Victorian Literature (The Philosophy of Change)

by Paul Elmer More

To write a history of English literature from 1837 to 1901, in all its ramifications from political economy to fiction, is a task to make any but the stoutest heart quail, and, whatever else may be said of Professor Walker's volume, it bears evidence of industrious reading and patient understanding.[1] Like most works of its kind it suffers somewhat from uncertainty of aim, being neither quite encyclopaedic in completeness of detail nor sufficiently arbitrary in selection to deal effectively with ideas. But its arrangement by subjects and its inclusion of so much that is commonly rejected from literary history offer this great compensation that we are enabled to see the interworking of the various intellectual currents: Darwin and Tennyson, Malthus and Matthew Arnold, Spencer and Newman, thus appear as fellow labourers, moulding and expressing that subtle, evasive thing we call the spirit of the age. Evasive in a way that spirit is, as the inner forces of life must always be, yet there is one date and one book so preeminent that no one can go astray in seeking the centre of the manifold activities of Victorian thought. At the close of the reign--Professor Walker recalls the incident that every one will remember--a London daily paper asked its readers to send in lists of the ten books, English or foreign, which in their judgment were the greatest and most influential of the century past. The lists varied widely, save in one respect: in every list stood Darwin's publication of 1859, The Origin of Species.

One is not inclined to take these plebiscites very seriously, yet this was really an extraordinary event. I doubt if such an agreement on the preeminence of a contemporary book would have been possible in any country in any other age of the world; nor is the nature of the selection less remarkable than its unanimity. Probably not half the persons who named The Origin of Species had ever seriously read it, yet they all felt in some vague way that this book had struck the keynote of the century; their concurrence showed a certain lack of individual intelligence, but it was unmistakably significant. In Darwin's hypothesis, though they may not have comprehended its full bearing, they thought the mind of man had found at last that for which it had long been seeking--the perfect scientific formula: it looked to them as if a new and everlasting basis for truth had been laid. Descartes had reduced the physical world to a mechanical system, and Newton had formulated its mathematical laws. But Descartes had, theoretically at least, separated the sphere of the human spirit from his system, and to bring the living world, exclusive of man, within its control he had, by a gross violation of facts, denied to animals all reason and emotion and treated them as mere machines; while Newton in his laws merely ignored the whole organic creation. This extra-scientific field Darwin finally reclaimed. Evolution, indeed, was an old hypothesis, and long before Darwin's day had been brought into considerable prominence; but in the earlier romantic philosophers of France and Germany it had not been fortified by the patient unemotional accumulation of observed facts, and in the theory of Lamarck, the greatest of the scientific ante-Darwinians, it had not purged itself of various complications with some incalculable principle guiding the development of organic nature to a definite end. By the elimination of teleological and other foreign elements and by the authority of his vast patience Darwin raised evolution to the side of gravitation. As an equivalent of the mechanical law of motion in the inanimate world he gave precise expression to the absolute law of change in the animate, thus uniting inorganic and organic (including all that is man) in one universal scheme of science. The new law left no place for a power existing outside of nature and controlling the world as a lower order of existence, nor did it recognise a higher and a lower principle within nature itself, but in the mere blind force of variation, in the very unruliness to design or government, found the source of order and development. Chance itself was thus rendered calculable, and science reigned supreme through "all this changing world of changeless law." No wonder that men were a little dazed by the marvellous simplicity and finality of this formula, and were ready to exclaim, with a new meaning to the words:

