Lucretius: a Roman Poet of Latin

Lucretius: a Roman Poet Contribution to Latin Literature

Lucretius: a Roman Poet of Latin : The age of Cicero, a term familiar to all readers as indicating one of the culminating periods of literary history, while its central and later years are accurately fixed, may be dated in its commencement from varying limits. Cicero was born in 106 B.C., the year of the final conquest of Jugurtha, and the year before the terrible Cimbrian disaster at Orange: he perished in the proscription of the triumvirate in December, 43 B.C. His first appearance in public life was during the dictatorship of Sulla; and either from this date, or from one ten years later when the Sullan constitution was re-established in a modified form by Pompeius and Crassus in their first consulate, the Ciceronian age extends over a space which approximates in the one case to thirty, in the other to forty years.

No period in ancient, and few even in more modern history are so pregnant with interest or so fully and intimately known. From the comparative obscurity of the earlier age we pass into a full blaze of daylight. It is hardly an exaggeration to say that the Rome of Cicero is as familiar to modern English readers as the London of Queen Anne, to readers in modern France as the Paris of Louis Quatorze. We can still follow with unabated interest the daily fluctuations of its politics, the current gossip and scandal of its society, the passing fashions of domestic life as revealed in private correspondence or the disclosures of the law courts. Yet in the very centre of this brilliantly lighted world, one of its most remarkable figures is veiled in almost complete darkness.

The poem of Lucretius, On the Nature of Things, though it not only revealed a profound and extraordinary genius, but marked an entirely new technical level in Latin poetry, stole into the world all but unnoticed; and of its author’s life, though a pure Roman of one of the great governing families, only one or two doubtful and isolated facts could be recovered by the curiosity of later commentators. The single sentence in St. Jerome’s Chronicle which practically sums up the whole of our information runs as follows, under the year 94 B.C:—

Lucretius: a Roman Poet of Latin

The earliest Greek impulse in Latin poetry had long been exhausted; and the fashion among the new generation was to admire and study beyond all else the Greek poets of the decadence, who are generally, and without any substantial injustice, lumped together by the name of the Alexandrian school. The common quality in all this poetry was its great learning, and its remoteness from nature. It was poetry written in a library; it viewed the world through a highly coloured medium of literary and artistic tradition. The laborious perfectness of execution which the taste of the time demanded was, as a rule, lavished on little subjects, patient carvings in ivory. One side of the Alexandrian school which was largely followed was that of the didactic poets—Aratus, Nicander, Euphorion, and a host of others less celebrated. Cicero, in mature life, speaks with some contempt of the taste for Euphorion among his contemporaries.

But he had himself, as a young man, followed the fashion, and translated the Phaenomena of Aratus into wonderfully polished and melodious hexameter verse. Brief and straightforward as the sentence is, every clause in it has given rise to volumes of controversy. Was Lucretius born in the year named, or is another tradition correct, which, connecting his death with a particular event in the youth of Virgil, makes him either be born a few years earlier or die a few years younger? Did he ever, whether from a poisonous philtre or otherwise, lose his reason? and can a poem which ranks among the great masterpieces of genius have been built up into its stately fabric—for this is not a question of brief lyrics like those of Smart or Cowper—in the lucid intervals of insanity? Did Cicero have anything to do with the editing of the unfinished poem? If so, which Cicero—Marcus or Quintus? and why, in either case, is there no record of the fact in their correspondence, or in any writing of the period?

All these questions are probably insoluble, and the notice of Jerome leaves the whole life and personality of the poet still completely hidden. Yet we have little or nothing else to go upon. There is a brief and casual allusion to him in one of Cicero’s letters of the year 54 B.C.: yet it speaks of “poems,” not the single great poem which we know; and most editors agree that the text of the passage is corrupt, and must be amended by the insertion of a non, though they differ on the important detail of the particular clause in which it should be inserted. That the earlier Augustan poets should leave their great predecessor completely unnoticed is less remarkable, for it may be taken as merely a part of that curious conspiracy of silence regarding the writers of the Ciceronian age which, whether under political pressure or not, they all adopted. Even Ovid, never ungenerous though not always discriminating in his praise, dismisses him in a list of Latin poets with a single couplet of vague eulogy.

