Lucretius: ‘On the Nature of the Universe’ 
translated by Ronald Melville.
Oxford, 275 pp., £45, November 1998, 0 19 815097 0
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Lucretius is unique among the great poets of the world – and he ranks with the greatest – in having failed completely in his central purpose not only in his own time but ever since. For he is an evangelist, and his aim is to save us; unmistakably, he is a man who has been through a conversion experience, and he now wants to convert us, too. If we will only accept the truth of the philosophy of Epicurus, and live in accordance with its precepts, we shall be freed from the fear of death – indeed, death will become a matter of indifference to us – and enjoy a life worthy of the gods.

Lucretius’ single poem, De Rerum Natura, which can be translated ‘On the Nature of Things’ or (as it is here) ‘On the Nature of the Universe’, may well be thought the best philosophy in classical Latin, superior to Cicero or Seneca in intellectual seriousness and sustained power of argument. Yet Cicero, who greatly admired him as a poet, never mentions him as a philosopher, and Seneca is equally neglectful. Ironically, the one person anywhere near his own time who praises him as a philosopher is a poet – Virgil. In an eloquent tribute in the second book of the Georgics, Virgil celebrates Lucretius as the man with intellectual grasp, the one who has been able to penetrate, to understand. But then Virgil had read him more acutely and more intently than anyone had done: the Georgics as a whole is saturated in Lucretius’ influence.

Why was philosophy of such quality, presented in such magnificent dress, so entirely neglected as philosophy? The obvious answer seems to be: because it was written in verse. If a philosopher today were to submit an article to a learned journal written in blank verse or heroic couplets, we should think them ready for the funny farm. In the Rome of the first century BC serious philosophy in verse, if not quite as bizarre as it would be now, was none the less markedly eccentric. Back in fifth-century Greece, four hundred years before Lucretius, it was still possible to compose philosophy in verse: Empedocles, much admired by Lucretius, and Parmenides had done so. But by the end of that century it had become clear that prose was the natural medium for history, philosophy and science, and that view has been sustained ever since. Almost all didactic poetry is therefore pseudo-didactic. This was already true in the third and second centuries BC. If you really wanted to know about astronomy, did you consult Aratus’ poem, the Phaenomena? No, you read the prose treatise of Eudoxus. If you were bitten by a snake, did you take the Theriaca of Nicander from the shelf and search for a remedy in his polished hexameters? No, you called a doctor. No one supposes that Virgil’s Georgics is the handbook for farmers that it purports to be; alone among didactic poets, Virgil sought to rival Lucretius in passion, seriousness and moral vision, but since he was not deeply implicated in his subject in the way that Lucretius was, he had to achieve that moral seriousness by other means.

Why, we are bound to ask, did Lucretius present his philosophy in a form which ran so high a risk of not being treated seriously? One response would be to say that he was a born poet, and could not do otherwise; but though that gives him a psychological motivation, it does not give him rational grounds for his decision. One key may lie in the nature of Epicurus’ teaching. We are brought up to think of Plato and Aristotle as the fountainheads of two great traditions of philosophical thought; in Coleridge’s words: ‘Every man is born either an Aristotelian or a Platonist ... They are the two classes of men, next to which it is almost impossible to conceive a third.’ A Penguin book of auto-psychology, published around 1960 and entitled Meet Yourself as You Really Are, included the question, ‘Do you consider yourself a Platonist or an Aristotelian?’ (with a footnote instructing those who did not understand the question to pass on to the next). But this was misleading: a better image is Raphael’s fresco of the School of Athens in the Vatican, depicting Plato and Aristotle standing side by side, allies at the apex of classical thought. Aristotle was Plato’s pupil, after all, and the two men agreed on what the central questions and methodology of philosophy should be. Crudely speaking, you should start in the head and work outwards; and that has been the dominant idea in Western philosophy ever since. But Epicurus had a wholly different notion: you should start in the outside world. The first stage is to understand physical science. Investigating this, you will learn that nothing exists except atoms and empty space. Once this is grasped, the moral theory follows: you will realise that there is no life after death but that death nonetheless does not matter to us; that though the gods exist, they are made of atoms like everything else, and play no part in the creation or governance of the world; and that the only goal which you can rationally pursue is your own pleasure.

In one respect this was a philosophy which lent itself especially well to verse treatment: because of its immersion in the physical reality perceived by our senses, it enabled Lucretius to celebrate both the immensity of the universe (no one relishes infinity quite as be does) and the curious detail of the world – puddles in the street, sheep on a distant hillside, the aqueous light under an awning on a sunny day. Yet to many of his contemporaries, Epicureanism must have given the impression of a peculiarly unpoetic doctrine: the pursuit of pleasure, unlike the Stoic pursuit of virtue, might seem to lack nobility, while Epicurus’ remorseless materialism appeared to suck all the magic, mystery and numinousness out of the world. Lucretius counters this by presenting Epicureanism as a poetic faith, and he opens his work with an enormous hymn of prayer and praise to Venus, symbol of the world’s energy and creativity. The doctrine is materialist, but Lucretius’ colouring is religious.

