Volume I, Introduction

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The Last Man, Edited by Steven E. Jones

Volume 1


I VISITED Naples in the year 1818. On the 8th of December of that year, my companion and I crossed the Bay, to visit the antiquities which are scattered on the shores of Baiae. The translucent and shining waters of the calm sea covered fragments of old Roman villas, [1]  which were interlaced by sea-weed, and received diamond tints from the chequering of the sun-beams; the blue and pellucid [2]  element was such as Galatea [3]  might have skimmed in her car of mother of pearl; or Cleopatra, more fitly than the Nile, have chosen as the path of her magic ship. Though it was winter, the atmosphere seemed Page iii more appropriate to early spring; and its genial warmth contributed to inspire those sensations of placid delight, which are the portion of every traveller, as he lingers, loath to quit the tranquil bays and radiant promontories of Baiae.

We visited the so called Elysian Fields and Avernus: and wandered through various ruined temples, baths, and classic spots; at length we entered the gloomy cavern of the Cumaean Sibyl. [4]  Our Lazzeroni [5]  bore flaring torches, which shone red, and almost dusky, in the murky subterranean passages, whose darkness thirstily surrounding them, seemed eager to imbibe more and more of the element of light. We passed by a natural archway, leading to a second gallery, and enquired, if we could not enter there also. The guides pointed to the reflection of their torches on the water that paved it, leaving us to form our own conclusion; but adding it was a pity, for it led to the Sibyl's Cave. Our curiosity and enthusiasm were excited by this circumstance, and we insisted upon attempting the passage. As is usually the case in the prosecution of such enterprizes, the difficulties decreased on examination. We found, on each side of the humid pathway, "dry land for the sole of the foot."  [6] Page iv At length we arrived at a large, desert, dark cavern, which the Lazzeroni assured us was the Sibyl's Cave. We were sufficiently disappointed--Yet we examined it with care, as if its blank, rocky walls could still bear trace of celestial visitant. On one side was a small opening. Whither does this lead? we asked: can we enter here?--"Questo poi, no,"--said the wild looking savage, who held the torch; "you can advance but a short distance, and nobody visits it."

"Nevertheless, I will try it," said my companion; "it may lead to the real cavern. Shall I go alone, or will you accompany me?"

I signified my readiness to proceed, but our guides protested against such a measure. With great volubility, in their native Neapolitan dialect, with which we were not very familiar, they told us that there were spectres, that the roof would fall in, that it was too narrow to admit us, that there was a deep hole within, filled with water, and we might be drowned. My friend shortened the harangue, by taking the man's torch from him; and we proceeded alone.

The passage, which at first scarcely admitted us, quickly grew narrower and lower; we were alPage vmost bent double; yet still we persisted in making our way through it. At length we entered a wider space, and the low roof heightened; but, as we congratulated ourselves on this change, our torch was extinguished by a current of air, and we were left in utter darkness. The guides bring with them materials for renewing the light, but we had none--our only resource was to return as we came. We groped round the widened space to find the entrance, and after a time fancied that we had succeeded. This proved however to be a second passage, which evidently ascended. It terminated like the former; though something approaching to a ray, we could not tell whence, shed a very doubtful twilight in the space. By degrees, our eyes grew somewhat accustomed to this dimness, and we perceived that there was no direct passage leading us further; but that it was possible to climb one side of the cavern to a low arch at top, which promised a more easy path, from whence we now discovered that this light proceeded. With considerable difficulty we scrambled up, and came to another passage with still more of illumination, and this led to another ascent like the former.

After a succession of these, which our resoluPage vition alone permitted us to surmount, we arrived at a wide cavern with an arched dome-like roof. An aperture in the midst let in the light of heaven; but this was overgrown with brambles and underwood, which acted as a veil, obscuring the day, and giving a solemn religious hue to the apartment. It was spacious, and nearly circular, with a raised seat of stone, about the size of a Grecian couch, at one end. The only sign that life had been here, was the perfect snow-white skeleton of a goat, which had probably not perceived the opening as it grazed on the hill above, and had fallen headlong. Ages perhaps had elapsed since this catastrophe; and the ruin it had made above, had been repaired by the growth of vegetation during many hundred summers.

The rest of the furniture of the cavern consisted of piles of leaves, fragments of bark, and a white filmy substance, resembling the inner part of the green hood which shelters the grain of the unripe Indian corn. We were fatigued by our struggles to attain this point, and seated ourselves on the rocky couch, while the sounds of tinkling sheep-bells, and shout of shepherd-boy, [7]  reached us from above.

