Between Faith & Doubt -- page 4 of 6
The next plate, for quatrain 77, was called by Vedder The Last Man. In it an Adam-like nude man leans against a tree trunk about which a great serpent is entwined, its head pressed near the man's ear; this is, said Vedder, "the spirit of Evil whispering hatred of 'this sorry scheme'." A winged adolescent, the figure of Love, lies dead at the figure's feet amid the skulls and bones of past humanity. The meaning of Omar's despair in Christian terms is quite evident.
The next two plates are pendants, again related to each other both through design and meaning. The first of these, quatrains 79 and 80, presents a seated nude woman with bowed head who has all the attributes of the Magdalen of the New Testament as usually depicted-the ointment jar at her feet, the long flowing hair, the attitude of despair, the barren landscape. In fact, Vedder identifies the plate as The Magdalen in his Notes. Since the Magdalen has long been identified in traditional Christian hagiography and art with the prostitute who became a follower of Jesus, Vedder's appropriation of the Magdalen image has a kind of justification; the lament and challenge in verse 80 are the archetypal cry of the sinner:
Oh thou, who didst with pitfall and with gin
Here it is not so much an expansion of the idea through a biblical context as a reinterpretation of the Magdalen through the verses of Omar.
The bowed nude, self-enclosed in a womblike form, her hair and garments encircling her, is contrasted strikingly with the opulent female figure of the adjoining plate, which stands easily before us, seeming about to advance toward the viewer. Her head is erect, her hair flowing voluptuously about her in full form, and her arms and legs seem to radiate from the frontally depicted torso. She presents a vision of sensuous ease, quite the opposite of the indrawn nude Magdalen. The barren trees and bleak landscape of The Magdalen make a striking contrast to the garden in full bloom with roses, lilies, and clusters of grapes that surround the "Eve-Venus." The serpent appears here as in the earlier plate of The Last Man and is certainly one of the most lengthy serpents in art: after encircling the tree three times, a heavy coil supports "Eve," curves behind her body, loops forward beneath her outstretched arm and then ripples forward and rests easily upon her wrist, opening its jaws to bite the apple she offers in her hand. That Eve is also Venus is made clear by the inclusion of the votary-attendant Cupid. The lily in the foreground could also be a reference to Mary the Mother of Jesus, who in Christian iconography is the new Eve, just as Christ is the new Adam.
Paradise and the snake are indeed from Omar, and sinning mankind as well, but Vedder went on to symbolize man's sin also by including a smoking altar in the distance, recalling the offerings of Cain and Abel, which were part of the drama relating to the first murder.
The thematic group, which began with The Recording Angel and "the agonized appeals of humanity lifting up its hands in hopeless supplication," ends with a plate titled Pardon Giving and Pardon Imploring Hands. The two hands, one in the gesture of giving or blessing, the other palm up, receiving, are at the center of the plate, outlined by a bit of darkened sky in an opening in a clouded zone. The "tangled skein of human life" that fills the hands is represented by the now familiar motif of the S-curve, which symbolizes, as Vedder notes, the concentration of the paradoxical elements that combine to form life. The hands are located in "that sudden pause through the reverse which marks the instant of life." Vedder supplied a statement on the preceding Venus-Eve plate, relating it, somewhat didactically, to Pardon Giving and Pardon Imploring Hands:
Omar's reasoning has carried him so far that he cannot believe he is a mere irresponsible agent, nor can he persuade himself that he is entirely responsible. He therefore concludes that he is both free and fated, and the conclusion leads to the Pardon giving and Pardon Imploring Hands filled with the tangled skein of human life.
Although the hands are feminine in their proportion and grace, they are based on Vedder's own hands, as can be seen from a photograph published in his Digressions. This photograph occurs in a passage in which Vedder says of himself, "I am not a mystic, or very learned in occult matters....and yet it delights me to tamper and potter with the unknowable, and I have a strong tendancy to see in things more than meets the eye."  He goes on to remark that he can conjure up visions with ease, but realizes that the same faculty that enables him "to see as realities most delightful things" would, if it got out of control, "create images of horror indescribable." The "solid ground of common sense" was his safeguard. "Blake," he remarks, "can wander with delight and retain his mental health in an atmosphere which would prove fatal to me."