I.—The Invocation and the Theme
Mother of Romans, joy of men and gods,
Kind Venus, who 'neath gliding signs of heaven
Dost haunt the main where sail our argosies,
Dost haunt the land that yieldeth crops of grain,
Since 'tis of thee that every kind of breath
Is born and riseth to behold the light;
Before Thee, Lady, flit the winds; and clouds
Part at thine advent, and deft-fingered earth
Yields Thee sweet blooms; for Thee the sea hath smiles,
And heaven at peace doth gleam with floods of light.
Soon as the fair spring face of day is shown
And zephyr kind to birth is loosed in strength;
First do the fowls of air give sign of Thee,
Lady, and of Thy entrance, smit at heart
By power of Thine. Then o'er the pastures glad
The wild herds bound, and swim the rapid streams.
Thy glamour captures them, and yearningly
They follow where Thou willest to lead on.
Yea, over seas and hills and sweeping floods,
And leafy homes of birds and grassy leas,
Striking fond love into the heart of all,
Thou mak'st each race desire to breed its kind.
Since Thou dost rule alone o'er nature's realm,
Since without Thee naught wins the hallowed shores
Of light, and naught is glad, and naught is fair,
Fain would I crave Thine aid for poesy
Which seeks to grasp the essence of the world.
On the high system of the heavens and gods
I will essay to speak, and primal germs
Reveal, whence nature giveth birth to all,
And growth and nourishment, and unto which
Nature resolves them back when quite outworn.
These, when we treat their system, we are wont
To view as "matter," "bodies which produce,"
And name them "seeds of things," "first bodies" too,
Since from them at the first all things do come.
THE TYRANNY OF RELIGION AND THE REVOLT
When human life lay foully on the earth
Before all eyes, 'neath Superstition crushed,
Who from the heavenly quarters showed her head
And with appalling aspect lowered on men,
Then did a Greek dare first lift eyes to hers—
First brave her face to face. Him neither myth
Of gods, nor thunderbolt; nor sky with roar
And threat could quell; nay, chafed with more resolve
His valiant soul that he should yearn to be
First man to burst the bars of nature's gates.
So vivid verve of mind prevailed. He fared
Far o'er the flaming ramparts of the world,
And traversed the immeasurable All
In mind and soul: and thence a conqueror
Returns to tell what can, what cannot rise,
And on what principle each thing, in brief,
Hath powers defined and deep-set boundary.
Religion, then, is cast to earth in turn
And trampled. Triumph matches man with heaven.
The profoundest speculations on the nature of things are not
impious. Let not the reader feel that in such an inquiry he is
on guilty ground. It is, rather, true that religion has caused
foul crimes. An instance is the agonising sacrifice of sweet
Iphigenia, slain at the altar to appease divine wrath.
"Religion could such wickedness suggest." Tales of eternal
punishment frighten only those ignorant of the real nature of
the soul. This ignorance can be dispelled by inquiring into the
phenomena of heaven and earth, and stating the laws of nature.
II.—First Principles and a Theory of the Universe
Of these the first is that nothing is made of nothing; the
second, that nothing is reduced to nothing. This indestructibility
of matter may be illustrated by the joyous and constantly
renewed growth that is in nature. There are two fundamental
postulates required to explain nature—atoms and void. These
constitute the universe. There is no tertium quid. All other
things are but properties and accidents of these two. Atoms
are solid, "without void"; they are indestructible, "eternal";
they are indivisible. To appreciate the physical theory of Epicurus,
it is necessary to note the erroneous speculations of other
Greek thinkers, whether, like Heraclitus, they deduced all things
from one such fundamental element as fire, or whether they
postulated four elements. From a criticism of the theories of
Empedocles and Anaxagoras, the poet, return to the main subject.
A HARD TASK AND THREEFOLD TITLE TO FAME
How dark my theme, I know within my mind;
Yet hath high hope of praise with thyrsus keen
Smitten my heart and struck into my breast
Sweet passion for the Muses, stung wherewith
In lively thought I traverse pathless haunts
Pierian, untrodden yet by man.
I love to visit those untasted springs
And quaff; I love to cull fresh blooms, and whence
The Muses never veiled the brows of man
To seek a wreath of honour for my head:
First, for that lofty is the lore I teach;
Then, cramping knots of priestcraft I would loose;
And next because of mysteries I sing clear,
Decking my poems with the Muses' charm.
