Review of The Last Man (1826)
The Last Man. By the Author of Frankenstein. 3 Vols. 8vo, Colburn.--They tell us at the libraries that this and another novel we passed judgment upon in our last, are the most popularly-read books of the day. If vapours, therefore, like suns, should be worshipped in their rising our critique ought to be one strain of panegyric, that the masters and misses who have, and who have not quite left school, may rejoice over our pages in the balmy commendation of their own tasteful discernment, on seeing how criticism extols what they had so much admired. But have they admired? or has their admiration been that of read, spontaneous intellectual gratification.
A title is sometimes a great matter, in the book market, as well as in other marts of influence and fashion; and so, also, is a name, however procured;: and a reputation for eccentricity, and, what may be called outréism of mind is not among the worst articles of the stock in trade of a writer for emolument and temporary eclat. Would the goblinisms of Monk Lewis have had their meteor fame, but for some such extraneous recommendation? Would the "Broad Grins," "Night-gown and Slippers," and certain heterogeneous farces, called Comedies and Operas, of "George Coleman the Younger," have been as profitable to him, if they had depended for their reputation, alone, on their share of sterling wit and inherent genius? Then, there are certain auxiliary, or preliminary arts, or tactics, well known in the trade, by which expectation can be raised, and avidity excited; and, if it should be but a mouse with which the mountain press is labouring,--yet, if the trumpet hath been blown in the right key, with sufficient loudness and frequency, and the people are all in thing, with money in hand, at the hour of parturition, the showman is as sure of his reward, as if Behemoth himself were to stalk forth in all his giant might. What "Reminiscences" of authors who never could write a paragraph of intelligible English, cooked up by some Theodore Hooke, from sweepings of news-papers and travelling apocryphal anecdotes, have not the ingenious industry of publishers trumpetted into popular notice, as authentic documents of of [sic] biography! What rapid effusions of maudlin novelists--what harum-scarum accumulations of unmeaning verbiage, dislocated ideas and metaphors run mad, have not these same adepts in the alchemy of puffing and pretension genius, as marvellous productions of narrative invention and the genuine coin of the Muses! Time, indeed, reverses these hasty decrees. Cabal and affectation have but their day, and the difference soon becomes apparent, between the spurious puff-begotten fame of fashion, and that real and legitimate fame which, slow in its growth, hath the stamina of long duration, and expands to gigantic stature, as its presumptuous rival dwindles into evanescence. In the mean time, however, the illusion hath its realities! and puffed-up inanity reaps the prompt reward, for which neglected merit languishes.
With respect to the work before us, we are free to declare--that we have rarely met with an instance in which a subject so promising was more lamely or incompetently treated. We looked for the sublime, and we met with the frivolous; for the pathetic, and we encountered the inane; for the terrific, and we stumbled on the ridiculous. We were agaze for the wonders of imaginative delineation, and we wondered indeed to find nothing before our eyes but fancies "neither new nor rare" decked out in frippery and tinsel. The major part of these three volumes of the self-written of the Last Man, is little other than a mere Minerva Press love tale. It is mingled, indeed, with common-place pastoralisms--love scenes and matrimonial unions between princesses and cottagers; and with politics quite as congruous. Among the marvellous phenomena pertaining to the latter, we have, indeed, at the outset, an indication sufficiently ominous of the approaching dessolution of the world; for a king of England, in conformity with the wishes of the people, retires from his throne, to make way for the establishment of a republic. Can we wonder at the plague that was to follow, and sweep off all the inhabitants of the earth? The holy salt of royalty removed, what was to preserve the mass from corruption? Ill-omened republicanism had, however, in the outset, another preliminary hazard, from which, unfortunately for the plague-predestined world, it escaped, thro' the agency of that all-important disposer of the affairs in the novel and romance creation--the little gentleman who, from Olympus and Cythera to the milk-stool and the dairy, plays blindman's-bluff with hearts and destinies. Lord Raymond, the republican hero, after the king, "good easy man!" had abdicated, and accepted the title of earl of Windsor, had half a mind to have married the princess, and seized the vacant throne, if a certain pretty, moody, philosophical, fantastical girl (one Miss Perdita) had not stood in the way between his heart and his ambition, and influenced him to be content with her, and the more humble dignity of Protector. Protector Raymond, however, tho seemingly (for the point is not quite clear) very platonic in his other attachment, does not continue intellectually faithful to her Perdita; but pays friendly visits to a certain mysteriously enamoured Greek princess in a St. Giles garret; and keeps the secret, naughty man! from his wife, till the ragged old woman of the dirty lodging-house (sent by him, while he is hovering, in pure sympathy, over the famine-sick bed of his protegé, on a message to the protectoral palace,) blabs out all, and more than all, that pertains to these mysterious visits. If we were sure that our readers in general would be desirous of knowing what more pertains to this very important part of the history, written by the last man, in the last year of the world (A.D. 2100), we would pursue it to its catastrophe: and we would, also, if we could hope to execute an abridgment with the peculiar graces of the ample original, indulge them with the equally natural and interesting amour of the great last man, himself, and the princes who fell in love with him in a cottage;: but, fearing that our miniature reflection could do no justice to the life-large picture, we must leave it, with all its pretty episodes, untouched.