Let the great world spin for ever down the ringing grooves of change.
But like all other monistic theories of the reason, whether in science or metaphysics, Darwinism soon discovered within itself a principle of disintegration, and the ancient truth was again vindicated that any logical explanation of the world when carried to its conclusion is illogical. Fitness, in the new creed of evolutionary survival, meant adaptability to environment, but environment itself was produced by fitness, and the theory was thus seen to be revolving in a vicious circle. Fitness, which was to explain the mystery of order and apparent design, becomes, unless it is made relative to something outside of the things fit, a perfectly empty word, and the whole system falls to the ground. Against so illogical a theory Paley's simple argument for design in creation from the analogy of the watch is entirely valid. That syllogism may not prove the existence of a personal God, as Paley desired, or confirm the Thirty-nine Articles, but it does expose the inadequacy of holding that we can explain the origin of an orderly system of nature through any such hypothesis as the Darwinian law of flux and probability. Like other cosmical theories it may have little affirmative value, but it is strong to devour its rivals. As a matter of fact the insufficiency of Darwinism in its purest form has been pretty widely acknowledged by men of science themselves. In the recent celebration of Darwin's centennial two things were remarkable: the great reverence accorded to the memory of the man, and the fact that his successors are making desperate, and so far unaccepted, efforts to supplement or supplant the law of survival as the driving force of evolution. An unscientific skeptic might hint--his words will do no harm--that there is something paradoxical in this extreme reverence for Darwin undisturbed by this discontent with his chief hypothesis. The admiration is not due to the character of the man alone, for others have devoted their lives nobly and unreservedly to the search for scientific truth; it is rather the recognition of the fact that he at last was able to impose for a while on the world an hypothesis of life which was purely "causo-mechanical," and which eliminated everything divine and incalculable above or within nature. The discontent is a forced avowal that no such hypothesis is tenable. The additions to the Darwinian theory or the substitutes for it--and they are to-day almost as numerous as the great centres of biological study--are with one or two exceptions steps away from the sufficiency of the mere law of change which was to correspond to the law of motion in the inorganic sphere; some of the substitutes are, in fact, not far from the submission to teleological principles which are frankly beyond the scope of scientific formulation.

All this may seem rather remote from Victorian literature, but in fact it is, as the anecdote related by Professor Walker indicates, the very heart of the matter. Science has been, admittedly, the dominating intellectual force of the age, and the point of contact of science with literature is just this law of change. For it must not be forgotten that law, as it is understood in science, is a formulation of motion in the organic and of change in the inorganic realms as a power sufficient without any added principle of control to work out the ends of creation as we see them amplified in orderly recurrence and progress. Science and romanticism sprang up together and have grown side by side. In one respect they have embraced diverse, even hostile, temperaments--on this side the man who deals with facts and tends to a hard materialism or a dry intellectualism, on the other the man of sentiment who dreams and loses himself in futile revery. Yet it is a notorious, if paradoxical, fact that the effect of science on art and literature has been to reinforce a romantic impressionism, and that the man of scientific training when he turns to the humanities is almost always an impressionist. The reason is plain: he simply carries into art the law of change with which he has dealt in his proper sphere, and acknowledges no principle of taste superior to the shifting pleasure of the individual. In this he is typical of the age, for if the particular causo-mechanical theory of evolution promulgated by Darwin has proved untenable, evolution itself has remained as almost, if not quite, the universal creed of those who believe that some such hypothesis will ultimately be found adequate to explain all the processes of life. Men of science are only servants of the law of change in their special field of material observation, and it is easy to trace the working of the same belief in other regions of contemporary thought, most easy no doubt in philosophy which is nothing more than the effort of the reason to interpret in its own terms the common impulse and ambition of a period. There is a respectable school of idealists who hold to a theory of absolute unity and stability in which all the diversity and motion of the world are in some transcendental way absorbed. But these are not the regnant and effective teachers; they are so to speak the beautiful relics of a past creed. Pragmatism is the slogan of the hour, and there is a kind of truth in the remark thrown out recently in an English review that William James was the most influential leader in the spiritual life of the present generation. Now Pragmatism is just the culmination of what may be called the central philosophising of the past century. It has assumed various forms and has often been denied by its followers, but its general tendency is plain: it is at once romantic and scientific, an adventurous revolt against the dogmatic intellectualism in which science has involved itself and at the same time thoroughly evolutionary, even Darwinian, in theory. In the words of Professor Dewey[2]:

