The Roman Poets of the Republic

QUAINT old Dr. Popkin, Greek professor at Harvard in the last generation, was always sighing after the time when he should retire from active service and “ read the authors.” Such is always the pleasant longing of those who crave “ the still air of delightful studies.” Much, however, depends upon who “ the authors” are. In the seventeenth century, the authors were the Greek and Latin fathers. Mr. Mullingar tells us that Cambridge University, in England, existed mainly for them; and Harvard College was founded for them chiefly, not for the classics. In the eighteenth century, the authors meant the Latin writers, as any one may see by turning over the essayists of Queen Anne’s time ; the taste for the Greek classics has grown up later, or at least has greatly increased in proportion. Even among the different writers in each language the preference has greatly varied at different periods. The same applies to works of art. Forty years since, small plaster casts of the Venus de Medici were very common among us. What has become of them ? The Venus of Milo now reigns alone ; and if there is a change of taste in Venuses, why not in books ?

Miss Mitford, describing an English country gentleman of sixty years ago, says that he “ translated Horace and Virgil, as all gentlemen do.” Now the man of leisure, in America or England, if he happens to have classical tastes, reads Lucretius as well as Virgil, and dabbles in Catullus as well as in Horace.

Why this change, or at any rate this greater comprehensiveness, of taste Several reasons are obvious, and one cause, lying not quite so much on the surface, but which may still have weight, is possibly the growing republican feeling of the age, which finds something to like in the manly flavor of these poets of the Roman republic. The brilliancy and downfall of the last French empire have left an increased distrust in regard to all imperial and Augustan epochs, as offering a period of hot-house development, ending in a swift decay. The same influences that produced Virgil and Horace ended in a state of things which called for Juvenal and Persius. How much of this decline arose from imperial institutions, and how much of it from inherent defects in the character of the people, it is hard to say. What is certain is that there is just now a tendency to trace the Homan literature a little farther up the stream.

This should be especially the case in the United States, since there is much in common between our early literary development and that of Rome. The Roman race, like our own, was at first charged with being unpoetical, and with excelling only in the gifts which found a state, not in those which adorn it. Here, as there, the indigenous national product was in political oratory and statesmanship. In Rome, as here, literature was an after-thought, and was regarded with suspicion, when it came, as something exotic and even effeminate. Cicero wrote of Rome in language that might have been used by Fisher Ames:

“ Poets were tardily recognized or received among us, but we promptly embraced the orator ; and that not chiefly for his learning, but for his gift of speech.” 2 Cato spoke of poetry in the same deprecating way in which John Adams spoke of all art: “ Poetry was not held in honor ; if any one devoted himself to it, or went about to banquets, he was called a vagabond.” 3 When poetry began to thrive in Rome, it had still a foreign flavor; it reflected Greece, as American poetry reflected Europe, yet with a certain vigor of its own. Falling under the influence of imperialism, it developed rapidly into hot-house perfection ; then sank into satire, and died. Absit omen !

Roman poetry dates back to certain early hymns and festive verses, preserved only in fragments, and magnified by the imagination of Niebuhr into epics, and by that of Macaulay into ballads. First among the recognized poets of Rome stands Nævius, who may be said to survive in fame through a single phrase, — “ Laudari a laudato viro,” — the learned equivalent of the familiar English phrase, originating with the dramatist Morton, and recognizing approbation from Sir Hubert Stanley as praise indeed. It is a curious illustration of that law of literary history which keeps the light things afloat, while the weighty sink, that after the tragedies and political satires of Nævius have almost wholly perished, his description of a coquette survives. It is worth quoting, in Sellar’s version, to show how certain social phenomena were studied and observed more than twenty centuries before Cherbuliez and Howells were born : —

Like one playing at ball in a ring, she tosses about from one to another, and is at home with all. To one she nods, to another winks. She makes love to one, clings to another. Her hand is busy here, her foot there. To one she gives a ring to look at, to another blows a kiss. With one she sings, with another corresponds by signs.” 4

Of the other early poet, Ennius, more solid fragments remain, preserved especially by that invaluable literary Dryasdust, Aulus Gellius. Ennius laid the foundations of Roman history by collecting the early traditions; he essayed, with rugged hand, to introduce and acclimate the Greek hexameter; his deep and thoughtful observations on nature prepared the way for Lucretius; and Virgil did not disdain to borrow his descriptive phrases, such as that applied to the starry sky, — “ stellis ardentibus aptum.” In the days when no English political essay or speech was complete without its Latin quotation, there were no lines offener cited than his sonorous and massive delineation of Quintus Fabius Maximus, surnamed Cunctator from his deliberation in war : —

“ Unus homo nobis cunctando restituit rem.
Noenum rumores ponebat ante salntem.
Ergo plusque magisque viri nunc gloria claret.”

