HEAR YOU not the rushing sound of the coming tempest? Do you not behold the clouds open, and destruction lurid and dire pour down on the blasted earth? See you not the thunderbolt fall, and are deafened by the shout of heaven that follows its descent? Feel you not the earth quake and open with agonizing groans, while the air is pregnant with shrieks and wailings,--all announcing the last days of man?Page 1
No! none of these things accompanied our fall! The balmy air of spring, breathed from nature's ambrosial home, invested the lovely earth, which wakened as a young mother about to lead forth in pride her beauteous offspring to meet their sire who had been long absent. The buds decked the trees, the flowers adorned the land: the dark branches, swollen with seasonable juices, expanded into leaves, and the variegated foliage of spring, bending and singing in the breeze, rejoiced in the genial warmth of the unclouded empyrean: the brooks flowed murmuring, the sea was waveless, and the promontories that over-hung it were reflected in the placid waters; birds awoke in the woods, while abundant food for man and beast sprung up from the dark ground. Where was pain and evil? Not in the calm air or weltering ocean; not in the woods or fertile fields, nor among the birds that made the woods resonant with song, nor the animals that in the midst of plenty basked in the sunshine. Our enemy,Page 2 like the Calamity of Homer,  trod our hearts, and no sound was echoed from her steps--
Once man was a favourite of the Creator, as the royal psalmist sang, "God had made him a little lower than the angels, and had crowned him with glory and honour. God made him to have dominion over the works of his hands, and put all things under his feet."  Once it was so; now is man lord of the creation? Look at him--ha! I see plague! She has invested his form, is incarnate in his flesh, has entwined herself with his being, and blinds his heaven-seeking eyes. Lie down, O man, on the flower-strown earth; give up all claim to your inheritance, all you can ever possess of it is the small cell which the dead require.Page 3
Plague  is the companion of spring, of sunshine, and plenty. We no longer struggle with her. We have forgotten what we did when she was not. Of old navies used to stem the giant ocean-waves betwixt Indus and the Pole for slight articles of luxury. Men made perilous journies to possess themselves of earth's splendid trifles, gems and gold. Human labour was wasted--human life set at nought. Now life is all that we covet; that this automaton of flesh  should, with joints and springs in order, perform its functions, that this dwelling of the soul should be capable of containing its dweller. Our minds, late spread abroad through countless spheres and endless combinations of thought, now retrenched themselves behind this wall of flesh, eager to preserve its well-being only. We were surely sufficiently degraded.
At first the increase of sickness in spring brought increase of toil to such of us, who, as yet spared to life, bestowed our time and thoughts on our fellow creatures. We nervedPage 4 ourselves to the task: "in the midst of despair we performed the tasks of hope."  We went out with the resolution of disputing with our foe. We aided the sick, and comforted the sorrowing; turning from the multitudinous dead to the rare survivors, with an energy of desire that bore the resemblance of power, we bade them--live. Plague sat paramount the while, and laughed us to scorn.
Have any of you, my readers, observed the ruins of an anthill immediately after its destruction? At first it appears entirely deserted of its former inhabitants; in a little time you see an ant struggling through the upturned mould; they reappear by twos and threes, running hither and thither in search of their lost companions. Such were we upon earth, wondering aghast at the effects of pestilence. Our empty habitations remained, but the dwellers were gathered to the shades of the tomb.
As the rules of order and pressure of laws were lost, some began with hesitation andPage 5 wonder to transgress the accustomed uses of society. Palaces were deserted, and the poor man dared at length, unreproved, intrude into the splendid apartments, whose very furniture and decorations were an unknown world to him. It was found, that, though at first the stop put to to all circulation of property, had reduced those before supported by the factitious wants of society to sudden and hideous poverty, yet when the boundaries of private possession were thrown down, the products of human labour at present existing were more, far more, than the thinned generation could possibly consume. To some among the poor this was matter of exultation. We were all equal now; magnificent dwellings, luxurious carpets, and beds of down, were afforded to all. Carriages and horses, gardens, pictures, statues, and princely libraries, there were enough of these even to superfluity; and there was nothing to prevent each from assuming possession of his share. We were all equal now;  but near at hand was anPage 6 equality still more levelling, a state where beauty and strength, and wisdom, would be as vain as riches and birth. The grave yawned beneath us all, and its prospect prevented any of us from enjoying the ease and plenty which in so awful a manner was presented to us.
