Literature: The Last Man in literature

In Nuce: The Last Man
Source: Time Magazine
"The Last Man" was an epithet for Charles I of England, given by anti-royalists in the hope that he would be their last king. He was executed in 1649.

However, in literature, as in life, there has been plenty of imagining about what it might be like to be the "last man" experiencing the last days of the world

The idea of a Last Man was the subject of a poem by Thomas Campbell:
ALL worldly shapes shall melt in gloom,
The Sun himself must die,
Before this mortal shall assume
   Its Immortality!
I saw a vision in my sleep
That gave my spirit strength to sweep
   Adown the gulf of Time!
I saw the last of human mould,
That shall Creation's death behold,
   As Adam saw her prime!
Upon publication of Campbell's poem in 1823, there was a "long and bitter controversy" over whether or not he had borrowed too much from Lord Byron's 1816 poem, "Darkness."
I had a dream, which was not all a dream.
The bright sun was extinguish'd, and the stars
Did wander darkling in the eternal space,
Rayless, and pathless, and the icy earth
Swung blind and blackening in the moonless air;
Morn came and went--and came, and brought no day,
And men forgot their passions in the dread
Of this their desolation...
Campbell wrote to a friend: 
Did you see "The Last Man" in my late number? Did it remind you of Lord Byron's poem of "Darkness"?
However, this time-honored subject of the end of the world had been breached long before Byron. It's a Biblical topic, and the early, as well as later, church father's wrote on it.  Bishop Home wrote a sermon called "The Death of the Old Year," which in turn referenced a work called "Sacred Theory of the Earth," by Thomas Burnet, published around 1681.

William Walsh, in his Handy-Book of Literary Curiosities, says that Burnet,
having followed the earth through all its changes of creation, describes the final and utter devastation of it, when all sublunary nature shall be overwhelmed by a molten deluge. In this situation of things, "[the Last Man] stands over the world as if he had been the only survivor, and pronounces its funeral oration in a strain of sublimity scarcely ever equaled by mere man."
Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein, gets in on the act.
But the history of the "Last Man" does not end with Campbell. A few months after the appearance of his poem, another "Last Man"—a novel—was published by Mrs. Shelley. She describes herself in her journal as returning from Italy to England, after an absence of six years, still mourning for her husband, to find that her "genius had been quenched by the same waters that swept him away." "Now my mind is a blank, a gulf, filled with formless mist. 'The Last Man.' Yes, I may well describe that solitary being's feelings. I feel myself as the last relic of a beloved race,—my companions extinct before me."
And then, to show that her genius was quenched, she wrote this story. It is a sad descent from Frankenstein. The scene opens in the year 2090. England is a republic, under a Protector. The tale describes the depopulation of the earth by a plague; fifteen thousand survivors in England, joined by a Protector, repair to Italy, and the hardships of their voyage are vividly depicted by the " Last Man," whose wife and child have also died. When Milan is reached, only three people remain alive on the whole earth, two of whom, a pair of brothers, perish in the storm.
The sole survivor resolves to write the fate of the human race, and he does so on the leaves of the trees, depositing the record in a tree in Naples just before his own death, trusting that possibly one man and woman still remain to re-people the earth and read the history of its awful annihilation.

Norton Critical Edition

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