Percy Shelley Presentation February 2018

Paul Spampanato

The Impure Body and Shelley’s Anger:

Percy Shelley’s Vegetarian Diet and how it affected “Mask of Anarchy”

Flesh and blood are part of what makes up human beings along with the animals they consume.  Percy Bysshe Shelley believed that the consumption of animal flesh made the human body and mind impure: “I hold that the depravity of the physical and moral nature of man originated in his unnatural habits of life.”  Shelley links the impurities of the human diet to tyranny in his essay A Vindication of Natural Diet written six years before the Peterloo Massacre that would inspire one of Shelley’s most famous poems, “The Mask of Anarchy.”  The politics that Shelley presents in “The Mask of Anarchy” are largely influenced by his philosophies of vegetarianism that teach nonviolence and purity.  Shelley’s animal rights ideals are not just philosophical, but also physical as he clearly points out in Vindication that the poor populace is being starved while farmers are using precious fruits, grains, and vegetables to feed these animals being prepared for slaughter.  Sins like these led to the French Revolution and the riot in Manchester that sparked the poem.  The anger and philosophies of being a vegetarian influenced the way Shelley approached “The Mask of Anarchy” as the poem carries the weight of his nonviolence philosophy born through his diet.

Veganism, Vegetarianism, Pythagorean diet, these are the labels of the radicals who refuse to take part in the consumption of animal flesh.  Percy Shelly was one of these radicals during his short life, and the philosophies born through his diet, influenced his penchant for Science, Poetry and Thought.  A Vindication of Natural Diet is Shelley’s landmark essay that not only defines, but defends his nonviolence philosophies.  Vindication was written as supplemental material for Queen Mab, but the ideas presented in this essay reach far beyond that single work of Shelley’s.  The essay begins with a scathing remark: “The language spoken however by the mythology of nearly all religions seems to prove, that at some distant period man forsook the path of nature, and sacrificed the purity and happiness of his being to unnatural appetites;” and ends with Shelley screaming at his readers in all capital letters: “NEVER TAKE ANY SUBSTANCE INTO THE STOMACH THAT ONCE HAD LIFE.”

People who choose to forsake the eating of animal products cannot separate their food philosophies from the rest of their thoughts.  This is blatantly evident in Shelley’s essay and in his poetry.  As shown in the above quote, Shelley believed that the consumption of flesh makes a person impure and destroys their “healthful innocence.”  Shelley wrote that “Tyranny, superstition, commerce, and inequality, were then first known, when reason vainly attempted to guide the wanderings of exacerbated passion.”  Tyranny, superstition, commerce, and inequality are all causes for the destruction of innocence and these aspects are all focused upon in “The Mask of Anarchy.” In this presentation, I will focus on tyranny, but my larger work examines all four aspects in greater detail.

Shelley did not simply spout out opinions in A Vindication of Natural Diet, he used science to make his points more digestible to those who had queasy stomachs for vegetarian ideals.  Shelley makes uses of biology, anatomy, zoology, and nutrition sciences in his essay to prove the health benefits and emphasize the comparisons to herbivorous animals closely related to humans: “Comparative anatomy teaches us that man resembles frugivorous animals in every thing, and carnivorous in nothing; he has neither claws wherewith to seize his prey, nor distinct and pointed teeth to tear the living fibre.”  Thus Shelley remains true to his strong belief in Science as one author also points out in their article on Shelley’s diet: “Since Shelley’s interest in science is well-known and respected, it is worth noting too that his essays on diet are the only texts he produced which self-consciously enter a debate which would have been recognized as belonging to the science of his day.”[1]

Vindication eventually moves on from the Science of a plant based diet to the morality of the diet, which is where Shelley’s importance on Thought comes to fruition.  Shelley believed that the adoption of a vegetable diet would produce “changes undeniably beneficial” to not only themselves but society, as he later states: “The advantage of a reform in diet, is obviously greater than that of any other. It strikes at the root of the evil.”  But what is the evil that comes from a diet of animal flesh?  The answer: Tyranny, superstition, commerce, and inequality.

One of Shelley’s main arguments in A Vindication of Natural Diet is also a rallying cry for 21st century vegans and vegetarians.  Shelley spends ample space describing the cost of sustaining animal agriculture, which was relevant to both the French Revolution and the Peterloo Massacre.  Shelley states that:

The quantity of nutritious vegetable matter, consumed in fattening the carcass of an ox, would afford ten times the sustenance, undepraving indeed, and incapable of generating disease, if gathered immediately from the bosom of the earth. The most fertile districts of the habitable globe are now actually cultivated by men for animals, at a delay and waste of aliment absolutely incapable of calculation.

