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As we look back upon the works of the great writers of the past—works and writers with which, in a certain sense, we are quite familiar, and which in a certain sense are as famous now as ever—it will sometimes give us a strange, and almost painful shock, if we realise how very few of these can be still said to live. They have their immortality, it is true; but they have passed to it through the grave and gate of death. Their forms are still heroic ; but they are heroes without blood, and shadowy; and we seem to meet them in a dim Elysium, not in the world around us. Or else we may compare them to bodies embalmed with spices, hidden away underground, and to be studied only at intervals, in the crypts of literature. A few, a few only, such as Horace and Shakespeare, still keep their fleshly life in them, are able to push their way towards us through the distractions and cares surrounding us, to parley
A.C.S.S. vol. vii.
with these, and to show us how to meet them, and, standing close beside us, assail us with living voices.
Amongst this small minority Lucretius certainly can claim no place. When his own language was still living, when men in the extent of their knowledge and their ways of thought were still the same as he himself knew them, not even then does he seem to have been popular or influential. And men, since he knew them, have grown and changed. Knowledge has widened in ways he never dreamed of; new tones have grown into human sentiment; all the lights and shadows of life have shifted ; and its whole surface has been dyed with different colours. Naturally, we then—we of the modern world—as far as any direct influence goes, are quite beyond his reach. His voice is not as our voice; it is of a different substance. We can make no direct response to it. At his note our minds and feelings rouse to no movement. It comes to us like a “horn of elf-land faintly blowing," and we know that it was meant for other ears than ours.
But the case of Lucretius is in some ways a singular one; and this very remoteness may give him, in these days, a sharp and vivid interest for us, that has long gone from poetry to which in many ways we are far nearer. How this is, we shall see readily when we consider the work he did. We shall see why he had as little interest as he had for his own epoch, and why he has as much as he has for ours. Of his life next to nothing is known for certain, beyond the fact that he was a Roman of probably noble family, that he died in the prime of his manhood, about half a century
before the birth of Christ, and that a legend ascribes his death to the effects of a maddening love-philtre. What his fame rests on, what makes his name known to us, is a single poem-or, speaking of it as a whole, it may be perhaps more just to say, a single treatise in verse. For the main subject of this poem is not poetical; nor, in composing it, was poetry the author's first object. Primarily, and before all things, the work is a scientific treatise—as strictly scientific (at least in the author's intention) as a modern treatise on optics, or geology, or the origin of species; and, except as far as metre goes, it has in many places as little of poetry as these have. Poetry, it is true, there is in it-poetry lin abundance; and some of this is the loftiest in all Roman literature. Continually, too, when we do not get poetry, we are still conscious that we are listening to a poet. All this we shall come to see by-and-by. But it will be well first to consider the work only in its primary character, that of a book of science; for here is the foundation of its special interest for ourselves; and our interest in it, under its other aspects, is largely based on this.
Lucretius called his book 'An Essay on the Nature of Things.' And he designed it to be a complete scientific explanation of the universe, and the relation of man to it, as a part of itself. He applies the same method to the investigation of mind and matter; of human and animal life; of organic and inorganic nature; and he describes the way in which the latter has risen out of the former. He traces the evolution of the present universe out of its original elements;