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The Ethics of Diet - A Catena
by Howard Williams M.A., 1883

Byron - extracts

BYRON, 1788-1824
(text from the 1st edition, 1883)

[from the end of the section on Shelley]

With the name of Shelley is usually connected that of his more popular contemporary, Byron (1788-1824). The brother poets, it already has been noted, met in Switzerland; and, afterwards, they had some intercourse in Italy during Shelley's last years. Excepting the surpassing genius, and equal impatience of conventional laws and usages they had little in common. The one was first and above all a reformer, the other a satirist. To assert, however, the author of Child Harold to have been inspired solely by cynical contempt for his species is unjust. A large part of his poems is pervaded apparently with an intense conviction of the evils of life as produced by human selfishness and folly. But what distinguishes the author of Prometheus Unbound from his great rival (if he may be so called) is the sure and certain hope of a future happiness for the world. Thus, that belief in the all-importance of human dietetics, as a principal factor in the production of weal or woe on earth, is far less apparent in Byron as a matter of course.

Yet, that in moments of better feeling, Byron revolted from the gross materialism of the banquets, of which he expresses it, England

"Was wont to boast - as if a glutton's tray
Were something very glorious to behold." (1)

and that, had he not been seduced by the dinner-giving propensity of English society, he would have retained his early preference for the refined diet, we are glad to believe. In a letter to his mother, written in his early youth, he announces that he had determined upon relinquishment of flesh-eating, and his clearer mental perceptions in consequence of his reformed living; (2) and he seems to have advanced to the extreme frugality of living, at times, upon biscuits and water only.

It would have been well for him had he, like Shelley, abstained from gross eating and drinking upon principle; and had he uniformly adhered to the resolution formed in his earlier years, we should, in that case, not have to lament his too notorious sexual intemperance.

[from the Appendix of the first edition:]

BYRON. 1788-1824

"As we had none of us been apprised of his peculiarities with respect to food, the embarrassment of our host [Samuel Rogers] was not little, on discovering that there was nothing upon the table which his noble guest could eat or drink. Neither [flesh] meat, fish, nor wine would Lord Byron touch; and of biscuits and soda water, which he asked for, there had been, unluckily, no provision. He professed, however, to be equally well pleased with potatoes and vinegar; and of these meagre materials contrived to make rather a hearty meal. . . .

"We frequently, during the first months of our acquaintance dined together alone. . . . Though at times he would drink freely enough of claret, he still adhered to his system of abstinence in food. He appeared, indeed, to have conceived a notion that animal food has some peculiar influence on the character; (3) and I remember one day, as I sat opposite to him, employed, I suppose, rather earnestly over a 'beef-steak,' after watching me for a few seconds, he said in a grave tone of inquiry, - 'Moore, don't you find eating beef-steak makes you ferocious?' " - Life, Letters, and Journals of Lord Byron, by Thomas Moore. New Edition. Murray 1860.

In these Memorials of Byron, references to his aversion from all "butcher's meat" is frequent; and for the greater part of his life, he seems to have observed, in fact, an extreme abstinence as regards eating; although he had by no means the same repugnance for fish as for flesh-eating. That his abstinence from flesh-meats was founded upon physical or mental, rather than moral, reasons, has already been pointed out. Nor, unhappily, was he abstinent in drinking as in eating; to which fact, in great measure, must be attributed the failure of his purer eating to effect all the good which, otherwise, it would have produced.


    1. In another place he indulges his ironical wit at the expense of the beef-eaters, in representing a certain Cretan personage in Greek story to have

      . . . . . . . . "Promoted breeding cattle,
      To make the Cretans bloodier in battle;
      For we all knew that English people are
      Fed upon beef . . . . . .
      We know, too, they are very fond of war -
      A pleasure - like all pleasures - rather dear.

    2. See Life and Letters. Murray
    3. This feeling occasionally appears in his poems,as, for instance when describing a "banquet" and its flesh-eating guests, he wonders how "Such bodies could have souls, or souls such bodies."


Howard Williams, The Ethics of Diet - index