One Who Understood.

From: The Creed of Kinship (1935)
Author: Henry S. Salt
Published: Constable & Co Ltd 1935 London


Summer Was dead and Autumn was expiring,
And infant Winter laughed upon the land
All cloudlessly and cold, when I, desiring
More in this world than any understand
.” . . .

  It is my belief that the philosophers and poets who have made Kinship their theme are far more worthy of our gratitude than any of the religionists or scientists to whom such respect is shown; for it is mainly by them that the Understanding of which I have spoken has been brought, however partially, to our knowledge. (To Schopenhauer, for instance, the thanks of all humane persons are due.) It is, of course, impossible for a mortal to outstrip his own age, and fully to anticipate the temper and conditions of a future time; but as there are sometimes prophets of a coming era, so are there pioneers, and it has occurred to me that the meaning I wish to convey would be best illustrated by a personal example of one who himself held and practiced this creed of kinship of which I speak.

  It is of a poet I prefer to speak, because I regard poetry as the highest expression of feeling, and it seems simpler and more effective to take one writer than several as an example of how the thought of a later age may be largely anticipated in our own. I have chosen Shelley, because to me he has been pre-eminently a guide and companion, whose life and character have meant more than those of any other mortal of whom I have read.

  One unmistakable tribute to Shelley’s wisdom I find in the fact that his writings have incurred the wrath of so many bigots, and prigs, and opponents, in some form or other, of the humane faith which he championed. His position in the very front rank of English poets has long been assured; yet such is the hatred aroused by the greatness of his example that the Vatican organ, the Osservatore Romano, actually felt impelled in recent years to protest against the continued interest in him. “Poetry would have lost little,” it thought, “and we should have been spared much scandal, if such a man had never been born.”1

  It was Shelley, our chief lyrical singer, writer of poetry unmatched by any but that of one or two other supreme artists, who beyond comparison was the poet-pioneer of our humanitarian creed. There are poets who are justly praised for their melody, mere melody perhaps like that of Swinburne, others for the message that they bring us, as in the verses of Browning, but the number of those who earn the double praise, who convey a great truth in a great song, is small indeed, and it is among those few that Shelley stands.

  Nor is it of poets only that I speak; for who else, among our poetical thinkers, understood, as he did, the great truth? Richard Jefferies, for instance, in The Story of my Heart, wrote many beautiful things; but looking back now to this book, published in the eighties, one must feel that it shows only a partial apprehension of the essential facts. Shelley saw them much clearer.

  And for religious feeling! Remarking that the greatest lack of it is to be seen not among freethinkers but the professedly devout, Leigh Hunt thus wrote of Shelley: “He assented warmly to an opinion which I expressed in the cathedral at Pisa, while the organ was playing, that a truly divine religion might yet be established if charity were made the principle of it.” In like manner Trelawny said of him: “There was the very best of men, and he was treated as the very worst.”

  Shelley’s belief in two conflicting Powers, the good and the evil, is deserving of much more attention than it has received. It is in his Prometheus Unbound that we find the prophet as well as the singer; for Prometheus stands as the champion of suffering Humanity, whose liberation is the theme of the poem. Witness the concluding stanza, in which the religion of a future age is surely and beautifully set forth:

“To suffer woes which Hope thinks infinite;
To forgive wrongs darker than death or night;
To defy Power, which seems omnipotent;
To love and bear; to hope, till Hope creates
From its own wreck the thing it contemplates;
Neither to change, nor falter, nor repent—
This, like thy glory, Titan, is to be
Good, great, and joyous, beautiful and free;
This is alone Life, Joy, Empire, and Victory.”

  It will be noted that the “victory” which is the final word of Shelley’s great poem, is a peaceful and bloodless one; there is indeed no truth on which he more frequently and strongly insists than the wickedness of vengeance. “I have avoided,” he says, in preface to Laon and Cythna, “all flattery to those violent and malignant passions which are ever on the watch to mingle with and to alloy the most beneficial innovations.” The stanzas in his Masque of Anarchy, in which he develops his doctrine of non-resistance, are well known, and curiously anticipate certain features in the teaching of Tolstoy.

  It would have been difficult on social questions to anticipate later judgment more clearly than Shelley did. “I put the thing,” he said, “in its simplest and most intelligible shape. The labourer, he that tills the ground and manufactures cloth, is the man who has to provide, out of what he would bring home to his wife and children, for the luxuries and comforts of the wealthy.” That is the central fact, the fact on which a nation’s ethics should be based, and for that very reason it is evaded with all the skill and pertinacity that Riches can command.

  Of war he wrote that it is “a kind of superstition; the parade of arms and badges corrupts the imagination of men . . . . War, waged from whatever motive, extinguishes the sentiment of reason and justice in the mind.” Contrast those wise words, taken from his Philosophical View of Reform, with the shocking nonsense that has been written by later poets such as Tennyson; the continuous glorifying of the soldier, in books by historians, and in pictures by artists, who thus, without any ill intention, but with entire lack of wisdom, create a widespread belief that there is something especially splendid in war.

  I would say a few words, before concluding, on Shelley’s attitude towards the lower animals—a very important part of any estimate of humanitarian sympathies. There is nothing in him more delightful than the utter absence of the “superior persona” (would that the same could be said of many of his critics!), both as regards his human and non-human fellow-beings. Whenever he speaks of animals, it is with an instinctive, childlike, and perfectly natural sense of kinship and brotherhood. Thus in Alastor, in the invocation of Nature, we find him saying:

“If no bright bird, insect, or gentle beast
I consciously have injured, but still loved
And cherished these my kindred.”

  My kindred! Perhaps no feature of his philosophy has been more often ridiculed than his vegetarianism; yet here, too, he gave proof not only of personal humaneness but of practical foresight, for food-reform is now widely recognised as a necessary part of any well-considered scheme for humanising our relation toward the animals, and everyone who deals with the question of animals’ rights is compelled to take some note of it. Alone among the poets of his generation, he was unwilling to sentimentalise about the beauty of kindness to animals, and at the same time “to slay the lamb that looks him in the face,” or, what is no less immoral, to devolve that unpleasant process on another person.

  It would be impossible to sum up more gloriously, in a single line, the essence of piety, of human goodness, than in Shelley’s words:

“To live as if to love and live were one.”

  And it was because he himself came so near to doing so that we feel the perfect appropriateness of the inscription, “cor cordium,” heart of hearts, that was placed on his tombstone. Only when there are everywhere hearts like Shelley’s will this world become a happy place to live in; and more centuries, it is to be feared, will have to go by before mankind can hope to attain to that. But as his own Prometheus says of the ages yet to come:

“Perchance no thought can count them, yet they pass.”


1 September, 1931.

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