In the reactionary circles of the Empire, Lucretius found recognition; but the critics who, according to Tacitus, ranked him above Virgil may be reasonably suspected of doing so more from caprice than from rational conviction. Had the poem itself perished (and all the extant manuscripts are copies of a single original), no one would have thought that such a preference could be anything but a piece of antiquarian pedantry, like the revival, in the same period, of the plays of the early tragedians. But the fortunate and slender chance which has preserved it shows that their opinion, whether right or wrong, is one which at all events is neither absurd nor unarguable. For in the De Rerum Natura we are brought face to face not only with an extraordinary literary achievement, but with a mind whose profound and brilliant genius has only of late years, and with the modern advance of physical and historical science, been adequately recognised.

Not unaffected by this fashion of the day, but turning from it to older and nobler models—Homer and Empedocles in Greek, Ennius in Latin—Lucretius conceived the imposing scheme of a didactic poem dealing with the whole field of life and nature as interpreted by the Epicurean philosophy. He lived to carry out his work almost to completion. It here and there wants the final touches of arrangement; one or two discussions are promised and not given; some paragraphs are repeated, and others have not been worked into their proper place; but substantially, as in the case of the Aeneid, we have the complete poem before us, and know perfectly within what limits it might have been altered or improved by fuller revision.

As pure literature, the Nature of Things has all the defects inseparable from a didactic poem, that unstable combination of discordant elements, and from a poem which is not only didactic, but argumentative, and in parts highly controversial. Nor are these difficulties in the least degree evaded or smoothed over by the poet. As a teacher, he is in deadly earnest; as a controversialist, his first object is to refute and convince. The graces of poetry are never for a moment allowed to interfere with the full development of an argument. Much of the poem is a chain of intricate reasoning hammered into verse by sheer force of hand. The ardent imagination of the poet struggles through masses of intractable material which no genius could wholly fuse into a metal pure enough to take perfect form. His language, in the fine prologue to the fourth book of the poem, shows his attitude towards his art very clearly.

Avia Pieridum peragro loca nullius ante

 Trita solo; iuvat integros accedere fontes

 Atque haurire, iuvatque novos decerpere flores

 Insignemque meo capiti petere inde coronam

 Unde prius milli velarint tempora Musae:

 Primum quod magnis doceo de rebus, et artis

 Religionum animum nodis exsolvere pergo,

 Deinde quod obscura de re tam lucida pango

 Carmina, musaeo contingens cuncta lepore.

The joy and glory of his art come second in his mind to his passionate love of truth, and the deep moral purport of what he believes to be the one true message for mankind. The human race lies fettered by superstition and ignorance; his mission is to dispel their darkness by that light of truth which is “clearer than the beams of the sun or the shining shafts of day.” Spinoza has been called, in a bold figure, “a man drunk with God;” the contemplation of the “nature of things,” the physical structure of the universe, and the living and all but impersonate law which forms and sustains it, has the same intoxicating influence over Lucretius.

Lucretius: a Roman Poet Contribution to Latin Literature

God and man are alike to him bubbles on the ceaseless stream of existence; yet they do not therefore, as they have so often done in other philosophies, fade away to a spectral thinness. His contemplation of existence is no brooding over abstractions; Nature is not in his view the majestic and silent figure before whose unchanging eyes the shifting shadow-shapes go and come; but an essential life, manifesting itself in a million workings, creatrix, gubernans, daedala rerum. The universe is filled through all its illimitable spaces by the roar of her working, the ceaseless unexhausted energy with which she alternates life and death.