This sweetening of verse with: "the honey of the Muses" is
like disguising unpalatable medicine for children. The mind
must be engaged by attractive means till it perceives the nature
of the world.
As to the existing universe, it is bounded in none of its
dimensions; matter and space are infinite. All things are in
continual motion in every direction, and there is an endless
supply of material bodies from infinite space. These ultimate
atoms buffet each other ceaselessly; they unite or disunite. But
there is no such thing as design in their unions. All is fortuitous
concourse; so there are innumerable blind experiments and
failures in nature, due to resultless encounters of the atoms.
CALM OF MIND IN RELATION TO A TRUE THEORY OF THE
When tempests rack the mighty ocean's face,
How sweet on land to watch the seaman's toil—
Not that we joy in neighbour's jeopardy,
But sweet it is to know what ills we 'scape.
How sweet to see war's mighty rivalries
Ranged on the plains—without thy share of risk.
Naught sweeter than to hold the tranquil realms
On high, well fortified by sages' lore,
Whence to look down on others wide astray—
Lost wanderers questing for the way of life—
See strife of genius, rivalry of rank,
See night and day men strain with wondrous toil
To rise to utmost power and grasp the world.
Man feels an imperious craving to shun bodily pain and secure
mental pleasure. But the glitter of luxury at the banquets of
the rich cannot satisfy this craving: there are the simpler joys
of the open country in spring. But the fact is, no magnificence
can save the body from pain or the mind from apprehensions.
The genuine remedy lies in knowledge alone.
Not by the sunbeams nor clear shafts of day,
Needs then dispel this dread, this gloom of soul,
But by the face of nature and its plan.
PROPERTIES OF ATOMS
Particles are constantly being transferred from one thing to
another, though the sum total remains constant. In the light
hereof may be understood the uninterrupted waxing and waning
of things, and the perpetual succession of existence.
Full soon the broods of living creatures change,
Like runners handing on the lamp of life.
Greater or less solidity depends on the resilience of atoms.
Their ceaseless motion is illustrated by the turmoil of motes
in a stream of sunlight let into a dark room. As to their
velocity, it greatly exceeds that of the sun's rays. This welter
of atoms is the product of chance; the very blemishes of the
world forbid one to regard it as divine. But the atoms do not
rain through space in rigidly parallel lines. A minute swerve
in their motion is essential to account for clashings and production;
and in the ethical sphere it is this swerve which saves the
mind from "Necessity" and makes free will possible. Though
the universe appears to be at rest, this is a fallacy of the senses,
due to the fact that the motions of "first bodies" are not cognisable
by our eyes; indeed, a similar phenomenon is the apparent
vanishing of motion due to distance; for a white spot
on a far-off hill may really be a frolicsome lamb.
Oft on a hillside, cropping herbage rich,
The woolly flocks creep on whithersoe'er
The grass bejewelled with fresh dew invites,
And full-fed lambs disport and butt in play—
All this to eyes at distance looks a blur;
On the green hill the white spot seems at rest.
The shapes of atoms vary; and so differences of species, and
differences within the same species, arise. This variety in shape
accounts, too, for the varying action and effects of atoms. Atoms
in hard bodies, for example, are mainly hooked; but in liquids
mainly smooth. In each thing, however, there are several kinds,
which furnish that particular thing with a variety of properties.
Furthermore, atoms are colourless, for in themselves they are
invisible; they never come into the light, whereas colour needs
light—witness the changing hues of the down on a pigeon's
neck, or of a peacock's tail. Atoms are themselves without
senses, though they produce things possessed of senses. To
grasp the origin of species and development of animate nature,
one must realise the momentous importance of the arrangement
and interconnection of atoms. Wood and other rotting bodies
will bring forth worms, because material particles undergo, under
altered conditions, fresh permutations and combinations.
One may ask, what of man? He can laugh and weep, he can
discuss the composition of all things, and even inquire into the
nature of those very atoms! It is true that he springs from
them. Yet a man may laugh without being made of laughing
atoms, and a man may reason without being made of reasonable
EPICURUS AND THE GODS
O thou that from gross darkness first didst lift
A torch to light the path to happiness,
I follow thee, thou glory of the Greeks!
And in thy footsteps firmly plant my steps,
Not bent so much to rival as for love
To copy. Why should swallow vie with swan?