When he [Darwin] said of species what Galileo had said of the earth, e pur si muove, he emancipated, once for all, genetic and experimental ideas as an organon of asking questions and looking for explanations.
As a result we have the metaphysical conception "of a wide open universe, a universe without bounds in time or space, without final limits of origin or destiny"--in short, to use the elegant pragmatic diction borrowed from the police courts, "a universe with the lid off." No, continues our philosophical guide,
Nature is not an unchangeable order, unwinding itself majestically from the reel of law under the control of deified forces. It is an indefinite congeries of changes. Laws are not governmental regulations which limit change, but are convenient formulations of selected portions of change followed through a longer or shorter period of time, and then registered in statistical forms that are amenable to mathematical manipulation.
I am not here attempting to controvert Pragmatism, though it may be worth while to hint in passing that the supercilious tone of its votaries is utterly unjustifiable until the causo-mechanical theory of evolution on which it is based has found some commonly accepted formulation among biologists, and to repeat what I have said elsewhere, that it is just as much a one-sided rationalisation of the data of experience as the contrary theory of idealism which Professor Dewey brushes aside contemptuously as "intellectual atavism." To the self-sufficiency of the pragmatist and idealist alike there is one reply: "There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy."

Of the other manifestations of the law of change, I may speak even more briefly. In religion it is exhibited in the extraordinary influence of Cardinal Newman upon Brunetiere and other French modernists who see, or think they see, in his "theory of development of doctrine" a means of reconciling Christian dogma with the scientific spirit of the age. The Catholic theory of development as expounded by Newman meant the slow grasping by human intelligence of great ideas which were nevertheless "communicated to the world once for all by inspired teachers"; it is a perception of change playing about a fixed basis of unchangeable truth, with a growing tendency to lay weight in this dualism upon the element of change. The so-called "new theology" of Protestantism is more thoroughgoing and, virtually dispensing with the relation of mankind to an immutable deity, discovers all of religion that is necessary in the varying sympathy of man with his fellow man unregulated by any divine command or revelation.

Economics in its acceptance of the temper of the times has undergone a strange but perfectly logical reversal. Synchronously with the growth of the evolutionary theory arose the economic doctrine of laissez-faire, culminating in the Manchester school which held that a world of economic order would develop mechanically from the free play of individuals upon one another without the intervention of any governmental and, so to speak, external regulation of competition. It was the perfect counterpart to the Darwinian notion of the survival of the fittest amidst the accidental and competitive variation of individuals.[3] Such a theory was pragmatic with a vengeance, and brought its pragmatic penalty of social disease and rebellion. In its place has arisen the socialistic creed, which for the struggle of individuals sets up the warfare of classes and a foreordained democracy, and which bears roughly to the Manchester school the same relation that some of the aspects of "orthogenesis" bear to Darwinism. It is withal as convincedly evolutionary as was its predecessor,--however much it may threaten revolution in practice,--and as impatient of any law of control outside of material forces, only these forces have assumed a social instead of an individualistic form. Both self-developing individualism and self-developing socialism are the children of the law of change, and the admixture of humanitarian sympathy in both is really only another aspect of the same principle.

The theory of education has naturally gone along with these economic and philosophic innovations. Thus, the elective system in its present form is plainly a late-born offspring of the individualistic doctrine of laissez-faire. The whole shift of emphasis from the classics and humanities to scientific or quasi-scientific studies is a revulsion from the old notion that the experience of life in its essential phases is permanent and has once for all been expressed, to the conception of man as completely immersed in the indefinite congeries of changes which we call nature. We sometimes blame the teachers of Latin and Greek for certain disquieting weaknesses that have shown themselves in the recent results of education, as a matter of fact their only fault has been the lack of sufficient insight and strength to stem the tide of custom, by endeavouring to bring classical instruction into conformity with the spirit of the age they have largely forfeited its distinct virtue and have so far rendered it superfluous. If Greek affords no discipline corrective of the influence of science and different from that of the languages in which modern tendencies are expressed, the study of it is merely an enormous waste of time.

