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

James Thomson

JAMES THOMSON, 1700—1748
(text from the 2nd edition, 1896, scanned by )

IN the history of the slow evolution, in the long series of the ages, of the moral feeling of the civilised (Western) world—an evolution in the destined path of progress, in many respects uncertain, irregular, and but faintly perceptible—the distinguishing glory of the Eighteenth Century is the more definite recognition of the Humanitarian creed. It was revealed, indeed, but feebly in law and legislation—chiefly in the gradual abrogation of religious barbarities—or in the pronouncements of the accredited guides of the public conscience, and, in the circumstances of ordinary life in general; the last age is not much less obnoxious to the charge of heartlessness than, perhaps, the immediately preceding period of human history. Callous indifference to the suffering of others, as respects the extra-human races, in particular, abundantly appears in the common pastimes of the various grades of the population in this country, as well as in the hideous, wholly unchecked, atrocities connected with its dietary habits. It is to the independent thinkers (the true prophets of their time) that this pre-eminent honour of the last century—the (theoretical) recognition of the universality of the obligations of justice—is really owed.

To the author of the Seasons belongs the especial merit of having been the poet, among the moderns, in any very appreciable degree, to protest against the infinite variety of wrong inflicted upon the subject species, and, particularly, against the unnaturalness and inhumanity of the slaughter-house. Of Scottish birth Thomson, who arrived in London to seek his fortune in literature at the age of twenty-five, felt the annoyances of poverty, which usually have been the first experience of aspirants to literary, and, especially, to poetic fame—but they were of shorter duration than those of his contemporaries, Johnson and Goldsmith. Soon after his settlement in London Winter, the earliest of the series of the four poems, appeared (1726). It seemed to promise a reaction from the trifling sentimentalism which, for the most part, ruled, and still rules, in poetry, and the foundation of a new ethical school—of which Goldsmith, Cowper, and Crabbe are the chief, or, in fact, almost the sole luminaries. That the publisher offered three—now equivalent to about nine—guineas, reveals that the taste of the reading, or fashionable, world had not advanced much since the offer of five pounds for Paradise Lost. But that some improvement in taste was taking place may be inferred, perhaps, from the fact of its favourable reception, in spite of the obscurity of the author. Three editions came out in the same year. Summer, his next venture, appeared in the following year; the four Seasons in 1730, published by subscription.

A true enthusiasm—to employ a much-abused word—a moral inspiration of a high order, sympathy with all that is really amiable, indignation against oppression and injustice, most honourably distinguish this poem. Its defects are a tendency to the prosaic and, occasionally to the stilted style: and, on the whole, the author may be said to have possessed a larger share of the prophetic than of the strictly poetic inspiration.

The especially humanitarian passages of this truly charming poem are the admirable reflections following the description of the snow-storm (in Winter):—

Ah ! little think the gay, licentious, crowd,
Whom pleasure, power, and affluence surround;
They, who their thoughtless hours in selfish mirth.
And wanton, , often cruel, riot waste—
Ah ! little care they, while they dance along,
How many feel, this very moment, death
And all the sad variety of pain !" etc.;

the eloquent contrast of the vegetable and flesh diets (in Spring); the graphic pictures of the hunted deer and hare, and of amateur butchery, followed by the instructive scene of the drunken revels of the "sportsmen" (in Autumn); and the reprobation of the selfish custom of caging the winged songsters in (narrow) prisons. The allusion to the hunting and atrocious slaughter of the elephant, pursued and tortured by "cruel avarice," or forced to take part in hideous battle,—"astonished at the madness of mankind" (in Summer) exhibits, also, the poet's juster feeling. In eloquent description of innocent life, the loves of the birds, and the "symphony of Spring," with the episode of Lavinia—"thoughtless of beauty…Beauty's self"—have much true poetic feeling. The hymn to the Sun, in particular, is of a lofty inspiration.

The Castle of Indolence in the style and stanza of Spenser—the second principal poem of Thomson—has merits of a different kind from those of the Seasons, and admirers of the Faerie Queen appreciate the beautiful imitation. In his two tragedies, Sophonisba and Liberty, he was not so successful. The former is founded on the tragic history of the unfortunate Carthaginian princess as given by the Roman historian. In the number of his friends Thomson reckoned Johnson (in his younger days) and Pope, both of whom are said to have had some share in the frequent revisions of the Seasons.