Thou, father, art discoverer of things,
Enriching us with all a father's lore;
And, famous master, from thy written page,
As bees in flowery dells sip every bloom,
So hold we feast on all thy golden words—
Golden, most worthy, aye, of lasting life.
Soon as thy reasoning, sprung from mind inspired,
Hath loud proclaimed the mystery of things,
The mind's fears flee, the bulwarks of the world
Part, and I see things work throughout the void.
Then Godhead is revealed in homes of calm,
Which neither tempests shake nor clouds with rain
Obscure, nor snow by piercing frost congealed
Mars with white fall, but ever cloudless air
Wraps in a smile of generous radiancy.
There nature, too, supplieth every want,
And nothing ever lessens peace of mind.
III.—Of Mind and Soul and Death
Mind and soul are portions of the body. While mind is the
ruling element, they are both of the nature of the body—only
they are composed of exceedingly minute and subtle atoms capable
of marvellous speed. Therefore, when death deprives the
body of mind, it does not make the body appreciably
It is as if a wine had lost its scent,
Or breath of some sweet perfume had escaped.
Mind and soul consist of spirit, air, heat, and an elusive fourth
constituent, the nimblest and subtlest of essences, the very "soul
of the soul." It follows that mind and soul are mortal. Among
many proofs may be adduced their close interconnection with
the body, as seen in cases of drunkenness and epilepsy; their
curability by medicine; their inability to recall a state prior to
their incarnation; their liability to be influenced by heredity
like corporeal seeds. Besides, why should an immortal soul
need to quit the body at death? Decay surely could not hurt
immortality! Then, again, imagine souls contending for homes
in a body about to be born! Consequently, the soul being
mortal, death has no sting.
To us, then, death is nothing—matters naught,
Since mortal is the nature of the mind,
E'en as in bygone time we felt no grief
When Punic conflict hemmed all Rome around.
When, rent by war's dread turbulence, the world
Shuddered and quaked beneath the heaven's high realm,
So when we are no more, when soul and frame
Of which we are compact, have been divorced,
Be sure, to us, who then shall be no more,
Naught can occur or ever make us feel,
Not e'en though earth were blent with sea and sky.
Men in general forget that death, in ending life's pleasures,
also ends the need and the desire for them.
"Soon shall thy home greet thee in joy no more,
Nor faithful wife nor darling children run
To snatch first kiss, and stir within thy heart
Sweet thoughts too deep for words. Thou canst no more
Win wealth by working or defend thine own.
The pity of it! One fell hour," they say,
"Hath robbed thee of thine every prize in life."
Hereat they add not this: "And now thou art
Beset with yearning for such things no more."
The dead are to be envied, not lamented. The wise will exclaim:
"Thou, O dead, art free from pain: we who survive
are full of tears."
"What is so passing bitter," we should ask,
"If life be rounded by a rest and sleep,
That one should pine in never-ending grief?"
Universal nature has a rebuke for the coward that is afraid to
die. There are no punishments beyond. Hell and hell's tortures
are in this life. It is the victim of passion or of gnawing cares
that is the real victim of torment.
IV—The World's Origin and Its Growth
Not by design did primal elements
Find each their place as 'twere with forethought keen,
Nor bargained what their movements were to be;
But since the atom host in many ways
Smitten by blows for infinite ages back,
And by their weight impelled, have coursed along,
Have joined all ways, and made full test of all
The types which mutual unions could create,
Therefore it is that through great time dispersed,
With every kind of blend and motion tried,
They meet at length in momentary groups
Which oft prove rudiments of mighty things—
Of earth, and sea, and sky, and living breeds.
Amidst this primeval medley of warring atoms there was no
sun-disk to be discerned climbing the vault, no stars, or sea,
or sky, or earth, or air—nothing, in fact, like what now exists.
The next stage came when the several parts began to fly asunder,
and like to join with like, so that the parts of the world were
gradually differentiated. Heavier bodies combined in central
chaos and forced out lighter elements to make ether. Thus
earth was formed by a long process of condensation.
Daily, as ever more the ether-fires
And sun-rays all around close pressed the earth
With frequent blows upon its outer crust,
Each impact concentrating it perforce,
So was a briny sweat squeezed out the more
With ooze to swell the sea and floating plains.
