Open main menu

Page:EB1911 - Volume 17.djvu/122

This page needs to be proofread.
107
LUCRETIUS

LUCRETIUS (TITUS LUCRETIUS CARUS) (c. 98-55 B.c.), the great Latin didactic poet. Our sole information concerning his life is found in the brief summary of ]erome, written more than four centuries after the poet's death. Jerome followed, often carelessly, the accounts contained in the lost work of Suetonius De Viris Illustribus, written about two centuries after the death of Lucretius; and, although it is likely that Suetonius used the information transmitted by earlier grammarians, there is nothing to guide us to the original sources. According to this account the poet was born in 9 5 B.C.; he became mad in consequence of the administration of a love-philtre; and after composing several books in his lucid intervals, which were subsequently corrected by Cicero, he died by his own hand in the forty-fourth year of his age. Donatus states in his life of Virgil, a work also based on the lost work of Suetonius, that Lucretius died on the same day on which Virgil assumed the toga virilis, that is, in the seventeenth year of Virgil's life, and on the very day on which he was born, and adds that the consuls were the same, that is Cn. Pompeius Magnus and M. Licinius Crassus, consuls in 70 and again in 55. The statements cannot be perfectly reconciled; but we may say with certainty that Lucretius was born between 98 and QS B.C., and died in 55 or 54. A single mention of his poem, the De rerum nalura (which from the condition in which it has reached us may be assumed to have been published posthumously) in a letter of Cicero's to his brother Quintus, written early in 54 B.C., confirms the date given by Donatus as that of the poet's death. The statements of Jerome have been questioned or disbelieved on the ground of their intrinsic improbability. They have been regarded as a fiction invented later by the enemies of Epicureanism, with the view of discrediting the most powerful work ever produced by any disciple of that sect. It is morein conformity with ancient credulity than with modern science to attribute a permanent tendency to derangement to the accidental administration of any drug, however potent. A work characterized by such strength, consistency and continuity of thought is not likely to have been composed “ in the intervals of madness ” as Jerome says. Donatus, in mentioning the poet's death, gives no hint of the act of suicide. The poets of the Augustan age, who were deeply interested both in his philosophy and in his poetry, are entirely silent about the tragical story of his life. Cicero, by his professed antagonism to the doctrines of Epicurus, by his inadequate appreciation of Lucretius himself and by the indifference which he shows to other contemporary poets, seems to have been neither fitted for the task of correcting the unfinished work of a writer whose genius was so distinct from his own, nor likely to have cordially undertaken such a task.

Yet these considerations do not lead to the absolute rejection of the story. The evidence afforded by the poem rather leads to the conclusion that the tradition contains some germ of fact. It is remarkable that in more than one passage of his poem Lucretius writes with extraordinary vividness of the impression produced both by dreams and by waking visions. It is true that the philosophy of Epicurus put great stress on these, as affording the explanation of the origin of supernatural beliefs. But the insistence with which Lucretius returns to the subject, and the horror with which he recalls the effects of such abnormal phenomena, suggest that he himself may have been liable to such hallucinations, which are said to be consistent with perfect sanity, though they may be the precursors either of madness or of a state of despair and melancholy. Other passages, where he describes himself as ever engaged, even in his dreams, on his task of inquiry and composition, produce the impression of an unrelieved strain of mind and feeling, which may have ended in some extreme reaction of spirit, or in some failure of intellectual power, that may have led him to commit suicide. But the strongest confirmation of the tradition is the unfinished condition in which the poem has reached us. The subject appears indeed to have been fully treated in accordance with the plan sketched out in the introduction to the first book. But that book is the only one which is finished in style and in the arrangement of its matter. In all the others, and especially in the last three, the continuity of the argument is frequently broken by passages which must have been inserted after the first draft of the arguments was written out. Thus, for instance, in his account of the transition from savage to civilized life, he assumes at v. rorr the discovery of the use of skins, fire, &c., and the first beginning of civil society, and proceeds at 1028 to explain the origin of language, and then again returns, from 1090 to 1160, to speculate upon the first use of fire and the earliest stages of political life. These breaks in continuity show what might also be inferred from frequent repetitions of lines which have appeared earlier in the poem, and from the rough workmanship of passages in the later books, that the poem could not have received the final revision of the author. Nor is there any great difficulty in believing that Cicero edited it; the word “ emendavit, ” need not mean more than what we call “preparing for press.”

From the absence of any claim on the part of any other district of Italy to the honour of having given birth to Lucretius it is inferred that he was of purely Roman origin. No writer certainly is more purely Roman in personal character and in strength of understanding. His silence on the subject of Roman greatness and glory as contrasted with the prominence of these subjects in the poetry of men of provincial birth such as Ennius, Virgil and Horace, may be explained by the principle that familiarity had made the subject one of less wonder and novelty to him. The Lucretian gens to which he belonged was one of the oldest of the great Roman houses, nor do we hear of the name, as we do of other great family names, as being diffused over other parts of Italy, or as designating men of obscure or servile origin. It may well be assumed that Lucretius was a member of the Roman aristocracy, belonging either to a senatorial or to one of the great equestrian families. If the Roman aristocracy of his time had lost much of the Virtue and of the governing qualities of their ancestors, they showed in the last years before the establishment of monarchy a taste for intellectual culture which might have made Rome as great in literature as in arms and law. A new taste for philosophy had developed among members of the governing class during the youth of Lucretius, and eminent Greek teachers of the Epicurean sect settled at Rome at the same time, and lived on terms of intimacy with them. The inference that Lucretius belonged to this class is confirmed by the tone in which he addresses Gaius Memmius, a man of an eminent senatorial family, to whom the poem is dedicated. His tone is quite unlike that in which Virgil or even Horace addresses Maecenas. He addresses him as an equal; he expresses sympathy with the prominent part he played in public life, and admiration for his varied accomplishments, but on his own subject claims to speak to him with authority. Although our conception of the poet's life is necessarily vague and meagre, yet his personal force is so remarkable and so vividly impressed on his poem, that we seem able to form a consistent idea of his qualities and characteristics. We know, for example, that the choice of a contemplative life was not the result of indifference to the fate of the world, or of any natural coldness or even calmness of temperament. In the opening lines of the second and third books we can mark the recoil of a humane and sensitive spirit from the horrors of the reign of terror which he witnessed in his youth, and from the anarchy and confusion which prevailed at Rome during his later years. We may also infer that he had not been through his whole career so much estranged from the social life of his day as he seems- to have been in his later years. Passages in his poem attest his familiarity with the pomp and luxury of city life, with the attractions of the public games and with the pageantry of great military spectacles. But much the greater mass of the illustrations of his philosophy indicate that, while engaged on his poem he must have passed much of his time in the open air, exercising at once the keen observation of a naturalist and the contemplative vision of a poet. He seems to have found a pleasure, more congenial to the modern than to the ancient temperament, in ascending mountains or wanderingtamong their solitudes (vi. 469, iv. 575). References to companionship in these wanderings, and