These things are the commonplaces of criticism and will scarcely be disputed. I have thought it worth while to bring them together in these brief statements, because in this way we get a clearer perception of the principle that has been everywhere and busily at work in the imaginative product of the nineteenth century and of our own day. Poetically the sources of Victorian literature go back to Wordsworth, who is emotionally the father of us all. No doubt the originating power of Wordsworth has in one sense been exaggerated, or at least misunderstood, for his return to nature is no new thing but a logical outgrowth of the philosophy of Rousseau and beyond him of the natural religion of the English deists. Yet there is withal a difference between the deistic and the romantic spirit toward nature as profound as it is hard to define. Almost the precise Wordsworthian note may be heard now and then in the poets and philosophers of the early eighteenth century, but in general one feels that their absorption of humanity in nature was by a conscious and clear process of elimination. The higher part of man, all that we associate with the mystic and indefinable, was plainly omitted from the deistic union of the human and the natural, and there was consequently no confusion in their ideas. You may walk in the meadow land of their new world with a feeling of ease and comfort, unperturbed by the intrusion of alien and higher cravings, but rather with the assurance that at will, if the moment of dissatisfaction comes, you may lift your eyes away from its homogeneous beauty to an utterly different region. In Wordsworth's sphere, on the contrary, you are caught as it were in a web of illusion, from which there is no escape save by a violent rupture. When his fervid soul, dismayed by the outcome of the Revolution, turned for solace to the quiet of the fields and the sublimity of the hills, he carried into that communion all the enthusiasm which an earlier age had reserved for the religion of the supernatural and which the deists in their satisfaction with natural religion had deliberately and completely shut out from their consciousness. In thus obliterating the distinctions of the reason Wordsworth introduced into the worship of nature the great pathetic fallacy which was to bewilder the minds and hearts of poets for an indefinite period.

And inevitably as science, becoming aware of the sway of change in nature, tried to formulate this power in terms of a causo-mechanical law, so poetry attempted to give it expression in human emotion. If any one thing is learned from such a survey of the poets of the past age and of to-day as we get in Professor Walker's volume, it is the constant immanence of this philosophy of change, manifesting itself in both the form and the substance of our verse. Walt Whitman is taken by many to be the most significant poet of America, not on account of his mere democracy, but because his democracy was part and parcel of his proclamation of the philosophy of change and motion. The universe to his eyes was a strange motley procession of shifting forms, at which he gazed undismayed, calling upon no passing appearance to stay for an instant and deliver its meaning. To William Morris also the world was a swift-moving succession of forms, glinting now with iridescent colours and breathing entranced melodies, with always the haunting fear in the observer's mind that if for one moment they should pause in their headlong flight they would vanish irrevocably into the void: life is many-hued, intricate motion; rest is death. And the evocation of Swinburne was essentially the same unintermittment flux of phenomena, though with him it took the special form of dissolving the earth into endless impressions of blowing wind and billowing water, with no solid ground beneath the feet. In Browning the new philosophy took the disguise of a buoyant revelling in the mere conflict and tumult of life without any formal restraint upon its multiform activity. His joyous acceptance of the world and his optimistic assurance that all things will of themselves work out right have passed with many for spiritual insight, whereas in reality his appeal to the present is due to his blind courage in waiving the critical check of the spirit of permanence. So one might go on enumerating the major poets of the age, but the repetition would only add tedium to the argument, and, indeed, I have already touched on this point many times in my essays on individual writers.

There is of course another aspect of Victorian poetry which must not be ignored. As no age, even the most self-satisfied, is entirely itself, but carries with it the memory of all that has gone before, so these singers of the flux are troubled at times by echoes of a past experience. Now and again a line, a note, will slip in that recalls the old desire of changeless rest and of the consummation of peace. It might even be more exact to say that the poets of the century as a whole do not so much give utterance to the unhesitating acceptance of the official philosophy as they express its ever growing predominance. And thus the most characteristic voices among the Victorians were just the two, Tennyson and Matthew Arnold, who felt most poignantly and sang most clearly, though in diverse ways, the transition from the old to the new. In Tennyson the two fields lay curiously side by side, and it is the sign of a certain lack of hardness in his mental fibre that he never seemed to perceive their mutual antagonism. At one moment he is the conscious laureate of science and evolution and of a self-evolving change moving to some far-off divine event; at another he is the prophet of insight, singing the mystery of the timeless, changeless spirit. Matthew Arnold's intelligence was too well-knit to suffer any such disruption of its powers. With him the error was deeper, yet more logical. Emotionally he was about equally susceptible to the prevailing currents of his day and of the past, and their intimate fusion produced a strange uneasiness of mind and heart, leaving him at home neither in this world nor the other. He looked abroad and saw nothing but change, and it seemed to him as if the permanent things that his soul craved were themselves in a state of transition. So it was he made his famous complaint, which is in a way the confession of his generation, at the Grande Chartreuse:

