The Triumph of Time: A Study of the Victorian Concepts of Time, History, Progress, and Decadence
Jerome Hamilton Buckley’s The Triumph of Time (1966) is a “little book” with an enormous and exceedingly complex subject. It pretends to be no less than a survey of Victorians’ attitudes towards time. Buckley proposes to “test the truth” of John Stuart Mill’s suggestion, articulated in his The Spirit of the Ages (1831), that his own generation “had a quite unprecedented awareness of time,” and to view the Victorians’ “multiple concern with time.” Buckley defines at the outset two kinds of time—public and private. The former “involves the attitudes of the society as a living changing whole,” the idea of a Zeitgeist, of progress or decadence; the other relates to “the subjective experience of the individual,” through memories of a personal past, confrontations of public notions of time, and the effort to conquer time, to “escape from the tyranny of the temporal.” Time was either an objective entity or a subjective one. Private time is arbitrary, relative, continuous, variable; public time is the working out of patterns of history. “In tracing the characteristic Victorian attitudes toward both public and private time,” writes Buckley, “I have drawn largely upon the most eloquent of spokesmen—above all, the poets, and then the novelists and essayists—especially those who did most to determine the temper of their own culture or have had the strongest impact upon ours.”
To this end, Buckley’s The Triumph of Time is replete with felicitous references and quotations from Mill, Tennyson, Arnold, Swinburne, Ruskin, Carlyle, Hardy, Whewell, Thackeray, Macauley, Browning, Seeley, Newman, Eliot, Huxley, Clifford, Babbage, Spencer, and many, many others. The Victorian interest in time was unusually extensive and persistent. The age was an elaborate milieu, copious, overpowering in quantity and in quality. The Victorian age is indeed a vast and crowded landscape, and Buckley’s The Triumph of Time attempts to show that the Victorians were preoccupied with time in their novels and poems, in their scientific speculations and philosophy, and in their social thought.
In the first chapter, Buckley outlines the “four faces of Victorian time,” past, present, future, eternity. During the nineteenth century, “a new generation of historians, both literate and laborious, enlarged the limits of the human past and speculated on the possibility of finding patterns of recurrence or meaningful analogies with their own time.” Buckley cites approvingly from Han Meyerhoff’s Time and Literature (1955), where he observed that during the nineteenth century “all the sciences of man—biology, anthropology, psychology, even economics and politics—became ‘historical’ sciences in the sense that they recognized and employed a historical, genetic, or evolutionary method.” Uniformitarian geology; nebular astronomy; evolutionary biology; the new social studies—all were “governed by temporal methodologies.”
This trend was part of what Buckley labels an objective, “public time.” But there were others who perceived time as subjective and thus as “private.” “As seen by poet and novelist,” Buckley writes, “human time…defies scientific analysis and measurement; contracting and expanding at will, mingling before and after without ordered sequence, it pays little heed to ordinary logical relations.” But even those with a private sense of time could not ignore that the Victorian age was an “age in perpetual motion.” “So widespread and so rapid were the changes wrought by the nineteenth century in the material conditions of living that no one, however much he might wish to dwell in the spirit, could altogether escape a sense of almost physical exhilaration or bewilderment rushing in upon him.” Change came at an alarming rate, and some Victorians responded quite positively to it, such as Carlyle, Ruskin, and Hopkins. The latter, for example, saw change as the “daily renewed freshness of nature a testimony that the Holy Ghost still broods over the whole bent world.”
But as Buckley correctly observes, “other poets were less sanguine in their view of change, especially insofar as new modes and attitudes seemed to threaten the great traditions of art and society.” Here we find Tennyson and Arnold. Arnold especially was “troubled by the vision of universal change governing all human affairs of the past, present, and foreseeable future.” Change undoubtedly was “central to the intellectual life of the nineteenth century.” Some interpreted it as progress; others saw it as decline. Thus “the great polar ideas of the Victorian period were accordingly the idea of progress and the idea of decadence, the twin aspects of an all-encompassing history.”
Before discussing ideas of progress and decadence, Buckley, in chapter two, briefly considers “the uses of history.” Many Victorians expressed an retrospective nostalgia for the values of a lost culture. There was an immense fascination with the Greeks, as Frank M. Turner shows in his The Greek Heritage in Victorian Britain (1981). But there were also revivals of Gothic, Renaissance, and Georgian ideals as well.
