An Eruption of Mount Vesuvius by Bulwer

The following magnificent description of perhaps the most awful phenomenon in nature, gives full scope for almost every tone and gesture. Care should, however, be taken that the natural grandeur of the subject be not marred by a stilted, pompous, or affected delivery. Let the speaker try to realize the thought and feelings of a spectator of the dark scene of desolation, and he cannot go amiss:


T HE eyes of the crowd beheld, with ineffable dismay, a vast vapour shooting from the summit of Vesuvius, in the form of a gigantic pine-tree; the trunk, blackness; the branches, 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.

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 toward them, dark and rapid like a torrent; at the same time it cast forth from its  bosom a shower of ashes, mixed with 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!

The cloud advanced, darker, disgorging showers of ashes and pumice stones; and, amid 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.

The cloud, which had scattered so deep a murkiness over the day, at length settled into a solid and impenetrable mass. 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 their hues of fire. Now brightly blue, as the most azure depth of a southern sky; now of a livid and snake-like 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 all Pompeii; then suddenly dying into a sickly paleness, like the ghost of its own life!

In the pauses of the showers were 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.

The ashes, in many places, were already knee-deep; and 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 fire rose fiercely and sullenly against the solid gloom. The citizens had endeavoured to place rows of torches in the most frequented spots; but these rarely continued long; the showers and the wind extinguished them.

Suddenly arose an intense and lurid glow. Bright and gigantic through the darkness which closed around it, 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; 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 molten lava. Darkly red through the profound gloom of their banks, they flowed slowly on, as towards the devoted city. And through the still air was heard the rattling of the fragments of rock, hurling 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!

Suddenly a duller shade fell over the air; and one of the two gigantic crests into which the summit had been divided, rocked and waved to and fro; and then, with a sound, the mightiness of which no  language can describe, it fell from its burning base, and rushed, an avalanche of fire, down the sides of the mountain. At the same instant gushed forth a volume of blackest smoke, rolling on, over air, sea and earth. Another, and another, and another shower of ashes, far more profuse than before, scattered fresh desolation along the streets, and darkness once more wrapped them as a veil.

The whole elements of civilization were broken up. If in the darkness, wife was separated from husband, or parent from child, vain was the hope of reunion. Each hurried blindly and confusedly on. Nothing was left save the law of self-preservation.