Page vii

At length my friend, who had taken up some of the leaves strewed about, exclaimed, "This is the Sibyl's cave; these are Sibylline leaves." [8]  On examination, we found that all the leaves, bark, and other substances, were traced with written characters. What appeared to us more astonishing, was that these writings were expressed in various languages: some unknown to my companion, ancient Chaldee, and Egyptian hieroglyphics, old as the Pyramids. Stranger still, some were in modern dialects, English and Italian. We could make out little by the dim light, but they seemed to contain prophecies, detailed relations of events but lately passed; names, now well known, but of modern date; and often exclamations of exultation or woe, of victory or defeat, were traced on their thin scant pages. This was certainly the Sibyl's Cave; not indeed exactly as Virgil describes it, but the whole of this land had been so convulsed by earthquake and volcano, that the change was not wonderful, though the traces of ruin were effaced by time; and we probably owed the preservation of these leaves, to the accident which had closed the mouth of the cavern, and the swift-growing vegetation which had rendered itsPage viii sole opening impervious to the storm. We made a hasty selection of such of the leaves, whose writing one at least of us could understand; and then, laden with our treasure, we bade adieu to the dim hypaethric cavern, and after much difficulty succeeded in rejoining our guides.

During our stay at Naples, we often returned to this cave, sometimes alone, skimming the sun-lit sea, and each time added to our store. Since that period, whenever the world's circumstance has not imperiously called me away, or the temper of my mind impeded such study, [9]  I have been employed in deciphering these sacred remains. Their meaning, wondrous and eloquent, has often repaid my toil, soothing me in sorrow, and exciting my imagination to daring flights, through the immensity of nature and the mind of man. For awhile my labours were not solitary; but that time is gone; and, with the selected and matchless companion of my toils, their dearest reward is also lost to me--

Di mie tenere frondi altro lavoro
Credea mostrarte; e qual fero pianeta
Ne' nvidiò insieme, o mio nobil tesoro?* [10] 

I present the public with my latest discoveriesPage ix in the slight Sibylline pages. [11]  Scattered and unconnected as they were, I have been obliged to add links, and model the work into a consistent form. But the main substance rests on the truths contained in these poetic rhapsodies, and the divine intuition which the Cumaean damsel obtained from heaven.

I have often wondered at the subject of her verses, and at the English dress of the Latin poet. Sometimes I have thought, that, obscure and chaotic as they are, they owe their present form to me, their decipherer. As if we should give to another artist, the painted fragments which form the mosaic copy of Raphael's Transfiguration in St. Peter's; [12]  he would put them together in a form, whose mode would be fashioned by his own peculiar mind and talent. Doubtless the leaves of the Cumaean Sibyl have suffered distortion and diminution of interest and excellence in my hands. My only excuse for thus transforming them, is that they were unintelligible in their pristine condition.

My labours have cheered long hours of solitude, and taken me out of a world, which has averted its once benignant face from me, to one glowing with imagination and power. WillPage x my readers ask how I could find solace from the narration of misery and woeful change? This is one of the mysteries of our nature, which holds full sway over me, and from whose influence I cannot escape. I confess, that I have not been unmoved by the development of the tale; and that I have been depressed, nay, agonized, at some parts of the recital, which I have faithfully transcribed from my materials. Yet such is human nature, that the excitement of mind was dear to me, and that the imagination, painter of tempest and earthquake, or, worse, the stormy and ruin-fraught passions of man, softened my real sorrows and endless regrets, by clothing these fictitious ones in that ideality, which takes the mortal sting from pain.

I hardly know whether this apology is necessary. For the merits of my adaptation and translation must decide how far I have well bestowed my time and imperfect powers, in giving form and substance to the frail and attenuated Leaves of the Sibyl.


