Psalm 8 according to The Last Man

As the third part of Mary Shelley’s novel The Last Man begins, her narrator, Lionel Verney, ponders the curious lack of apocalyptic signs—or indeed, any response by the natural world at all—to the rapidly arriving end of humanity. Instead, as the human race hurtles toward destruction, the springtime is unusually beautiful. This leads Verney to ponder a near-quotation from Psalm 8:5-6: “Once man was a favourite of the Creator, as the royal psalmist sang, ‘God had made him a little lower than the angels, and had crowned him with glory and honour. God made him to have dominion over the works of his hands, and put all things under his feet.’” For Verney, these words reveal the reversal of humanity’s fortunes: “Once it was so; now is man lord of the creation? Look at him—ha! I see plague!” (316).[1] Human dominion over creation has evidently been overturned as the inexplicable power of the natural world, expressed through plague, swiftly destroys all signs of human power.

However, Psalm 8 is more complex than a simple statement about human dominion over creation; and Shelley’s engagement with this biblical text offers similar complexities. Verney focuses on the divine honor reportedly shown to humanity. But, in the Psalm itself, this idea is preceded by an expression of wonder that God should take concern for humanity at all: “When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars, which thou hast ordained; What is man, that thou art mindful of him? and the son of man, that thou visitest him?” (Psalm 8:3-4, KJV).[2] This introduces a level of irony into Verney’s quotation. In the Psalm, the surprise is not that the heavenly bodies might fail to “announc[e] the last days of man” (315), but rather that we would ever have cause to think they might do so. Despite hints at apocalyptic signs elsewhere in the novel, the narrator’s confusion at the absence of such signs could suggest that he fails to understand humanity’s role in the divine order of reality.

On the other hand, Shelley’s literary invocation of Psalm 8 can also be read as setting up an inversion of the biblical salvation story. The second chapter of the Letter to the Hebrews offers an extended reading of this Psalm in terms of the Christian Gospel narrative: “we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels for the suffering of death, crowned with glory and honour; that he by the grace of God should taste death for every man” (Hebrews 2:9). Here, the phrase “made a little lower than the angels” is taken to apply to Christ’s incarnation. And Shelley’s text subtly and strangely borrows this idea when Verney writes that the plague “has invested [man’s] form, is incarnate in his flesh, has entwined herself with his being, and blinds his heaven-seeking eyes” (316, emphasis added). Here the plague is a kind of feminized anti-Christ,[3] uniting itself to human nature, not in order to raise it to the divine, but to prevent it from reaching the divine. The story turns out to be apocalyptic after all—or rather anti-apocalyptic, a blinding instead of a revelation (the literal meaning of the Greek word “apokalypsis”).

Moreover, Verney’s amendment of the verb-tenses to past perfect—“God had made him a little lower than the angels, and had crowned him with glory and honour”—emphasizes that this story is not, as in Hebrews, that of humility leading to exaltation, but rather humiliation that ends in degradation. As he says later on the same page, “Our minds, late spread abroad through countless spheres and endless combinations of thought, now retrenched themselves behind this wall of flesh, eager to preserve its well-being only. We were sufficiently degraded” (316, emphasis added.) The narrative link between Psalm 8 and degradation is confirmed when Verney pairs them again some eighty pages later: “A sense of degradation came over me. Did God create man, merely in the end to become dead earth in the midst of healthful vegetating nature? Was he of no more account to his Maker, than a field of corn blighted in the ear? Were our proud dreams thus to fade? Our name was written ‘a little lower than the angels;’ and, behold, we were no better than ephemera. We had called ourselves the ‘paragon of animals,’ and lo! we were a ‘quintessence of dust’” (398, emphasis added). This passage is one of several toward the end of the novel that gesture toward the Burial Office in the Book of Common Prayer, which further develops the idea of a return to “dust.”[4] But it leaves open the question of God’s role in this humiliation and degradation.

The invocation of Psalm 8 therefore serves to query humanity’s relationship, not just with non-human creation, but with divine providence. It suggests a troubling conflict with the biblical witness—but, paradoxically, a conflict that is only problematic if the biblical text is taken as authoritative in the first place. Verney’s struggle to “reconcile this sad change to [humanity’s] past aspirations” is answered in this case by his own invocation of eternal decree, “the unchangeable laws of Necessity… Servant of the Omnipotent” (399).[5] Yet his wrestling with providence will continue in various ways till the end. For the Psalmist, meditating on humanity’s lowliness and exaltation was a matter of praise. The Psalm opens and closes with the same words: “O Lord our Lord, how excellent is thy name in all the earth!” (Psalm 8:1,8). But for Verney, the language of the Psalm presents an insoluble conundrum, a dissonance that needs to be (but cannot be) reconciled. It thus epitomizes and in some ways expresses a twofold difficulty that echoes throughout the third part of the novel, of humanity’s relationship with the natural order but also with God.

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[1] I am quoting from the Oxford World Classics edition, edited by Morton D. Paley, Oxford University Press, 1994.

[2] A possible hint at these verses occurs earlier in the novel: “What are we, the inhabitants of this glove, least among the many that people infinite space? Our minds embrace infinity; the visible mechanism of our being is subject to merest accident” (230).

[3] There is much more to be said about the personification and gendering of the plague as feminine. Although the use of feminine pronouns will recur several times later in the novel (see 346, 397, 426), I believe this is the first instance of such feminine personification. The disease’s union with “man” is thus presented in this passage a kind of perverse marriage as well as a parody of the Christian doctrine of divine incarnation.

[4] One of these allusions appears on the previous page, when Adrian refers to himself as “one of woman born” (397). This hints at the priest’s words spoken over the corpse at the grave, which begin: “Man that is born of a woman, hath but a short time to live, and is full of misery. He cometh up, and is cut down like a flower; he fleeth as it were a shadow, and never continueth in one stay.” The Book of Common Prayer, edited by Brian Cummings, Oxford University Press, 2011, p. 455. The imagery of these sentences can be traced through the novel’s final chapters, as for example when “the mighty leveler came with unblunted scythe to mow, together with the grass, the tall flowers of the field” (421).

[5] This “solution” is itself problematic, since it effectively shifts from a Christian notion of God to an almost-pagan fate. A similar submission to “fate” occurs at the end of the novel: “I admitted her authority, and bowed to her decrees,” Verney writes (464).

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