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C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Critical and Biographical Introduction by Paul Shorey (1857–1934)

By Titus Lucretius Carus (c. 99–c. 55 B.C.)

TITUS LUCRETIUS CARUS, the most vigorous and original, though not the most beautiful and artistic of Latin poets, was a contemporary of the youth and middle age of Cæsar and Cicero. Of his brief life virtually nothing is known. He belonged to a noble family, but seems to have held aloof from the political conflicts which during that Inferno of a half-century made a steaming slaughter-house of Rome. Yet he writes of the great world, and of the vanity of its ambitions, its loves, and its insensate luxury, with a poignant intensity which suggests experience or intimate observation. The legend that his premature death was caused by the administration of a maddening love-philtre by a jealous wife, is familiar to English readers in Tennyson’s exquisite and scholarly poem. His life work, the ‘De Rerum Natura’ (On the Nature of Things), is a didactic exposition, in six books and some 7415 hexameter lines, of the doctrines of Epicurus,—at that time the most widely diffused among the Roman nobility, of the systems which their ingenious Greek lecturers and literary companions were importing into Italy.

That philosophy, a product of the frivolous and disillusionized Athens of the third century B.C., taught in physics that all phenomena are explicable, without the intervention of gods, by the fortuitous concurrence of material atoms and the “various entanglements, weights, blows, clashings, motions, by which things severally go on”; and in morals that man’s true happiness consists in freedom from superstitious terror, in renunciation of the sterile agitations of ambition and the pursuit of wealth, and in tranquil enjoyment of the simpler and soberer forms of pleasure. Not a very noble or elevating doctrine for a poet, it would seem; yet perhaps hardly more repugnant to the Muse than the Puritan theology of ‘Paradise Lost,’ or the scholasticism, fantastic allegory, and petty municipal politics of the ‘Divine Comedy.’ Genius and passion will pour the molten ore of life into any mold; and the genius of Lucretius passionately embraced the cold mechanism and the unheroic quietism of the Epicurean philosophy, as a protest against the degrading superstitions of Rome and as a refuge from her tumultuous politics.

The first book opens with a magnificent invocation of Venus, and a dedication of the work to the poet’s patron, or rather friend, the great Roman noble Memmius. This is followed by a thrilling picture of the sacrifice of Iphigenia,—a typical crime of superstition,—and a brief résumé of the chief topics to be treated, into which is deftly intercalated an enthusiastic panegyric upon Ennius, the father of Roman song. Then comes an exposition of the fundamental principles of the atomic philosophy, accompanied by a refutation of those who deny a vacuum or the indivisibility of the atoms; as well as of those who assume other elements,—earth, water, air, fire. Two eloquent digressions chant the praise of the Sicilian pre-Socratic poet-philosopher Empedocles and the delights of poesy. The last two hundred lines demonstrate, by arguments which Bruno, Locke, Voltaire, Pasteur, and Renan have copied, the infinity of the universe in space and time, and the infinity of matter.

The exordium of the second book contrasts the Epicurean tranquillity of students in their pensive citadels with the vain agitations of men. Then follows a more technical exposition of the nature and movements of the atoms. The sensible qualities of things are due only to the shapes and combinations of these colorless material particles. They do not reside in the things nor in the atoms themselves. Life and sensation also are transient phenomena,—bubbles on the ocean of being, froth on the surface,—and not ultimate realities. And being atomic, all things are dissoluble. The earth itself grows old, and no longer bears the teeming harvests of her lusty youth.

The third book opens with the praise of Epicurus and a description of the peace of mind which philosophy brings. To attain this peace we must eradicate the fear of death and hell. In seven hundred lines of close reasoning, some twenty-seven formal arguments are adduced to prove the mortality of the soul and its entire dependence on bodily conditions. This long arid tract is followed by two hundred and sixty lines of the most glorious poetry in the Latin language: an impassioned expostulation with the puny souls who rebel against nature’s beneficent law of change, who are fain to tarry past their hour at the banquet of existence, and idly repine that they, whose very life is a sleep and a folding of the hands for slumber, must lie down to their everlasting rest with Homer and Scipio, Democritus and Epicurus, and all the wise and brave who have gone before.

The fourth book is mainly occupied by an account of the processes of perception, which are explained by the hypothesis that delicate films and emanations, thrown off from bodies, penetrate the channels of sensation. A digression vigorously argues against the skeptical doctrine of the untrustworthiness of the senses. In optical and other illusions, it is not the senses but the hasty inferences of the mind that are at fault.

The poet’s polemic against the argument from design in the structure of the body is famous. As Prior in his ‘Alma’ puts it:—

  • “Note here Lucretius dares to teach,
  • As all our youth may learn from Creech,
  • That eyes were made but could not view,
  • Nor hands embrace, nor feet pursue;
  • But heedless Nature did produce
  • The members first and then the use.”
  • The book closes with a realistic treatment of sleep, dreams, and the sexual life.

