“Let us live for each other and for happiness; let us seek peace in our dear home, near the inland murmur of streams, and the gracious waving of trees, the beauteous vesture of earth, and sublime pageantry of the skies. Let us leave ‘life,’ that we may live.” — Mary Shelley
Let us live for each other and for happiness. When she penned those words in 1826, Mary Shelley was emerging from one of the toughest periods of her existence. The loss of loved ones weighted heavily on her soul. Three of her children passed away early. Her husband, the Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley died in a boating accident. These painful tragedies left her heart with a gaping hole that couldn’t be filled.
In order to soften the grief, she focused on writing. The result of this effort is one of her lesser known books, “The Last Man”. While it is not as famous as her iconic work “Frankenstein”, Shelley’s story of the last man on Earth has gained eerie relevance in the current pandemic age.
Set in bleak apocalyptic times in the 21st century, it is ultimately a message of hope. It tells the tale of a man who rises up above his meager circumstances, only for the world to be overtaken by a terrible plague, leaving him to be the last person on the planet. Despite the horrible prospects of living alone, the hero finds solace in the nature around him.
The beauty of nature is the key to your soul
It is the “beauteous vesture of earth, and sublime pageantry of the skies” that transcend a lonely person’s being. The whole of nature fits Shelley’s idea of beauty. This notion of the grandeur of the outdoors is persistent throughout all her work.
Its soothing effects can heal a broken soul. In “Frankenstein”, she has Victor Frankenstein escape to the mountains to find inner peace. Looking at the tallest mountain in the Alps, Victor reflects on the majesty of the scene before him:
“From the side where I now stood Montanvert was exactly opposite, at the distance of a league; and above it rose Mont Blanc, in awful majesty. I remained in a recess of the rock, gazing on this wonderful and stupendous scene.”
Having climbed Mt. Blanc myself, I can testify to the transformative experience such a touch with nature can be. After two days of scrambling over rocks, and then ascending the mountain of ice in the dead of night, finally having reached the peak released an indescribable feeling of euphoria and being one with the world.
Reading Shelley’s description of the magic of nature, I was transported back to that time. Standing on top of the mountain, looking down at the landscapes below me, a sense of awe overtook my entire being. You gain the perception of something larger than yourself. According to scientific studies, this awareness makes you not only more generous to nature, but to other people.
“New research from UC Berkeley and UC Irvine suggests that experiencing awe can actually prompt us to act more benevolently toward others. In other words, awe can help make the world a better place.”
In a way, experiencing the sublime in nature, is the key to your soul. It connects you to yourself, but also to others. Even in a lonely time such as this, where you are isolated from the rest of humanity, by experiencing nature you become part of a greater whole.
Experience the sublime
Shelley no doubt got these ideas during her travels through France, Switzerland, and Italy. After having eloped with her future husband as a teenager, the happy couple embarked on an epic voyage of discovery. In a letter to her sister, Mary described the awesome scenery she encountered on the journey:
“The next morning we proceeded, still ascending among the ravines and valleys of the mountain. The scenery perpetually grows more wonderful and sublime: pine forests of impenetrable thickness, and untrodden, nay, inaccessible expanse spread on every side.”
Similar ideas bore themselves into the writings of Percy Bysshe Shelley, the love of her life. As one of the chief protagonists of the English Romantic movement in poetry, Percy’s work is representative of an era. It resonates deeply with those seeking a more profound connection. The poem “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty”, which he wrote after that trip with Mary is a testament to the powerful themes that were flowing in the intellectual air at the time.
Inspired by the majesty of Lake Geneva and the Alps around him, the poet reflected on the concept of “beauty” itself. For him, beauty was unknowable. It could only be experienced. It belongs to the notion of the sublime, which Romantic writers elevated to the highest echelons of being. It refers to an encounter that takes you beyond yourself, exciting your emotions to another level.
Lessons from the last human
Despite the tragic events in her life, Mary Shelley held onto these ideals. In “The Last Man”, she gave her answer to an eternal question. What should a person deprived of all other human contact actually do? It is the experience of the sublime by contemplating the beauty of nature that can get you through tough times.
In her novel, Mary was strangely prophetic. A global pandemic ravages humanity in the 21st century, first slowly, but ultimately killing off almost everyone on the planet. As all the humans die off, Lionel Verney is left alone. Nature once again takes its place as the ruler of the world, slowly erasing the last vestiges of human industrial ingenuity. Verney finds meaning in his predicament, and by exploring the forests and rivers around him, he finds peace.
“There is but one solution to the intricate riddle of life; to improve ourselves, and contribute to the happiness of others.” — Mary Shelley
Amid tragic loneliness and isolation, Shelley offers a message of hope. Contemplating nature reveals beauty. This touches your emotions and gives a sense of meaning. As Viktor Frankl would state more than a century later, it is the will to meaning that drives a person’s existence.
The beauty of nature has saved many a lonely heart. In today’s pandemic times, it is of crucial importance to keep in touch with your environment. Trees, rivers, mountains, and fields bring beauty that preserves your connection to a greater whole, despite the fact that your links to the rest of humanity have been broken. It is something to hold on to, even if you don’t have anything else.
An earlier version of this article was originally published on “Medium” here.