PERCY BYSHHE SHELLEY, whose centenary we are now celebrating, was above all things the poet and apostle of Nature—that is, he advocated a reliance on simple natural instincts, rather than on the artificial enactments of tradition and authority. “The whole of human science,” he wrote in this Vindication of Natural Diet, “is comprised in one question—how can the advantages of intellect and civilization be reconciled with the liberty and pure pleasures of natural life? How can we take the benefits, and reject the evils, of the system which is now interwoven with all the fibres of our beings?”
Shelley’s answer to the question may be summed up in a word, simplicity. His natural instincts were strong in the direction of the simple and the frugal; “genius joined to simplicity” was Byron’s epitome of his character. Every reader of his life is aware how this tendency showed itself in his appearance, his dress, his diet, his conduct, his distinctive manner of action and thought; he detested with his whole soul the exceeding discomfort of those so-called “comforts” of civilisation, which first impose a grievous burden on the drudges who produce them, and then turn out to be a curse, instead of a blessing, to those for whom they are produced. Here, in the appeal from a depraved habit to a natural liking, is the true return to nature. “Pregnant indeed with inexhaustible calamity,” says Shelley, “is the renunciation of instinct.” And again, in Epipsychidion,
“Our simple life wants little, and true taste
Hires not the pale drudge Luxury of waste
The scene it would adorn, and therefore still,
Nature, with all her children, haunts the hill.”
The connection between simplicity and freedom, between naturalness and equality, is a most vital and significant one, and no better exemplification of this union can be found than in the genius of Shelley. “All men,” he says, “are called to participate in the community of Nature’s gifts. The man who has fewest bodily wants approaches nearest to the Divine Nature. Satisfy these wants at the cheapest rate, and expend the remaining energies of your nature in the attainment of virtue and knowledge.... In proportion as mankind become wise—yes, in exact proportion to that wisdom—shall be the extinction of the unequal system under which they now subsist.”
Liberty is in fact the final goal and outcome of simplicity; and such liberty—natural, equal, universal – is the very inspiration and keynote of Shelley’s song. His ideal is the communist ideal of a society where free, spontaneous beneficence shall take the place of authority and government, where the reign of law shall be succeeded by the reign of love, where the simple, kindly instincts of the human heart shall be holier than any stereotyped code of religion or ethics. Such is the final triumph of the suffering Prometheus:
“The loathsome mask has fallen, the man remains
Sceptreless, free, uncircumscribed, but man
Equal, unclassed, tribeless, and nationless,
Exempt from awe, worship, degree; the king
Over himself; just, gently, wise.”
Such is Shelley’s “Return to Nature”—a creed which contrasts in the strongest manner with the “Culture” (let us say) of Matthew Arnold. But it would be unjust to Shelley to let it be assumed that he was an opponent of culture, in the larger and trurer sense of the term; for “culture,” like “nature,” is by no means easy of definition, and those who accept it as their watchword have still to determine what it is they would cultivate. There is a surface culture, much in vogue in our universities and academic society, and versatility, and refinement, and savoir faire, which are supposed to be the distinctive characteristics of the “educated classes.” There is also a deeper culture, by no means so highly esteemed in those privileged circles, a culture, if I may so express it, of the heart; and it would be difficult to find a more suggestive comment on the anomalous state of our civilization than in the fact that it is the former, not the latter, kind of culture which is honoured with the title of “Humane Letters.” A “Professor of Humanity” is—a teacher of Latin grammar! If this be the bathos to which our culture is leading us, it were surely well to try the “return to nature,” or whatever solid foothold may yet save us from the pit. There is (we may well believe) no ultimate antagonism between Nature and learning; but we must be sure that we are cultivating the true natural instincts, the living germs of thought, and not the mere husks and superficialities and refinements of some cut-and-dried intellectual formula.
It was this great truth that Shelley so forcibly exemplified in his life and writings; it is to this, scarcely less than to his supreme lyrical genius, that his immortality will be due.
The Hygienic Review, No. 19, July 1, 1892