1902 Encyclopedia > Lucan (Marcus Annaeus Lucanus)

(Marcus Annaeus Lucanus)
Roman poet
(39-65 AD)

LUCAN. MARCUS ANNTAEUS LUCANUS, the most eminent Roman poet of the silver age, grandson of the rhetorician Seneca and nephew of the philosopher, was born at Corduba, November 3, 39 A.D. His father, Lucius Annseus Mela, had amassed great wealth as imperial pro-curator for the province. In a memoir by an anonymous grammarian, who may have abridged Suetonius, Lucan is said to have been taken to Rome at the age of eight months, to have displayed remarkable precocity, and to have incurred the displeasure of Nero by overcoming him in a poetical contest. The latter statement seems to be founded upon a misapprehension of a passage in Statius's Genethliaeon Lucani; but it is certain that Nero, whether from jealousy, as Tacitus affirms, or on account of the republican spirit of Lucan's poetry, forbade him to recite in public, and that his indignation made him an accomplice in the conspiracy of Piso, 65 A.D. Upon the discovery of the plot he is alleged to have endeavoured to purchase safety by impeach-ing his own mother (" hoping," says his translator Gorges cpuaintly, " that this impiety might be a means to procure pardon at the hands of an impious prince "). The state-ment, however, of Tacitus, that letters were forged in his name to implicate his father, warrants the suspicion that the evidence against his mother may also have been fabri-cated. Failing to obtain a reprieve, he caused his veins to be opened, and expired with great courage, repeating a passage from his Pharsalia descriptive of the death of a wounded soldier (" Lucan by his death approved," Shelley's Adonais). His father was involved in the proscription, his mother escaped, and his widow Polla Argentaria sur-vived to receive the homage of Statius under Domitian.

Besides his principal performance, Lucan's works included juvenile poems on the descent of Orpheus and the ransom of Hector, an unfinished tragedy on the sub-ject of Medea, and numerous miscellaneous pieces. The Carmen ad Pisonem sometimes attributed to him is now more commonly ascribed to Saleius Bassus. His minor works have perished, but all that the author wrote of the Pharsalia has come down to us. It would probably have concluded with the battle of Philippi, but breaks off abruptly as Caesar, beset by foes, is about to plunge into the harbour of Alexandria. This incompleteness should not be left out of account in the estimate of its merits, for, with two capital exceptions, the faults of the Pharsalia are such as revision might have mitigated or removed. No such pains, certainly, could have amended the deficiency of unity of action, or supplied the want of a legitimate protagonist. The Pharsalia follows history with inevitable servility, and is rather a metrical chronicle than a true epic. If it had been completed according to the author's design, Pornpey, Cato, and Brutus must have successively enacted the part of nominal hero, while the real hero is the arch enemy of liberty and Lucan, Caesar. Yet these defects, though glaring, are not fatal or peculiar to Lucan. The real hero of Paradise Lost, it has been repeatedly observed, is no other than Satan; and Shakespeare him-self succeeded no better than Lucan in preserving unity of action when he wrote his Julius Osesar. The false taste, the strained rhetoric, the ostentatious erudition, the tedious harangues and far-fetched or commonplace reflexions so frequent in this singularly unequal poem, are faults much more irritating, but they are also faults capable of amend-ment, and which the writer might not improbably have removed. As pointed out by Dean Merivale, the bombastic style of composition which prevailed under Nero yielded to a more sober taste under the Flavian dynasty; and the lapse of time would have contributed to mellow the poet's immaturity and chasten the ardour of tempera-ment which made him essay great themes " ante annos Culicis Maroniani." Great allowance should also "be made for the difficulties the highest genius must encounter when emulating predecessors who have already carried art to its last perfection, and thus necessitated to choose between mere imitation and a conscious effort after originality. Lucan's temper could never have brooked the former course; his versification, no less than his subject, is entirely his own; he avoids all resemblance to his great predecessor with a persistency which can only have resulted from deliberate purpose, while largely influenced by the declamatory school of his grandfather and uncle. Hence his partiality for finished antithesis, contrasting strongly with his generally breathless style and turbid diction. Quintilian sums up both aspects of his genius with pregnant brevity, " Ardens et concitatus et sententiis clarissimus," adding with equal justice, "Magis oratoribus quam poetis annumerandus." Lucan's oratory, however, frequently rises into the region of poetry, especially where it sets forth ideas essentially sublime, and impressive in the mere state-ment. Such are the apotheosis of Pompey at the beginning of the ninth book, and the passage in the same book where Cato, in the truest spirit of the Stoic philosophy, refuses to consult the oracle of Jupiter Amnion. The exordium of the poem, and the portraits of Caesar and Pompey, are examples of oratory blazing up into poetry, as a wheel takes fire by friction. In some eases Lucan's rhetoric is frigid, hyperbolical, and out of keeping with the character of the speaker, as in Caesar's address to his legions before Pharsalia; in general, however, it maybe said that the more he is of an orator or a moralist the more he is of a poet. If this denotes that his genius was not essentially and in the truest sense poetical, the same may be said of Dryden and Pope ; and it at least proves him to have been in harmony with the living forces of his age, in which rhetoric was a note of culture and philosophical humani-tarianism a growing idea, while poetry, though widely cultivated, was becoming more and more a mere orna-mental accomplishment. This is not the case with Lucan; his theme has a genuine hold upon him ; in the age of Nero he celebrates the republic as a poet with the same energy with which in the age of Cicero he might have de-fended it as an orator. But for him it might almost have been said that the Roman republic never inspired a Roman poet.

Lucan never speaks of himself, but his epic speaks for him. The author of the Pharsalia must have been endowed with no common ambition, industry, and self-reliance, an enthusiastic though narrow and aristocratic patriotism, and a faculty for appreciating magnanimity in others which is at least some presumption that he possessed it himself. He probably bore a strong family resemblance to his uncle Seneca; but the only personal trait positively known to us is his conjugal affection, a characteristic of I Seneca also.

Lucan, together with Statius, was preferred even to Virgil in the Middle Ages. So late as 1493 his com-mentator Sulpitius writes :—" Magnus profecto est Maro, magnus Lucanus ; adeoque prope par, ut quis sit major possis ambigere." Shelley and Southey, in the first trans-port of admiration, thought Lucan superior to Virgil; Pope, with more judgment, says that the fire which burns in Virgil with an equable glow breaks forth in Lucan with sudden, brief, and interrupted flashes. In general, notwith-standing the enthusiasm of isolated admirers, Lucan has been unduly neglected, but he has exercised an important influence upon one great department of modern literature by his effect upon Corneille, and through him upon the classical French drama.

The most celebrated editions of Lucan are those by Oudendorp (1728), Burmann (1740), and Weber (1829). Bentley's emendations are brilliant, but unsafe. The most elaborate criticism is that in Nisard's Etudes sur les Poetes Latins de la Decadence, stern to the poet's defects and unkind to his deserts. Dean Merivale has some excellent observations in his History of Imperial Rome, chaps, liv. and lxiv. Brebeuf's French version is celebrated. Christopher Marlowe, a kindred spirit, translated the first book of the Pharsalia into English, and there are other old versions by Sir Ferdinand Gorges and Thomas May. The latter's supplement is one of the best examples of modern Latin versification. Gorges's translation is in octosyllabic verse, and very curious. The standard English version, by Rowe, is one of the most successful translations in our language. It is somewhat too diffuse, but as a whole reproduces the vehemence and animation of the original with a spirit that leaves little to be desired. (R. G.)

The above article was written by Richard Garnett, LL.D.

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