Marius the Epicurean

THE young student of Greek and Roman life has been wont to take his learning lightly by the aid of the estimable Mr. Bekker in his two agreeable romances of Charicles and Gallus. By confining himself wholly to the coarse print, he has been able to follow the fortunes of a Greek or Roman young gentleman, as he passed through the ordinary vicissitudes which befell him from the cradle to the grave. If disposed to more serious work, he could apply himself to the small print notes at the foot of the page, and to the excursuses which amble on without regard to the story. If still more severely bent, he might look up the references to classic authors, and translate the quotations which abound in the scholarly apparatus. The story, however, is the enticing part. It is somewhat sensational at times, but the learned author never forgets that he is teaching, and not amusing. The reader cannot follow the beautiful Lycoris to Baiæ, without having his gaze constantly interrupted by superior numbers pointing to corroborative testimony at the foot of the page.

Mr. Pater has attempted a more refined task in his romance of Marius the Epicurean.1 There is not a foot-note in the two handsome volumes which he devotes to this classic restoration. All the author’s learning has been gracefully left in the workshop, and only the finished production offered to the reader. Learning is supposed throughout; it is rarely, very rarely, obtruded. Even the minutiæ of detail, which one would naturally rely upon to create a lifelikeness, are very quietly mentioned. It is onlyt now and then that the Gallus method appears, as when, for instance, one reads, “ It was for this purpose that after devoutly saluting the Lares, as was customary before starting on a journey,” where the little epexegetical clause betrays, for a moment only, the shade of Bekker accompanying Mr. Pater.

The narrative, in brief, is of a patrician young Roman, of religious temperament and thoughtful mind, who goes up to Rome from his country home, looks upon the city and its life, is admitted to the friendship of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, ponders the prevalent philosophy, catches more than a glimpse of Christianity, and finally dies under circumstances which partially identify him with a martyrdom for the Christian faith. The book, as its title intimates, is occupied with the sensations and ideas of men rather than with their deeds. It is an interior picture of Roman thought, and rests, for its worth, upon its faithfulness to the somewhat occult experience of the second century.

It is evident to one, so soon as he attempts to outline the structure of the work, that there is very little objective character to it. The persons and scenes are faintly sketched; it is not intended that the eye should rest upon objects, and there is not even any accentuation of color, by which one might perceive more clearly the forms presented. The effect is reached by delicate gradations of tone and subtle transitions. One listens as to a reader who affects a low and finely modulated voice, who is surprised by no emotion, and, above all, never betrayed into passion. Splendor of dress and of ritual, pomp of triumphal procession, ardor of popular demonstration, — these attributes of the time and circumstance of the story are referred to, but have no spectacular value in the narrative. An instance of this negative treatment is in the account given of the emperor’s oration, and in the chapter on Manly Amusement, where it would seem as if the author, with his fastidious taste, refused even to hint at the details of brutality.

This absence of a strongly marked background, from which the characters are to be projected, is detrimental to any sharp outline in the figures of the persons themselves. Marius, Cornelius, Marcus Aurelius, Fronto, Cæcilia,— these are all figures in low relief; their profiles only appear, and are scarcely distinguishable at times from the material out of which they are carved. Occasional suggestions are given of times and seasons, but he would be a skillful chronologer who should undertake a dry analysis of the work for the purpose of ascertaining the exact dates of the occurrences. Nevertheless, if skillful, he could fix the test instances, and would doubtless rise from his task with an increased respect for a literary artist who could so finely conceal the articulation of his work.

The more closely one looks at the structure, the more clearly is he aware of the art which has labored to remove all the signs of art. How exquisite, for example, is the passage at the close of the sixth chapter, where Marius and Flavian visit the traditional site of a little Greek colony ! The introduction of a remote antiquity into this picture of an antiquity acknowledged by the reader heightens the effect in a marvelous degree, and yet by a very simple means. Perhaps an even more noticeable instance, and one more integral to the purpose of the book, is in the glimpse of the religion of Numa, as held in a few archaic ceremonies, which carry back the imagination, as they do the thought of the book, into a time of hoar and mossy primitiveness.