There are some other particulars, however, relative to which the curiosity of our readers may be somewhat more importunate--namely, how came the last man, when nobody remained to read it, to write a history? and such a history especially--and how came the history, that is to be written 274 years hence, into our hands at this time?
With respect to the latter of these problems, Mrs. Bysche Shelly informs us, in her introduction, that she "visited Naples in the year 1818," and with her companion "visited the so called Elysian Fields and Avernus," and "the gloomy cavern of the Cumean Sibyl."--At length we arrive 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," Her courageous companion, however, seized the torch, and she as courageously following, they penetrate to the real cavern of the sibyl. There they find "piles of leaves, fragments of bark, &c. traced with written characters, in various languages, some unknown, ancient Chaldec and Egyptian hieroglyphics, old as the pyramids. Stranger still, some were in modern dialects, English and Italian." Some of these they gathered up; and, during their stay at Naples, often returned to this cave, and added to their store. "For awhile," continues the authoress, "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."--"I present the public with my latest discoveries in the slight sibylline pages."
Here is machine enough for a history of the last days of the world, and of the Last Man, if the authoress had known how to manage it. Grant the premise of the long unexplored recess, the sibyl and the sibylline leaves--and far be it from us to be so unpoetical as to deny them--a history of the last man, 274 years hence, becomes as credible, as the history of the first several thousand years ago. But Mrs. Shelly breaks her own spell, even before she gets thro' her introduction. The following passage present a curious instance of that want of tenacity of idea and tensity of conception, which form the great line of discrimination between the conceits of fancy, and the creative power of imagination. The authoress is speaking of herself, as decyphering and transcribing from the leaves that contained the history of the Last Man.
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.Here then the machine, so elaborately constructed, is, at once, destroyed. The sibylline leaves are blown away at a breath. It is no longer a transcript of future, or revealed history, but an avowed fable or invention of the writer, who, discarding the assumed and lofty pretension of transcribing the oracles of truth and inspiration, acknowledges herself explicitly to be "cloathing her own fiction in ideality."
The same want of consecutive adherence to the primitive and constituent idea is conspicuous thro'out this heterogeneous production. Having assumed the reality of the sibyl's cave, penetrated its inmost recesses, and discovered and selected the sibylline leaves, the writer was undoubtedly at liberty to choose for herself the use she should make of these assumed materials; but, that election once made, common sense demands that it should be consistently adhered to. Two ways of directing this machine would obviously present themselves. The sibyl might either be feigned to have written in her own person, prophetically, the history that was to follow, or prophetically to have pre-transcribed the history that some future historian was to write. In the former case, the actions, the secrets, the thoughts and feelings of every character would have been equally obvious to the inspired eye; and all might have proceeded as one great drama, in which, without any violation of probability, the most private, as well as the most public transactions, might have passed before us. In the latter case, tho the revelation is prophetic, it becomes a revelation not of what is to be done, but of that only which shall be narrated; and the narrator that is to be, like the narrator that is, can record no more than that which he sees and knows. All the advantages of supernatural perception, which penetrates the recesses of privacy, and the inmost chambers of the heart, are, at once, relinquished. There is but one heart, but one mind--nothing, in reality, but what might occur under the eye of one observer, that can be dramatically disclosed, or minutely related, without violation of all probability.
