Percy Bysshe Shelley,
the Arabic language,
is on the long list of things I probably ought to be attending to, instead of the things I am attending to, like
a rasher of bacon,
my emails, etc.
So I was almost completely unfamiliar with Shelley’s work until my friend Melanie, wonderful singer and life-long vegetarian, with whom I’m working on a theatre piece about food, sent me a link to his brilliant, tub-thumping essay of 1813, A Vindication of Natural Diet. It was originally written as one of the notes to the epic poem Queen Mab, but it was eventually published independently as a pamphlet.
Queen Mab, despite its frisky title, is a tough read, all nine cantos of it. Shelley intended Queen Mab only for private publication, but it was pirated and published on the black market, becoming popular with working class political reformers, an inspiration for Chartism.It’s ostensibly a fairy tale, about the fairy Queen Mab (exquisitely described by Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet). But it’s really an opportunity for Shelley to imagine a stupendously unlikely utopia –now I come to think of it, it’s in the nature of utopias to be stupendously unlikely – in which humanity and nature are reconciled. This reconciliation includes the adoption of what was then called the Pythagorean System, or the Vegetable Regimen (the word ‘vegetarianism’ wasn’t invented until 1847):
‘And man, once fleeting o’er the transient scene
Swift as an unremembered vision, stands
Immortal upon earth: no longer now
He stays the lamb that looks him in the face,
And horribly devours his mangled flesh,
Which still avenging nature’s broken law,
Kindled all putrid humours in his frame,
All evil passions, and all vain belief,
Hatred, despair, and loathing in his mind,
The germs of misery, death, disease and crime.’
A Vindication of Natural Diet is essentially an expansion of this idea. In 1811, Shelley’s friend John Frank Newton published The Return to Nature: A Defence of the Vegetable Regimen. Shelley and his wife Harriet took up a ‘vegetable regimen’ in March 1812, and he started writing A Vindication of Natural Diet later that year. The first part of the essay is mostly a rehash of Newton’s arguments, starting with a pair of examples from mythology: the first iffy – Adam and Eve bring misery and mortality on themselves and their descendants by adopting an unnatural diet (but it was an apple!); the second more promising – Prometheus steals fire from heaven, and as a punishment his liver is continuously eaten by a vulture (ouch). He has enabled cooking, and cooking enables us to be carnivores, despite our anatomical unsuitability: ‘It is only by softening and disguising dead flesh by culinary preparation, that it is rendered susceptible of mastication or digestion; and that the sight of its bloody juices and raw horror does not excite intolerable loathing and disgust.’ And this unnatural diet has made him ‘a sickly, suffering creature.’
What comes next is pure Shelley. The argument extends to the moral and political realms: ‘There is no disease, bodily or mental, which adoption of vegetable diet…has not infallibly mitigated….Debility is gradually converted into strength, disease into healthfulness; madness in all its hideous variety, from the ravings of the fettered maniac, to the unaccountable irrationalities of ill temper, that make a hell of domestic life, into a calm and considerate evenness of temper, that alone might offer a certain pledge of future moral reformation of society. On a natural system of diet, old age would be our last and our only malady; the term of our existence would be protracted*; we should enjoy life, and no longer preclude others from the enjoyment of it….The monopolising eater of animal flesh would no longer destroy his constitution by devouring an acre at a meal…The quantity of nutritious vegetable matter, consumed in fattening the carcase of an ox would afford ten times the sustenance…if gathered directly from the bosom of the earth.’
What if we grew all our necessities? ‘We should require no spices from India; no wines from Portugal, Spain, France or Madeira; none of those multitudinous articles of luxury, for which every corner of the globe is rifled, and which are the causes of so much individual rivalship, such calamitous and sanguinary national disputes.’ No blood! No wars! ‘Let it ever be remembered, that it is the direct influence of commerce to make the interval between the richest and the poorest man wider and more unconquerable.’ (When did he write this? Yesterday?) But with this great reform, ‘commerce, with all its vice, selfishness and corruption, would gradually decline…and the excessive complication of political relations would be so far simplified, that every individual might feel and understand why he loved his country, and took a personal interest in its welfare.’
Yes, of course it’s over the top. The use of fire for culinary purposes has hardly been an unmitigated disaster (Saffron Risotto! Cheese Soufflé!); in fact there are many vegetables and grains that would be indigestible without cooking – potatoes, rice, lentils….. And it’s going to take rather more than vegetarianism to create a political utopia. On the other hand, in a world where commerce rules and states are routinely bullied by corporations, it’s definitely an argument worth making. Amazing that he was making it 200 years ago.
*The essay ends with a glorious appendix of long-lived vegetarians:
Old Parr 152
Mary Patten 136
A shepherd in Hungary 126
Patrick O’Neale 113…
James the Hermit 104…
As a cricket fanatic I can’t help reading this as an amazing batting achievement by a very strong side.