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  • Lucretius at the Fin de Siècle: Science, Religion and Poetry
  • John Holmes

In the 1860s the Roman philosopher-poet Lucretius, whose ideas had been dismissed by Macaulay only a few years previously as “for the most part utterly worthless,” enjoyed a remarkable revival.1 The rapid growth of interest in and respect for Lucretius was the result of a confluence of three trends in Victorian culture. The first was the increasingly professional standard of editions and translations of classical texts. In Lucretius’s case, the crucial opportunity came with the edition and translation of De Rerum Natura by the Cambridge scholar H. A. J. Munro, published in 1860 and 1864 respectively, making both Lucretius’s poetry and his philosophy more immediately accessible to a wider audience. The second trend was the growth of secularism, which saw Lucretius begin to be given more serious attention by the likes of Matthew Arnold and W. Y. Sellar in the late 1840s and 1850s.2 By 1864 he was being celebrated as a pioneer in an issue of Charles Bradlaugh’s penny magazine Half-Hours with the Freethinkers. The third trend was the development of a modern physics which revived the ancient notion of atoms and put them on a firm empirical footing. Here the link to Lucretius was made by Fleeming Jenkin in his article “The Atomic Theory of Lucretius,” published in the North British Review in 1868. The publication the same year of the poem “Lucretius” by the poet laureate Alfred Tennyson in Macmillan’s Magazine marked the Roman poet’s return as a major force in English culture.

The role played by Lucretius within Victorian culture has been discussed in most depth by Frank Miller Turner and Norman Vance.3 The chapter on Lucretius in Vance’s book The Victorians and Ancient Rome covers a broader range of texts, but it is Turner’s essay “Lucretius among the Victorians” that puts forward the more defined thesis, concentrating on the significance of Lucretius to the clash between scientific naturalism and Christian theology. For Turner, the key moment comes in 1874 when the Superintendent of the Royal Institution, the [End Page 266] physicist John Tyndall, used his presidential address at the British Association for the Advancement of Science in Belfast to launch an attack on theology. Tyndall set out a new genealogy for empirical philosophy, claiming Lucretius as an uncompromising champion of both freethinking and science, and so identifying the two. As Turner points out, Tyndall’s invocation of Lucretius in the Belfast Address played into the hands of his opponents, as it enabled them to identify his own materialism, and that of his close allies T. H. Huxley and W. K. Clifford, with Lucretius’s patently inadequate physics. A spate of expressly Christian commentaries on Lucretius, by John Veitch, John Masson, W. H. Mal-lock and others, suggested too that Tyndall’s attacks on the authority of religion were as outmoded as Lucretius’s. Instead, the commentators argued, Tyndall and his materialist colleagues ought to have accepted the verdict of Christian physicists such as James Clerk Maxwell that atomic physics was compatible with and even tended to reaffirm the existence of God. According to Turner, the materialists backpedalled, distancing their own reading of modern physics from Lucretius’s mere guesswork. Thereafter, he suggests, Lucretius was rarely claimed as a precursor to modern science, and by the fin de siècle he is largely a spent force. As W. R. Johnson puts it in Lucretius and the Modern World, “the debate is essentially over” by the time Munro publishes his fourth edition in 1893.4

It is undoubtedly the Christian commentators who speak loudest and at greatest length in this debate, and their arguments are sustained and confrontational. But this does not necessarily imply that opinion on Lucretius was polarised, nor that it was the version of the Roman poet constructed by the antimaterialists which emerged as dominant. Both Masson, who published a series of articles on Lucretius in the 1870s and 1880s, culminating in his book The Atomic Theory of Lucretius in 1884, and Mallock, whose book Lucretius was first published in 1878, felt the need to continue their antimaterialist campaign...


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pp. 266-280
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