During the period of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s life, most English people would have aspired to live on a diet of bread and meat; vegetables were for the poor, and fruit was generally a luxury except where people were able to grow it for themselves. Thus Shelley’s natural diet (the term ‘vegetarianism’ was not invented till long after the poet’s death) and his preference for fruit, and for tea rather than wine, was a curiosity, and is noted as such by his friends.
Why did Shelley take up a vegetarian diet?
Jeaffreson (Real Shelley, Vol 2, p. 143) proposed that Shelley took up vegetarianism in imitation of Lord Byron (‘just as he adopted the Byronic shirt-collar’). But the roots of Shelley’s vegetarianism lie deeper than this: he had not eaten much meat as a child or at university, and rarely lapsed into eating meat as an adult. His diet veered between indifference to food and an impetuous enjoyment of cakes, honey and raisins. Shelley’s interest in vegetarianism was influenced by his desire to become a surgeon after being expelled from Oxford, and his awareness of debates on ‘Vitality’, the anatomical essence of life. But by 1813 it can be linked to his radical thought and resistance to oppressive practices.
What was the ideological background to vegetarianism?
The terms used in Shelley’s time were ‘natural diet’ and ‘Pythagorean diet or system’, vegetarians usually being called ‘Pythagoreans’. Pythagoras, a Greek philosopher who lived in southern Italy in the sixth century BCE established a system of thought and belief involving reincarnation and vegetarianism. Pythagoreanism was a subject of interest in the 17th and 18th centuries, finding much support in early 19th-century England.
Which of Shelley’s works propose vegetarianism?
A Vindication of Natural Diet (1813) is Shelley’s clearest promotion of vegetarianism. In this Shelley proposes a link between moral and physical health, and the first sentence lays out ‘unnatural habits of life’ as the origin of physical and moral depravity. An animal diet is linked to alcoholism, which Shelley saw as one of society’s worst traits.
Shelley sees a ‘sympathy’ between the mind and the body, mirrored by the relationship between ‘organisation’ and ‘conduct’, so that all society’s problems can be traced back to the unsound organisation caused by reliance on an animal diet.
Where A Vindication of Natural Diet considers the negative aspect of a meat diet and alcoholism, The Sensitive Plant proposes a counter-view in which ‘all killing insects and gnawing worms, And things of obscene and unlovely forms’ have a role which requires understanding rather than destruction, since what they do ‘although they did ill, was innocent’. In Laon and Cynthia the Festival of nations is a banquet without meat, and ‘Never again may blood of bird or beast / Stain with its venomous stream a human feast’. This is ‘The banquet of the free’ where the guests are described ‘reclining as they ate, of liberty, / And hope, and justice …’.