Edward Carpenter

Edward Carpenter

IT has long been a matter of surprise to me that Edward Carpenter’s books are not better known to Vegetarians; one would have thought they would be familiar to food-reformers, as to other social reformers, throughout the country. I suppose the reason is that Carpenter, though himself a Vegetarian, and the author of a system in which diet reform holds an essential part, has not directly preached the vegetarian gospel; though surely this is but a poor excuse for an indifference to writings which are not mere pamphleteering, but true literature. It is remarkable that in Mr. Forward’s excellent handbook, “The Case against Butcher’s Meat,” in which a list is given of the most notable “intellectual workers” who may be counted Vegetarians, there is no mention of Edward Carpenter—no reference to the author of “Towards Democracy” and “England’s Ideal,” works which are the most powerful expression in recent English literature of the spirit of natural living.

But, it may be asked, in what sense have Carpenter’s writings a clear interest for Vegetarians? The answer to this question depends on the view we take of the relation of Vegetarianism to other social movements. There are many advocates of food-reform who appear to regard their system as a “panacea” for human ills, a remedy which includes and underlies all other remedies whatsoever; there are others, fewer perhaps, who class it rather as one among many necessary changes, not in itself a panacea, but what is in reality more important, because more intelligible, an indispensable part and condition of any genuine national improvement. To those food reformers who take the second and, as I think, the more rational view of the vegetarian position, such writings as Carpenter’s will appeal not less strongly, but more so, because they convey a doctrine of simplification of life which covers a far wider field than Vegetarianism itself, but at the same time implies Vegetarianism as the only possible solution of the great question of diet. In this sense and not only because of his personal practice, it is fair to speak of Carpenter as a vegetarian writer.

I cannot attempt, in this brief article, to pass in review the wide scope of Carpenter’s idealism, a humane philosophy mystic on the one side, keenly practical on the other and thus akin to both the Oriental tradition and the most progressive modern thought. Humanity, as I have elsewhere written, may be taken as the watch-word of his doctrines. Adopting Lamarck’s theory of evolution, he regards man as no chance product, but the crown and consummation of all sentient existence, the sole clue to the unravelling of the secret of life. “It is then finally in man,” he says, “in our own deepest and most vital experience, that we have to look for the key and explanation of the changes that we see going on around us in external nature as we call it; and our understanding of the latter, and of History, must ever depend from point to point on the exfoliation of new facts in the individual consciousness. Round the ultimate disclosure of the ideal man, all creation ranges itself, as it were like some vast flower, in concentric circles, rank beyond rank; first all social life and history, then the animal kingdom, then the vegetable and mineral world.” He views everything from this human standpoint, recognizing and revering humanity not in man only, but also, as Thoreau did, in the so-called lower animals and in the nature which is sometimes called inanimate. Love is the one ultimate law, equality the one ultimate condition.

Turning now to the doctrine of Simplicity, we find that Carpenter’s philosophy, on its ethical and practical side, has a very important bearing on Vegetarianism. In the essay on “Simplification of Life,” though this was written eleven years back, when its author’s views on food reform were perhaps less advanced than they have since become, he thus refers to the diet question. “The causes of the craving for a meat diet seem to be similar to those of the craving for other stimulants. For though flesh is not generally considered a stimulant, a little attention will show that its action is of like nature, and this action, though innocuous in its smaller degrees, becomes seriously harmful when flesh is made a staple article of diet. . . . The question of meat involves, of course, the additional question of our moral or sentimental relation to the animals. . . On the whole, and for habitual use, I do not know what can be pleasanter or more nourishing than the cereals, milk, eggs, cheese, butter, and any fruit or vegetables that come handy; and they seem to me to stand by one for hard work and endurance better than flesh.”

Again, with reference to the immense labour expended in most households on “the orthodox dinner,” and the great sacrifice thereby of woman’s time, there is a charming passage in Carpenter’s essay, which I think Vegetarians, scarcely less than flesh-eaters, might study with advantage; for Vegetarians have yet to learn, in many cases, that the advent of Vegetarianism means eventually not merely the discontinuance of flesh foods, all other customs and conditions remaining unchanged, but the gradual introduction of simpler and saner habits in all the uses of life, the appointments of “the table” not excepted. “Would it not be better,” asks Carpenter, “to have just one dish, combining in itself all needful qualities of nutrition and tastiness, with perhaps a few satellite platters around for any adjuncts or off-sets that might seem appropriate? This central dish (the only one requiring immediate cookery), say some golden-orbed substantial omelet, or vast vegetable pie, or savoury and nutritious soup, or solid expanse of macaroni and cheese, or steaming mountain of rice surrounded by stewed fruit, or even plain bowl of fermenty, would represent the sun or central fire of our system, while round it in planetary order would circle such other useful and inexpensive viands as would give the housewife a minimum of trouble to provide—chunks of bread and cheese, figs, raisins, oatmeal cakes, fresh fruit, or what not. Here would no second relay of plates be necessary. . . . washing up would become a work of a few minutes, and the woman’s work before and after dinner be reduced to a trifle compared with what it is now. For it must be remembered that with this whole matter hangs the question of women’s work. Woman is a slave, and must remain so, as long as ever our present domestic system is maintained.”

