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In Aurora Leigh (1856) by Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Aurora's cousin Romney Leigh complains about the character of the times:

We’re too materialistic,—eating clay,
(Like men of the west)
instead of Adam’s corn
And Noah’s wine; clay by handfuls, clay by lumps,
Until we’re filled up to the throat with clay,
And grow the grimy colour of the ground
On which we are feeding.

Book VIII, lines 630–635.

Who are the “men of the west” who eat clay? The Oxford University Press edition says:

Philistines were men of the west, attacking the children of Israel. Adam’s wheat and Noah’s wine were given by God, and were not merely material things like the dust that the serpent in the garden of Eden was condemned to eat. Carlyle complained in ‘Signs of Times’ (1829) that the nineteenth century was a materialist and not a religious age.

Josie Billington & Philip Davis, eds. (2014). Elizabeth Barrett Browning, p. 548. Oxford University Press.

I don’t find this at all convincing. Ancient Philistia was to the west of Judea, but were Philistines really known as “men of the west”? The serpent in Genesis 3:14 is cursed to “eat dust all the days of your life”, not clay, and in any case the text says that it is the “men of the west” who eat clay, not the serpent, who is not mentioned or alluded to (unless you think “Adam” is sufficient to bring it to mind). Is there a better explanation?

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A straightforward explanation is that Browning is referring to literal clay-eating (geophagy) among the natives of the New World (“men of the west”), for example, as reported by Alexander von Humboldt:

The Otomacs [of Uruana in Brazil] swallow a prodigious quantity of earth. We found heaps of balls in their huts, piled up in pyramids three or four feet high. These balls were five or six inches in diameter. The earth, which the Otomacs eat, is a very fine and unctuous clay, of a yellowish gray colour; and, being slightly baked in the fire, the hardened crust has a tint inclining to red, owing to the oxid of iron which is mingled with it. […] The Otomacs do not eat every kind of clay indifferently; they choose the alluvial beds or strata that contain the most unctuous earth, and the smoothest to the feel.

Alexander de Humboldt & Aimé Bonpland (1821). Personal Narrative of Travels to the Equinoctial Regions of the New Continent During the Years 1799–1804, volume V, p. 641. Translated by Helen Maria Williams. London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, and Brown.

Humboldt’s observations were repeated in many places, including periodicals such as the British Critic (July 1821), p. 11 or the Methodist Magazine (July 1839), pp. 243–244; reference works such as Encyclopaedia Americana (1829), p. 177; and natural histories such as Humboldt’s own Aspects of Nature (1849), p. 156, so that Browning had many opportunities to come across them. Browning mentions Humboldt once in her letters (volume 2, p. 422) in a context that suggests that she had read some of his work.

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  • People also eat earth (again, very specific kinds) in some regions of Africa. The explanation is that this earth contains minerals which are lacking from their normal diets. I'll try to find a reference for this.
    – Peter Shor
    Oct 9 at 15:06
  • @PeterShor, there are references to African geophagy in that same Wikipedia article linked in the answer. As you say, there are good (health-related) reasons to eat soil, and this has been obvious to humans probably forever, because there's evidence of geophagy virtually everywhere, at least at certain times in history. I eat rocks every day, which isn't thought of as geophagy because the rocks are mixed with sugar and sold at the drug store (as Tums). My point is, Native Americans are far from the only earth eaters on Earth. Which makes this answer a little hard to swallow.
    – Juhasz
    Oct 11 at 3:45
  • @Juhasz: I doubt that Browning had read the Wikipedia article (2015) or heard of Tums (1930) when composing Aurora Leigh (1856). Oct 11 at 6:27

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