Still the bloom did not fade on the cheeks of my babes; and Clara sprung up in years and growth, unsullied by disease. We had no reason to think the site of Windsor Castle peculiarly healthy, for many other families had expired beneath its roof; we lived therefore without any particular precaution; but we lived, it seemed, in safety. If Idris became thin and pale, it was anxiety that occasioned the change; an anxiety I could in no way alleviate. She never complained, but sleep and appetite fled from her, a slow fever preyed on her veins, her colour was hectic, and she often wept in secret; gloomy prognostications, care, and agonizing dread, ate up the principle of life within her. I could not fail to perceive this change. I oftenPage 7 wished that I had permitted her to take her own course, and engage herself in such labours for the welfare of others as might have distracted her thoughts. But it was too late now. Besides that, with the nearly extinct race of man, all our toils grew near a conclusion, she was too weak; consumption, if so it might be called, or rather the over active life within her, which, as with Adrian, spent the vital oil in the early morning hours, deprived her limbs of strength. At night, when she could leave me unperceived, she wandered through the house, or hung over the couches of her children; and in the day time would sink into a perturbed sleep, while her murmurs and starts betrayed the unquiet dreams that vexed her. As this state of wretchedness became more confirmed, and, in spite of her endeavours at concealment more apparent, I strove, though vainly, to awaken in her courage and hope. I could not wonder at the vehemence of her care; her very soul was tenderness; she trusted indeedPage 8 that she should not outlive me if I became the prey of the vast calamity, and this thought sometimes relieved her. We had for many years trod the highway of life hand in hand, and still thus linked, we might step within the shades of death; but her children, her lovely, playful, animated children--beings sprung from her own dear side--portions of her own being--depositories of our loves--even if we died, it would be comfort to know that they ran man's accustomed course. But it would not be so;  young and blooming as they were, they would die, and from the hopes of maturity, from the proud name of attained manhood, they were cut off for ever. Often with maternal affection she had figured their merits and talents exerted on life's wide stage. Alas for these latter days! The world had grown old, and all its inmates partook of the decrepitude. Why talk of infancy, manhood, and old age? We all stood equal sharers of the last throes of time-worn nature. Arrived at the same point of the world's age--therePage 9 was no difference in us; the name of parent and child had lost their meaning; young boys and girls were level now with men. This was all true; but it was not less agonizing to take the admonition home.
Where could we turn, and not find a desolation pregnant with the dire lesson of example? The fields had been left uncultivated, weeds and gaudy flowers sprung up,--or where a few wheat-fields shewed signs of the living hopes of the husbandman, the work had been left halfway,  the ploughman had died beside the plough; the horses had deserted the furrow, and no seedsman had approached the dead; the cattle unattended wandered over the fields and through the lanes; the tame inhabitants of the poultry yard, baulked of their daily food, had become wild--young lambs were dropt in flower-gardens, and the cow stalled in the hall of pleasure. Sickly and few, the country people neither went out to sow nor reap; but sauntered about the meadows, or lay under the hedges,Page 10 when the inclement sky did not drive them to take shelter under the nearest roof. Many of those who remained, secluded themselves; some had laid up stores which should prevent the necessity of leaving their homes;--some deserted wife and child, and imagined that they secured their safety in utter solitude. Such had been Ryland's  plan, and he was discovered dead and half-devoured by insects, in a house many miles from any other, with piles of food laid up in useless superfluity. Others made long journies to unite themselves to those they loved, and arrived to find them dead.
