Another early poem with a “modern” post-apocalyptic feel to it, The Last Man by Thomas Hood from 1824.

Mary Shelley’s novel of the same name was published two years later, and was apparently influenced by Wood’s poem, which also told of a lone survivor after a plague had ravaged the population.

The first stanza is below, with the rest after the break.


‘TWAS in the year two thousand and one,

A pleasant morning of May,

I sat on the gallows-tree all alone,

A chaunting a merry lay, —

To think how the pest had spared my life,

To sing with the larks that day!

When up the heath came a jolly knave,

Like a scarecrow, all in rags

It made me crow to see his old duds

All abroad in the wind, like flags: —

So up he came to the timbers’ foot

And pitch’d down his greasy bags. —

Good Lord! how blythe the old beggar was!

At pulling out his scraps, —

The very sight of his broken orts(1)

Made a work in his wrinkled chaps:

‘Come down,’ says he, ‘you Newgate bird,

And have a taste of my snaps!’ —

Then down the rope, like a tar from the mast,

I slided, and by him stood;

But I wished myself on the gallows again

When I smelt that beggar’s food,

A foul beef-bone and a mouldy crust;

‘Oh!’ quoth he, ‘ the heavens are good!’

Then after this grace he cast him down:

Says I, ‘ You’ll get sweeter air

A pace or two off, on the windward side,’

For the felons’ bones lay there.

But he only laugh’d at the empty skulls,

And offered them part of his fare.

‘I never harm’d them, and they won’t harm me:

Let the proud and the rich be cravens!’

I did not like that strange beggar man,

He look’d so up at the heavens.

Anon he shook out his empty old poke;

‘There’s the crumbs,’ saith he, ‘ for the ravens!’

It made me angry to see his face,

It had such a jesting look;

But while I made up my mind to speak,

A small case-bottle he took:

Quoth he,’ though I gather the green water-cress,

My drink is not of the brook!’

Full manners-like he tender’d the dram

Oh, it came of a dainty cask!

But, whenever it came to his turn to pull,

‘Your leave, good sir, I must ask;

But I always wipe the brim with my sleeve,

When a hangman sups at my flask!’

And then he laugh’d so loudly and long,

The churl was quite out of breath;

I thought the very Old One was come

To mock me before my death,

And wish’d I had buried the dead men’s bones

That were lying about the heath!

But the beggar gave me a jolly clap —

‘Come, let us pledge each other,

For all the wide world is dead beside

And we are brother and brother —

I’ve a yearning for thee in my heart,

As if we had come of one mother.

‘I’ve a yearning for thee in my heart

That almost makes me weep,

For as I pass’d from town to town

The folks were all stone-asleep, —

But when I saw thee sitting aloft,

It made me both laugh and leap!’

Now a curse (I thought) be on his love,:

And a curse upon his mirth,

An’ if it were not for that beggar man

I’d be the King of the earth, —

But I promis’d myself an hour should come

To make him rue his birth —

So down we sat and bous’d(2) again

Till the sun was in mid-sky,

When, just when the gentle west-wind came,

We hearken’d a dismal cry;

‘Up, up, on the tree,’ quoth the beggar man,

‘Till these horrible dogs go by!’

And, lo! from the forest’s far-off skirts,

They came all yelling for gore,

A hundred hounds pursuing at once,

And a panting hart before,

Till he sunk down at the gallows’ foot,

And there his haunches they tore!

His haunches they tore, without a horn

To tell when the chase was done;

And there was not a single scarlet coat(3)

To flaunt it in the sun

I turn’d, and look’d at the beggar man,

And his tears dropt one by one!

And with curses sore he chid at the hounds,

Till the last dropt out of sight,

Anon, saith he, ‘ Let’s down again,

And ramble for our delight,

For the world’s all free, and we may choose

A right cozie barn for to-night!’

With that, he set up his staff on end,

And it fell with the point due West;

So we far’d that way to a city great,

Where the folks had died of the pest —

It was fine to enter in house and hall

Wherever it liked me best;

For the porters all were stiff and cold,

And could not lift their heads;

And when we came where their masters lay,

The rats leapt out of the beds

The grandest palaces in the land

Were as free as workhouse sheds.