But, it may be said, the highest aspect of Vegetarianism is, after all, that which is only briefly alluded to in the above-quoted passages, our “sentimental relation” to the animals. True; and for my part, I do not know any lines in English literature which state the basis of that relation more beautifully than the following. I think I do not undervalue the usefulness, the necessity, of direct propagandist appeals for the humaner treatment of animals; but here we have something far profounder, far more cogent than such reasonings—an utterance, at first hand, of the very founts of human feeling— a statement of the universal kinship which, once recognized, would make all cruelty impossible.

“I saw deep in the eyes of the animals the human soul look out upon me.
“I saw where it was born deep down under feathers or fur, or condemned for awhile to roam four-footed among the brambles. I caught the clinging, mute glance of the prisoner, and swore that I would be faithful.
“Thee, my brother and sister, I see and mistake not. Do not be afraid. Dwelling thus for a while, fulfilling thy appointed time—thou too shaIt come to thyself at last.
“Thy half-warm horns and long tongue lapping round my wrist do not conceal thy humanity any more than the learned talk of the pedant conceals his—for all thou art dumb we have words and plenty between us.
“Come nigh, little bird, with your half-stretched quivering wings—within you I behold choirs of angels, and the Lord himself in vista.”

“Towards Democracy,” the poem from which these lines are quoted (for a poem it is, though not written in metre), is the most original, characteristic, and personal of Carpenter’s works. It is “the song of the soul’s slow disentanglement” from the binding cares of life, a poignant expression of that spiritual freedom which in the East has long been sought by introspective meditation and withdrawal from social ties, but in the West must find its attainment along more sympathetic and democratic lines. It is a book which, though remaining unknown to the general public, and even to what are called (by courtesy) the literary classes, has had a profound influence on a not inconsiderable number of thoughtful readers, to whom it has proved nothing less than a religious and spiritual inspiration; and probably when the intellectual history of the present time comes to be fully written, as it never can be by contemporary students, it will be seen that Carpenter’s “Towards Democracy,” like Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass,” has been among the most remarkable products of the age. That, as a song of freedom, it strikes a note more instinctive, more natural, and more moving than any sounded in English poetry since the death of Shelley, I will confidently assert. It is encouraging to know that there is sufficient appreciation of great poetry to have enabled this book, without advertisement or log-rolling, to pass through several editions in the course of thirteen years. The one now issued by the Labour Press contains a number of more recent poems which have been added to the original “Towards Democracy” of 1883.

Simultaneously the same firm is issuing, under the title of “Love’s Coming-of-Age,” a small volume of Carpenter’s essays on the sex question, three of which have already appeared as pamphlets. Now we have had, as every one knows, a great deal of writing on the “sex problem,” both by novelists and essayists, during the past few years; and the pity of it has been that, whereas it is a subject which pre-eminently demands for its satisfactory treatment great candour combined with great delicacy of expression, this combination has been notably lacking in some who have attempted the task. Much candour, of a kind, has certainly been exhibited; but the delicacy—well, perhaps it is best to say nothing of that! It is the singular merit and strength of Carpenter’s sex essays that he has succeeded, as only a poet, a man of elemental simplicity and genuineness can succeed, in writing at once with perfect delicacy and perfect freedom, so that in his handling of a very difficult problem the reader is not repelled by an out-spokenness which would not otherwise be tolerable. “Love’s Coming-of-Age” should be read by all thoughtful persons—by all who have themselves sufficiently come of age to give dispassionate attention to a subject which can no longer be hidden by the old cloak of decorous and conventional silence. To those, however, who have not yet made acquaintance with any of Carpenter’s writings, and wish to study him at his best, I would say begin with the two volumes on social questions, “England’s Ideal” (1887), and “Civilization, its Cause and Cure” (1889), which contain all but the more abstruse portion of his philosophy. In these essays we have the latest, fullest, and most powerful exposition of that “Return of Nature” which Rousseau, Shelley, Thoreau, Tolstoi, and other humane thinkers have severally advocated—a strongly reasoned, lucidly written theory of humane science, with which no social reformer, least of all humanitarian (so often brought into conflict with the cruel and arrogant claims of the “scientists”) can afford to dispense.

Edward Carpenter’s writings, as I have elsewhere remarked, are not only those of a thinker and scholar; they are also those of one who has faced life in its rougher, simpler aspects, who by sharing the labours of country folk and mechanics has gained much invaluable experience which is beyond the reach of the ordinary student and littérateur. This experience it is that has given him a real distinction of style; his ideas and sentences have a vital freshness, an absolute sincerity, invigorating as that of nature itself. To open one of his books, in this stifling age of conventionalities and customs, is to turn from the oppressive heartlessness of some fashionable assemblage to a free casement which looks out on wholesome fields, and pure air, and scenes of honest homely labour and equal human companionship.

Henry S. Salt

Vegetarian Review, April 1896