It is in his Spring that the two opposite diets are so forcibly contrasted. Singing the glories of the annual resurrection of Nature, the poet first celebrates:—

"The living herbs, profusely wild,
O'er all the deep-green Earth, beyond the power
Of botanist to number up their tribes,
(Whether he steals along the lonely dale
In silent search, or through the forest, rank
With what the dull incurious weeds account,
Bursts his blind way, or climbs the mountain rock,
Fired by the nodding verdure of its brow).
With such a liberal hand has Nature flung
Their seeds abroad, blown them about in winds,
Innumerous mixed them with the nursing mould,
The moistening current, and prolific rain.
"But who their virtues can declare ? Who pierce,
With vision pure, into those secret stores
Of health and life and joy—the food of man,
While yet he lived in innocence, and told
A length of golden years, unfleshed in blood ?
A stranger to the savage arts of life—
Death, rapine, carnage, surfeit, and disease—
The lord, and not the tyrant, of the world."

And then proceeds to picture the feast of blood:—

"And yet the wholesome herb neglected dies,
Though with the pure exhilarating soul
Of nutriment and health, and vital powers
Beyond the search of Art, 'tis copious blessed.
For, with hot ravin fired, ensanguined Man
Is now become the lion of the plain
And worse. The Wolf, who from the nightly fold
Fierce drags the bleating prey, ne'er drank her milk,
Nor wore her warming fleece; nor has the steer,
At whose strong chest the deadly tiger hangs,
E'er ploughed for him. They, too, are tempered high,
With hunger stung and wild necessity,
Nor lodges pity in their shaggy breast.

"But Man, whom Nature formed of milder clay,
With every kind emotion in his heart, (1)
And taught alone to weep; while from her lap
She pours ten thousand delicacies—herbs
And fruits, as numerous as the drops of rain,
Or beams that gave them birth—shall he, fair form,
Who wears sweet smiles, and looks erect on heaven,
E'er stoop to mingle with the prowling herd
And dip his tongue in gore? The beast of prey,
Blood-stained deserves to bleed. But you, ye flocks,
What have you done ? You peaceful people, what
To merit death? You who have given us milk
In luscious streams, and lent us your own coat
Against the winter's cold? And the plain Ox,
That harmless, honest, guileless animal,
In what has he offended? He, whose toil,
Patient and ever ready, clothes the land
With all the pomp of harvest—shall he bleed,
And struggling groan beneath the cruel hands
E'en of the clowns he feeds, and that, perhaps,
To swell the riot of the autumnal feast
Won by his labour?"

The poet, with eloquent indignation denounces amateur butchering (by a pleasant euphemism popularly called "Sport"), perpetrated "amid the beaming of the gentle days":—

"When beasts of prey retire, that all night long,
Urged by necessity, had ranged the dark,
As if their conscious ravage shunned the light,
Ashamed. Not so the steady tyrant Man,
Who, with the thoughtless insolence of Power,
Inflamed beyond the most infuriate wrath
Of the worst monster that e'er roamed the waste,
For sport alone pursues the cruel chase,
Amid the beamings of the gentle days.
"Upbraid, ye ravening tribes, our wanton rage,
For hunger kindles you, and lawless want;
But lavish fed, in Nature's bounty rolled—
To joy at anguish, and delight in blood—
Is what your horrid bosoms never knew."

*   *   *   *  

"Poor is the triumph o'er the timid Hare I
Scared from the corn, and now to some lone seat
Retired. ……
Vain is her best precaution, though she sit
Concealed, with folded ears, unsleeping eyes,
By Nature raised to take the horizon in,
And head crouched close betwixt her downy feet,
In act to spring away. The scented dew
Betrays her early labyrinth; and deep,
In scattered sullen openings, far behind,
With every breeze she hears the coming storm.
But nearer, and more frequent, as it loads
The sighing gale, she springs amazed, and all
The savage soul of game is up at once !
The pack, full opening, various; the shrill horn,
Re-sounded from the hills; the neighing steed
Wild for the chase, and the loud hunter's shout
O'er a weak, harmless, flying creature, all
Mixed in mad tumult and discordant joy"

"The Stag, too, singled from the head, where long
He ranged the branching monarch of the glades
Before the tempest drives. At first, in speed He,
fondly, puts his faith; and, roused by fear,
Gives all his swift aerial soul to flight.
Against the breeze he darts, that way the more
To leave the lessening murderous cry behind—
Deception brief ! though fleeter than the wind
Blown o'er the keen-aired mountain by the north
He bursts the thickets, glances through the glades
And plunges deep into the wildest wood.
If slow, yet sure, adhesive to the track,
Hot-steaming, up behind him come again
The inhuman rout, and from the shady depth
Expel him, circling through his every shift.

