moral character is too often overlooked or underestimated by critics and biographers. We hear much interesting speculation on the hereditary characteristic of men of genius, and on the influence of events contemporary with their birth and education; as, for instance, that Shelley's ancestors were ''conspicuous by their devotion to failing or desperate causes,' or that on the day of his birth the French National Assembly decreed ' that all religious houses should be sold for the benefit of the nation." But the significance of the fact that the most ethereal of English lyrists and one of the most unselfish of English reformers was a bread-eater and a water-drinker is allowed to pass unnoticed, or, at any rate, unemphasized; Shelley's humanitarian instincts and consequent inclination to extreme simplicity of diet being regarded as a mere crotchet and harmless eccentricity — and this, too, by those very writers who praise his gospel of gentleness and universal love!

I think that on this point some of Shelley's detractors have done him more justice than some of his admirers; for the former have at least been consistent and logical in arguing that his vegetarian proclivities were all of a piece with his ''pernicious" views on social and religions subjects, and with his "Utopian" belief in the ultimate perfectibility of man. This is not the place to discuss the rights or wrongs of vegetarianism; but we may at least assert that Shelley's dietetic tastes must have had Borne influence both on the doctrines advanced in his longer poems and on that spirituality of lyrical tone which makes him unique among singers. "What one eats that one is," says a German writer, and it cannot he without interest, and even importance, to those who would read Shelley's character aright, to note to what extent he adopted and advocated a vegetarian diet.

We find that Shelley first adopted vegetarianism in 1812, when in his twentieth year, though even at Oxford, in 1810, his food, according to the testimony of his biographer Hogg, was ''plain and simple as that of a hermit, with a certain anticipation, even at this time, of a vegetable diet." In 1813, when he spent the spring in London, and the summer at Bracknell, Berks, he saw much of the Newton family, who were strict vegetarians, and was strongly influenced by their views and example. On the other hand, his friends Hogg and Peacock, especially the latter, who looked upon the Newtons as foolish crotchet-mongers, did their best to laugh him out of his new system of diet, though Hogg was on friendly terms with the Newton circle, and speaks approvingly, in his "Life of Shelley," of their vegetarian repasts. At this time, as always, bread was his favourite food, and Hogg tells us how he would buy a loaf at a baker's shop, and eat it as he dodged the foot-passengers on a London pavement.

During his residence at Bishopsgate in 1815, and at Marlow in 1817, we find Shelley still persevering in the reformed diet, though not without occasional lapses, if we are to believe his biographers Hogg and Peacock. The former gives a humorous account of an occasion when, in the dearth of other food, Shelley was induced to try fried bacon, and found it very good ; and Peacock asserts that during a boating excursion, in 1815, his prescription of 'three mutton chops, well peppered," was of great service to Shelley's health. Nevertheless, Leigh Hunt reports him in 1817, when living at Marlow, as "coming home to a dinner of vegetables, for he took neither meat nor wine."

In 1818 he left England, and spent the short remainder of his life in Italy. During this time he seems to have given up his vegetarianism to some slight extent, not from any want of faith in its principles, but simply from the inconvenience caused to his non-vegetarian household, (the poetic "Letter to Maria Gisborne", written in 1820— "Though we eat little flesh, and drink no wine.") His forgetfulness and indifference about his food became still more marked during his later years, and Trelawny relates how his dinner would often stand unnoticed and neglected while he was engaged in writing. But now, as before, bread remained literally his "staff of life," and he always preferred simple food to costly.

The state of Shelley's health has given rise to much discussion among his biographers; but, in spite of some assertions to the contrary, it seems tolerably established that he had an early tendency towards consumption, and suffered latterly from spasms and some nervous affliction, of which the precise nature is unknown. How far his health was affected by his diet is an interesting point which it is easier to raise than to decide. Hogg and Peacock, of course, lay his maladies to the charge of vegetarianism. ''When he was fixed in a place," says Peacock, " he adhered to this diet consistently and conscientiously, but it certainly did not agree with him;" and he adds that when he travelled, and was obliged to transgress, he got well. It seems more possible that, as Trelawny hints, the irregularity of Shelley's diet had a bad effect on his health ; but Leigh Hunt's testimony on this subject is valuable and explicit. "His constitution, though naturally consumptive, had attained, by temperance and exercise, to a surprising power of resisting fatigue."

The passages in which Shelley advances vegetarian doctrines are briefly these:

  1. The well-known lines in " Queen Mab," commencing " No longer now, he slays the lamb that looks him in the face."
  2. The still more remarkable note to "Queen Mab," afterwards issued as a separate pamphlet under the title of "A Vindication of Natural Diet."
  3. A passage in " A Refutation of Deism," a prose work published in 1814.
  4. The lyric poem inserted between stanzas 51 and 52 of the 5th canto of "Laon and Cythna" which has been called "The Lyric of Vegetarianism." There is also a reference to Shelley's humanitarian creed in the opening lines of "Alastor," where, in his invocation of earth, ocean, air, the beloved "brotherhood" of nature, the poet bases his appeal to their favour on the ground of his habit of gentleness and humanity.

It appears, therefore, that Shelley was a vegetarian at heart and by conviction, and, in the main, in practice also, though, for the reasons I have mentioned, he was not invariably consistent in his practice. There are many signs that his simple diet was in keeping with his whole character, and essential to his imaginative style of thought and writing. — The Vegetarian Annual 1887.