Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 60.djvu/177

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LUCRETIUS AND THE EVOLUTION IDEA.

to social pleasure, he chose to lead the retired and contemplative life, The Epicurean ethics, which he accepted, produced diverse practical results according to the natures which received it. In shallower natures, like those of Catullus and Horace, it produced an easy-going life of pleasure-seeking; in deeper natures, like Lucretius, Virgil, Epictetus, the same system showed itself in a sincere and strenuous moral life closely akin to that of the Stoics. We may, therefore, accept as historically true and as being well within the suggestions of the poem, the words which Tennyson puts into the mouth of Lucretius:

I thought I lived securely as yourselves—
No lewdness, narrowing envy, monkey-spite.
No madness of ambition, avarice, none:
No larger feast than under plane or pine
With neighbors laid along the grass to take
Only such cups as left us friendly-warm.
Affirming each his own philosophy—
Nothing to mar the sober majesties
Of settled, sweet. Epicurean life.

We discover, moreover, his absolute sincerity and devotion to truth, his large and reverential conception of the sum of things—the majestas cognita rerum—his high moral purpose and poetic fervor which sustain him throughout a prolonged and difficult achievement at an unusual elevation of thought and passion. As Professor Sellar remarks, he combines in himself the Greek ardor of speculation and the Roman's firm hold on reality, the theorizing passion of the dawn of science with the minute observation of its meridian.

So far as we know Lucretius left but one work, the "De Rerum atura,' i. e., 'The Constitution of Things,' but that single work will, as Ovid prophesied, preserve the memory of his genius until the world disparts in its final catastrophe. Certainly in all the record of literary effort, the poem is unmatched in at least one respect: it is a closely reasoned system of natural philosophy in verse. Tennyson's 'Two Voices' has been mentioned as like it in the wealth of poesy enlisted to beautify abstruse argument. But the subject-matter of that striking poem is different and yields itself more kindly to poetic treatment; it seems, moreover, to be but a short 'swallow-flight of song' beside the sustained elevation and wide sweep of the ancient master. Lucretius had the example of Empedocles for the poetic form of his treatise, but that alone would not have determined his choice. Two other considerations moved him—first, his own poetic impulse, and, second, the wish to make an unfamiliar doctrine attractive; he would overlay it, as he says, with the pleasant honey of the muses.

But the purpose of the poem is not the emulation of the Sicilian poet-philosopher, nor yet the gratification of his own sense for beauty.