Mrs. Shelly, however, made choice of this latter alternative; and if her Last Man--her human, solitary recorder, had been himself the chief hero of the tale--the chief mover, actor, and director in the series of adventures to be recorded, and had united in himself those rare attributes , those deep feelings, and extraordinary powers and qualities which could concentrate upon himself the interests of the narrative,--perhaps she would have chose well: for the tensity of an undivided interest may more than compensate for the absence of such as is more diversified. But, verily, this Last Man, this Mr. Verney, this writer that is to be, of a history that there is to be nobody to read, is no such extraordinary phenomenon. Nor is her even the hero, or main actor in the series of events which he relates-- much less the actual spectator, or even confidant of all he affects to record. Yet he tells us as minutely, what was done, thought, and felt, by the respective characters, as if all had been done, thought, and felt by himself. This is not imagination, but sheer absurdity. This is not using, but forgetting the uses of the machine invented.
There is one person, however, with whose thoughts and feelings the assumed narrator may be admitted, under every circumstance, to have been sufficiently familiar. We will give a specimen of these, from the third volume. At a time when the progress of the plague had so depopulated the whole world, that "London," as a sample of the rest, "did not contain above a thousand inhabitants;" and when the greater part of the yet-remaining population of England, are about the emigrate to some other country, in which they know the plague to be raging with equal violence, our historian returns to his home, with a little rescued parish girl, whom he had found dancing and singing in an otherwise empty house,--an agitation from a more serious cause, and its consequences, are thus described.
I snatched a light, and rushing up stairs, and hearing a groan, without reflection I threw open the door of the first room that presented itself. It was quite dark; but, as I stept within, a pernicious scent assailed my senses, producing sickening qualms, which made their way to my very heart, while I felt my leg clasped, and a groan repeated by the person that held me. I lowered my lamp, and saw a negro half clad, writhing under the agony of disease, while he held me with a convulsive grasp. With mixed horror and impatience I strove to disengage myself, and fell on the sufferer; he wound his naked festering arms round me, his face was close to mine, and his breath, death-laden, entered my vitals. For a moment I was overcome, my head was bowed by aching nausea; till, reflection returning, I sprung up, threw the wretch from me, and darting up the staircase, entered the chamber usually inhabited by my family.In short he had caught the plague, and he knows it well enough; his child lies dead in the house, and he knows that too; but he calls for his Idris, and the following are parts of the scene and dialogue that ensue.
"As the miser, who with trembling caution visits his treasure to count it again and again, so I numbered each moment, and grudged every one that was not spent with Idris. I returned swiftly to the chamber where the life of my life reposed."--" She was lying on a couch; carefully fastening the door to prevent all intrusion; I sat by her, we embraced, and our lips met in a kiss long drawn and breathless--would that moment had been my last!"--"Idris," I replied, "we are spared to each other, we are together; do not let any other idea intrude. I am happy; even on this fatal night, I declare myself happy, beyond all name, all thought--what would you more, sweet one?"-- -- "We have been happy together, at least," I said; "no future misery can deprive us of the past. We have been true to each other for years, ever since my sweet princess-love came through the snow to the lowly cottage of the poverty- striken heir of the ruined Verney."--But, sweet, we are so formed, (and there is no sin, if God made our nature, to yield to what he ordains), we are so formed, that we must love life, and cling to it; we must love the living smile, the sympathetic touch, and thrilling voice, peculiar to our mortal mechanism. Let us not, through security in hereafter, neglect the present. This present moment, short as it is, is a part of eternity, and the dearest part, since it is our own unalienably. Thou, the hope of my futurity, art my present joy. Let me then look on thy dear eyes, and, reading love in them, drink intoxicating pleasure."N.B. It is a lady, from whose pages these metaphysical visitations of the plague--these cogent arguments for the moment's joy, are extracted, And what is a little remarkable--the passage before us, in one respect(i.e. in point of mere literary taste and style), is about one of the purest in the three volumes. The mind of the writer seems to be in the subject, and given up to it; and does not beat the bushes for ornamental flights of broken and incongruous metaphor, or overlay the thought with a profusion and superfluity of ill-assorted floriage.