To our own age the Epicurean philosophy has a double interest. Not only was it a philosophy of life and conduct, but, in the effort to place life and conduct under ascertainable physical laws, it was led to frame an extremely detailed and ingenious body of natural philosophy, which, partly from being based on really sound postulates, partly from a happy instinct in connecting phenomena, still remains interesting and valuable. To the Epicureans, indeed, as to all ancient thinkers, the scientific method as it is now understood was unknown; and a series of unverified generalizations, however brilliant and acute, is not the true way towards knowledge. But it still remains an astonishing fact that many of the most important physical discoveries of modern times are hinted at or even expressly stated by Lucretius.

The general outlines of the atomic doctrine have long been accepted as in the main true; in all important features it is superior to any other physical theory of the universe which existed up to the seventeenth century. In his theory of light Lucretius was in advance of Newton. In his theory of chemical affinities (for he describes the thing though the nomenclature was unknown to him) he was in advance of Lavoisier. In his theory of the ultimate constitution of the atom he is in striking agreement with the views of the ablest living physicists. The essential function of science—to reduce apparently disparate phenomena to the expressions of a single law—is not with him the object of a moment’s doubt or uncertainty.

Towards real progress in knowledge two things are alike indispensable: a true scientific method, and imaginative insight. The former is, in the main, a creation of the modern world, nor was Lucretius here in advance of his age. But in the latter quality he is unsurpassed, if not unequalled. Perhaps this is even clearer in another field of science, that which has within the last generation risen to such immense proportions under the name of anthropology. Thirty years ago it was the first and second books of the De Rerum Natura which excited the greatest enthusiasm in the scientific world. Now that the atomic theory has passed into the rank of received doctrines, the brilliant sketch, given in the fifth book, of the beginnings of life upon the earth, the evolution of man and the progress of human society, is the portion of the poem in which his scientific imagination is displayed most astonishingly.

A Roman aristocrat, living among a highly cultivated society, Lucretius had been yet endowed by nature with the primitive instincts of the savage. He sees the ordinary processes of everyday life—weaving, carpentry, metal-working, even such specialised forms of manual art as the polishing of the surface of marble—with the fresh eye of one who sees them all for the first time. Nothing is to him indistinct through familiarity. In virtue of this absolute clearness of vision it costs him no effort to throw himself back into prehistoric conditions and the wild life of the earliest men. Even further than this he can pierce the dim recesses of the past. Before his imagination the earth rises swathed in tropical forests, and all strange forms of life issuing and jostling one another for existence in the steaming warmth of perpetual summer. Among a thousand types that flowered and fell, the feeble form of primitive man is distinguished, without fire, without clothing, without articulate speech. Through the midnight of the woods, shivering at the cries of the stealthy-footed prowlers of the darkness, he crouches huddled in fallen leaves, waiting for the rose of dawn.

Little by little the prospect clears round him. The branches of great trees, grinding one against another in the windy forest, break into a strange red flower; he gathers it and hoards it in his cave. There, when wind and rain beat without, the hearth-fire burns through the winter, and round it gathers that other marvellous invention of which the hearth-fire became the mysterious symbol, the family. From this point the race is on the full current of progress, of which the remainder of the book gives an account as essentially true as it is incomparably brilliant. If we consider how little Lucretius had to go upon in this reconstruction of lost history, his imaginative insight seems almost miraculous. Even for the later stages of human progress he had to rely mainly on the eye which saw deep below the surface into the elementary structure of civilisation.

Lucretius: a Roman Poet Contribution to Latin Literature

There was no savage life within the scope of his actual observation. Books wavered between traditions of an impossible golden age and fragments of primitive legend which were then quite unintelligible, and are only now giving up their secret under a rigorous analysis. Further back, and beyond the rude civilisation of the earlier races of Greece and Italy, data wholly failed. We have supplemented, but hardly given more life to, his picture of the first beginnings, by evidence drawn from a thousand sources then unknown or unexplored—from coal-measures and mud-deposits, Pictish barrows and lacustrine middensteads, remote tribes of hidden Africa and islands of the Pacific Sea.