London  did not contain above a thousand inhabitants; and this number was continually diminishing. Most of them were country people, come up for the sake of change; the Londoners had sought the country. The busy eastern part of the town was silent, or at most you saw only where, half from cupidity, half from curiosity, the warehouses had been more ransacked than pillaged: bales of rich IndiaPage 11 goods, shawls of price, jewels, and spices, unpacked, strewed the floors. In some places the possessor had to the last kept watch on his store, and died before the barred gates. The massy portals of the churches swung creaking on their hinges; and some few lay dead on the pavement. The wretched female, loveless victim of vulgar brutality, had wandered to the toilet of high-born beauty, and, arraying herself in the garb of splendour, had died before the mirror which reflected to herself alone her altered appearance. Women whose delicate feet had seldom touched the earth in their luxury, had fled in fright and horror from their homes, till, losing themselves in the squalid streets of the metropolis, they had died on the threshold of poverty. The heart sickened at the variety of misery presented; and, when I saw a specimen of this gloomy change, my soul ached with the fear of what might befall my beloved Idris and my babes. Were they, surviving Adrian and myself, to find themselvesPage 12 protectorless in the world? As yet the mind alone had suffered--could I for ever put off the time, when the delicate frame and shrinking nerves of my child of prosperity, the nursling of rank and wealth, who was my companion, should be invaded by famine, hardship, and disease? Better die at once--better plunge a poinard in her bosom, still untouched by drear adversity, and then again sheathe it in my own! But, no; in times of misery we must fight against our destinies, and strive not to be overcome by them. I would not yield, but to the last gasp resolutely defended my dear ones against sorrow and pain; and if I were vanquished at last, it should not be ingloriously. I stood in the gap, resisting the enemy--the impalpable, invisible foe, who had so long besieged us--as yet he had made no breach: it must be my care that he should not, secretly undermining, burst up within the very threshold of the temple of love, at whose altar I daily sacrificed.Page 13
The hunger of Death was now stung more sharply by the diminution of his food: or was it that before, the survivors being many, the dead were less eagerly counted? Now each life was a gem, each human breathing form of far, O! far more worth than subtlest imagery of sculptured stone; and the daily, nay, hourly decrease visible in our numbers, visited the heart with sickening misery. This summer extinguished our hopes, the vessel of society was wrecked, and the shattered raft, which carried the few survivors over the sea of misery, was riven and tempest tost. Man existed by twos and threes; man, the individual who might sleep, and wake, and perform the animal functions; but man, in himself weak, yet more powerful in congregated numbers than wind or ocean; man, the queller of the elements, the lord of created nature, the peer of demi-gods, existed no longer.
Farewell to the patriotic scene, to the love of liberty and well earned meed of virtuous aspira-Page 14tion!--farewell to crowded senate, vocal with the councils of the wise, whose laws were keener than the sword blade tempered at Damascus!--farewell to kingly pomp and warlike pageantry; the crowns are in the dust, and the wearers are in their graves!--farewell to the desire of rule, and the hope of victory; to high vaulting ambition, to the appetite for praise, and the craving for the suffrage of their fellows! The nations are no longer! No senate sits in council for the dead; no scion of a time honoured dynasty pants to rule over the inhabitants of a charnel house; the general's hand is cold, and the soldier has his untimely grave dug in his native fields, unhonoured, though in youth. The market-place is empty, the candidate for popular favour finds none whom he can represent. To chambers of painted state farewell!--To midnight revelry, and the panting emulation of beauty, to costly dress and birth-day shew, to title and the gilded coronet, farewell!
Farewell to the giant powers of man,--toPage 15 knowledge that could pilot the deep-drawing bark through the opposing waters of shoreless ocean,--to science that directed the silken balloon  through the pathless air,--to the power that could put a barrier to mighty waters, and set in motion wheels, and beams, and vast machinery, that could divide rocks of granite or marble, and make the mountains plain!