In summary, Shelley is stating that mankind is wasting valuable food resources on animals being fattened up for slaughter.  Shelley notes that when eating an animal, a person is “devouring an acre at a meal” and “appeasing the long-protracted famine of the hard working peasant’s hungry babes.”

One of the major drivers of the French Revolution was famine, particularly involving bread.  This famine led to the Women’s March on Versailles, which in-turn became violent and was a sign of things to come in the later and unfortunate stages of the French Revolution.  Fast-forward to Manchester in 1819 when a large crowd of people gathered in St. Peter’s Field to peacefully protest Parliament on the issues of voting, taxes, and food shortages.  People in the crowd were holding banners about voting rights and “No Corn Laws” which was a representation of the food shortage and famine in England at that time.  This crowd was met by violence from the guards and became known as the Peterloo Massacre.   A Vindication of Natural Diet was written six years before this event.  According to Shelley, if the people of the world adopted a vegetable diet, there would be plenty of food to feed the masses.

With these vegetarian ideals in mind, Vindication adds a new layer of thought to the already expansive analyses out there on the poem “The Mask of Anarchy.”  Looking at “The Mask of Anarchy” through the lens of a vegan/vegetarian, certain stanzas start to coincide with the ideals of Shelley’s diet.  Shelley makes a point to list tyranny, superstition, commerce and inequality as detrimental side-effects to an “unnatural diet” based on the consumption of flesh.  “The Mask of Anarchy” also attacks these four aspects.

Tyranny is the main driver of “The Mask of Anarchy” and the first-time Shelley uses the literal word in the poem is with farming imagery:

Tis to work and have such pay

As just keeps life from day to day

In your limbs, as in a cell

For the tyrants’ use to dwell,


‘So that ye for them are made

Loom, and plough, and sword, and spade,

With or without your own will bent

To their defence and nourishment.

The tyrants of “The Mask of Anarchy” are treating the populace like farmed animals.  They are taking from them every ounce of strength they possess to nourish their bodies and regimes.  This stanza is a clever combination of Shelley’s vegetarian ideals and socio-politico ideals.  Shelley tells the masses that they are being exploited by the rich tyrants to keep them fed, protected and clothed.  When Shelley writes “In your limbs, as in a cell / For the tyrants’ use to dwell, / ‘So that ye for them are made” he is calling upon the ideals of the tyrants to exploit the weak.  Plutarch, who was one of Shelley’s major inspirations for his vegetarianism, points out in On the Eating of Flesh that mankind does not eat lions or wolves, but instead we “catch the harmless and tame sort, and such as have neither stings nor teeth to bite with, and slay them.” This idea plays into Shelley’s lines about tyranny.  The Tyrants are not putting fellow rich men into cells, and forcing them to plant and weave.  The rich are attacking the poor, because they are easier to imprison by depriving them of valuable food.

Many critics will look at these lines and see the human toil being pushed to the brink of death by the tyrant, as Susan Wolfson points out in her essay: “The proto-Marxist sting of ‘ye for them’ is its very syntax: tools are not made ‘for’ the laborers; the laborers themselves ‘are made’ into tools ‘for the tyrants’ use.'”[2]  This analysis is not wrong, but it also disregards Shelley’s strong animal rights mentality.

The holistic view of these lines would point out that Shelley’s use of farm imagery of the plough and spade is a subtle reference to the depravity of the food system that is the source of tyranny’s corruption.  Readers must remember that this is the same author who also stated that:

Man, and the animals whom he has infected with his society, or depraved by his dominion, are alone diseased…the domestic hog, the sheep, the cow, and the dog, are subject to an incredible variety of distempers; and, like the corrupters of their nature, have physicians who thrive upon their miseries.

The tyranny spoken of in “The Mask of Anarchy” is bred from the depravity and disease that is the result of consuming flesh.  So, while the horse pulls the plow and the farmer digs the holes, they are cultivating a depraved food system that feeds the tyrants and aides in the infection of society.

These are the evils that come from a diet of flesh.  A diet that can only be sustained through violence against the innocent.  First, it is the violence against the innocent animals, for which a person devours an acre per meal.  Next it is the violence against the people by both creating a society of depravity and a regime that chooses to waste precious food on slaughtered animals.

