Mary Shelley's The Last Man: Apocalypse Without Millenium
by Morton D. Paley
[ . . . continued]
The idea of a millennium does surface repeatedly in The Last Man but it always turns out to be a will-of-the-wisp. This is nowhere so evident as in the speculations of the astronomer Merrival, whose views seem ironically compounded of the most perfectibilian aspects of William Godwin's and Percy Bysshe Shelley's. Before the plague has left the East, Merrival asserts that "in a hundred thousand years . . . the pole of the earth will coincide with the pole of the ecliptic, an universal spring will be produced, and earth become a paradise" (p. 159). When news is received of the spread of the plague westward from Turkey, however, Merrival concedes "that the joyful prospect of an earthly paradise after an hundred thousand years, was clouded to him by the knowledge that in a certain period of time after, an earthly hell or purgatory would occur, when ecliptic and equator would be at right angles" (p. 160). After England is ravaged by the plague, the astronomer reappears as a caricature of millenarian expectation, having completed his Essay on the Pericyclical Motion of the Earth's Axis.
Merrival talked of the state of mankind six thousand years hence. He might with equal interest to us, have added a commentary, to describe the unknown and unimaginable lineaments of the creatures, who would then occupy the vacated dwellings of mankind. (p. 210).The reality principle breaks upon his consciousness only after Merrival's wife and children die and he goes mad. "Among the victims of His merciless tyranny," he then says, "I dare reproach the Supreme Evil" (p. 221).
Merrival is not the only character who mistakenly foresees a millennium. After the Greek victory over the Turks, there is universal peace, and Adrian makes a speech that recollects "The world's great age begins anew" at the opening of the final chorus of Hellas.
"Let this last but twelve months and earth will become a Paradise. The energies of man were before directed to the destruction of his species; they now aim at its liberation and preservation. Man cannot repose, and his restless aspirations will now bring forth good instead of evil. The favoured countries of the south will throw off the iron yoke of servitude; poverty will quit us, and with that, sickness. What may not the forces, never before united, of liberty and peace achieve in this dwelling of man?" (p. 159)To this the radical Ryland ripostes: "Dreaming, for ever dreaming, Windsor! Be assured that earth is not, nor ever can be heaven, while the seeds of hell are natives of her soil." This exchange brings out a fundamental ambivalence in the novel, for the wholly admirable Adrian will be proved wrong and the scoundrel and coward Ryland right, although of course Ryland does not understand the true import of his words and securely believes the plague will never reach England.
The hope of a millennium persists even when it should long have been abandoned. The English dream that they could be "a nook of the garden of paradise" (p. 180) is dissipated by the Plague's penetration of London. Idris's dream "of a tranquil solitude, of a beauteous retreat, of the simple manners of our little tribe, and of the patriarchal brotherhood of love, which would survive the ruins of the populous nations which had lately existed" (p. 252) is belied by her death a few pages later. Verney proposes that all survivors leave the north--"We must seek some natural Paradise, some garden of the earth . . ." (p. 226). This is strange because the plague abates in winter; they really should seek the ice-pack like Frankenstein's monster. But it presents another opportunity to demonstrate the failure of the paradise of imagination.
Close to the end, Adrian, sailing with Lionel and Clara towards Greece, imagines an island paradise of the sort Percy Shelley created for himself and Emilia Viviani in Epipsychidion. Since this fantasy is Mary's, however, it would reunite herself as Lionel Verney, with Adrian/Shelley and their own lost Clara. "We would make our home of one of the Cyclades, and there in the myrtle-groves, amidst perpetual spring, fanned by the wholesome sea-breezes--we would live long years in beatific union" (p. 321). Here once more we see the rhythm by which the author raises the possibility of millennial bliss only to brutally disappoint both herself and the reader. Immediately a storm breaks, the ship is swamped, Adrian and Clara are drowned, and Lionel Verney survives to be the Last Man.
Another aspect of The Last Man's ambivalence towards millenarianism is seen in two episodes involving religious movements. Both are probably derived from a scene in John Wilson's verse drama The City of the Plague, which Mary Shelley read in 1817. In the first (pp. 190-91), a mechanic whose wife and child are dead, harangues a crowd at Windsor town hall: "His diseased fancy made him believe himself sent by heaven to preach the end of time to the world." After he gazes at a peasant in the front rank, the man falls down in convulsions, and the "maniac" announces, "That man has the plague." The curious thing is that, maniac or not, the preacher appears to be right--at least the man is dead. And his "ravings" about the last days of humankind are about to be proved right as well.