Farewell to the arts,--to eloquence, which is to the human mind as the winds to the sea, stirring, and then allaying it;--farewell to poetry and deep philosophy, for man's imagination is cold, and his enquiring mind can no longer expatiate on the wonders of life, for "there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom in the grave, whither thou goest!"--  to the graceful building, which in its perfect proportion transcended the rude forms of nature, the fretted gothic and massy saracenic pile, to the stupendous arch and glorious dome, the fluted column with its capital, Corinthian, Ionic, or Doric, the peristyle and fair entablature, whosePage 16 harmony of form is to the eye as musical concord to the ear!--farewell to sculpture, where the pure marble mocks human flesh, and in the plastic expression of the culled excellencies of the human shape, shines forth the god!--farewell to painting, the high wrought sentiment and deep knowledge of the artists's mind in pictured canvas--to paradisaical scenes, where trees are ever vernal, and the ambrosial air rests in perpetual glow:--to the stamped form of tempest, and wildest uproar of universal nature encaged in the narrow frame, O farewell! Farewell to music,  and the sound of song; to the marriage of instruments, where the concord of soft and harsh unites in sweet harmony, and gives wings to the panting listeners, whereby to climb heaven, and learn the hidden pleasures of the eternals!--Farewell to the well-trod stage; a truer tragedy is enacted on the world's ample scene, that puts to shame mimic grief: to high-bred comedy, and the low buffoon, farewell!--Man may laugh no more.Page 17
Alas! to enumerate the adornments of humanity, shews, by what we have lost, how supremely great man was. It is all over now. He is solitary; like our first parents expelled from Paradise, he looks back towards the scene he has quitted. The high walls of the tomb, and the flaming sword of plague, lie between it and him. Like to our first parents, the whole earth is before him, a wide desart. Unsupported and weak, let him wander through fields where the unreaped corn stands in barren plenty, through copses planted by his fathers, through towns built for his use. Posterity is no more; fame, and ambition, and love, are words void of meaning; even as the cattle that grazes in the field, do thou, O deserted one, lie down at evening-tide, unknowing of the past, careless of the future, for from such fond ignorance alone canst thou hope for ease!
Joy paints with its own colours every act and thought. The happy do not feel poverty--for delight is as a gold-tissued robe, and crowns themPage 18 with priceless gems. Enjoyment plays the cook to their homely fare, and mingles intoxication with their simple drink. Joy strews the hard couch with roses, and makes labour ease.
Sorrow doubles the burthen to the bent-down back; plants thorns in the unyielding pillow; mingles gall with water; adds saltness to their bitter bread; cloathing them in rags, and strewing ashes on their bare heads. To our irremediable distress every small and pelting inconvenience came with added force; we had strung our frames to endure the Atlean weight thrown on us; we sank beneath the added feather chance threw on us, "the grasshopper was a burthen."  Many of the survivors had been bred in luxury--their servants were gone, their powers of command vanished like unreal shadows: the poor even suffered various privations; and the idea of another winter like the last, brought affright to our minds. Was it not enough that we must die, but toil must be added?--must we prepare our funeral repast with labour, and with un-Page 19seemly drudgery heap fuel on our deserted hearths--must we with servile hands fabricate the garments, soon to be our shroud?
Not so! We are presently to die, let us then enjoy to its full relish the remnant of our lives. Sordid care, avaunt! menial labours, and pains, slight in themselves, but too gigantic for our exhausted strength, shall make no part of our ephemeral existences. In the beginning of time, when, as now, man lived by families, and not by tribes or nations, they were placed in a genial clime, where earth fed them untilled, and the balmy air enwrapt their reposing limbs with warmth more pleasant than beds of down. The south is the native place of the human race; the land of fruits, more grateful to man than the hard-earned Ceres of the north,--of trees, whose boughs are as a palace-roof, of couches of roses, and of the thirst-appeasing grape. We need not there fear cold and hunger.
Look at England! the grass shoots up high in the meadows; but they are dank and cold,Page 20 unfit bed for us. Corn we have none, and the crude fruits cannot support us. We must seek firing in the bowels of the earth, or the unkind atmosphere will fill us with rheums and aches. The labour of hundreds of thousands alone could make this inclement nook fit habitation for one man. To the south then, to the sun!--where nature is kind, where Jove has showered forth the contents of Amalthea's horn, and earth is garden.
