The Last Man is an apocalyptic novel by Mary Shelley, first published in 1826. The book tells of a future world ravaged by a plague. The novel was poorly reviewed at the time and was not republished until 1965. Some of the characters in the novel are semi-biographical versions of herself, her late husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Lord Byron. I include it here because of the introduction, in which the author uses the device of the Sibyl's cave, near Cuma, to advance the narrative. The premise is that she discovered in the cave a collection of prophetic writings painted on leaves by the Cumaean Sibyl and edited them into the finished product, the first-person narrative of a man living at the end of the 21st century. The Shelleys spent some time in Naples in real life, too, as you may read at this link.
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, which were interlaced by sea-weed, and received diamond tints from the chequering of the sun-beams; the blue and pellucid element was such as Galatea 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 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. Our Lazzeroni 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."
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."
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 almost 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.
a succession of these, which our resolution 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, reached us from above.
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." 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 its 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, 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' nvidio insieme, o mio nobil tesoro?
I present the public with my latest discoveries in the slight Sibylline pages. 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; 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. Will 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.