[1] EDITOR'S NOTE: Percy Bysshe Shelley - "Ode to the West Wind" BACK


[3] EDITOR'S NOTE: Mary Shelley visited the Villa Farnesina in Rome on 22 March 1819, where she saw Raphael's fresco, The Triumph of Galatea (see Frederic S. Colwell, KSJ 1996) BACK


from Lempriere's Classical Dictionary (1788): "Sibyllae"

. . . The most celebrated of the Sibyls is that of Cumae in Italy, whom some have called by the different names of Amalthaea, Demophile, Herophile, Daphne, Marto, Phemonoe, and Deiphobe. It is said that Apollo became enamoured of her, and that to make her sensible of his passion, he offered to give her whatever she should ask. The Sibyl demanded to live as many years as she had grains of sand in her hand, but unfortunately forgot to ask for the enjoyment of the health, vigor, and bloom, of which she was then in possession. The god granted her request, but she refused to gratify the passion of her lover, though he offered her perpetual youth and beauty. Some time after she became old and decrepit, her form decayed, melancholy paleness and haggard looks succeeded to bloom and cheerfulness. She had already lived about 700 years when Aeneas came to Italy, and as some have imagined, she had three centuries more to live before her years were as numerous as the grains of sand which she had in her hand. She gave Aeneas instructions how to find his father in the infernal regions, and even conducted him to the entrance of hell.

It was usual in the Sibyl to write her prophecies on leaves which she placed at the entrance of her cave, and it required particular care in such as consulted her to take up these leaves before they were dispersed by the wind, as their meaning then became incomprehensible. According to the most authentic historians of the Roman republic, one of the Sibyls came to the palace of Tarquin the second, with nine volumes which she offered to sell for a very high price. The monarch disregarded her, and she immediately disappeared, and soon after returned, when she had burned three of the volumes. She asked the same price for the remaining six books, and when Tarquin refused to buy them, she burned three more, and still persisted in demanding the same sum of money for the three that were left. This extraodinary behavior astonished Tarquin, he bought the books, and the Sibyl instantly vanished, and never after appeared to the world. These books were preserved with great care by the monarch, and called the "Sibylline verses." A college of priests was appointed to have the care of them, and such reverence did the Romans entertain for these prophetic books, that they were consulted with the greatest solemnity, and only when the state seemed to be in danger. When the capitol was burnt in the troubles of Sylla, the Sibylline verses which were deposited there, perished in the conflagration, and to repair the loss which the republic seemed to have sustained, commissioners were immediately sent to different parts of Greece, to collect whatever verses could be found of the inspired writings of the Sibyls. The fate of these Sibylline verses which were collected after the conflagration of the capitol is unknown. There are now many sibylline verses extant, but they are universally regarded as spurious, and it is evident that they were composed in the second century, by some of the followers of Christianity, who wished to convince the heathens of their error, by assisting the cause of truth with the arms of pious artifice.


[5] EDITOR'S NOTE: "Lazzeroni" are members of the lower classes of Naples. In this case, they are working as tour guides and servants. BACK

[6] EDITOR'S NOTE: "And it came to pass at the end of forty days that Noah opened the window of the ark which he had made: and he sent forth a raven, which went forth to and fro, until the waters were dried up from the earth. Also he sent forth a dove from him, to see if the waters were abated from off the face of the ground; But the dove found no rest for the sole of her foot, and she returned unto him in the ark, for the waters were on the face of the whole earth . . . ." (Genesis 8:6-9) BACK

[7] EDITOR'S NOTE: The story of The Last Man, which follows this frame story, is narrated by Lionel Verney, another "shepherd boy" BACK

[8] EDITOR'S NOTE: leaves." [1826: leaves.']: BACK

[9] EDITOR'S NOTE: study, [1826: study.] BACK

[10] EDITOR'S NOTE: From Petrarch, Rime Sparse, Sonnet 322 BACK

[11] EDITOR'S NOTE: Mary Shelley's representation of her narrative as "Sibylline" connects it with numerous popular uses of the figure of the Sybil, including Samuel Coleridge's 1817 collection of poetry and the writing of Mme. de Staël; and it in turn may have contributed to the continuing popularity of things Sibylline, as witnessed in productions like the parody (perhaps directly parodic of The Last Man) by T. H. Lister, and an advertised new edition of a series of engraved playing cards with illustrations by George Cruikshank. BACK


Raphael's painting of the Transfiguration (at the Vatican Museum, pictured here), was described by Mary Shelley in her Rambles in Germany and Italy (Travel Writing, p. 191):

"In artistic power, this picture is said to surpass every other in the world. The genius of its author is shown in its admirable composition, in the spirit of the attitudes, in the life that animates each figure, without alluding to technical merits, which, of course, are felt even by those who cannot define, nor even point them out. Yet, this picture does not afford me great pleasure--no face is inspired by holy and absorbing passion; and the woman, the most prominent figure, is a portrait of the Fornarina, whose hard countenance is peculiarly odious."

The painting was in fact copied in a mosaic altarpiece at the Capella Clementia, St. Peter's, Rome.


Published @ RC

October 1997