    The fifth book deals with astronomy, the history of the globe, and the origins of life and civilization. The poet undertakes to prove that the triple frame of the world had a beginning and will some day be dissolved,—a doctrine that strongly impressed the imaginations of his successors.

  • “Then shall Lucretius’s lofty numbers die,
  • When earth and sea in fire and flames shall fry,”
  • says Ovid—in Ben Jonson’s free imitation.

    There is no impiety in this teaching, says Lucretius; for the world is not a perfect divine creation, as the Stoic optimists affirm, but it is a flawed and faulty product of accidental adaptations. The puerile astronomical hypotheses that follow are in startling contrast with the brilliant, vividly imaginative, and essentially correct sketch of prehistoric anthropology and the evolution of civilization that occupies the last six hundred lines.

    The sixth book is a sort of appendix, devoted to the explanation of alarming or mysterious phenomena which might prove a last refuge of superstition. The most noted passage is the description of the plague at Athens, after Thucydides (1137–1286).

    Lucretius by the very didactic severity of his theme is shut out from the widespread popularity of the great dramatists and epic poets. But in every age a select company of readers is found to respond to at least one of the three mighty chords with which his lyre is strung; and to cherish him either as the poet of the emancipating power of human science, as the poet of nature, or as the sublime and melancholy satirist of naked and essential man. He is the poet of the pride of science, as it appeals to youthful souls in their first intoxication with the idea of infinite impersonal nature liberated from her anthropomorphic lords, and in their first passionate revolt against the infamies of popular superstition and the smug decencies of its official interpreters. This influence no erudite exposure of his errors in detail can destroy, no progress of modern knowledge supersede. It is true that he has no conception of strict scientific method, or of the progressive conquest of nature by man. He affirms that the real and apparent magnitudes of the sun are nearly the same. He denies the possibility of the antipodes, suggests that the stars may move in quest of fresh pastures in the flowerless fields of heaven, believes in the spontaneous generation of worms, from manure, and has a theory to account for the fact that the lion cannot abide the crowing of the cock. But he maintains in sonorous and vigorously argumentative verse the infinity of the universe in space and time, the indestructibility of matter, the plurality of worlds, the reign of law, the possibility of a mechanical explanation of all phenomena, and the ceaseless operation of the silent invisible processes whereby the transformations of nature are wrought. He has the fundamental conception of evolution as the “rational sequence of the unintended,” and he approaches very closely the formula of the “survival of the fittest.” He has the rudiments of the most modern psychological notions as to the threshold of sensation and the measurement of local discrimination. He illustrates the origin of language from the barking of dogs almost in the words of Darwin, and describes the stages of the prehistoric life of man in phrases which Tylor quotes with approval. Above all, he attacks with eloquent scorn the “carpenter theory of creation,” and the insipidities of optimistic teleologies and theodicies; and he magnificently celebrates as the chief heroes of humanity the scientific thinkers who have revealed the eternal laws of nature, and have liberated the human spirit from the bondage of superstition and the chimæras of metaphysics. These things, if they do not justify Huxley’s statement that “Lucretius has drunk deeper of the scientific spirit than any other poet of ancient or modern times except Goethe,” do at least explain why he has always been honored as the poetic incarnation of that spirit by the church militant of science.

    But he is more than the rhetorician of science. He has all Dryden’s skill in marshaling arguments in verse; and he manifests in addition a peculiar blending of the poetical and scientific imagination, which causes the vivid felicity of his illustrations of the unfamiliar by the familiar, the unseen by the seen, to be felt by the reader as proofs rather than as mere decorative imagery. And whether in argument or description, his language throughout conveys a more vivid reflection of the ceaseless life and movement of nature than anything in the beautiful symbolism of Greek mythology or in the more precise formulas of modern science. Like Shelley, he renews the work of the mythopœic imagination in the very act of repudiating its creations. In the magnificent opening hymn to Venus, without lapsing for a line from his large, stately Roman manner, he blends the Greek poets’ allegorizing conception of love as an all-pervading cosmic power with an incomparably warm sensuous picture of the breathing human passion of the amorous deity. His repudiation of the superstitious worship of the great mother of the gods, in the second book, combines all the pomp of Milton’s enumerations of the false deities of the heathen with a deeper Wordsworthian vein of reflection on the