Dr. Sellar well says that “ these lines leave on the mind the same impression of antique majesty as is produced by the unadorned record of character and work accomplished inscribed on the tomb of the Scipios.”5

The forms of this early poetry were taken chiefly from the Greek, but that was all. When we search deeper we are struck with the discovery that the mighty Roman character was born fullgrown, and was as remote from the Greek type in the verse of Ennius as in that of Virgil, — perhaps remoter. It is useless to analyze that character; it has so stamped itself on the world that the word " Roman ” is its own sufficient definition. Margaret Fuller Ossoli well says, in her fragment of autobiography, “ We are never better understood than when we speak of a ‘ Roman virtue,’ a ‘ Roman outline.’ ” To literature this temperament contributed a peculiar weight and dignity of tone, with a profound reverence for law and for the state. There was almost nothing of the idealism which pervaded the Greek tragedy, and as little of the riotous vivacity and the daring personal ities of the older Greek comedy. In short, the poetical literature of the elder nation took to itself wings, while the younger walked on the earth, grave, strong, practical. All this difference in quality was shown even in the days of Nævies and Ennius; much more when Lucretius and Catullus became the two leading literary representatives of the republic.

The last-named two seem so far apart that it is hard to think of them as belonging to the same period. Yet Darwin and Swinburne are children of the same epoch in England; and Lucretius has been claimed as a more tuneful and poetic Darwin, while Catullus unites, like Swinburne, an exquisite sense of literary form with the love of liberty, and with a decided taste for the fleshly school. To consider these two ancient poets is, as Dr. Sellars justly points out, to view republican Rome in its full strength, so far as relates to literature.

The Roman quality of Lucretius does not lie especially in his historic references, nor yet in the direct utterance of national pride. But Dr. Sellar tells us admirably just where it is to be found, — in his moral temper.

“ He is a truer type of the strong character and commanding genius of his country than either Virgil or Horace. He has the Roman conquering energy, the Roman reverence for the majesty of law, the Roman gift for introducing order into a confused world, the Roman power of impressing his authority upon the minds of men. In his fortitude, his superiority to human weakness, his seriousness of spirit, his dignity of bearing, he seems to embody the great Roman qualities 'constantia ’ and ‘ gravitas.'6

Mr. Froude says of the age when Lucretius lived that it was “ saturated with cant ; ” and against this cant the whole work of Lucretius, De Rerum Natura, was a fresh and living protest. This gives it immortality, in spite of its long and heavy and unreadable passages.

It is Greek and Roman at once: Greek on the speculative side, Roman on the practical. And whether speculative or practical, the poet aims at truth, and no admiration for what is great, or love of what is beautiful, leads him astray. Cicero in his highest philosophic words still gives us a slight sense of posing in an attitude. He is an Edward Everett of antiquity ; we wonder at his varied and inexhaustible cultivation, yet he leaves us cold. Nobody said finer things than Virgil; there is not a stoic maxim in Diogenes Laertius that has in it more condensed heroism than such lines as

“ Disce, puer, virtutem ex me verumque laborem;
Fortunam ex ahis.” 7

It was a merit of the Latin language, a bequest of the Roman strength, that even on the lips of a courtier it could put on a dignity like this. But the moral bearing of Lucretius was a matter not of phrases, but of character. To be sure, he does away with all direct dependence on the gods, and sees in them only a race of painless and ethereal beings, with no concern for human life ; he does away with the thought of immortality : yet all this is not for frivolity, but as a means to emancipation.

