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In a recent article and a subsequent book Charles Segal finds a paradox in the writing of Lucretius, a paradox which, it might appear, was not to be evaded if the author wished to be both an Epicurean and a poet.(1) On the one hand, his creed makes death as certain for the world as for its denizens and the hope of immortal glory an ignis fatuus; on the other hand, the poet has all the mortal frailties and as much desire as any Roman author for the survival of his name. These longings are both |vehement' and |intense', and, though the reader is to be made aware of their futility, they are latent in the first half of his opening book, until they are brought to light in his |second proem'.(2)
In this essay I argue that, while Segal has indeed made a discovery, the true account of this is not the one that he proposes. I shall urge, on the contrary, that Lucretius is conspicuously reticent in his prophecies for himself and Epicurus, though he notices the unfulfilled capacity of such prophecies in others. It is rather by his fidelity than his treason to the Epicurean maxims that this poet is set apart: because his words are not adulterated by the hope of monumental immortality, they impart the truths of nature to an audience whose lives are as ephemeral as theirs.
It would, of course, be impossible - and Segal is well aware of this - to argue that the desire for posthumous glory is sustained. Though frequent in the poem, the word aeternus is endorsed by the author only when it applies to the persistence of the atoms and their motions.(3) Talk of eternal terrors, of eternal wounds inflicted by one deity on another, is for less fastidious poets. It may be that the gods have immortality, but even the sun cannot be said to unveil eternal rays except in myth.(4) Atoms have no origin and no end, but they outlast their combinations and even the mundane fabric that they presently compose.
In Segal's view, however, the reader is taught to renounce his eternal longings only because he has seen the poet renounce them, which is to say that they are initially espoused. The |second proem', commencing at line 921 of the first book, expresses an ambition unimpaired by diffidence:(5)
Nunc age quod superest cognosce et clarius audi.
nec me animi fefellit quam sint obscura; sed acri
percussit thyrso laudis spes magna meum cor
et simul incussit suavem mi in pectus amorem
musarum, quo nunc instinctius mente vigenti
avia Pieridum peragro loca nullius ante
trita solo. iuvat integros accedere fontis
atque haurire, iuvatque novos decerpere flores
insignemque meo capiti petere inde coronam
unde prius nulli velarint tempora musae. (I.921-30)
Come now, learn the rest and hear it said more clearly. Not that the obscurity of these matters escapes my mind; but a great hope has struck my heart with its tingling thyrsus, striking into my breast therewith a sweet love of the muses, so that now my mind is thrilled with greater vigour as I cross the trackless haunts of the Pierides, untrodden hitherto by any foot. It is my delight to approach unsullied fountains and to drink from them, my delight to pluck new flowers and to make my head a dazzling crown from a place whence no decoration for anyone's temples has yet been gathered by the muses.
Grand as these pretensions are, they do not offer obvious support to Segal's case, since they lay claim to every prize but immortality. Exploring the untrodden paths of Helicon, Lucretius plucks new coronets, and drinks his inspiration from sequestered wells; but who states that the draught will be eternal or that the garlands will not fade? Segal justly indicates an allusion to the qualified praise of Ennius which is found in an earlier passage of the first book:
Ennius ut noster cecinit qui primus amoeno
detulit ex Helicone perenni fronde coronam,
per gentis Italas hominum quae clara clueret;
etsi praeterea tamen esse Acherusia templa
Ennius aeternis exponit versibus edens,
quo neque permanent animae neque corpora nostra,
sed quaedam simulacra modis pallentia miris;
unde sibi exortam semper florentis Homeri
commemorat speciem lacrimas effundere salsas
coepisse et rerum naturam expandere dictis. (I.117-26)
Just as our beloved Ennius sang, who was the first to cull from pleasant Helicon a crown of eternal bays which would shine clear through all the peoples of Italy. None the less, though, Ennius, in putting forth his immortal verses, declared that there were abodes by the river Acheron, where neither our souls nor our bodies retain their being, but only certain counterfeits which maintain a wondrous pallor; rising up before him from this realm, he says, the shade of the ever-flowering Homer began to shed salt tears and …