Mr. Pater’s style has become even more delicate than it was shown to be in his Studies in the History of the Renaissance. His sentences slip along with the noiseless murmur of a brook. By a little artifice, he never suggests what is called in familiar phrase “ a good stopping-place.” His work is divided into books, and the books into chapters, but the pauses are only the discreet pauses of music. He has a trick of beginning his sentences with and, as if he had not left off. He never leaves off, in fact, and when one reaches the close of the second volume, and discovers, with gentle surprise, that Marius is dead, one still feels that there is no reason why the spirit of Marius should not rustle on in low-breathed movements, and finally, if it disappear at all, be faintly dissipated in some subtle fragrance. How consciously all this art is bestowed may be read in the nicely discriminating chapter upon Euphuism, wherein, under the guise of a philosophical account of a certain phase of Roman literature, Mr. Pater enters a plea for very much such writing as he delights himself with.

“ For words,” he says, summing the literary programme which Flavian had designed for himself, “ after all, words manipulated with all his delicate force, were to be the apparatus of a war for himself. To be forcibly impressed, in the first place ; and in the second, to find means of making visible to others that which was vividly apparent, delightful, of lively interest, to himself, to the exclusion of all that was but middling, tame, or but half true even to him, — this scrupulousness of literary art actually awoke in Flavian, for the first time, a sort of chivalrous conscience. What care for style ! what patience of execution ! what research for the significant tones of ancient idiom, — sonantia verba et antiqua! what stately and regular word-building, —gravis et decora constructio ! He felt the whole meaning of the skeptical Pliny’s somewhat melancholy advice to one of his friends, ut studiis se literarum a mortalitate vindicet. And there was everything in the nature and training of Marius to make him a full participator in the hopes of such a new literary school, with Flavian for its leader. In those refinements of his curious spirit, in that horror of profanities, in that fastidious sense of a correctness in external form, there was something which ministered to the old ritual interest, still surviving in him ; as if here indeed were involved a kind of sacred service to the mother-tongue.”

The reference in all this to contemporary phases of literary art is scarcely more than lightly allusive, but it is this remote undercurrent of parallelism with modern experience which makes Mr. Pater’s book often suggest a parable. Now and then there is an open declaration of this, or rather the comparison of Rome and London is somewhat distinctly made ; but the reader suspects a reference oftener where it is somewhat sedulously concealed, and can never wholly rid himself of the notion that he is reading a sketch of modern thought mutatis mutandis. There is a gay little flout of a posturing Englishman when a young Roman host is introduced with the words, “ He wore it [a toga, of altogether lost hue and texture] with the grace becoming the leader of a thrilling movement then on foot for the restoration of that disused garment, in which, laying aside the customary evening dress, all the visitors were requested to appear, setting off the dainty sinuosities and well-disposed ‘ golden way ‘ of its folds with harmoniously tinted flowers.” The extreme sensitiveness of Mr. Pater’s prose is illustrated by the hardly perceptible discord produced by the word “ thrilling ” in this passage, which betrays momentarily the author s personal feeling. But Mr. Pater does not fly at small game ; this was only a sudden unpremeditated dip in his flight.

It is better worth while to note the pages where he discloses, by a certain depth of fervor, his own philosophy of life. With whatever dexterity of phrase he follows the course of Marius’ movement of mind, he does not so far remove himself from the evolution of a Roman faith as not to speak occasionally in the ear of the reader. At least, so we read in the early part of the narrative a passage supposed to be dropped from the lips of a shadowy priest who appears half mysteriously to Marius : —

“ ‘ If thou wouldst have all about thee like the colors of some fresh picture, in a clear light,’ — so the discourse recommenced after a pause, — ‘ be temperate in thy religious motions, in love, in wine, in all things, and of a peaceful heart with thy fellows.’ To keep the eye clear by a sort of exquisite personal alacrity and cleanliness, extending even to his dwelling-place; to discriminate, ever more and more exactly, select form and color in things from what was less select; to meditate much on beautiful visible objects, more especially, connected with the period of youth, on children at play in the morning, the trees in early spring, on young animals, on the fashions and amusements of young men ; to keep ever by him if it were but a single choice flower, a graceful animal, or seashell, as a token and representative of the whole kingdom of such things ; to avoid jealously, in his way through the world, everything repugnant to sight; and, should any circumstance tempt him to a general converse in the range of such objects, to disentangle himself from that circumstance at any cost of place, money, or opportunity, — such were, in brief outline, the duties recognized, the rights demanded, in this new formula of life.”