This tyranny which breeds superstition, commerce, and inequality begins with the cruelty shown towards both human and non-human animals.  The tyrants abuse their subjects and deprive them of nutrients to keep them weak, which was a main driver of the Manchester riot.  The closest stanza in “The Mask of Anarchy” that shows how tyranny abuses the food system is in stanza 43:

” ‘Tis to hunger for such a diet

As the rich man in his riot

Casts to the fat dogs that lie

Surfeiting beneath his eye

The rich are feeding animals much better than the masses.  The “fat dogs” in the rich man’s home are not only well fed they’re sources of food are surfeit. The starving masses cannot even feed their families with bread, while farm animals and rich men’s dogs are being fattened on the food of the land.  How can the populous combat such a ubiquitous tyranny?  Shelley (inspired by his vegetarianism) believes the populous can overcome this oppression through nonviolence.

The final, and perhaps most convincing, aspect of Shelley’s vegetarian ideals that is present in “The Mask of Anarchy” is the ideal of nonviolence.  Shelley preaches “Spirit, Patience, and Gentleness” on line 254 and explains what he means by these ideals on lines 340-351:

“And if then the tyrants dare

Let them ride among you there,

Slash, and stab, and maim, and hew,—

What they like, that let them do.


“With folded arms and steady eyes,

And little fear, and less surprise

Look upon them as they slay

Till their rage has died away.


“Then they will return with shame,

To the place from which they came

And the blood thus shed will speak

In hot blushes on their cheek.

These are radical opinions indeed; but they are in-line with Shelley’s nonviolent resolutions.  Shelley is trying to convince the populace to rally against what one author describes as “state-sanctioned ‘slaughter.'”[3] This author’s choice of words is very apropos to Shelley’s mentality as he later explains that through “Shelley’s highly original articulation, such expression amounts to a necessary declaration of freedom from the slavery of violence – discursive, systemic, and physical.”  Shelley vehemently opposed the slaughter of non-human animals and he certainly opposed the slaughter of humans.

In Shelley’s mind, the best way to combat violence was with nonviolence.  The only problem with “The Mask of Anarchy” is that Shelley does not offer a suggestion on how to stay nonviolent in the face of so much violence and oppression.  This is where the ideals present in Vindication come into play in perhaps the most important comparison between the two texts.  Shelley explains in Vindication that the best, and perhaps only, way to become a truly peaceful and nonviolent society is through a vegetable diet:

It is no mere reform of legislation, whilst the furious passions and evil propensities of the human heart, in which it had its origin, are still unassuaged… In no cases has a return to vegetable diet produced the slightest injury; in most it has been attended with changes undeniably beneficial. Should ever a physician be born with the genius of Locke, I am persuaded that he might trace all bodily and mental derangements to our unnatural habits,

The road to nonviolence lies through our diet.  Shelley firmly believes that changing legislation is not good enough to change society’s violent origins.  It is through an adoption of a vegetarian diet that mental and bodily derangements can be cured.  If society stops feeding off of a system of violence that shows up on their plate, both their bodies and their minds will become pure.  This will allow them to be nonviolent in their daily lives and attain the fortitude to overthrow their violent oppressors “With folded arms and steady eyes.”

Percy Shelley firmly believed that Science, Poetry, and Thought was what mankind needed to reach a better society.  In A Vindication of Natural Diet Shelley uses both Science and Thought very convincingly to prove that a vegetable diet was the best option to purify the body and mind.  “The Mask of Anarchy” was the Poetry that was inspired by a massacre to show mankind that nonviolence in all forms of society, both to humans and non-humans was the only way we could overthrow our tyrants.  Thus, “The Mask of Anarchy” carried the weight of Shelley’s nonviolent philosophy born through his diet.

[1] Oerlemans, O. “Shelley’s ideal body: Vegetarianism and Nature.” Studies in Romanticism. 34.4 (Winter 1995) 531-552. JSTOR. 08 Oct. 2017. Quote pg. 543

[2] Wolfson, Susan J. “Poetic form and Political Reform: The Mask of Anarchy and ‘England in 1819’.” Shelley’s Poetry and Prose. Ed. Donald H. Reiman, Neil Fraistat. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2002 722-735. Print. Quote pg. 728

[3] Borushko, Matthew C. “Violence and Nonviolence in Shelley’s Mask of Anarchy.” Keats-Shelley Journal, vol. 59, 2010, pp. 96–113. Quotes pg 113