He wishes to diminish the sum of human suffering ; — just what Buddha sought by the “ Wheel of the Law ; ” what Epictetus sought by substituting essentials for non-essentials. Lucretius seeks it by doing away with the fear of the gods and the fear of men ; by teaching his readers to absorb themselves in higher studies, to love nature, to explore truth, and to look with pity on the proud. Epictetus might have written this passage, though he would have put it more tersely : —

“ But there is no greater joy than to hold high aloft the tranquil abodes well bulwarked by the learning of the wise, whence thou mayest look down on other men, and see them wandering every way and lost in error, seeking the road of life; mayest mark the strife of genius, the rivalries of rank, the struggle night and day with surprising effort to reach the highest place and be master of the state.”8

Like Epictetus, Lucretius does injustice to the active life of the world ; but, unlike Epictetus, he recognizes human tenderness and the ties of love. No man has written more fervently of filial and conjugal affection, and in his theory of society he finds the first source of favorable influence under barbarism in the winning ways of young children toward their rugged parents. So he presents as the chief sadness of death the parting forever from the endearments of home : —

“ Iam iam non domus accipiet te læta, neque uxor Optima nec dulces occurrent oscula nati Præripere et tacita pectus dulcedine tangent.” 9

While Lucretius claims to be an epicurean,— Lord Bacon, by the way. oddly calls him an “ epicure,” — his philosophy is rather like a softened stoicism, fully recognizing human emotion, but regarding it as a thing to be held subordinate. The Persian Omar Khayyam often comes near to the solemn strain of Lucretius, as when he writes, —

“ Think, in this battered Caravanserai,
Whose portals are alternate Night and Day,
How Sultan after Sultan, with his Pomp,
Abode his destined Hour, and went his way.”

In like manner, Lucretius says, “ Scipio, the thunderbolt of war, the terror of Carthage, gave his bones to the earth as if he were the meanest slave.”10 But when, to evade the evils of a world like this, Omar loves to fancy himself in the desert with his mistress, —

“A Book of Verses underneath the Bough,
A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread, and Thou
Beside me singing in the Wilderness, —
Oh, Wilderness were Paradise enow!" —

we have something so alien to the Roman temperament that not even Catullus or Horace could match it; and it would seem as inappropriate to the strain of Lucretius as would a clogdance in the Concord School of Philosophy.

Looking at Lucretius on the speculative side, we see at once why he has been so long under the shadow of reproach, in ways which Dr. Sellar does not mention. We perceive why, after Bacon had quoted and Spenser imitated him, Sir Thomas Browne cautioned his son against his poem, and said, “ I do not much recommend the reading or studying of it, there being divers impieties in it, and ’t is no credit to be punctually versed in it.” We understand why the once famous John Smith, of Queen’s College, the great platonic divine of his day, preached two sermons against Lucretius, belabored him with Plotinus and Aristotle, and charged him with an “ overflushed and fiery fancy.” 11 It is also plain why our modern evolutionists revert to him. More than an Agnostic, lie has his deities conveniently shelved where, as King James said of a man in iron armor, they can neither get harm nor do any.

“ Apparet divum numen sedesqtte quiet*
Quas neque concutiunt vend nee nubila nimbis
Aepergunt neque nix acri eoncreta prima
Cana cadens violat semperque innuhilus gather
Integit, et large diffuso lumine rident,” 12

The delicacy and beauty of this description of the world where snow falls not, and there are no clouds, is illustration enough of the really loving way with which Lucretius approaches nature ; he loves it like Wordsworth, — not sentimentally, but with a grave and conscientious devotion. No poet has given a nobler picture of the sublime panorama of the heavens than is to be found in the passage where he describes the religious impression produced by their beauty upon the early inhabitants of the world, — a passage in whose swelling lines we recognize what Dr. Sellar calls the “organ tones ” of Lucretius : —

“Iu cscloque deum sedes et templa locarunt,
I’er ca-lum volvi quia nox et luna videtur,
Luna dies et nox et noctis sigtia severa
Noctivagmque faces cadi flamnueque volantes,
Nubila sol imbres nix vend fnlruina grando
Et rapidi fremitus et murmura magrta niina-
rum.” 13

