George R. Stewart’s novel Earth Abides grapples with the question of what shape society will take after a deadly pandemic kills off most of the earth’s population.
Michiel Sweerts (1618–64) was a Flemish painter who specialised in genre paintings, portraits, and allegorical paintings. He greater part of the 1640s in Rome, during which time there was an outbreak of plague in the city which inspired him to paint this scene.
Humans have always expressed a ‘fear of the end’ in literary and artistic terms. The first apocalypse stories in Western culture came to us from the Bible, with Noah’s Flood giving us the archetypal ‘last man’ or ‘small group of survivors’ motif that has persisted in many retellings of the end times.
The scene is one of confusion as dead bodies lay in the street. In this picture, however, God looks on from above—does he feel sympathy for the plague victims, has he caused it, or is he simply indifferent?
The social anarchy resulting from plague are obviously a mainstay of pop culture depictions; times of crisis often bring out the worst in humanity. Yet they can also bring out the best in humanity as well, and it is one human, at his best and most heroic, whom Antoine-Jean Gros decided to represent on canvas in 1804. The man was Napoleon Bonaparte, Emperor of the French.
Nicolas Poussin (1594–1655) was born in Normandy, France and received a basic education before running away to Paris at the age of eighteen to become an artist. Having spent some time in Paris under the tutelage of several French and Flemish artists where he honed his craft. Poussin specialised in painting religious scenes as well as depictions of the classical era.
Plague, or Yersinia pestis, has “plagued” humankind throughout history. Since at least the reign of Byzantine Emperor Justinian in the 500s—and likely for much longer before that—it has claimed millions of lives. This section presents the voices of people throughout history who have recorded their experiences of the plague and who have also represented it in popular culture.
Presented here is an abridged version of Mary Shelley’s post-apocalyptic pandemic novel “The Last Man” (1826). The plague makes its way across the world killing all in its path and eventually arrives in England. Many of the motifs we find in modern-day apocalypse movies can be found in Shelley’s novel: lawlessness and rioting, the rise of religious madmen, the hoarding of food, and scenes of desolate towns and cities. The extract presented here is a highly abridged one which provides an overview of how Shelley imagined the end of the world as ushered in by a pandemic.
As part of pandemic poetry season we present Thomas Nashe (1567–1601) who was an Elizabethan poet, playwright, and fiction author and wrote a poem during an outbreak of plague.
The deepest despair now seized upon all the survivors. Scarcely a family but had lost half of its number—many, more than half—while those who were left felt assured that their turn would speedily arrive. Even the reckless were appalled, and abandoned their evil courses. Not only were the dead lying in the passages and alleys, but even in the main thoroughfares, and none would remove them. The awful prediction of Solomon Eagle that “grass would grow in the streets, and that the living should not be able to bury the dead,” had come to pass. London had become one vast lazar-house, and seemed in a fair way of becoming a mighty sepulchre.