Such are the characteristics which, to one or another epoch of modern times, give the poem of Lucretius so unique an interest. But for these as for all ages, its permanent value must lie mainly in more universal qualities. History and physical science alike are in all poetry ancillary to ideas. It is in his moral temper, his profound insight into life, that Lucretius is greatest; and it is when dealing with moral ideas that his poetry rises to its utmost height. The Epicurean philosophy, in his hands, takes all the moral fervour of a religion. The depth of his religious instinct may be measured by the passion of his antagonism to what he regarded as superstition.

Human life in his eyes was made wretched, mean, and cruel by one great cause—the fear of death and of what happens after it. That death is not to be feared, that nothing happens after it, is the keystone of his whole system. It is after an accumulation of seventeen proofs, hurled one upon another at the reader, of the mortality of the soul, that, letting himself loose at the highest emotional and imaginative tension, he breaks into that wonderful passage, which Virgil himself never equalled, and which in its lofty passion, its piercing tenderness, the stately roll of its cadences, is perhaps unmatched in human speech.


 “Iam iam non domus accipiet te Iaeta, neque uxor

 Optima, nee dulces occurrent oscula nati

 Praeripere et tacita pectus dulcedine tangent:

 Non poteris factis florentibus esse, tuisque

 Praesidium: misero misere” aiunt, “omnia ademit

 Una dies infesta tibi tot praemia vitae. … “

“‘Now no more shall a glad home and a true wife welcome thee, nor darling children race to snatch thy first kisses and touch thy heart with a sweet and silent content; no more mayest thou be prosperous in thy doings and a defence to thine own: alas and woe!’ say they, ‘one disastrous day has taken all these prizes of thy life away from thee’—but thereat they do not add this, ‘and now no more does any longing for these things beset thee.’ This did their thought but clearly see and their speech follow, they would release themselves from great heartache and fear. ‘Thou, indeed, as thou art sunk in the sleep of death, wilt so be for the rest of the ages, severed from all weary pains; but we, while close by us thou didst turn ashen on the awful pyre, made unappeasable lamentation, and everlastingly shall time never rid our heart of anguish.’ Ask we then this of him, what there is that is so very bitter, if sleep and peace be the conclusion of the matter, to make one fade away in never-ending grief?

“Thus also men often do when, set at the feast, they hold their cups and shade their faces with garlands, saying sadly, ‘Brief is this joy for wretched men; soon will it have been, and none may ever after recall it!’ as if this were to be first and foremost of the ills of death, that thirst and dry burning should waste them miserably, or desire after anything else beset them. For not even then does any one miss himself and his life when soul and body together are deep asleep and at rest; for all we care, such slumber might go on for ever, nor does any longing after ourselves touch us then, though then those first beginnings through our body swerve away but a very little from the movements that bring back the senses when the man starts up and gathers himself out of sleep. Far less, therefore, must we think death concerns us, if less than nothing there can be; for a greater sundering in the mass of matter follows upon death, nor does any one awake and stand, whom the cold stoppage of death once has overtaken.

“Yet again, were the Nature of things suddenly to utter a voice, and thus with her own lips upbraid one of us, ‘What ails thee so, O mortal, to let thyself loose in too feeble grievings? why weep and wail at death? for if thy past life and overspent has been sweet to thee, and all the good thereof has not, as if poured into a pierced vessel, run through and joylessly perished, why dost thou not retire like a banqueter filled with life, and calmly, O fool, take thy peaceful sleep? But if all thou hast had is perished and spilt, and thy life is hateful, why seekest thou yet to add more which shall once again all perish and fall joylessly away? why not rather make an end of life and labour? for there is nothing more that I can contrive and invent for thy delight; all things are the same for ever. Even were thy body not yet withered, nor thy limbs weary and worn, yet all things remain the same, didst thou go on to live all the generations down, nay, even more, wert thou never doomed to die’—what do we answer?”