England, late birth-place of excellence and school of the wise, thy children are gone, thy glory faded! Thou, England, wert the triumph of man! Small favour was shewn thee by thy Creator, thou Isle of the North; a ragged canvas naturally, painted by man with alien colours; but the hues he gave are faded, never more to be renewed. So we must leave thee, thou marvel of the world; we must bid farewell to thy clouds, and cold, and scarcity for ever! Thy manly hearts are still; thy tale of power and liberty at its close! Bereft of man, O little isle!  the oceanPage 21 waves will buffet thee, and the raven flap his wings over thee; thy soil will be birth-place of weeds, thy sky will canopy barrenness. It was not for the rose of Persia thou wert famous, nor the banana of the east; not for the spicy gales of India, nor the sugar groves of America; not for thy vines nor thy double harvests, nor for thy vernal airs, nor solstitial sun--but for thy children, their unwearied industry and lofty aspiration. They are gone, and thou goest with them the oft trodden path that leads to oblivion,--
 AUTHOR'S NOTE:
Elton's translation of Hesiod.
[Works and Days]BACK
 EDITOR'S NOTE:
What is man, that thou art mindful of him? and the son of man, that thou visitest him? For thou hast made him a little lower than the angels, and hast crowned him with glory and honour. Thou madest him to have dominion over the works of thy hands: thou has put all things under his feet . . .
 EDITOR'S NOTE:
"The plague" refers to an acute virulent disease, usually one reaching or threatening to reach epidemic proportions, and historically one caused by a bacterium. The medieval Black Death set much of the tone and metaphorical conventions still operating in many modern-era descriptions of plagues. The Last Man was written during one such early-nineteenth century outbreak, a cholera epidemic begun in India ca. 1817 and seen by the 1820s as posing a threat to Europe.
The history of nineteenth-century epidemics, and their construction as "the plague," reveals telling narrative and figurative patterns, all of them relevant to reading this novel (with its fabric of interwoven political, military, social, sexual, and medical narratives). As the histories are explained by Ranger and Slack (pp. 3-4),
The comparison of Mary Shelley's fictional depiction of a world-wide apocalyptic plague to the actual plague of AIDS has been the subject of works by critics such as Audrey Fisch, Mary Jacobus, Anne K. Mellor, and Barbara Johnson.BACK
 EDITOR'S NOTE: That the "author of Frankenstein" would employ images of the body as a machine should come as no surprise. But in The Last Man, the cyborg body is just part of a larger theme: the question of the impersonal "mechanisms" of society and of nature, the limits of technology (in the largest sense), which are ultimately reflections of nineteenth-century debates over population, food supply, disease, and balance. BACK
 EDITOR'S NOTE:
Send your identifications to the EditorBACK
 EDITOR'S NOTE: Although it is a commonplace that the plague serves as a leveling force, destroying hierarchies of rank, class, and wealth (see for example Thomas Hood's "Last Man"), it is arguable on the contrary that any epidemic disease actually reinforces differences, beginning with the distinction between the infected and the uninfected, but including the marking of foreigners and marginal groups as potential scapegoats. BACK
 EDITOR'S NOTE:
Most critics have agreed that the character of Ryland is based at least in part on William Cobbett (1763?-1835), the journalist and popular political reformer. His Political Register was an extremely influential journal, famous for being deliberately priced at two pence, in part to reach a working-class audience (and to avoid a tax). Cobbett fled to America to escape prosecution in 1817, but returned as one of the leaders of the parliamentary Reform movement.
A model close at hand (and in the press) for Shelley's fictional demagogue, he conducted failed political campaigns in both 1820 and 1826, and was elected to parliament only after the Reform Bill of 1832. During the time The Last Man was being written, he was also making a series of tours around the country on horseback, the accounts of which were printed and later collected as Rural Rides (1830). His "homespun" populist rhetoric, which he deployed in publications as well as political speeches, was famous.BACK
 EDITOR'S NOTE:
The action of the early portion of the novel is divided between Cumberland, Windsor, and London, following to some extent the traditional rhythm of town and country existence in the nineteenth century, the sporting, social, and artistic "season," which was tied to the political calendar. The aristocracy and gentry usually came into London from country estates in the winter, in anticipation of the opening of Parliament.