Wandering between two worlds, one dead,
The other powerless to be born,
With nowhere yet to rest my head,
Like these, on earth I wait forlorn.
But if this confusion in Matthew Arnold, or parallelism in Tennyson, of the past and the present is characteristic of Victorian poetry, the victory in the end is coming overwhelmingly to the new philosophy. If any one writer represents the thought of those who are most deeply immersed in the spirit of the passing day, it is George Meredith, and there is no poet or prosewriter in English who more speaks and exalts the belief in humanity as completely involved in the process of natural growth. This I suspect, rather than any perversity of wit, is the true reason, that the few who have not yet utterly bent the knee to the time-spirit are at once attracted by his subtlety of superficial observation and repelled by the absence of those deep underlying emotions which they have learned to expect in great literature. He has written out his reading of life in The Woods of Westermain, and the heart of his reading is at the end of his glorification of Change as the wondrous renovator and revealer:
Change, the strongest son of Life,
Has the Spirit here to wife.
Perhaps we do not often enough consider the profound innovation that such a sentiment indicates, nor look unflinchingly into the great gulf that is separating our little space of time from all that has preceded. Innumerable poets of the past have reflected on the law of mutability and on its part and meaning in human destiny, and their testimony, until this moment of ours, has been almost universally that which Spenser sang so exquisitely well in the unfinished book of The Faerie Queene:
What man that sees the ever-whirling wheele
Of Change, the which all mortall things doth sway,
But that therby doth find, and plainly feele,
How MUTABILITY in them doth play
Her cruell sports, to many mens decay?
No doubt there is much to admire in our modern poets, with the great name of Tennyson at their head, who have bowed down in the temple of the idol of Mutability. They have many traits of beauty and strength; they tease us with subtle appeals to the heart and brain; they write from a wide and complicated experience, and their concern over "the hopeless tangle of the age" gives them often an air of profundity; yet withal they leave us doubting whether there is in them the solid stuff to endure. Some deeper satisfaction or assurance is wanting to their work, and they themselves seem in a way transitional and transitory, as their themes and their very rhythms spring from the spirit of change. If any one thing may be called certain in criticism, it is that the quintessence of poetical emotion, the very kernel of the bitter-sweet passion of life and the world, arises from the simultaneous perception in man's destiny of the ever-fleeting and of that which is contrayr to mutabilitie. The contrast takes a thousand forms and conceals itself under many obscure disguises, but always, if you search deeply, you will discover its presence in the passages of verse, or even of prose, that stir in the reader's heart the lasting response of art. If illustrations are necessary, the most familiar are the best. Thus Andrew Marvell, in the poem inscribed To His Coy Mistress, starts suddenly from the contemplation of her several charms to that never-forgotten outcry:
But at my back I always hear
Time's winged chariot hurrying near,
And yonder all before us lie
Deserts of vast eternity.
In those lines, more perhaps than anywhere else in English, the coming together of change and changelessness, the conflict between the passionate desire of ephemeral beauty and the motionless depths of man's eternal nature, rises to a sublimity that is closer to fear than to pleasure. Oftener it speaks the language of regret or wistful playfulness, as in Waller's inimitable descant on the old, old theme:
Go, lovely Rose!
Tell her that wastes her time and me--
where the sting of the pathos is due to a kind of pretty condescension of the spirit to the transitory symbols of time. When I consider all the richness of emotional content that must go out of poetry with the loss in our consciousness of anything "stayed upon the pillars of eternity," I am filled with concern for the future of letters. Already the impoverishment of Victorian literature in this respect is notable, and even where the contrast between the two spheres of our nature is implied it comes generally with a significant assimilation of the higher to the lower; as in the well-known couplet of William Cory's Mimnermus in Church:
But oh, the very reason why
I clasp them, is because they die.
The Victorian age, even more than others, was a time of transition. It has passed, and one thing at least is sure: we shall have no great literature again until we have looked once more within our own breasts and learned that there is something in human nature besides an indefinite congeries of changes. As it is now the very mould and genre of the higher emotion have been lost. It is almost inconceivable, for example, that a true tragedy should be composed to-day; for the tragic character, whether it be Antigone breaking herself magnanimously in the name of the unwritten eternal laws against the edicts of Creon, or Oedipus bruised and blinded by his ignorance of the divine purpose but caught up after years of submission into mystic fellowship with the gods, or Hamlet musing undecided while he listens to the fateful voices--everywhere the tragic mood depends on the unresolved conflict in human motives between the universal and the particular, the changeless law and the temporal passion. It even seems that, with the disappearance of the greater form, there is passing away the ambition to write greatly. And naturally. For if the performance of a work of art is due to its fit expression of the permanent in human desire and experience, what room is there for the long hope, or what impulse to sacrifice present popularity for enduring fame, when the very notion has become discredited of any principle contrary to ceaseless change?