It is in passages of which the two hundred lines beginning thus are the noblest instance, passages of profound and majestic broodings over life and death, that the long rolling weight of the Lucretian hexameter tells with its full force. For the golden cadence of poesy we have to wait till Virgil; but the strain that Lucretius breathes through bronze is statelier and more sonorous than any other in the stately and sonorous Roman speech. Like Naevius a century and a half before, he might have left the proud and pathetic saying on his tomb that, after he was dead, men forgot to speak Latin in Rome. He stands side by side with Julius Caesar in the perfect purity of his language. The writing of the next age, whether prose or verse, gathered richness and beauty from alien sources; if the poem of Lucretius had no other merit, it would be a priceless document as a model of the purest Latin idiom in the precise age of its perfection. It follows from this that in certain points of technique Lucretius kept behind his age, or rather, deliberately held aloof from the movement of his age towards a more intricate and elaborate art.

The wave of Alexandrianism only touched him distantly; he takes up the Ennian tradition where Ennius had left it, and puts into it the immensely increased faculty of trained expression which a century of continuous literary practice, and his own admirably clear and quick intelligence, enable him to supply. The only Greek poets mentioned by him are Homer and Empedocles. His remoteness from the main current of contemporary literature is curiously parallel to that of Milton. The Epicurean philosophy was at this time, as it never was either earlier or later, the predominant creed among the ruling class at Rome: but except in so far as its shallower aspects gave the motive for light verse, it was as remote from poetry as the Puritan theology of the seventeenth century. In both cases a single poet of immense genius was also deeply penetrated with the spirit of a creed. In both cases his poetical affinity was with the poets of an earlier day, and his poetical manner something absolutely peculiar to himself.

Lucretius: a Roman Poet Contribution to Latin Literature

Both of them under this strangely mixed impulse set themselves to embody their creed in a great work of art. But the art did not appeal strongly to sectaries, nor the creed to artists. The De Rerum Natura and the Paradise Lost, while they exercised a profound influence over later poets, came silently into the world, and seem to have passed over the heads of their immediate contemporaries. There is yet another point of curious resemblance between them. Every student of Milton knows that the only English poet from whom he systematically borrowed matter and phrase was a second-rate translator of a second-rate original, who now would be almost forgotten but for the use Milton made of him. For one imitation of Spenser or Shakespeare in the Paradise Lost it would be easy to adduce ten—not mere coincidences of matter, but direct transferences—of Sylvester’s Du Bartas. While Lucretius was a boy, Cicero published the version in Latin hexameters of the Phaenomena and Prognostica of Aratus to which reference has already been made. These poems consist of only between eleven and twelve hundred lines in all, but had, in the later Alexandrian period, a reputation (like that of the Sepmaine of Du Bartas) far in excess of their real merit, and were among the most powerful influences in founding the new style. The many imitations in Lucretius of the extant fragments of these Ciceronian versions show that he must have studied their vocabulary and versification with minute care.

The increased technical possibilities shown by them to exist in the Latin hexameter—for in them, as in nearly all his permanent work, Cicero was mastering the problem of making his own language an adequate vehicle of sustained expression—may even have been the determining influence that made Lucretius adopt this poetical form. Till then it may have been just possible that native metrical forms might still reassert themselves. Inscriptions of the last century of the Republic show that the saturnian still lingered in use side by side with the rude popular hexameters which were gradually displacing it; and the Punic War of Naevius was still a classic.

Lucretius’ choice of the hexameter, and his definite conquest of it as a medium of the richest and most varied expression, placed the matter beyond recall. The technical imperfections which remained in it were now reduced within a visible compass; its power to convey sustained argument, to express the most delicate shades of meaning, to adjust itself to the greatest heights and the subtlest tones of emotion, was already acquired when Lucretius handed it on to Virgil. And here, too, as well as in the wide field of literature with which his fame is more intimately connected, from the actual impulse given by his own early work and heightened by admiration of his brilliant maturity, even more than from the dubious tradition of his critical revision of the poem, the glory of the Ciceronian age is in close relation to the personal genius of Cicero.

Read it also:  Why Spenser is Called “The Poet’s Poet”?

1 thought on “Lucretius: a Roman Poet of Latin”

Leave a Comment

close