This orderly structure of existence, reflecting relatively stable relations among the social classes, is eventually disrupted in the novel, the seasonal migration back and forth giving way to more extreme wanderings.BACK
 EDITOR'S NOTE:
If The Last Man is a science fiction novel, it is one noticeably lacking in the technological gimmickry associated with the genre. (A parody of Shelley's and other's futuristic fictions, published only four years after The Last Man appeared, proves that such technological machinery was available to Mary Shelley--and makes its absence from her novel all the more obvious.) Besides medical or epidemiological science, the one technology central to the book is balloon flight. In Shelley's imagined 21st century, people travel fairly casually and over great distances by balloons (though more often they go by ship).
Balloons in the early nineteenth century were still strongly associated with the Enlightenment goals of the previous century: universal knowledge, scientific progress, and the Promethean conquest of nature by human reason. The first modern-era flights were credited to the Montgolfier brothers of Paris (1783) and balloon flight was subsequently associated with French schemes of progress and conquest during the Revolution, Directory, and Empire.
The eleven-year-old Mary Godwin produced a prose sketch (now lost) of a popular comic song, "Mounseer Nongtongpaw"; an imitation of Dibdin perhaps based on this sketch tells of an English tourist impressed with a "vast balloon" in Paris. The young Percy Bysshe Shelley was no doubt responding to these same associations of balloons with revolutionary (and French) ideas when he sent up incendiary political poems attached to balloons, as commemorated in his sonnet, "To A Balloon, Laden With Knowledge."BACK
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Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might; for there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in the grave, whither thou goest.
I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.
 EDITOR'S NOTE:
Music in The Last Man
Among critics of Mary Shelley, Jean de Palacio has most thoroughly examined the importance of music in the novel, beginning with the role of Vincent Novello's music organ music in inspiring its composition.
Within the narrative, Lionel Verney claims musical inspiration for his own writing (I.10), and implicitly, therefore, for the narrative we are reading. In addition, allusions to composers and works form a kind of imaginary score for the action. As Palacio charts it (p. 329), we move from simple melodies and songs at Windsor (I.6), to the more sophisticated operas of Mozart--Figaro and Don Giovanni (I.9)--to "solemn music" at the end of Volume I, the exotic Weber piece, Abou Hassan early in Volume II, and the sacred organ music in London's Westminster Abbey. Then, after Verney's "Farewell to music" early in Volume III, there is the final crucial scene in Switzerland surrounding Haydn's Creation.BACK
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Remember now thy Creator in the days of thy youth, while the evil days come not, nor the years draw nigh, when thou shalt say, I have no pleasure in them; While the sun, or the light, or the moon, or the stars, be not darkened, nor the clouds return after the rain . . . . when they shall be afraid of that which is high, and fears shall be in the way, and the almond tree shall flourish, and the grasshopper shall be a burden, and desire shall fail; because man goeth to his long home, and the mourners go about the streets: Or ever the silver cord be loosed, or the pitcher be broken at the fountain, or the wheel broken at the cistern. Then shall the dust return to the earth as it was: and the spirit shall return unto God who gave it. Vanity of vanities, saith the preacher; all is vanity.
 EDITOR'S NOTE:
The opening paragraph of the novel establishes a central theme: the relationship of England to the rest of the world. Its status as a powerful island empire and ancient seat of learning, a "rock" amid the sea of time and change, is immediately set against the less stable image of England as a "ship"--one which can just as easily be wrecked on the "rocks" of time, change, chance and fate.
As the novel progresses, the metaphors of island and ship are reconfigured, again and again, in relation to shifting contexts. See passages in II.5 and III.4, among other examples. Related keywords for fruitful searching include "wrecked" and "shipwrecked," as well as "bark" and "vessel."BACK
 AUTHOR'S NOTE:
[From a poem on the execution of Charles I now attributed to Payne Fisher, as noted by Blumberg and Crook, p. 254n.]BACK