The second episode is more fully developed. Here the "self-erected prophet" is referred to as "the methodist," and the doctrine of reprobation and election is attacked. "His father had been a methodist preacher, an enthusiastic man with simple intentions; but whose pernicious doctrines of election and special grace had contributed to destroy all conscientious feeling in his son" (p. 274). (Can it be coincidence that Mary Shelley's father had been raised as a strict Calvinist and was for a time deeply influenced by his teacher Samuel Newton, a member of the Sandemanian sect, know for its especially rigorous views on divine election?)  The preacher, also called "the methodist," gathers around him a following that contemporary readers might have thought typical of Calvinist Methodism--mostly from "the lower rank of society" plus "a few high-born females" (p. 282). These people are denominated the Elect and accept a quasi-Manichaean doctrine. "Now, at the time of the Flood, the omnipotent repented him that he had created man, and as then with water, now with the arrows of pestilence, was about to annihilate all, except those who obeyed his decrees . . ." (pp. 295-96).
The Methodist's teaching is a ghastly parody of the Prophetic idea of the Saving Remnant but he himself, like the prophet in Wilson's City of the Plague, is a charlatan. He thinks that if a few survive, "so that a new race should spring up, he, by holding tight the reins of belief, might be remembered by the post-pestilential race as a patriarch, a prophet, nay a deity." Self-interested though his motive may be, the readiness of his followers to accept his doctrine seems psychologically credible. (When cholera actually did come to England only five years after Mary Shelley's novel was published, Thomas Arnold, neither a madman nor a charlatan, wondered whether it might be a sign of the Last Days). The episode of the preacher like the earlier one of the maniac seems designed to show that one can neither have one's eschatological cake nor eat it: the religious paradigm is shown to be irrelevant even when the conditions it prophesies are brought forth.
It is consistent with the greater distance of The Last Man from traditional religious beliefs that, although Mary Shelley's novel has "like Grainville's" echoes of the Bible and of Milton, these are fewer and more peripheral than those in Omegarus and Syderia. Verney sees the vision of man in Psalm 8 as "a little lower than the angels" (p. 229) as irrevocably past. His characterization of the survivors who reach Switzerland in Book III as a "failing remnant" is perhaps an ironical allusion to the idea of the Saving Remnant in Isaiah, and the drowning of the invading Irish, who go down in their ships "to rise only when death loosened their hold," seems to parody the prelude to resurrection in Revelation XX.13 when "the sea gave up the dead which were in it." Certainly ironical is the attempt to . bring in Biblical typology when Adrian, Clara, and Verney set sail for Greece. "Ocean, we commit ourselves to thee--even as the patriarch of old floated above the drowned world, let us be saved, as thus we betake ourselves to thy perennial flood" (p. 320). In this doomed world, no type can find its antetype.
Paradise Lost is likewise an ironical presence, limited to the epigraph and several memorable similitudes. The advance of the plague to England is likened to Satan's "one slight bound" in Book IV (181-84): "the earth's desolator had at last, even as an arch-fiend, lightly over-leaped the boundaries our precautions raised" (p. 177); the sound of the wind in the sails of the invading Irish fleet is "such whir as may have visited the dreams of Milton, when he imagined the winnowing of the arch-fiend's van-like wings, which encreased the uproar of wild chaos" (p. 214). When at the beginning of Book III Lionel Verney declaims a long eulogy of humanity, he figures it in terms of the expulsion from Paradise (XII, 632-40) but transforms Milton's Eastern Gate into "the high walls of the tomb" and the angel's flaming sword into "the flaming sword of plague" (p. 234). The last lines of Paradise Lost are reshaped with bitter irony: "Like to our first parents, the whole earth is before him, a vast desert." Him is radically different from them; the analogy of Adam and Eve only intensifies our sense of the ultimate failure of humankind.
