The painting illustrates the closing chapters pf Bulwer-Lytton's novel The Last Days of Pompeii (1834). Glaucus, the Athenian hero, and his lover Ione, together with the blind Thessalian flower-girl Nydia, whose extra-sensory perception has enabled them to escape the cataclysm, sail to safety over a moonlit sea. Nydia plays her harp; she loves Glaucus herself, but, aware that she has no chance of winning his heart, will soon plunge quietly to her death as the others sleep.
Poole had been attracted to this theme ever since Bulwer-Lytton's book appeared. He painted a Destruction of Pompeii (Bristol City Art Gallery) as early as c.1835, probably influenced by John Martin and Francis Danby, his fellow Bristol artist with whom he was closely associated (see The Bristol School of Artists. Francis Danby and Painting in Bristol 1810-1840, exh. Bristol City Art Gallery, 1973, no.285). Certainly, like Martin and Danby, he was fascinated by apocalyptic subjects, Solomon Eagle exhorting the People to Repentance (1843; Sheffield), The Beleaguered City (1844; Wolverhampton), The Goths in Italy (1851; Manchester) and The Vision of Esekiel (1875; Tate Gallery) being examples. When he returned to the theme of Pompeii in Glaucus and Ione, however, he used the motif of a moonlit sea to evoke a sense of peace and resignation. This again has a precedent in Danby, his famous Sunset at Sea after a Storm (1824; Bristol), while finding several parallels among Poole's later paintings: The Song of the Troubadours (R.A. 1854), The Parting (1858; Hamburg) and no doubt A Midsummer Night (R.A., 1856), which Redgrave describes as having 'a lovely effect of moonlight upon the water.'
F.G. Stephens, writing in the Athenaeum, emphasised the picture's 'vague, dream-like style', going so far as to say that 'such a picture forever before a man, would have nearly the effect of opium - eating upon him. The moveless languor, the Sybaritic monotone, indolent, semi-vacuous repose pervading all, - design, subject, and execution, - marks an extraordinary idiosyncracy, - suggests the musings, vast and purposeless as they are said to be, of that unhappy race De Quincey described so movingly.' The Art Journal, more prosaically, noted the picture's 'telling effect' and thought it 'in every respect more careful than recent works of the artist.' It must also have impressed Poole's R.A. colleagues since he was elected a full Academician that year.
Poole's Pompeian subjects make an interesting contribution to a tradition in European art going back to the discovery of Pompeii and Herculaneum in 1750. In terms of Victorian painting, they anticipate Alma-Tadema's researches at Pompeii in 1863 and E.J. Poynter's famous Faithful unto Death (1865; Liverpool), which is also said to have been inspired by Bulwer-Lytton's novel.