In Tennyson's "Lucretius," the titular character's neglected wife gives him a love philter in hopes that he will begin to display affection for her again. However, steady doses of the potion cause Lucretius to go mad. He has nightmares about sensuous "Hetairai," the flame-spouting breasts of Helen of Troy, and other visions of an obviously sexually threatening nature. He also experiences a heightened realization of exactly what his Epicurean beliefs entail:
"The Gods, who haunt
The lucid interspace of world and world,
Where never creeps a cloud, or moves a wind . . .
Nor sound of human sorrow mounts to mar
Their sacred everlasting calm! and such,
Not all so fine, nor so divine a calm
Not such, nor all unlike it, man may gain
Letting his own life go."
According to Epicureanism, the Gods live in peace, indifferent to the sufferings of mankind. Lucretius has become a slave to the churning desires of his unbalanced mind. In order to preserve some of his remaining humanity and free will, he decides to kill himself. If atomization is the only available afterlife, then why not just commit suicide in order to have the possibility of joining the gods or simply putting an end to the nightmares?
"Passionless bride, divine Tranquillity,
Yearn'd after by the wisest of the wise
Who fail to find thee, being as thou art
Without one pleasure and without one pain,
Howbeit I know thou surely must be mine
Or soon or late, yet out of season, thus
I woo thee roughly, for thou carest not
How roughly men may woo thee so they win —
Thus — thus: the soul flies out and dies in the air."
Lucretius feels especially tormented because he once knew "tranquility," the peace that he felt before his wife administered the philter. He realizes that he will not be able to achieve that peace again, that the gods do not care for his suffering, and that rewards in the afterlife are not even a possibility. Since he is sure that he will no longer be able to find peace in life, he kills himself and tells his wife that nothing in the living world really matters.
1. Why did Tennyson choose to write about this particular philosopher?
2. How does Lucretius' experience compare to that of Mr. Thomas Shap?
3. Why did Lucretius' wife feel that she had "fail'd in duty to him" when it was he who neglected her?
4. What does this poem reveal about Tennyson's views of Epicureanism?
5. Who is intended to be more at fault in the poem — Lucilla for procuring the witch's philter, or Lucretius for ignoring his wife?
Last modified 26 January 2009