All things that grow decay: organs, organisms, families, states, races, planets, stars; only the atoms never die. The forces of creation and development are balanced by the forces of destruction in a vast diastole and systole of life and death. In nature there is evil as well as good; suffering, even unmerited, comes to every life, and dissolution dogs the steps of every evolution. Our earth itself is dying: earthquakes are breaking it up. The land is becoming exhausted, rains and rivers erode it, and carry even the mountains at last into the sea. Someday our whole stellar system will suffer a like mortality; “the walls of the sky will be stormed on every side, and will collapse into a crumbling ruin.” But the very moment of mortality betrays the invincible vitality of the world. “The wailing of the newborn infant is mingled with the dirge sung for the dead.” New systems form, new stars and planets, another earth, and fresher life. Evolution begins again.
Looking back over this “most marvelous performance in all antique literature,” we may first recognize its shortcomings: the chaos of its contents, left unrevised by the poet’s early death; the repetition of phrases, lines, whole passages; the conception of sun, moon, and stars as no larger than we see them; the inability of the system to explain how dead atoms became life and consciousness; the insensitiveness to the insights, consolations, inspirations, and moving poetry of faith, and the moral and social functions of religion. But how light these faults are in the scale against the brave attempt at a rational interpretation of the universe, of history, of religion, of disease; the picture of nature as a world of law, in which matter and motion are never diminished or increased; the grandeur of the theme and the nobility of its treatment; the sustained power of imagination that feels everywhere “the majesty of things,” and lifts the visions of Empedocles, the science of Democritus, and the ethics of Epicurus into some of the loftiest poetry that any age has known. Here was a language still rough and immature, almost devoid as yet of philosophical or scientific terms; Lucretius does not merely create a new vocabulary, he forces the old speech into new channels of rhythm and grace; and, while molding the hexameter into an unequaled masculinity of power, reaches now and then the mellow tenderness and fluency of Virgil. The sustained vitality of his poem shows Lucretius as one who amid all sufferings and disappointments enjoyed and exhausted life almost from birth to death.
How did he die? Saint Jerome reports that “Lucretius was driven mad by a love philter, after he had written several books…. He died by his own hand in his forty-fourth year.” The story is uncorroborated, and has been much doubted; no saint could be trusted to give an objective account of Lucretius. Some critics have found support for the story in the unnatural tension of the poem, its poorly organized contents, and its sudden end; but one need not be a Lucretius to be excitable, disorderly, or dead. Like Euripides, Lucretius is a modern; his thought and feeling are more congenial to our time than to the century before Christ. Horace and Virgil were deeply influenced by him in their youth, and recall him without name in many a lordly phrase; but the attempt of Augustus to restore the old faith made it unwise for these imperial proteges to express too openly their admiration and their debt. The Epicurean philosophy was as unsuited to the Roman mind as epicurean practices suited Roman taste in the age of Lucretius. Rome wanted a metaphysic that would exalt mystic powers rather than natural law; an ethic that would make a virile and martial people rather than humanitarian lovers of quiet and peace; and a political philosophy that, like those of Virgil and Horace, would justify Rome’s imperial mastery. In the resurrection of faith after Seneca, Lucretius was almost forgotten. Not till Poggio rediscovered him in 1418 did he begin to influence European thought. A physician of Verona, Girolamo Fracastoro (1483-1553) took from the poet the theory of disease as due to noxious “seeds” ( semina ) floating in the air; and in 1647 Gassendi revived the atomic philosophy. Voltaire read the De Rerum Natura devotedly, and agreed with Ovid that its rebel verses would last as long as the earth. In the endless struggle of East and West, of “tender-minded” and consoling faiths vs. a “tough-minded” and materialistic science, Lucretius waged alone the most vigorous battle of his time. He is, of course, the greatest of philosophical poets. In him, as in Catullus and Cicero, Latin literature came of age, and leadership in letters passed at last from Greece to Rome.