The Last of the Race: The Growth of a Myth from Milton to Darwin

The Last of the Race: The Growth of a Myth from Milton to Darwin

The Last of the Race: The Growth of a Myth from Milton to Darwin

The Last of the Race: The Growth of a Myth from Milton to Darwin

Synopsis

The perennial fascination with the end of the world has given rise to many "last men," from the ancient myths of Noah and Deucalion to contemporary stories of nuclear holocaust. This is an innovative and wide-ranging study of the myth of the "Last of the Race" as it develops in a range of literary and non-literary texts from the late seventeenth to late nineteenth centuries. Examinations of works by Milton, Burnet, Defoe, Ossian, Cowper, Wordsworth, Byron, Mary Shelley, Fenimore Cooper, Bulwer-Lytton, and Darwin combine to form an important account of the traces of this most resonant of cultural preoccupations, providing a distinguished contribution to cultural history as well as to literary studies.

Excerpt

We are almost the last Posterity of the first Men, and fain into the dying Age of the World; by what footsteps, or by what guide, can we trace back our way to those first Ages, and the first order of things?

(Thomas Burnet, The Sacred Theory of the Earth, 1681-9)

How little hath been discover'd till of late, either of our own Bodies, or of the body of the Earth, and of the functions or motions of Nature in either? What more obvious, one would think, that the Circulation of the Bloud? What can more excite our curiosity than the flowing and ebbing of the Sea? Than the nature of Metals and Minerals? These are either yet unknown, or were so at least till this last Age; which seems to me to have made a greater progress than all Ages before put together, since the beginning of the World.

(Ibid.)

ALTHOUGH Apocalyptic ideas were beginning to lose some credibility in the late seventeenth century, the imaginative appeal of the Christian scheme of world history persisted. In one of his Spectator essays, Richard Steele described the great pleasure he had derived from Thomas Burnet The Sacred Theory of the Earth, an influential account of the earth's 'history' based on the text of the Bible:

Oh how Glorious is the Old Age of that great Man, who has spent his Time in such Contemplations as had made this Being, what only it should be, an Education for Heaven! He has, according to the Lights of Reason and Revelation, which seem'd to him clearest, traced the Steps of Omnipotence: He has, with a Cælestial Ambition, as far as it is consistent with Humility and Devotion, examined the Ways of Providence, from the Creation to the Dissolution of the visible World. How pleasing must have been the Speculation, to observe Nature and Providence move together, the Physical and Moral World march the same pace: To observe Paradice and Eternal Spring the Seat of Innocence, Troubled Seasons and Angry Skies the Portion of Wickedness and Vice! When this Admirable author has reviewed all that has passed, or is to come, which relates to the Habitable World, and run through the whole Fate of it, how could a Guardian Angel, that had attended it through all its Courses or Changes, speak more emphatically . . .

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