Elsewhere he deplores that these great objects are left so unnoticed. Were they seen for the first time, he thinks, nothing else would be deemed so marvelous, but now that we are weary with seeing, no one looks : —

Omnia qure nunc si primum mortalibus essent,
Ex inproviso si nunc obiecta repente,
Quid magis his rebus poterat inirabile dici
Aut minus ante quod auderent fore credere gen-
tes ?
Nil, ut opinor: ita hæc species miranda fuisset. Quam tibi iam nemo, fessus satiate videndi, Suspicere in cæli dignetur lucida templa ! ” 14

There has already been a good deal of discussion as to the points of analogy between the philosophy of Lucretius and that of modern evolutionists. His theory of atoms, his pictures of primitive man and of man’s development, his observations as to atavism, his explanation of language and of ethics, must all make him an absorbing object of study to those whose minds are now busy with just these themes. He paints the struggle for life among the lower tribes and the survival of the fittest in a way that places him by the side of Darwin, so far as he goes. He points out that all races which live must owe their life to some especial advantage : —

“ Nam quæcumque vides vesci vitalibus auris
Aut dolus aut virtus aut denique mobilitas est
Ex ineunte ævo genus id tutata reservans; ”15

and he shows that those without these advantages must perish. But here he stops. The discussion bears no further fruit in his hands, nor does he recognize the accumulation of favoring qualities by descent. After all, the noblest trait in Lucretius is his absolute faith in law. Not because his mind was unimaginative, but because it was strong and clear, did he put absolutely aside all mere marvels, all monstrosities, all that which the mental ingenuity of so many had been wasted in building up. He, the Roman, strong in the instincts of his race, could not attribute to the conduct of the universe any code less fixed and authoritative than his own. There was no place in this great realm, he held, for centaurs or chimeras ; everything must grow after its proper manner, and all things must preserve their characteristics through the certain covenant of nature : —

“ Ees sic quæque suo ritu procedit et omnes
Fœdere naturæ certo discrimine servant.”

Nature, like Rome, was a treaty-making power ; she could no more violate it than Rome could break her pledge. The guarantee of the universe lay in that compact “ fœdere naturœ certo.”

What a change from this stern, heroic grandeur to the gay and laughing Catullus ! But this young and passionate boy, having in him as unmistakable a strain of refined sensitiveness as Burns had, and proving himself as powerless as Burns to resist the lures of passion, had nevertheless as patriotic an impulse as ever inspired Burns’s war-songs. I read yesterday for the hundredth time, in Harvard College library, the " Scots, wha hae wi’ Wallace bled,” in the poet’s own handwriting, and admired anew the magnificent lyric instinct that led him, in the final revision, to drop out two syllables from the last line of each verse, like a soldier shortening his sword as he draws near the foe; and I was struck with the resemblance of the abbreviated stanzas to the Roman verse of Catullus, who did not hesitate to attack Julius Cæsar himself with the condensed vigor of the Sapphic rhythm, or the lighter javelins of the pure iambic. Catullus was, as Dr. Sellar remarks, “ in every nerve and fibre the poet of a republic ; ” and his very coarseness has that vitality which is always hopeful, not the sickly pruriency which in certain current poetic schools usurps its place. Many of his poems are now unreadable, from their allusions ; and yet he pauses to moderate the wild frolic of his epithalamia in deference to the innocence of the bride, for whom he can find no flower in the garden pure and sweet enough to serve as a symbol.

Catullus left but one hundred and sixteen poems, mostly short, and all secured to literature by the accidental preservation of a single manuscript, which is itself since lost. On the strength of this handful of productions he is placed by so great a critic as Niebuhr at the head of the Roman poets. It is certain that he had at once a stronger force and a more fresh and delicate sensibility than his more famous successor, Horace. His odes have less of smooth perfection than those of Horace, but they have an airier grace; they mount up as on wings. Compare, for instance, Horace’s ode to Diana and Apollo 16 with the lovely ode to the goddess by Catullus, where youth and joy seem to palpitate through every line: —

“ Dianæ sumus in fide,
Puellæ, et pueri integri;
Dianam pueri integri
Puellæque canamus.
O Latonia, maximi
Magna progenies Iovis,
Quam mater prope Deliam
Deposivit olivam;
Montium domina ut fores,
Silvarumque viventium,
Saltuumque reconditorum
Amniumque sonantum.”17

And again, in his epithalamium for his friend Manilius, how exquisite is his picture of the baby boy, who seems to dance before our eyes on the lap of his happy mother, stretching his little hands to his father, and smiling on him with half-parted lips ! —

“ Torquatus volo parvulus
Matris e gremio suæ
Porrigens teneras manus,
Dulce rideat ad patrem
Semihiante labello.”