PRIMEVAL FERTILITY OF THE EARTH
At first the earth produced all kinds of herbs
And verdant sheen o'er every hill and plain;
The flowery meadows gleamed in hues of green,
And soon the trees were gifted with desire
To race unbridled in the lists of growth;
As plumage, hair, and bristles are produced
On limbs of quadrupeds or frame of birds,
So the fresh earth then first put forth the grass
And shrubs, and next gave birth to mortal breeds,
Thick springing multiform in divers ways.
The name of "Mother," then, earth justly won,
Since from the earth all living creatures came.
Full many monsters earth essayed to raise,
Uprising strange of look and strange of limb,
Hermaphrodites distinct from either sex,
Some robbed of feet, and others void of hands,
Or mouthless mutes, or destitute of eyes,
Or bound by close adhesion of their limbs
So that they could do naught nor move at all,
Nor shun an ill, nor take what need required.
All other kinds of portents earth did yield—
In vain, since nature drove increase away,
They could not reach the longed-for bloom of life,
Nor find support, nor link themselves in love.
SURVIVAL OF THE FITTEST IN THE STRUGGLE FOR
All things you see that draw the breath of life,
Have been protected and preserved by craft,
Or speed, or courage, from their early years;
And many beasts, which usefulness commends,
Abide domesticated in our care.
The protective quality in such animals as lions is ferocity; in
foxes, cunning; in stags, swiftness. Creatures without such natural
endowments of defence or utility tend to be the prey of
others, and so become extinct.
Primeval man was hardier in the fields,
As fitted those that hardy earth produced,
Built on a frame of larger, tougher bones
And knit with powerful sinews in his flesh;
Not likely to be hurt by heat or cold,
Or change of food, or wasting pestilence.
While many lustres of the sun revolved
Men led a life of roving like the beasts.
What sun or rain might give, or soil might yield
Unforced, was boon enough to sate the heart.
Oft 'neath the acorn-bearing oaks they found
Their food; and arbute-berries, which you now
In winter see turn ripe with scarlet hue,
Of old grew greater in luxuriance.
Through well known woodland haunts of nymphs they roamed,
Wherefrom they saw the gliding water brook
Bathe with a generous plash the dripping rocks—
Those dripping rocks that trickled o'er green moss.
As yet mankind did not know how to handle fire, or to clothe
themselves with the spoils of the chase; but dwelt in woods, or
caves, or other random shelter found in stress of weather.
Each man lived for himself, and might was right. The stone
or club was used in hunting; but the cave-dwellers were in
frequent danger of being devoured by beasts of prey. Still, savage
mortality was no greater than that of modern times.
THE EVOLVING OF CIVILISATION
When men had got them huts and skins and fire,
And woman joined with man to make a home,
And when they saw an offspring born from them,
Then first began the softening of the race.
Fire left them less inured with shivering frames
To bear the cold 'neath heaven's canopy.
Then neighbours turned to compacts mutual,
Desirous nor to do nor suffer harm.
They claimed for child and woman tenderness,
Declaring by their signs and stammering cries
That pity for the weak becometh all.
The rudiments of humane sentiments sprang, therefore, in
prehistoric family life. Language was the gradual outcome of
natural cries, not an arbitrary invention. The uses of fire were
learned from the lightning-flash and from conflagrations due to
spontaneous combustion or chance friction. In time this opened
out the possibility of many arts, such as metal-working; for
forest fires caused streams of silver, gold, copper, or lead to run
into hollows, and early man observed that when cooled, the
glittering lumps retained the mould of the cavities. Nature
also was the model for sowing and grafting. Those who excelled
in mental endowment invented new modes of life. Towns
and strongholds were founded as places of defence; and possessions
were secured by personal beauty, strength, or cleverness.
But the access of riches often ousted the claims of both
beauty and strength.
For men, though strong and fair to look upon,
Oft follow in the retinue of wealth.
Religious feelings were fostered by visions and dreams; marvellous
shapes to which savage man ascribed supernatural powers.
Recurrent appearances of such shapes induced a belief in
their continuous existence: so arose the notion of gods that
live for ever.
Our navigation, tillage, walls, and laws,
Our armour, roads, and dress, and such-like boons,
And every elegance of modern life,
Poems and pictures, statues deftly wrought,
All these men learned with slow advancing steps
From practice and the knowledge won by wit.
So by degrees time brings each thing to sight,
And reason raiseth it to realms of day.
In arts must one thing, then another, shine,
Until they win their full development.