  • —“springs
  • Of that licentious craving in the mind
  • To act the God among external things.”
  • The ten lines in which he recalls and rejects the myth of Phaëthon outweigh all the labored ingenuities of the three hundred and twenty-five lines which Ovid has devoted to the theme. When, digressing from the phenomena of echo, he explains away the Italian peasant’s naïve faith in the fauns and goat-footed satyrs with which his fancy peoples the “shepherd’s lonely walks and solitude divine,” the exquisite verses are touched by a wistful sympathy which we associate rather with modern and romantic than with classical poetry. And few passages in profane literature will so nearly sustain the comparison with the words of the Lord answering Job out of the whirlwind as the lines where, in the name of the grandeur of the infinite world, Lucretius scornfully challenges the petty faith in an anthropomorphic God—

  • “Who rolls the heavens, and lifts and lays the deep.
  • Yet loves and hates with mortal hates and loves.”
  • This quickening spirit of imagination constrains him, despite his theories, to animate Nature too in all her parts and processes. He makes us aware of life, motion, growth everywhere. In the atoms that weave their everlasting dance like motes in the summer sun; in the shining Ether that clips the world in his greedy embrace; in the war of the elements,—the winds eagerly striving to dry up all the waters, while the waters are confident that they will sooner drown the world; in the brook plashing down the mountain-side and summoning from afar by its clear murmurings the thirsty tribes of brutes, or delivering the filtered tribute of the woodland to the ocean, there to be sucked up by the sun and so precipitated again by Father Ether into the lap of Mother Earth, who thence bears on her bounteous breast the smiling harvests and the frisking flocks; in the life of man climbing ever to maturity, only to decline from life’s topmost stair as the vital forces fail under the ceaseless rain of hostile atoms impingent from without. By virtue of this imaginative vision, and this sense of Nature’s omnipresent life, she becomes for him a personal, guiding, artistic power,—Nature that sits at the helm, Nature manifold in works, a being far more nearly akin to the immanent Platonic world-soul than to the mathematical sum of colorless Democritean atoms which his theory would make her. “As a poet,” said Goethe, “I am a Pantheist;” and despite his nominal allegiance to atomism, the poetry of Lucretius is in spirit pantheistic. It is the “lower pantheism” half spiritualized by an intense feeling for the vital unity of nature, rather than the “higher pantheism” which sees in nature only the symbol and garment of God. But in imaginative effect it is the poetic pantheism of Bruno, Shelley, Swinburne,—nay, of Wordsworth himself in ‘Tintern Abbey.’ And to this is due much of his attraction for many of the finest minds of the Renaissance and of our own time.

    But Lucretius is the poet of nature in a still more special sense. Lowell truly observes that “there is obscurely in him an almost Wordsworthian” quality. Like Wordsworth, he complains of the “film of familiarity” in consequence of which we have eyes and see not; and he marvels that we can be so deadened by custom to the beauty of the starry heavens, that from satiety of the sight no man deigns to look up to the lucid quarters of the sky. And he himself notes not only the grander phenomena of nature, but her subtler aspects and minor solicitations of our senses, on which modern poetry is wont to dwell. He has marked with Coleridge—

  • Those thin clouds above in flakes and bars
  • That give away their motion to the stars.”
  • He has observed with Bryant and Wordsworth how distance turns the foaming flood or the grazing flock to a motionless patch of white upon the landscape. He has seen all heaven in a globe of dew, with Shelley. Many of his lines, like those of Tennyson, come back to the lover of nature on his walks, as the inevitable and only expression of what the eye beholds. “When Tennyson went with me to Harwich,” says Fitzgerald, “I was pointing out an old collier rolling to the tune of ‘Trudit agens magnam magno molimine navem’” (With mighty endeavor the wind drives onward the mighty vessel). And the same critic characterizes as a noble Poussin landscape the picture of summer belts of vine and olive (v. 1370–8), which Wordsworth quotes in his description of the scenery of the English lakes.

    To other readers Lucretius will appeal rather as the poet of man. “Satire is wholly ours,” said the Roman critic. And Lucretius is a true Roman in that he is a superb rhetorical satirist—a satirist not of men but of essential man. The vanity of our luxury, the tedium of fantastic idleness, the doubtful benefits of our over-refined and sophisticated civilization, the futility of the Sisyphean labors of ambition, our idle terrors of death, the grotesque and horrible absurdity of the superstitions we dignify by the name of religion, the disenchantment that lurks behind the stage illusions of passion, the insatiate thirst for change and happiness inseparable from our very being,—what license of realistic satire could impress these things upon us as we feel them under the spell of that severe and melancholy eloquence, which reveals our puny life stripped of its conventional disguises and shivering on the shores of infinite existence, the sport of the elemental forces of the world?