This fascination with past societies and cultures inevitably encouraged a relativism in values, and that troubled some Victorians. As Buckley puts it, “since to understand is usually in some degree to condone, the deepening knowledge of other times and places engendered an increased relativity of judgment.” This historical relativism is nowhere more conspicuous than in its “assault on the absolutes of religious fundamentalism.” Higher criticism “raised problems of provenance, dating, authorship, stylistic consistency, and analogues in non-Hebraic literature—in short, questioned the reliability of the scriptural canon and the extent to which it might be regarded as inspired revelation.” The appeal to time by Strauss, Eliot, and Seeley, for example, “denied the sanction of eternity.” Even Newman, in his An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine (1845) “accounted for the presence of later Roman dogmas…by a theory of evolutionary growth: ideas at first merely implicit and undetected had been articulated and clarified over the ages, and new interpretations had been adopted to meet the needs not of a static institution but of an organic body growing steadily in time.”
Increasingly, Victorian historiography came to resemble a scientism. History took on the inductive approach of science, and thus became an “instructive laboratory.” According to Huxley, “Baconian induction was the only way to learn the causes of things.” In geology, catastrophism was usurped by Lyell’s uniformitarianism, revealing “the terrible vastness of a geological time.” Archaeologists also demonstrated the greater antiquity of mankind, ushering the “concept of prehistory.” Biology would also take into account the “deep time” of the earth. As Buckley puts it, “in the nineteenth century the natural scientist moved closer than ever before to the approach and concern of the historian.” Moreover, the mechanistic image of history came to be replaced by an organic one: “the world was no longer a machine operating on a set cycle, but a living body fulfilling itself in constant adaptation to new conditions.”
At the same, historians learned to “emulate the scientists.” Ranke, Bury, and Lord Acton promoted history as an inductive discipline. Buckle believed human affairs were “reducible to laws, and could be made intelligible as the growth of the chalk cliffs or the coal measures.” This transfer of ideas, practices, attitudes, and methodologies from the study of the natural world to the study of human history and social institutions receives extended analysis in Richard G. Olson’s Science and Scientism in Nineteenth-Century Europe (2008). Periodization in history led to periodization in the life sciences, as when Lubbock introduced the terms “Paleolithic” and “Neolithic” to designate successive ages. The new philosophies of Kant, Hegel, Marx, Comte, Macaulay, and others, presupposed a history moving in a “progressive direction.” As Buckley posits, the nineteenth century was the “golden age of the ideologists, intent on discovering or inventing patterns of growth and decay.” Buckley finds support in R.G. Collingwood, who, in his The Idea of History (1956), writes: “This distinction between periods of primitiveness, periods of greatness, and periods of decadence, is not and never can be historically true. It tells us much about historians who study the facts, but nothing about the facts they study.”
The “idea of progress,” which is the subject of chapter three, is found among many optimistic Victorians, and most eloquently expressed by Macaulay, who saw in history numerous signs of the natural progress of society. The new Baconian thought delivered “great and constant progress”:
it has lengthened life; it is the mitigated pain; it has extinguished diseases;… it has extended the range of the human vision; has multiplied the power of the human muscles; it has accelerated motion; it has annihilated distance; it has facilitated intercourse, correspondence, all friendly offices, all dispatch of business; it has enabled man to the descend to the depths of the sea, to soar into the air, to penetrate securely into the noxious recesses of the earth, to traverse the land in cars which whirl along without horses, and the ocean and ships which run ten knots an hour against the wind. These are but a part of its fruits, and of its first fruits. For it is a philosophy which never rests, which has never attained, which is never perfect. Its law is progress.
Unprecedented mechanical progress throughout the Victorian era was only the proscenium. According to Buckley, the “Victorians succeeded remarkably both in meeting the social challenge of industrialism and in widening the base of democracy. Despite the new horrors of the factor system, which were gradually mitigated or removed by legislation, most workers were better fed, clothed, and housed than their ancestors had been, and the improvement whetted their desire for further reform.” These ideas of reform hark back to the eighteenth century. Indeed, the emphatic avowals of Arnold, Mill, Morley, Kingsley, and Huxley, explicitly “reaffirmed the eighteenth-century idea of progress as a primary dogma of the Victorian period.” In many ways, the idea of progress became a “substitute religion” and thus became an “object of worship.” And as the “true religion,” it rejected all others as false.
Yet this kind of progress did not change “the quality of human life.” Men and women of literature “seldom received the idea of progress with the unqualified optimism of the rationalists and men of science.” Buckley gives evidence for this “recession of progress” in chapter four. In verse Tennyson mocked “the old dreams of a perfected world, without war or disease, a world cultivated like a paradisal garden…by the nightmare vision of vastly multiplied populations struggling hungrily for survival.” Morley “came to feel that material prosperity could impair ‘the moral and intellectual nerve’ and later to wonder whether it were more than an ‘optimistic superstition’ to believe ‘that civilized communities are universally bound somehow or another to be progressive,'” and thus questioning Spencer’s earlier claim that “progress is not an accident, but a necessity.”
