Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 60.djvu/176

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search
This page has been proofread, but needs to be validated.

skepticism. But his present vogue dates only from the middle of the nineteenth century, when the great questions which he treated reached again the acute stage of interest. The search into the constitution of matter and the origin and development of living beings, and the sharp antagonisms of science and theology, which have distinguished the past half century, called out of obscurity the poet-scientist who, quite alone, passed over the same path two thousand years before. On account of this kinship of task and attitude Lucretius, to the modern man of science, is better known than any other ancient poet.

Professor Jowett used to say that all that was really known of Shakespeare might be written on half a sheet of note-paper. Of Lucretius very much less is known. Indeed, with the single exception of Homer, there is no considerable writer of antiquity whose personal history is so meager and vague. Two sentences by the Christian Father Jerome and a single sentence by Donatus constitute his extant biography. The statements of Jerome are—that Lucretius was born in the year B. C. 94; that, having been made insane by a love-potion, he wrote, in the intervals of insanity, certain books which Cicero corrected; and that he died by his own hand in the forty-fourth year of his life. Donatus in his 'Life of Virgil' informs us that, on the day when Virgil assumed the toga virilis, Lucretius died. By the help of Donatus we can correct the birth-date given by Jerome, and fix it at about the beginning of B. C. 98. The story of the philtre, insanity and suicide is probably a legend with a historic germ of some unknown tragedy in his life. Upon that legend Tennyson has made his poem of 'Lucretius,' which is a marvel at once of faithful portraiture and of exquisite beauty.

If we turn through the 'De Rerum Natura' in hope of chance self-revelations of the author, we are disappointed. He is almost as impersonal as Shakespeare. He lets fall no fact of his station or fortunes in life. We do, however, discover some of his personal characteristics. Here is an austere and serious student of the problems of nature and of human life and destiny. He is, as he says himself,[1] not only a philosophical teacher and a poet, but also a moral reformer, and so ardent is his zeal to effect his practical aim of emancipating men from the bonds of superstition that he subordinates to it both his philosophy and his poetic passion. His praise of the tranquil, obscure life suggests that he knew and loved it. We are warranted in inferring that he was the social equal of C. Memmius to whom his poem is addressed and that accordingly he was of the governing class. But we catch hints here and there that the political history of the last years of the Republic only repelled and distressed him, and, having no leaning

  1. I. 931-934.