Shelley, Wish You Were Here

percy_bysshe_shelley_by_alfred_clint

Vegetarian or vegan statements in literature are rare, just as they are rare in everyday life (which does not include Facebook where like-minded people seek each other out). Reading literature frequently serves up one dead animal after the other, akin to the quotidian reality of driving down the road and passing the meat truck and turning on the radio to hear that politicians are cramming down dead pigs in Iowa. Case in point is All Quiet on The Western Front, where hardly a page goes by without canned meat, a dead fowl, some occasion to find and kill an animal as if vegetables and grains do not exist. Maybe there is a thematic link between the ubiquity of animal slaughter and the horrors of WWI, as the novel depicts to the veganistically aware reader the notion that one insensate carnage deserves the other.

How thrilling then to meet the anti-speciesist philosophy of Percy Bysshe Shelley inhabiting the lines of his lofty poetry. Over two hundred years before Peter Singer helped us out by clarifying speciesism, Shelley had the concept down pat: he saw all animals (humans included in that category) as kindred and abhorred the cruelty of raising animals for slaughter whether in the name of religion, sport, or food. He gave up meat, as did Mary Shelley, his second wife. Mary Shelley, by the way, created one of the most famous characters in literature, the creature in Frankenstein, who is a vegetarian; existing in a natural and childlike state, he is innately good and therefore does not eat animals. He only turns to vengeful acts after suffering cruelty and isolation.

In Shelley’s philosophical poem “Queen Mab,” a fairy leads a spirit on a tour of humanity — past, present, and future. (I wonder if Dickens got the idea of his various ghosts taking Scrooge on tours from this poem.) The future constitutes his utopia of which one feature is that animals are no longer subjected to the cruelty of Man.

“. . .no longer now
He slays 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.”

Also, in “Alastor,” the narrator/poet avows that he has not injured any “bright bird, insect, or gentle beast . . .but still loved and cherished these my kindred.”

Aside from the feeling of serendipity that discovering such lines brings, can any importance attach to the fact that one or two random literary geniuses from the past share in my beliefs? Shelly’s veganism has importance to some degree as inspiration for others, those English majors who take a course in Romantic poetry and pay attention to what Shelley says. For me personally, Shelley’s magnanimity of spirit endears him to me, attracting me even more to his work. However, just as I have to associate with nonvegans in daily life, I still must and will read non vegan writers and will still revere my household gods, Emily Bronte and John Keats, who were not vegan. (By the way, I do believe that Emily Bronte would have been if circumstances had been different.)

Beyond serving as possible inspiration to the select few and a kindred link to my world, his conviction against cruelty to nonhuman animals illustrates what I, as a Stoic, value most among Stoic ideals: self-sufficient thinking and the application of reason. How odd he was at the time, not eating meat (and not believing in god, an avowed atheist). He knew of Pythagoras as a vegetarian forerunner, but his decision to quit meat made him a renegade and activist facing a culture notable for an extremely callous attitude toward nonhuman animals, fueled by a religion that insisted that Man, of all the species, was the only to have the all-important soul. He arrived at his principles through the exercise of his own reason and he had no qualms about living in accordance with his principles.  Although I might value my own independent judgment and don’t need Shelley’s example to endorse what I know is right, I suppose there is nothing wrong in harboring a hero or two and feeling slightly smug that I am in good company.

 

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