Sir Theodore Martin thus attempts the verse, though it is untranslatable : —

“ Soon my eyes shall see, mayhap,
Young Torquatus on the lap
Of his mother, as he stands
Stretching out his tiny hands,
And his little lips the while
Half open on his father’s smile.”

And in turning from this to the more offensive side of Catullus one can hardly wonder at the good Bishop Fénelon, who said of him that he was an author not to be named without shuddering, but that in simplicity of execution he was perfection itself.

We must not linger too long over these attractive themes. The old-fashioned title of " Professor of Humanity ” well befits an author who can thus bring before us a whole epoch of history. If too little has here been said about Dr. Sellar, and too much about the poets of whom he writes, it is a compliment to him ; it is because he makes his readers think of his subject, not of himself, — an excellent trait in a writer. Considered as an antidote to pedantry, this book is a model and a delight ; it gives means by which even dabblers in classical literature can recall its fine flavor, while those of more critical mood can compare notes with an equal critic. The whole work is simple, thorough, fresh, and graphic ; it ought to be reprinted on this side of the Atlantic, and to find a thousand readers.

  1. The Roman Poets of the Republic. By W. T. SELLAR, M. A., LL. D., Professor of Humanity in the University of Edinburgh, and formerly Fellow of Oriel College, Oxford. New edition, revised and enlarged. London: Macmillan Co. 1881.
  2. “Sero igitur a nostris poetæ vel cogniti vel recepti. . . . At contra oratorem celeriter complexi sumns; nec eum primo eruditum, aptum tamen ad dicendum.”(Cicero, Tusc. Disp., I. 2, 3.)
  3. “Poeticæ artis honos non erat. Si qni in ea re studebat, aut sese ad convivia applicabat, grassator vocabatur.” (Aulus Gellius, XI. 2, 5.)
  4. “ Quasi pila In choro ludens dadatim dat se, et communem facit; Alii adnutat, alii adnictat, alium a mat, alium tenet; Alibi manus est occupata, alii percellit pedem; Alii spectandum dat annulum; a labris alium invocat; Cum alio cantat, attamen dat alii digito literas.” (Sellar’s Roman Poets, etc., page 55.)
  5. Sellar’s Roman Poets, page 105. Those who remember these lines from their own early readings in Cicero de Officiis (I. 24) may be daunted for a moment by the obsolete contraction noenum for non enim, which, has been restored by the more recent editors of Ennius and Cicero.
  6. Page 299.
  7. Æ. XII. 43-65.
  8. Lucretius, II. 48-55. Sellar’s translation.
  9. III. 894-6. “No more shall thy happy home receive thee, nor the best of wives and sweet children run a race to receive thy kisses and touch thy heart with a silent joy.”
  10. “ Scipiadas, belli fulmen, Carthaginis horror, Ossa dedit terræ proinde ac famul infimus esset.” The whole passage is singularly fine. (III. 1034-5.)
  11. Bacon, Essay on Unity in Religion. Spenser, Faerie Queene, Book IV. 10, 44. Sir T. Browne, Works, I. 209. John Smith, Select Discourses, 63.
  12. Lucretius, III. 18-22.
  13. V. 1188-93. “ And they placed the dwellingplaces and mansions of the gods in the heavens, because it is through the heavens that the night and the moon are seen to sweep: the moon, the day and night, and the stern constellations of night; the torches of heaven wandering through the night, and flying meteors ; the clouds, the sun, the rains, the snow, the winds, lightning, hail, the rapid rattle, the threatening peals and murmurs of the thunders.”(Dr. Sellar.)
  14. II. 1033-9.
  15. V. 857-9.
  16. Carm., I. 21.
  17. Carm., 34.