These references to a sacred order no longer believed to exist are among the ghosts that haunt Mary Shelley's narrative. In Omegarus and Syderia supernatural beings freely roamed the earth; in The Last Man we encounter their after-images, sometimes momentarily terrifying, more often ludicrous. Raymond enters Constantinople on his charger, but his officers hang back, "as if they expected some Mighty Phantom to stalk in offended majesty from the opening" (p. 144). The mourners of the dead killed by the plague look up, "fancying they could discern the sweeping wings of angels, who passed over the earth, lamenting the disasters about to fall on man" (p. 163). The band of refugees from England hears "wailing and cries in the air . . . as if spirits above sang the requiem of the human race"--but "What was this, but the actions of diseased imaginations and childish credulity?" Later, a "Black Spectre" who dogs the refugees on a coal-black steed turns out to be a French nobleman who then dies of the plague. Such ghostly manifestations seem introduced not only for the purpose of demonstrating that there is no supernatural explanation but also in order to produce natural ones so trivial as to bring out the insufficiency of all natural explanations.
Of special interest is an episode in Switzerland when, passing through Ferney, the refugees suddenly find the atmosphere transformed:
The peal of an organ with rich swell awoke the mute air, lingering along, and mingling with the intense beauty that clothed the rocks and woods, and, waves around . . . The air was Haydn's "New-Created World," and, old and drooping as humanity had become, the world yet fresh as at creation's day, might still be worthily celebrated by such a hymn of praise. (p. 306)The "air" is actually part of a chorus in Haydn's Creation. As Jean de Palacio points out in his invaluable discussion of the function of music in this novel, this detail reveals the influence of Mary's friend Vincent Novello, organist and Haydn enthusiast, who had, she declared, made her "a convert to Haydn." However, the incident cannot support the optimistic construction that de Palacio gives it. The situation in The Creation occurs close to the beginning of the oratorio. After God divides the light from darkness, the spirits of hell flee to the abyss, and the chorus, as rendered in Novello's vocal score, sings:
Despairing cursing rage attends their [hell spirits'] rapid fall, A new-created world springs up at God's command. InThe Last Man the occurrence of this passage is a cruel joke by author upon reader. It turns out that a young woman already dying of plague is . playing to her blind father, who dies soon after her. The effect can be compared to the episode of the radio message from North America in On The Beach, where the crew of the submarine discovers no living mechanical explanation. In On The Beach, however, the cause of disaster is at least known; in The Last Man it remains chillingly indeterminate.
That indeterminacy is itself masked in ghostly reflections of a former paradigm. In Omegarus and Syderia Death walked about, leaned on his scythe, and killed with his dart. In The Last Man he appears only as a personification, first in the description of a picture:
All the inhabitants of earth were drawn out in fear to stand the encounter of Death. The feeble and decrepid fled, the warriors retreated, though they threatened even in flight. Wolves and lions, and various monsters of the desert roared against him, while the grim Unreality hovered shaking his spectral dart, a solitary but invincible assailant. (p. 139)Later Death is described by Verney as "rising from his subterranean vault, girt with power, with dark banner flying . . ." (p. 197). This presence is regarded by some as directed by Providence, by others as a pre-Hardyan "passing casualty," but it never crosses the threshold from personification to literal being. This makes its effects more rather than less mysterious we are reminded of the fictive nature of Grainville's paradigm and are at the same time conscious of a void in its place.
The ultimate mysterious personification in The Last Man is the plague itself. Mary Shelley must have created this mythological being out of reports of the great cholera pandemic that began in 1817, and that had spread north to the Caspian region almost as far as Astrakhan in Russia by 1823, only months before she began writing her novel. In The Last Man Plague is always female, a powerful goddess whom Adrian seems to identify with the Hindu Kali when he says "I have hung on the wheel of the chariot of plague; but she drags me along with it, while, like Juggernaut, she succeeds in crushing out the being of all who strew the high road of life . . . " (p. 289). To Lionel she is a snow queen who after seven years "abdicated her throne and despoiled herself of her imperial sceptre among the ice rocks that surrounded us" (p. 310). Why this powerful and remorseless empress should give up her power is never explained; nor is the reason for her reigning for seven years (unless it be the prevalence of sevens in the Book of Revelation). Like Death she exists somewhere between personification and myth in a borderland where causality seems nonexistent.