  • “Poor little life—
  • Crowned with a flower or two, and there an end.”
  • But his is not the soul-blighting satire that has no pity in it. “Poor hapless mortals” is his standing Homeric phrase for mankind, wandering blindly in the mazes of ignorance, and ridden by superstition, ennui, ambition, and false ideals of happiness. But he does not therefore preach mere cynicism and despair. “The sober majesties of settled sweet Epicurean life” are accessible to all; some few may attain the passionless calm of “students in their pensive citadels”: and the supreme spirits who pass the flaming bounds of space and time and bring back to mankind the tablets of nature’s everlasting laws, lift humanity to the level of the gods. And the dignity with which his majestic melancholy invests suffering and death, by viewing them sub specie æternitatis as manifestations of the eternal laws of life, does more to rob them of their sting for some minds than the affected cheerfulness of formal optimism protesting overmuch. Frederick the Great is not the only strenuous spirit that has turned to the third book of the ‘De Rerum Natura’ for solace and calm.

    A poet’s style must be studied in the original. Lucretius’s models were, among the Latins, Ennius; among the Greeks, the older poets. Homer, Empedocles, Euripides, rather than the artificial Alexandrians who were in favor among his contemporaries. His sincerity, earnestness, and strength, his enthusiastic faith in his teachings, and his keen delight in the labor of “shutting reasons up in rhythm and Heliconian honey in living words,” enlists the reader’s attention from the start. And the poet retains it with imperious grasp as he urges on the serried files of his verse over the vast barren spaces of his theme, like Roman soldiers marching on the great white imperial roads that disdain to deviate for mountain or morass.

  • “Some find him tedious, others think him lame;
  • But if he lags, his subject is to blame.
  • Rough weary roads through barren wilds he tried,
  • Yet still he marches with true Roman pride.”—ARMSTRONG.
  • He is not yet master of the intricate harmony and the dying fall of the Virgilian poetic period, nor of the limpid felicity of Ovid; but his single mighty lines, weighted with sonorous archaic diction, and pointed with alliteration, assonance, and antithesis, possess an incomparable energy. They strike upon the sense like huge lances hurled quivering to the mark. The effect can hardly be reproduced in our monosyllabic English.

  • “When death immortal stays the mortal pulse.”
  • “Great Scipio’s son,
  • Terror of Carthage, thunderbolt of war.”
  • “He passed beyond
  • The unsurmounted fires that wall the world.”
  • “The parched earth rocks beneath the thunder-stroke,
  • And threatening peals run rattling o’er the sky.”
  • “Hand on the torch of life in fiery race.”
  • “Awe from above to tame the thankless hearts
  • And graceless spirits of the godless mob.”
  • “When Rome and Carthage clashed in shock of war.”
  • “The lion’s wrath that bursts his mighty heart.”
  • “Black shapes of Terror lowering from the clouds.”
  • “All beasts that range on all the hills o’ the world.”
  • “Here waste Charybdis yawns, and rumbling Ætna
  • Threatens to re-collect her wrathful fires.”
  • His influence is to be measured by the quality rather than by the number of his readers. He “was a poet’s poet among the ancients, and is a scholar’s poet among the moderns.” Virgil, Horace, and Manilius were his pupils in the art of writing Latin verse. Ovid, Propertius, Martial, Statius allude to him with respectful awe. He was a chief source of inspiration to Bruno, and many of the rationalizing pantheists of the Renaissance. Montaigne quotes him on almost every page, and criticizes his fine passages with discriminating enthusiasm. Spenser and Milton know him well and often imitate him. Through Gassendi and Molière he became the standard-bearer of rationalism in the conservative and formal seventeenth century; meriting the honor of refutation by a cardinal, and the coupling of his name with that of Hobbes in denunciation by Nahum Tate. This naturally insured him the enthusiastic admiration of Voltaire and of the great Encyclopedists. The famous prosopopœia of Nature in the ‘Système de la Nature’ was suggested by a passage in the third book. Dryden translated the proem of the first book; and Creech’s translation made him familiar to the minor writers of the eighteenth century, as frequent allusions prove. And the nineteenth century, which cares nothing for his polemical significance, is recalled to an appreciation of his higher poetic qualities by the admiration of André Chénier, Goethe, Sully Prud’homme, Sainte-Beuve, Schérer, Shelley, Wordsworth, Tennyson, Swinburne, George Eliot, Fitzgerald, Symonds, and a host of minor essayists.

    Munro’s masterly edition and translation meets all the needs of the scholar. Kelsey’s convenient school edition is much used in American colleges. Mallock’s volume in ‘Blackwood’s Ancient Classics’ offers a useful but unsympathetic summary, with specimens of a translation in Spenserian verse. Martha’s ‘Poème de Lucréce’ is eloquent and interesting. Sellar’s exhaustive chapters in the ‘Roman Poets of the Republic’ are diffuse but readable. There is an enthusiastic essay in Symonds’s ‘Italian Byways,’ and there are short studies by Sainte-Beuve and Schérer.