The narrator of Billy Budd often contrasts the present time of his story with the glorious past—for example, as he admiringly describes the valiant service of Admiral Nelson and laments the introduction of guns and ironsides to naval combat. For the narrator, earlier forms of naval combat were more poetic and honorable. In his own time, the master-at-arms does not even instruct sailors in the use of weapons anymore (since swords are no longer used), but simply acts as "a sort of chief of police" on the lower decks.
There is a general sense of decline throughout the story, an idea that the past was better than the present. Thus, when Billy Budd is praised, such praise is often in the form of comparisons to ancient things, whether Greek statues or even Adam, the first man. Closely related to the contrast between the present and the past is that between the young and the old, which the story also explores. The Dansker, for example, is admired by both Billy and the narrator for his wisdom, gained through many years of experience, in contrast to Billy's innocence and naïveté. Having served under Admiral Nelson, the Dansker is a vestige of an earlier, more valiant era in seafaring. In the narrator's conception of the world, characters are often praiseworthy precisely because of some association with the past, whether because they participated in it (like the Dansker), or, in Billy's case, because his innocence has kept him unaware of the declined state of the contemporary world.
The Present vs. the Past ThemeTracker
The Present vs. the Past Quotes in Billy Budd
Billy in many respects was little more than a sort of upright barbarian, much such perhaps as Adam presumably might have been ere the urbane Serpent wriggled himself into his company.
Not that like children Billy was incapable of conceiving what death really is. No; but he was wholly without irrational fear of it, a fear more prevalent in highly civilized communities than those so-called barbarous ones which in all respects stand nearer to unadulterated Nature.