These personifications of Death and of the Plague made by Lionel Verney in the course of his exposition make the reader aware of Verney's role as a literary artist. His authorial identity (which at least two critics have seen as a positive, virtually redemptive feature) manifests itself in other ways as well, increasingly as the human race wears toward its end. Sometimes, as in Omegarus and Syderia, this is merely a matter of the narrator's addressing the reader directly (p. 56, 300) or interrupting his account of the past for his "present" reality (as on p. 173). As the novel goes on, however, there is more emphasis on the act of writing and also on the problem of finding a readership when the author is the last man on earth. For although earlier on Lionel thinks "To read were futile--to write, vanity indeed" (p. 223), as humanity thins out, both writing and the reader become more important. Verney decides to write a book and begins:
TO THE ILLUSTRIOUS DEAD
SHADOWS, ARISE, AND READ YOUR FALL!
BE-HOLD THE HISTORY OF THE
But, as Verney says, "for whom to read?" Not really content with the illustrious dead, at times he imagines a live reader for his narrative. At the same time he feels he must warn this putative "tender offspring of a re-born world" (p. 318) of the terrible effects that reading his book will have. In another mood, he thinks of himself in a pedagogical role in relation to the future reader, who will be a "a solitary being" and "young"; "It is right," says he, "that I should erect for thy instruction this monument of the foregone race" (p. 291). Elsewhere he casts himself in the role of historian to "the children of a saved pair of lovers, in some to me unknown and unattainable seclusion, wandering to those prodigious relics of the ante-pestilential race, [who will] seek to learn how beings so wondrous in their achievements, with imaginations infinite, and powers godlike, had departed from their home to an unknown country" (p. 339).
It's as if Verney were fulfilling the reviewer's misogynistic fantasy about the author's fear of having no one left to talk to. However, the authenticity of Verney's narrative is predicated on his being Last, a condition that precludes by definition his having readers. It's true that by an unknown process his account has somehow been transformed into the shape it assumes in the Cumaean cave, to be spelt from Sibyl's leaves by the author. This may alleviate the reader's anxiety at having to imagine lastness and the void that must follow lastness, but it isn't what Verney himself has in mind. He wants readers as a guarantee of the survival of the race in the future and also as a testimony to his own existence. It is also for these reasons that he sets out to sea at the end of the book.
"I shall read fair augury in the rainbow" (p. 342) says Verney in the last paragraph. Far from being a triumphant indication of self-transcendence and poetic imagination, his closing statement indicates he has failed to understand the condition of his Lastness. The rainbow allusion makes us recall God's covenant with Noah ("I do set my bow in the cloud, and it shall be for a token of a covenant between me and the earth" [Gen. IX.13]) and how Adrian attempted to invoke it with catastrophic results. Without being aware of it, Verney places himself very much in the situation of the Ancient Mariner in saying "While the sun is high, and the moon waxes or wanes, angels, the spirits of the dead, and the ever-open eye of the Supreme, will behold the tiny bark, freighted with Verney--the LAST MAN" (p. 342). Verney can no more become a type of Noah than he can realize God's injunction in Gen. IX.7, "And you, be ye fruitful, and multiply; bring forth abundantly in the earth, and multiply therein" This failure of typology, inescapably attached to the presentation of apocalypse without millennium, is the last frightful irony of The Last Man.
Although several contemporary reviewers noticed resemblances among The Last Man, Byron's "Darkness," and the novel known as Omegarus and Syderia, the subject was not explored further until l896, when Eugen Kolburg discussed it extensively in his edition of The Prisoner of Chillon and Other Poems (Lord Byron's Werke in Kritischen Texte mit Einleitung und Anmerkungen, Weimar: Emil Felber, 1896, Band II). Kolbung evidently did not realize that the earlier novel was a translation of Le dernier homme by Jean-Baptiste Francois Xavier Cousin de Grainville (1746-1805), privately published in Paris in 1805. Although there was a second edition, edited by Charles Nodier, in 1811, Le dernier homme has received little attention. It deserves to be better known, both for its literary qualities and because it is, as far as I can tell, the earliest Last Man narrative.
|35. Earl R. Wasserman compares Merrivale's speeches with Percy Shelley's optimism in Queen MabVI, 45-46n. about the plane of the ecliptic disappearing. See Shelley: A Critical Reading (Baltimore, 1971), p. 262n. (up)|
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