"He sweeps the forest oft, and sobbing sees
The glades, mild opening to the golden day—
Oft in the full-descending flood he tries
To lose the scent, and lave his burning sides;
Oft seeks the Herd; the watchful Herd alarmed,
With selfish care avoid a brother's woe.
What shall he do ? His once so vivid nerves,
So full of buoyant spirit, now no more
Inspire the course; but fainting, breathless, toil.
Sick seizes on his heart. He stands at bay,
And puts his last weak refuge in despair—
The big round tears run down his piteous face,
He groans in anguish, while the growling pack,
Blood-happy, hang at his fair-jutting chest,
And mark his beauteous, chequered, sides with gore." (2)

We conclude these extracts from The Seasons with the verses which reflect upon the cruel avarice of Commerce, and the selfish callousness of Luxury, which barbarously sacrifice, by thousands, the noblest and most sagacious of terrestrial races (as they do, also, the harmless mammals of the ocean) for the sake of a wholly superfluous ornament. Nor does the poet omit to hold up to reprobation the insensate criminality which compels (or compelled) these magnificent victims of Yahoo pride to take part in human slaughter:—

Peaceful, beneath primeval trees, that cast
Their ample shade o'er Niger's yellow stream,
And where the Ganges rolls his sacred waves;
Or mid the central depth of blackening woods,
High raised in solemn theatre around,
Leans the huge Elephant, wisest of brutes !
O truly wise ! with gentle might endowed:
Though powerful, not destructive. Here he sees
Revolving ages sweep the changeful Earth,
And empires rise and fall: regardless he
Of what the never resting race of men
Project. Thrice happy ! could he 'scape their guile
Who mine, from cruel avarice, his steps:
Or with his towering grandeur swell their state—
The pride of kings!
or else his strength pervert,
And bid him rage amid the mortal fray,
Astonished at the madness of mankind." (3)


  1. Compare the similar thought, of the Latin poet, Metam. xv. As to the "milder clay," or the moilissima corda (of Juvenal Sat. xv.), facts, we are forced to interpose, are too strong against this poetic fiction. [Page 288] An epigram in the Greek Anthology expresses the higher morality in this regard:—"His Ox, employed in field-work, when worn out by the furrow and old age, Alkon did not drive to the slaughtering knife—through respect for his labours. But in a meadow of deep grass, he showed by lowing, his delight at his freedom from the plough." (Addæus of Macedon, quoted by W. E. A. Axon in the Dietetic Refamer). There is too great reason to fear that Alkon has had but few imitators in either the ancient or the modern world.

  2. Autumn. For detailed exposure of the cruel deeds of sanguinary "Sport" see Horros of Sport by Lady F. Dixie (the writer formerly well known for the kind of exploits which she now so forcibly denounces); the Royal Buckhounds by the Rev. J. Stratton; Rabbit-Coursing, by R.H. Jude—booklets published by the Humanitarian League. (Wm. Reeves, Fleet-st., London). In pictorial art, the most instructive painting, perhaps, is that of "Death in the Torrent," by Edwin Landseer.—See, also his picture of the wounded Mother Deer and Fawn at the brook.

  3. Summer. The incalculable amount of frightful atrocities perpetrated upon the "wisest" of the extra-human races (by "cruel avarice" and the vain ostentation of human pride) in the African wilds to obtain the ivory tusk, is one of the many iniquities for which Christian civilisation mainly is responsible. According to recent statistics one single mercantile house in London, annually, imports many hundred tons of ivory ! The almost equally scandalous barbarities connected with the Seal—"fishery" (as it is still absurdly termed)—such as skinning alive, leaving the young to the tortures of starvation at every particular massacre—are as notorious as they are unheeded. Nor are the usual incidents of the Whale-"fishery" much less atrocious.
  • The Seasons (link to by James Thomson, first published 1726-30, this edition London, 1824.

Howard Williams, The Ethics of Diet - index