Of course we do not pretend that this is to be taken as an adequate statement of Mr. Pater’s philosophy of life, but it is so clever a sketch of it, and is so justified by the whole course of this book, that we may reasonably regard the voice which we hear as that of Mr. Pater himself. The very style of Marius the Epicurean — that subtlest exponent of the man — is perfectly in accord with the sentiment of the passage which we have quoted. Its fastidiousness suggests an abhorrence of all violent expression, all unruly feeling. The very superlatives are tempered and restrained by the quiet manner in which they are uttered, and a discreet silence is observed whenever the reader is moved to ask some penetrating question.

Would the picture, for example, which Mr. Pater has drawn of the Christian church of that period bear close examination ? Even granting that it contained the possibilities of the winning grace and peace of Cæcilia’s house, is not a picture so selected untrue by what it leaves undepicted ? Certainly the history of the church, written not for artistic effect, but to narrate the growth, with all its interruptions, of a very human body, takes account of woful dissensions and opposition of sects at the very time of which Mr. Pater writes. Again, in his desire to show Christianity luminous in the face of a young Roman soldier, has he not missed a most natural exhibition of Christian faith working in the life of such a man ? He represents Marius and Cornelius as close friends; he shows Marius as opening his philosophic mind, yet we are asked to believe that Cornelius had no zeal, but introduced Marius to Christianity by the most remote and, as it were, accidental means. We confess that we cannot translate into plain and direct English the first introduction of Marius to the household of Cæcilia. The chapter devoted to it is a lovely piece of tapestry hanging, but it is not a picture. Moreover, in pursuance of his very allusive and indirect method, Mr. Pater allows the reader to take his choice between regarding Cornelius as a zany or a coward, in the final scenes of the book. Apparently, the author was too fatigued to work out a reasonable explanation of the separation of the friends. He was willing to hint at great generosity and self-sacrifice on the part of Marius — so much was needed to round out the hero’s character,— but he seems to have left the character of Cornelius to take care of itself, so that it goes limping off the stage.

Christianity — the Christianity of the second century — is in the estimation of Mr. Pater a variation of Roman life scarcely so revolutionary in its tendency as supplementary to existing phases of philosophic belief. Its introduction into the web of this story is marvelously fine. The wall between Stoicism and Christianity, as by some magic art, becomes thinner and thinner. It is a mere shell; one hears voices on either side. It is a film ; a touch, a breath, and it is gone ! The reader is in the presence of the new comprehensive faith which involves and includes Stoicism, Epicureanism, and whatever social or personal phase of belief was ready to be absorbed. But where, the reader asks, — where is the antagonism, where the Aurelian persecution itself ? Let him not be disturbed. Mr. Pater will give distant views of death and martyrdom, and will even lead the reader directly into the midst of a sudden fury of persecution; but before one can be either horrified or startled, flowers have sprung up on the spot at which one has been gazing. The experience of the sultan’s victim, who had yet to learn that his head had been cut off, so fine was the blade which severed it, is the experience of the reader when he finishes Mr. Pater’s delicate account of the martyrdom of Felix and Faustinus.

It is not out of keeping with the whole tenor of Marius’ character and tendency of thought that the book should gravitate toward a meditatio mortis, but may it not be incident also to Mr. Pater’s view of life that the thought recurs again and again to this theme ? The sky is blue, the voices of birds are heard, the smile of nature is noted, yet somehow all the joy in the book is of a very grave and subdued sort. Let us — not eat and drink, but feel unutterable things, for to-morrow we die, is the refrain of this remarkable book, — remarkable for its delicacy of observation, its frequent penetration and illuminating reflection, its harmonious art, its aroma. Is it from too crass a nature that we are tempted sometimes to wish for some boulder of truth to come crashing down into the hothouse of flower and verdure ? The very refinement of the book, too long lingered over, creates a revulsion of feeling, and we almost are willing to see some one do injustice to it. Not quite this. We owe Mr. Pater too great a debt for this rarity in literature. We are content to take it for what it is, a consummate piece of art, not a masterly commentary upon the latter half of the second century.

  1. 2 Marius the Epicurean: his Sensations and Ideas. By WALTER PATER, M. A. In two volumes. London: Macmillan & Co. 1885.