Monday 1 February 2016

Imagining the Apocalypse in the Long Eighteenth Century

John Martin's 'The Destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum' (1822)
In last month’s blog post, I mentioned that I was in the process of organising a conference around the theme of ‘Imagining Apocalypse’. I’m pleased to announce that the Call for Papers has now been released, and any academics with an interest in depictions of apocalypse across the long eighteenth century are warmly encouraged to submit a paper. Further details can be found here.

As I’m keen to open out academic research to non-academics, we’re planning to end the conference with a fantastic event that I’m hoping will be enjoyed by a wider audience: a staging of William H. Callcott’s opera The Last Man, which was written in 1826. Based on Thomas Campbell’s poem of the same name, this opera received rave reviews at the time – and was performed again in 1827, 1828, and 1830 – but has subsequently been forgotten. Regular readers will know that I’m a big fan of the Last Man theme in Romantic literature, so I’m hugely excited about reviving this opera. We plan to record the event in order to make it available to a wider range of people; do look out for further details of that on this blog over the coming months!

Frontispiece to A Revealed Knowledge
Although my own personal research interests lie in Last Man literature, there was lots going on over the course of the long eighteenth century (roughly 1660-1830) when it came to ideas of apocalypse. Many people responded to the French Revolution by thinking about it in apocalyptic terms, and the growth of cities such as London was frequently explored with apocalyptic imagery. Richard Brothers – a radical protestant and Calvinist – depicted London as the sinful city of Revelation in his A Revealed Knowledge of the Prophecies and Times (1794), describing how ‘her streets are full of prostitutes, and many of her houses are full of crimes; it is for such exceeding wickedness that St John spiritually calls London [in Revelation] by the name of Sodom’.

The summer of 1816 – otherwise known as the Year Without a Summer – was also filled with apocalyptic anxiety as people speculated that the gloomy weather heralded the end of the world. Indeed, the April 1816 edition of the Literary Panorama led with a headline that warned ‘The End of the World! The End of the World!’. This was the summer in which Lord Byron wrote his famous poem ‘Darkness’: a text that imagines the death of the sun and the subsequent demise of humanity.

Joanna Southcott
Millenarial cults were, unsurprisingly, flourishing at this time. The self-proclaimed prophetess Joanna Southcott gained a following of 100,000 by 1808 due to her supposed ability to see visions of the forthcoming New Jerusalem, with this cult achieving a second climax in 1814 when Southcott suffered a hysterical pregnancy and claimed that she would give birth to the son of God. In 1826, Mary Shelley examined the dangers of such cults in her novel The Last Man, in which a charlatan in Paris sets himself up as a prophet and recruits numerous followers as a terrible plague sweeps the globe.

We’ll be exploring all of these ideas and more at the ‘Imagining Apocalypse’ conference. In the meantime, here's an article that I recently wrote for The Conversation about how the theme of survival has dominated this year’s Oscar nominations; it seems that our interest in post-apocalypse, the Last Man, and living on against the odds continues!