His choice of verse form may have another purpose, too, though it is not one which is easily described in a few words. Epicureanism is a formidably complete and coherent system (too complete and tidy, some may feel), but it has two distinct weaknesses. The claim made about death is very strong: not only that we should not fear it, but that it does not matter to us. But if life is good and death is final extinction, it seems that death must be an ill, even if it is one that can be faced calmly. The other great difficulty is the problem of altruism. I have no rational grounds for considering anyone’s pleasure but my own; indeed, I ought not even to be moved by the suffering of others, as Lucretius explains in a famous passage. In this translation,

A joy it is, when the strong winds of storm
Stir up the waters of a mighty sea,
To watch from the shore the troubles of another

– not, as the poet explains in the next lines, from sadism, but because the philosopher is fortified by an irrefragable impassiveness. Yet Epicureans were supposed to set about persuading their fellow men, and Lucretius has the air of a missionary. He cares about us: but according to his own principles, he ought not to.

His poetry can be seen as an attempt, profound and powerful if ultimately unsuccessful, to overcome these problems in the Epicurean system. Across the poem he builds up the sense that we are part of one great unity, all one family, that we are, as another tradition puts it, all members incorporate of one another:

Lastly, we are all sprung from heavenly seed,
All from the same one father, him from whom
Life-giving mother, kindly earth, receives
Sweet showers of moisture

Now I have a natural interest and take a natural pleasure in the success and happiness of my own family – my parents and my children. If I can conceive of the whole world as a family of which I am a member, I can love the whole world and take a natural pleasure in its strength and continuance. I may even acquire an interest of a kind in my own death. For Epicureanism teaches that new things can only come into existence through the rearrangement of atoms, or as Lucretius puts it, that the birth of one thing is always the death of another. Declaring that the world is eternally new and that all mortal beings live by mutual interchange, he compares them to runners in a relay race handing on the torch of life. The relay runner wants to hand on the torch so that his team may win. The metaphor lures us into imagining ourselves as part of a team. We take pleasure in its success and in the world’s everlasting freshness, but these delights necessarily require a continuous process of births and deaths, including our own. Thus if I can feel myself part of the universal kinship, I can have reasonable cause, in Epicurean terms, to care for others besides myself; and I can also have a new reason to accept my own extinction.

You cannot command someone into a feeling, however. Lucretius can no more order me to feel myself kin to all nature than he can order me to fall in love with Miss Jones. Instead, he must coax and seduce. His purpose is to recast Epicureanism to show that it can be apprehended religiously and poetically; and the only way to do that was to write a poetic masterpiece. That is why De Rerum Natura must be in verse: here is a case where the medium really is the message. And for the same reason a translation, too, needs to be in verse.

The Melville version, which comes accompanied by an excellent Introduction by Don and Peta Fowler, is the work of two hands. A.D. Melville, admired for his translations of Ovid and Statius, had completed a draft of almost a third of the poem when he died. His brother has finished the task, working, as he engagingly explains, for a couple of hours in the evening after dinner, ‘with a glass of port at hand in case I got stuck’. Lucretius’ style is pretty varied. Most of the time he is robust, vehement, even cumbrous. He is often grand, but sometimes mocking and satirical, sometimes pathetic; and on occasion he can surprise us with moments of exquisite delicacy. It would be a phenomenal translator who could reproduce all these qualities in a very different language; the outstanding characteristics of this translation are clarity and a simple dignity. The Melvilles have chosen the un-rhymed iambic pentameter, the metre of Shakespeare and Milton. The greater part of the poem consists of scientific or philosophical argument, and this is lucidly rendered (more lucidly, sometimes, than in the original). Their style, plain and unshowy, does not exclude poetic eloquence, as for example, in the poem’s very first lines:

O mother of the Roman race, delight
Of men and gods, Venus most bountiful,
You who beneath the gliding signs of heaven
Fill with yourself the sea bedecked with ships
And earth great crop-bearer, since by your power
Creatures of every kind are brought to birth
And rising up behold the light of sun

Where Lucretius sheds an apophthegm, the Melville version can be effective. ‘Tantum religio potuit suadere malorum’ becomes ‘So great the power religion had for evil’. That works pretty well (though ‘has had’ might convey Lucretius’ point more polemically). Less successful, perhaps, is this: ‘Therefore death is nothing to us, nothing/That matters at all, since mind we know is mortal.’ Here for once Lucretius is being baldly simple. The first two clauses really need to occupy a single line, flatly and aphoristically, as they do in Latin, while the epanalepsis of ‘nothing ... nothing’, which would suit many places in the poem, in this context imports a hint of that passion which here Lucretius is careful to exclude.

Sometimes an important element in the original gets lost:

And why do roses flourish in the spring
And corn in summer’s heat, and grapes in autumn?

In some ways these lines show the Melville translation at its best: this is real English, moving easily and gracefully. But Lucretius included the metaphor, vital to the passage’s seductive tone, of autumn persuading the vines to pour forth their fruit, and the English version has obliterated it. Ronald Melville seems looser about metre than his brother. For example:

When you review the whole past length of time
Existing measureless, and think how mixed
And various the motions of matter are,
You will easily believe that the same seeds
Of which we now ire made, have often before
Been placed in the positions they are now in.

It requires a good deal of indulgence to scan several of these lines, and the third and sixth cannot be scanned at all. The Melvilles make no attempt to mimic the heavy alliterations which are such a feature of Lucretius’ style, no doubt wisely. Lucretius’ alliterations, however, are one expression of his energy and vigour, qualities which they do not manage to convey.

Still, everyone knows that something is bound to be lost in translation, and this version has substantial merits. Apart from Pindar, perhaps none of the great poets of classical antiquity is so little known today, and it will be good if their work wins Lucretius more readers. I have seen a young American poet’s unpublished translation of the first book into accentual hexameters, a rendering which gives a stronger impression of Lucretius’ wit and force. It would be good to see this, too, in print, to complement what the Melville version can show us of his eloquence and intellect.

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