I have been concerned here primarily with literature, but obviously the destiny of literature is bound up with that of the practical world. If the disregard of permanence means formlessness and the absence of the higher emotion in letters, it means the same thing in society; nor under the existing worship of change, whether economic theory follows the individualism of Cobden or the collectivism of Karl Marx, can there be any escape for civilisation from the present dominance of material forces. Relax those brutal bulwarks against the inrush of ungoverned change and the result is simple anarchy. Nor is there real hope from the mitigating influence of that humanitarian sympathy which has accompanied the growth of scientific intellectualism; for such sympathy is but another aspect of the same absorption in change, being an attempt of the individual to flow, so to speak, in the direction of every emotional impact from the world. It contains no power of resistance or principle of restraint, but tends on the contrary to make man a more helpless prey of the ever-encroaching flood. The only salvation is in the recognition of some superior guiding and dividing law of just rule and right subordination, in the perception, that is, of something permanent within the flux.

There is need of firm hearts and dear brains to bring us out of this slough of indifference, but unfortunately the strong men are too often paralysed by a curious superstition of words. The saying has gone abroad that strength means joy in change and that he who would question change is reactionary and effeminate; and so in the name of progress and virility we drift supinely with the current. If by reactionary is understood only the man who shudders at all innovation and who cries out for some impossible restoration of the past, the charge is well made. Such a man in the social realm corresponds to the metaphysician who would deny the existence of change and the many for an exclusive and sterile idealism of the one. But reaction may be, and in the true sense is, something utterly different from this futile dreaming; it is essentially to answer action with action, to oppose to the welter of circumstance the force of discrimination and selection, to direct the aimless tide of change by reference to the co-existing law of the immutable fact, to carry the experience of the past into the diverse impulses of the present, and so to move forward in an orderly progression. If any young man, feeling now within himself the power of accomplishment, hesitates to be called a reactionary, in this better use of the term, because of the charge of effeminacy, let him take courage. The world is not contradicted with impunity, and he who sets himself against the world's belief will have need of all a man's endurance and all a man's strength. The adventurous soul who to-day against the reigning scientific and pragmatic dogma would maintain no vague and equally one-sided idealism, but the true duality of the one and the many, the absolute and the relative, the permanent and the mutable, will find himself subjected to an intellectual isolation and contempt almost as terrible as the penalties of the inquisition, and quite as effective in producing a silent conformity. If a man doubts this, let him try, and learn. Submission to the philosophy of change is the real effeminacy; it is the virile part to react.

[1] The Literature of the Victorian Era, by Hugh Walker. Cambridge University Press. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1910.

[2] The Influence of Darwin on Philosophy, and Other Essays in Contemporary Thought, by John Dewey. New York: Henry Holt & Co., 1910.

[3] In theory, and in the practice of some individuals, the Manchester school of economies was mixed up with various philanthropic schemes. Throughout the century there is to be noted a fluctuation between the harshest egotism and the most sentimental sympathy; the two moods springing indeed frotn the same surrender to the philosophy of change and easily passing into each other. The compensation is doubtful, and as a matter of fact egotism will always under the stress of circumstances take the upper hand, unless controlled by some principle more foreign to itself than sympathy. As regards the relation of evolution to economics, it is well known that both Darwin and Wallace were led to the survival theory by the reading of Malthus.

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