But the beggar man made a mumping(4) face,

And knocked at every gate:

It made me curse to hear how he whined,

So our fellowship turned to hate

And I bade him walk the world himself,

For I scorn’d so humble a mate!

So he turn’d right, and I turn’d 1eft,

As if we had never met;

And I chose a fair stone house for myself,

For the city was all to let

And for three brave holidays drank my fill

Of the choicest that I could get.

And because my jerkin was coarse and worn,

I got me a properer vest

It was purple velvet, stitch’d o’er with gold,

And a shining star at the breast! —

‘Twas enough to fetch old Joan from her grave

To see me so purely drest!

But Joan was dead and under the mould,

And every buxom lass;

In vain I watch’d, at the window pane

For a Christian soul to pass!

But sheep and kine wander’d up the street,

And browz’d on the new-come grass. —

When lo! I spied the old beggar man,

And lustily he did sing!

His rags were lapp’d in a scarlet cloak,

And a crown he had like a King;

So he stept right up before my gate

And danc’d me a saucy fling!

Heaven mend us all! — but, within my mind,

I had killed him then and there;

To see him lording so braggart-like

That was born to his beggar’s fare,

And how he had stolen the royal crown

His betters were meant to wear.

But God forbid that a thief should die

Without his share of the laws!

So I nimbly whipt my tackle out,

And soon tied up his claws, —

I was judge myself, and jury, and all,

And solemnly tried the cause.

But the beggar man would not plead, but cried

Like a babe without its corals,

For he knew how hard it is apt to go

When the law and a thief have quarrels, —

There was not a Christian soul alive

To speak a word for his morals;

Oh, how gaily I doff’d my costly gear,

And put on my work-day clothes;

I was tired of such a long Sundaylife, —

And never was one of the sloths;

But the beggar man grumbled a weary deal,

And made many crooked mouths.

I haul’d him off to the gallows’ foot

And blinded him in his bags;(5)

‘Twas a weary job to heave him up,

For a doom’d man always lags;

But by ten of the clock he was off his legs

In the wind, and airing his rags!

So there he hung, and there I stood,

The LAST MAN left alive,

To have my own will of all the earth:

Quoth I, now I shall thrive!

But when was ever honey made

With one bee in a hive?

My conscience began to gnaw my heart,

Before the day was done,

For other men’s lives had all gone ont,

Like candles in the sun! —

But it seem’d as if I had broke, at last,

A thousand necks in one!

So I went and cut his body down

To bury it decentlie; —

God send there were any good soul alive

To do the like by me!

But the wild dogs came with terrible speed,

And bade me up the tree!

My sight was like a drunkard’s sight,

And my head began to swim,

To see their jaws all white with foam,

Like the ravenous ocean brim; —

But when the wild dogs trotted away

Their jaws were bloody and grim!

Their jaws were bloody and grim, good Lord!

But the beggarman,where was he? —

There was naught of him but some ribbons of rags

Below the gallows’ tree! —

I know the Devil, when I am dead,

Will send his hounds for me! —

I’ve buried my babies one by one,

And dug the deep hole for Joan,

And covered the faces of kith and kin,

And felt the old churchyard stone

Go cold to my heart, full many a time,

But I never felt so lone!

For the lion and Adam were company,

And the tiger him beguiled;

But the simple kine are foes to my life,

And the household brutes are wild.

If the veriest cur would lick my hand,

I could love it like a child!

And the beggar man’s ghost besets my dream,

At night to make me madder, —

And my wretched conscience within my breast,

Is like a stinging adder; —

I sigh when I pass the gallows’ foot,

And look at the rope and ladder!

For hanging looks sweet, — but, alas! in vain

My desperate fancy begs, —

I must turn my cup of sorrows quite up,

And drink it to the dregs,

For there is not another man alive,

In the world, to pull my legs!

Originally posted 2011-03-29 09:17:49.