For every thesis, Buckely provides an antithesis. The “idea of decadence” in the nineteenth century is as strong as that of progress. In 1898 Joseph Conrad wrote to his friend Cunninghame Graham: “The fate of a humanity condemned ultimately to perish from cold is not worth troubling about. If you take it to heart it becomes an unendurable tragedy. If you believe in improvement you must weep, for the attained perfection must end in cold, darkness and silence.” The new physics, with its theory of entropy, pointed to decay in the universe, rather than the progress inferred from biological evolution. “In other words, according to assured scientific theory, human time eventually must have a stop.” Ruskin, after reading Lyell, viewed the earth as now in “decrepitude.” But as Buckley correctly observes, the idea of decadence “was far older than any of the new scientific sanctions it could find in the late Victorian period.” The Greeks, Romans, Hebrews and Christians, all lamented in their own way the degeneration of their own times. Yet the “idea of decadence grew steadily more urgent and immediate throughout the Victorian age.” The image of a future wasteland and an encroaching barbarism appeared in the writings of Balfour, Froude, Hopkins, Morris, Jefferies, Tennyson, Arnold, Wells, and others.
This Victorian rendition of the Fall of mankind led many to a “passion of the past,” which is the theme of chapter six. Indeed, many shared “a habit of reminiscence,” explaining why the nineteenth century was the “great age of English autobiography.” And although the prime objective in much of the autobiographical writings was “detachment,” Victorian autobiographers selected at will from their pasts, leaving out “unpleasant or unduly intimate detail.” Others chose to remember the past for “remorse or self-recrimination or simply bitterness.” The most important point however is that “in an age of great changes and large uncertainties many clung to the memory of ‘lost days’ that they could admire or idealize or often quite unabashedly sentimentalize.”
The last two chapters of Buckley’s The Triumph of Time provides a dramatic turn from the past to the “living present”; indeed to the “eternal now.” The past decreased as the pace of change and innovation increased, for the present was a constant “peremptory demand.” Carlyle provides an answer to this new challenge to mankind’s present state, first in his “Signs of the Times,” which appeared in the Edinburgh Review in June of 1829, and again in his more developed Sartor Resartus (1836): “Love no Pleasure; love God. This is the Everlasting Yea, wherein all contradiction is solved: wherein whoso walks and works, it is well with him…Be no longer Chaos, but a World, or even Worldkin. Produce! Produce!…Work while it is called Today; for the Night cometh, wherein no man can work.” This was ultimately a secular gospel preached also by Emerson and Longfellow. Work endlessly to avoid modern skepticism and despair! Work will distract us from the more probing questions of life.
An awareness of the temporal relations and responsibilities of their time, however, did not deter Victorians from the “dream of eternity” and the “desire for transcendence.” But unlike previous generations, the Victorians searched for “tokens of permanence or stasis in or behind their passing impressions, and most came to regard their own deepest emotions and intuitions as partaking somehow of the timeless.” In other words, Victorians felled the “eternal”—or what they perceived as eternal—from heaven to earth. Some saw the eternal in human passion; others in art; still others saw it in nature itself.
Victorian literature exhibits an almost obsessive concern with the problems of time, history, progress, and decadence. Buckley’s The Triumph of Time provides a broad description of this phenomenon. It is a work as well written as it is succinct, lucid, and refined. Its value rests in its mass of allusions, generalizations, and quotes, showing the Victorians, in their poetry, fiction, criticism, science, and philosophy, steeped, intellectually and emotionally, in ideas of time and of history.
In the end, however, Buckley, in his organization and categorization, presents a “card file”: Victorians on history; Victorians on progress; Victorians on decadence; Victorians on eternity; and so on. The material is just too vast and varied and complex to reduce to a system. Buckley admits at the outset that his intention was merely to “describe,” and that the book “undertakes no detailed analysis of the literary techniques of registering time’s passage or quality.” But the reader may desire some sort of order out of the cacophony of materials.
Without sufficient analysis, the wealth of examples can be unsatisfying and even—as this reader experienced—somewhat confusing. But perhaps this is the point. Victorians were hypocritical, contradictory, optimistic, pessimistic, sensual, ascetic, and ultimately conflicted about their age. The Victorian period was an elaborate milieu, and Buckley has gone a long way toward laying out the problem of time. Buckley’s The Triumph of Time therefore serves rather well as a stimulus, a handbook. Assembled economically, his handbook increases one’s appreciation for the complexity of Victorian culture.