Percy Bysshe Shelley is famous for his romantic poetry, tumultuous personal relationships and his tragic death in a boat accident at the age of 29. He was also, as folklore scholar Michael Owen Jones writes, an influential supporter of vegetarianism.
In 1812, a year after being expelled from Oxford for advocating atheism, Shelley joined his new wife Harriet Westbrook in adopting a diet known as the “Pythagorean system” which included the elimination of meat.
Where did the couple get the idea to give up meat? Vegetarianism has, of course, been practiced in many places and eras around the world, and it was popular among a circle of ethics and health reformers in Britain in the 17th and 18th centuries. Shelley and his future second wife, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, often dined with one of these lawyers, John Frank Newton. Shelley quoted Newton in his 1813 essay A justification for the natural diet, in which he asserted that “animal flesh and fermented liquors” are “a slow but certain poison” and that those who avoid them “would not have to fear any disease other than old age”. Not only that, but they would “acquire ease of breathing” and “no longer languish in the lethargy of boredom.”
Much like many modern vegetarians and vegans, Shelley has linked a vegetable-based diet to not only health, but ecology and economic justice as well. He argued that if people ate the produce of the agricultural fields on their own rather than inefficiently using them to fatten up animals, they could stop “devouring an acre at a meal” and end “the long famine. starving children, hard-working peasants ”.
Even before she became a vegetarian, Shelley maintained an odd diet. As a student at Oxford he was known to eat pounds of bread both while walking around town and carrying loose raisins in his waistcoat pocket. When he and Harriet entertained guests, they sometimes only served buns. Shelley also didn’t like sitting down even for a short dinner and often forgot to eat. Jones suggests that his apparent indifference to the pleasures of eating made it easier to switch to a plant-based diet.
On the other hand, Shelley was apparently inconsistent in her vegetarianism. His friend Thomas Jefferson Hogg once described ordering bacon at an inn. He said Shelley responded with a horror that gradually turned to curiosity, and once the poet tried a little piece of meat, he quickly asked for more. Hogg attributed this error and others to Shelley’s impulsiveness.
“He could follow no other law than the golden law to instantly do whatever the inclination of the moment urged,” he recalled.
Other times, Shelley broke away from her vegetarianism for health reasons, or because it was impractical to keep her traveling. Nonetheless, the poet’s advocacy for vegetarianism influenced others, including playwright and critic George Bernard Shaw, who proposed renaming vegetarianism “Shelleyism”.
“I was a cannibal for 25 years,” Shaw said. “For the rest of my life I was a vegetarian. It was Shelley who first opened my eyes to the savagery of my diet.
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By: Michael Owen Jones
Journal of Folk Research, Vol. 53, n ° 2 (May / August 2016), pp. 1-30
Indiana University Press