How much more enormous a duration must we assign to many antecedent revolutions of the earth and its inhabitants!
Charles Darwin, who once declared, “I always feel as if my books came half out of Lyell’s brain,” tracked the implications of deep time into biology.
Keats’s poem was written in 1818, when he was twenty-two, and finds him presciently contemplating his early death: Both figures are—one metaphorically, the other literally—at the ends of the earth. Both may be contemplating the eternal, but Wells’s is a bigger eternal, encompassing Lyell and Darwin and deep time.
Earlier on his journeying, in the land of the Eloi and Morlocks, the Time Traveller chanced upon a long-abandoned museum of natural history, whose dinosaur fossils redirect his thinking to the Jurassic—even further back than his upcoming forward voyage to the world’s end. In the interval between Keats’s contemplation of the shore and the Time Traveller’s, infinity itself was growing restless—or restlessly growing.
In the most haunting section of the book, the Time Traveller does nothing but stand on the shore and look and ponder. Auden quarrels with the “Retort of all who love the Status Quo: / ‘You can’t change human nature, don’t you know.’” Auden’s point is that human nature does indeed change, as we continually discover more about the world and ourselves.
He has found the ideal prospect from which to mull over the end-stopped Story of Humankind. Consider two nineteenth-century Englishmen, each standing on a desolate shore: the poet Keats in his sonnet “When I have fears…” and Wells’s Time Traveller.
The scars of ancient battlefields, the vainglory of the pyramids, the sabre-rattling of Shelley’s Ozymandias—these things are not fully extinct so long as we’re here to deride and deplore them. It turns out that sediment and rock—the compressed geological strata of the ages—do not bury anyone as irrecoverably as does the invisible, accumulating strata of time itself.
In the end, the real gravedigger isn’t Ares but Chronos.
Even now, does not an East-end worker live in such artificial conditions as practically to be cut off from the natural surface of the earth?
At the base of Wells’s great visionary exploit is this rational, ultimately scientific attempt to follow “the drift of the current in spite of the eddies,” to tease out the potential future consequences of present conditions—not as they might arise in a few years, or even decades, but millennia hence, epochs hence. Like no other fiction writer before him, he embraced “deep time.” It’s rare that one can say of any novel that its existence is inconceivable without a nonfiction precursor.