But the pages in the work, of which this can be said, are comparatively few:--ornament, ornament, ornament, glittering conceit and spangled metaphor, heaped together without order, till meaning is lost in the glare of affected brilliancy, is the vice of these pages, the prevailing vice of the prose, and the poetry--of all that is called the amusive, and ought to be elegant literature of the day. Metaphors are not used to minister to compression, or enforce by vivid illustration; but to dilate sentences into pages, or substitute shewy verbiage for ideas. We present a few specimens from a few successive pages, beginning at 265 of the first volume:
"Raymond rose, his voice was broken, his features convulsed, his manner calm as the earthquake-cradling atmosphere."--The atmosphere a cradle for earthquakes!--Surely it ought to have been added that the winds were old nurses, and sang the lullaby ! --"Her head fell on his shoulder, she trembled, alternate changes of fire and ice ran thro' her limbs." --Running ice! i.e. ice in a state of fluidity! Thawing, to be sure, is a natural consequence, when ice is in such intimate vicinity to fire, but then, unfortunately for the metaphor, when it runs, whether thro' limbs or veins, it is no longer ice. "Faith and devotion have hitherto been the essences of our intercourse;--these lost, let us not cling to the seedless husk of life, the unkernelled shell." So then, when we lose our essences, husks and shells become seedless and unkernelled. "Her countenance became again radiant and satisfied." Not radiant with satisfaction. A satisfied countenance! But this is a trifle. "And then, he devoutly loved Perdita, the bend of her head, her glossy ringlets, the turn of her form, were to him subjects of deep tenderness." Then, we are told of a "mind that had not been rudely handled in the circumstance of life:" and that "his spirit was a pure fire, which fades and shrinks from every contagion of foul atmosphere but now, the contagion had become incorporated with its essence."--Contagion incorporated with the essence of fire! "His passions, always his masters, acquired fresh strength, from the long sleep in which love had cradled them." Our authoress is very fond of a cradle, it seems: but it is a remarkable page, in which nothing worse than this occurs. "He slowly recovered himself; yet, at last, as one might from the effects of poison, he lifted his head FROM above the vapours of fever and passion into the still atmosphere of calm reflection." We will merely add two more quotations somewhat more at length and then leave our readers, if so disposed, to seek, for themselves, in the abundant field of these volumes for further models and exemplifications of the graces of the present fashionable style of literature.Here existence is not only made a fabric (as if our being were a something built upon, or manufactured!) but this fabric, or building, founded upon a sentiment, becomes, by being participated,--what? a palace? a cottage? or any other buildable thing?--No: but common-place ! A succession of action is snapt be being transferred; and a universe being wrested (forced away!); happiness makes its bow and departs also; and goes to be exchanged for its opposite! As for the his, or him to whom this said universe originally belonged, if we would puzzle out who, or what he could be, we must turn back to a former sentence, in which we shall find "the warmth of the hear, making love a plant of deep root and stately growth," and, thereby "attuning the soul." When the reader has been able to make head or tail of this, he may venture, perhaps, to turn over the leaf, and try his skill on the next page. The subject is the indivisible treasure of love. Here we have, in the first place, the price of a sum! and then we have that which is valueless, turned into that which is vile !--a wonderful transformation!! And, after a beautiful specimen of the the rhetorical grace with which language may be made to pendulate, "From prose to verse, and back again to prose," * we have some one possessing "the talisman of the enchantments of an irradiation," and then we have "a spirit that is elemental"--but whether it be the spirit of an irradiation, or the spirit of a talisman, or of what else, we must leave the reader to discover. And then we have two mountain brooks, that have joined in their descent, sparkle away most brilliantly among shining pebbles and starry flowers !--till one of them deserting, becomes choked and dammed, and the banks of the other becoming altered, (in sympathetic horror, we suppose, at the said desertion, &c.) it shrinks--perhaps we might say, in the author's own strain of metaphor,--into nonsense. The whole of these specimens are culled from the brief space of twelve successive pages, little more than equal to two of ours; and any other twelve pages might have been taken, as equally fertile of the like graces. When we add, therefore, to this, the recollection of the incongruous management of the primary machine, and the mere novel-like frivolity of a major part of the incidents, we cannot but give it as our opinion, that the style and texture of these volumes, too little imaginative for poetry, too fanciful for prose, and too diffuse for either, present (notwithstanding their ephemeral popularity), the very reverse of any thing like a model for the highest species of romantic composition. They are interspersed, however, with a great many very pretty passages ! not unfrequently introduced in very unexpected places, which will not fail to have their admirers: and, in defiance of criticism, "The Last Man" will not fail to have its day--especially while it is believed that the late Lord Byron, and the late Mr. Bysche Shelly are the Lord protector Raymond, and the after deputy-protector Adrian, of the political love tales that occupy so large a portion of the work. To which might perhaps be added, with equal probability, that Lionel Verney, the Last Man himself, is meant to shadow forth the philosopher Godwin--the author of "Political Justice."
"There is a meaning in the eye of love,
A cadence in its voice"
True, as also,
There is a rhythmus in a line of verse,
A cadence in its close.
Which none whose ear can hear, or tongue rehearse,
Will ever take for prose!
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