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The Ethics of Diet - A Catena
by Howard Williams M.A., 1883

Portrait of William Cowper attributed to George Romney.

William Cowper 1731-1800
(text from the 1st edition, 1883)

To the poets who claim to be the interpreters and priests of Nature, we might, with justness, look for celebration of the anti-materialist living. Unhappily we too generally look in vain. The prophet-poets - Hesiod, Kalidâsa, Milton, Thomson, Shelley, Lamartine - form a band more noble than numerous. Of those who, not having entered the very sanctuary of the temple of humanitarianism. have been content to officiate in its outer courts, Burns and Cowper occupy a prominent place. That the latter, who felt so keenly

. . . . ."The persecution and the pain
That man inflicts on all inferior kinds
Regardless of their plaints,

and who has denounced with so eloquent the pitiless wars "waged with defenceless innocence," and the protean shapes of human selfishness, should yet have stopped short of the final cause of them all, would be inexplicable but for the blinding influence of habit and authority. Nevertheless, his picture of the savagery of the Slaughter-House, and some of its associated cruelties, is too forcible to be omitted:

. . . . . . . ."To make him sport,
To justify the phrenzy of his wrath,
Or his base gluttony, are causes good
And just in his account, why bird and beast
Should suffer torture, and the streams be dyed
With blood of their inhabitants impaled.
Earth groans beneath the burden of a war
Waged with defenceless Innocence, while he,
Not satisfied to prey on all around,
Adds tenfold bitterness to death by pangs
Needless, and first torments ere he devours.

Now happiest they that occupy the scenes
The most remote from his abhorred resort,
* * * * * * *
. . . . . . . . Witness at his feet
The Spaniel dying for some venial fault,
Under dissection of the knotted scourge;
Witness the patient Ox, with stripes and yells
Driven to the slaughter, goaded as he runs,
To madness, while the savage at his heels
Laughs at the frantic sufferer’s fury spent
Upon the guiltless passenger o’erthrown.

He, too, is witness - noblest of the train
Who waits on Man, the flight-performing Horse:
With unsuspecting readiness he takes
His murderer on his back, and, pushed all day,
With bleeding sides and flanks that heave for life,
To the far-distant goal, arrives and dies!
So little mercy shows, who needs so much!
Does law - so jealous in the cause of man [?] -
Denounce no doom on the delinquent?  None." (1)



    1. The Task. When Cowper wrote this (in1782) the Law was entirely silent upon the rights of the lower animals to protection. It was not until nearly half a century later that the British Legislature passed the first Act (and it was a very partial one) which at all considered the rights of any non-human race. Yet Hogarth's Four Stages of Cruelty - to say nothing of literature - had been several years before the world. It was passed by the persistent energy and courage of one man - an Irish member - who braved the greatest amount of scorn and ridicule, both within and without the Legislature, before he succeeded in one of the most meritorious enterprises ever undertaken. martin's Act has been often amended or supplemented, and always with no little opposition and difficulty.
  • The Task (link to by William Cowper, first pub.1782; this edition London, 1817

Howard Williams, The Ethics of Diet - index