The Last Days of Pompeii draws upon ancient historians to narrate the various stages of the city's destruction by Vesuvius, the beginning coming at a key point in the story — just as a witness charges the villain Arbaces with the murder for which Glaucus has just been thrown to a somewhat distracted lion :
'Behold!' he shouted with a voice of thunder, which stilled the roar of the crowd; 'behold how the gods protect the guiltless! The fires of the avenging Orcus burst forth against the false witness of my accusers!'
The eyes of the crowd followed the gesture of the Egyptian, and beheld, with ineffable dismay, a vast vapor shooting from the summit of Vesuvius, in the form of a gigantic pine-tree; the trunk, blackness—the branches, fire!—a fire that shifted and wavered in its hues with every moment, now fiercely luminous, now of a dull and dying red, that again blazed terrifically forth with intolerable glare! [Book V, Chapter IV]
This passage ahs several key functions, the first of which is synchronize key elements in this fictional human drama with the beginnings of an historical cataclysm. It also works beautifully to characterize the Egyptian, who here demonstrates how quickly he thinks and acts in a crisis, turning events to his advantage. But perhaps the most interesting aspect of this scene turns upon the way novelist shows that natural disaster always functions as an opaque screen upon which people project their beliefs. Like an earthquake's destruction of Lisbon and the paradigmatic image of being shipwrecked and castaway, this natural disaster becomes different things to different people: the pagan Glaucus at first sees it only as nature's deliverance, telling his fellow prisoner, the Christian Olinthus, "'Arise! arise! my friend,' he cried. 'Save thyself, and fly! See! Nature is thy dread deliverer!'" (Book V, Chapter V). The Christians believe their God both punishes the non-believing inhabitants of Pompeii and rewards the faithful by ending the world. The greedy priest Calenus sees "Hades is loosed on earth!" (Book V, Chapter VI), The atheist Egyptian priest Arbaces uses it to claim that gods in whom he himself doesn't believe have proclaimed his innocence, but for most of the people the disaster brings terror and death but no meaning.
After the strange plume of vapor and fire comes an earthquake followed by a rain of volcanic ash:
Then there arose on high the universal shrieks of women; the men stared at each other, but were dumb. At that moment they felt the earth shake beneath their feet; the walls of the theatre trembled: and, beyond in the distance, they heard the crash of falling roofs; an instant more and the mountain-cloud seemed to roll towards them, dark and rapid, like a torrent; at the same time, it cast forth from its bosom a shower of ashes mixed with vast fragments of burning stone! Over the crushing vines—over the desolate streets—over the amphitheatre itself—far and wide—with many a mighty splash in the agitated sea—fell that awful shower!
No longer thought the crowd of justice or of Arbaces; safety for themselves was their sole thought. Each turned to fly—each dashing, pressing, crushing, against the other. Trampling recklessly over the fallen—amidst groans, and oaths, and prayers, and sudden shrieks, the enormous crowd vomited itself forth through the numerous passages. Whither should they fly?
The next stage comes when
Amidst the other horrors, the mighty mountain now cast up columns of boiling water. Blent and kneaded with the half-burning ashes, the streams fell like seething mud over the streets in frequent intervals. And full, where the priests of Isis had now cowered around the altars, on which they had vainly sought to kindle fires and pour incense, one of the fiercest of those deadly torrents, mingled with immense fragments of scoria, had poured its rage. Over the bended forms of the priests it dashed: that cry had been of death—that silence had been of eternity! The ashes—the pitchy streams—sprinkled the altars, covered the pavement, and half concealed the quivering corpses of the priests! [Book V, Chapter VI]
Citing Pliny, Bulwer-Lytton (or, to be more exact, his narrator), next describes the combination of darkness and lightning in Book V, Chapter VII, which he entitles, "The Progress of the Destruction":
The cloud, which had scattered so deep a murkiness over the day, had now settled into a solid and impenetrable mass. It resembled less even the thickest gloom of a night in the open air than the close and blind darkness of some narrow room. But in proportion as the blackness gathered, did the lightnings around Vesuvius increase in their vivid and scorching glare. Nor was their horrible beauty confined to the usual hues of fire; no rainbow ever rivalled their varying and prodigal dyes. Now brightly blue as the most azure depth of a southern sky—now of a livid and snakelike green, darting restlessly to and fro as the folds of an enormous serpent—now of a lurid and intolerable crimson, gushing forth through the columns of smoke, far and wide, and lighting up the whole city from arch to arch—then suddenly dying into a sickly paleness, like the ghost of their own life!
In the pauses of the showers, you heard the rumbling of the earth beneath, and the groaning waves of the tortured sea; or, lower still, and audible but to the watch of intensest fear, the grinding and hissing murmur of the escaping gases through the chasms of the distant mountain. Sometimes the cloud appeared to break from its solid mass, and, by the lightning, to assume quaint and vast mimicries of human or of monster shapes, striding across the gloom, hurtling one upon the other, and vanishing swiftly into the turbulent abyss of shade; so that, to the eyes and fancies of the affrighted wanderers, the unsubstantial vapors were as the bodily forms of gigantic foes—the agents of terror and of death.
The ashes in many places were already knee-deep; and the boiling showers which came from the steaming breath of the volcano forced their way into the houses, bearing with them a strong and suffocating vapor. In some places, immense fragments of rock, hurled upon the house roofs, bore down along the streets masses of confused ruin, which yet more and more, with every hour, obstructed the way; and, as the day advanced, the motion of the earth was more sensibly felt—the footing seemed to slide and creep—nor could chariot or litter be kept steady, even on the most level ground.
Sometimes the huger stones striking against each other as they fell, broke into countless fragments, emitting sparks of fire, which caught whatever was combustible within their reach; and along the plains beyond the city the darkness was now terribly relieved; for several houses, and even vineyards, had been set on flames; and at various intervals the fires rose suddenly and fiercely against the solid gloom. To add to this partial relief of the darkness, the citizens had, here and there, in the more public places, such as the porticoes of temples and the entrances to the forum, endeavored to place rows of torches; but these rarely continued long; the showers and the winds extinguished them, and the sudden darkness into which their sudden birth was converted had something in it doubly terrible and doubly impressing on the impotence of human hopes, the lesson of despair.
Finally, the volcanic mountain begins to split in half, as suddenly
the place became lighted with an intense and lurid glow. Bright and gigantic through the darkness, which closed around it like the walls of hell, the mountain shone—a pile of fire! Its summit seemed riven in two; or rather, above its surface there seemed to rise two monster shapes, each confronting each, as Demons contending for a world. These were of one deep blood-red hue of fire, which lighted up the whole atmosphere far and wide; but, below, the nether part of the mountain was still dark and shrouded, save in three places, adown which flowed, serpentine and irregular, rivers of the molten lava. Darkly red through the profound gloom of their banks, they flowed slowly on, as towards the devoted city. Over the broadest there seemed to spring a cragged and stupendous arch, from which, as from the jaws of hell, gushed the sources of the sudden Phlegethon. And through the stilled air was heard the rattling of the fragments of rock, hurtling one upon another as they were borne down the fiery cataracts—darkening, for one instant, the spot where they fell, and suffused the next, in the burnished hues of the flood along which they floated! [Book V, Chapter VIII].
The next morning all is calm and quiet over the destroyed, now-buried city, and after briefly narrating the lover's sailing away to their new life, the author ends the novel by jumping ahead ten years, thus placing the great disaster, which he narrated in an excited present tense, in the increasingly distant past.
Last modified 5 March 2007