It is from the Roman poet Lucretius, who lived c. 99-55 BCE, that we have the most extensive treatment of Epicurean natural philosophy to come down to us from the ancient world. His De rerum natura, a title commonly translated as On the Nature of Things, sets forth the Epicurean view of a naturalistic universe. In so doing it goes into specifics on the science of the time, covering such areas as physics, astronomy, meteorology, earth science, human psychology, and social evolution. Along the way it seeks to dispel common fears of death and to counsel a life of simplicity.
But given the blizzard of technical detail throughout the work—much of it long outdated by modern science—and the fact that the poem runs some 7,400 lines, many readers have found Lucretius difficult to read all the way through and harder still to return to for moral inspiration. Moreover, the poet’s choice of rhythmic scheme—dactylic hexameter—hasn’t proved popular in English. Consider these opening lines of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s Evangeline.
This is the forest primeval. The murmuring pines and the hemlocks,
Bearded with moss, and in garments green, indistinct in the twilight,
Stand like Druids of eld, with voices sad and prophetic,
Stand like harpers hoar, with beards that rest on their bosoms.
Loud from its rocky caverns, the deep-voiced neighboring ocean
Speaks, and in accents disconsolate answers the wail of the forest.
Then compare that to the far more popular iambic pentameter used by Edward FitzGerald in The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám.
The Worldly Hope men set their Hearts upon
Turns Ashes—or it prospers; and anon,
Like Snow upon the Desert’s dusty Face,
Lighting a little hour or two—is gone.
Think, in this batter’d Caravanserai
Whose Portals are alternate Night and Day,
How Sultán after Sultán with his Pomp
Abode his destined Hour, and went his way.
How would Lucretius sound if rendered this way? Well, he would sound like this.
Nothing abides. Thy seas in delicate haze
Go off; those moonéd sands forsake their place;
And where they are, shall other seas in turn
Mow with their scythes of whiteness other bays.
Lo, how the terraced towers, and monstrous round
Of league-long ramparts rise from out the ground,
With gardens in the clouds. Then all is gone,
And Babylon is a memory and a mound.
These latter are the poetic lines of William Hurrell Mallock from his Lucretius on Life and Death, a selective translation from De rerum natura that he initiated as a paper in the December 1899 Anglo-Saxon Review. The poem was subsequently expanded into book form in 1900 and given its final revision in 1910.
To appreciate the value of this effort, let’s compare how a specific passage—the first wherein Lucretius referenced Epicurus—reads in three versions. We find it in Book I, lines 63-68. Because De rerum natura is most commonly translated into English prose, due in large part to its technical exposition of natural philosophy, we’ll begin with the 1886 prose translation of H. A. J. Munro, which is considered a standard.
When human life to view lay foully prostrate upon earth crushed down under the weight of religion, who shewed her head from the quarters of heaven with hideous aspect lowering upon mortals, a man of Greece ventured first to lift up his mortal eyes to her face and first to withstand her to her face.
Now we’ll compare this to the very latest translation, that of David Slavitt, done in 2008 in a slow-paced English hexameter,
It was long the case that men would grovel
upon the earth,
crushed beneath the weight of Superstition
loomed in the heavens, glaring down with her
until Epicurus of Greece dared to look up and
taking a stand against the fables and myths of
Now comes Mallock in iambic pentameter:
For this is he that dared the almighty foe,
Looked up, and struck the Olympian blow for blow,
And dragged the phantom from his fancied skies—
The Samian Sage—the first of those that know.
In his effort to restructure Lucretius’ lines “in the metre of Omar Khayyám,” Mallock used an approach similar to that of FitzGerald. In this regard, nineteenth century literary critic Charles Eliot Norton described FitzGerald’s Rubáiyát thus: “It is the work of a poet inspired by the work of a poet; not a copy, but a reproduction, not a translation, but the redelivery of a poetic inspiration.”
So Mallock created a short work, less than 500 lines, focusing on Lucretius’ moral teaching, which he found “scattered throughout his work in a variety of isolated passages.” Mallock declared, “There are very few of the stanzas which have not some equivalent in the original,” but he acknowledged that most of the lines he wrote “are summings up of the tendency of the thought of Lucretius, or echoes of his feelings, rather than reproductions of his words.”
The result is a work that gained the admiration of humanists and freethinkers of the twentieth century. For instance, shortly after the poet’s death, freethought publisher E. Haldeman Julius reprinted Lucretius on Life and Death in 1924 as Little Blue Book #581. In 1940 Corliss Lamont provided portions of Mallock’s third canto as an inspirational reading in A Humanist Funeral Service, a book that has remained in print ever since (now as A Humanist Funeral Service and Celebration, revised by Beth K. Lamont and J. Sierra Oliva).
Which brings us to the modern relevance of Mallock’s poem.
Present-day Epicureans, like people of other persuasions, may feel a need for ceremonies to mark life’s passages. For example, after we were brought into the world we might have been presented in some manner to family and community. Christianity accomplishes this ritualistically through baptism. Others have baby-naming or child welcoming ceremonies.
Coming of age is another time of celebration, recognized in Judaism with bar or bat mitzvahs, in many Christian denominations through confirmation ceremonies, and among the nonreligious in Iceland and Norway as secular confirmations. More common than all of these is the rite of marriage. And finally there are funerals and memorial services.
For all of these, evocative language is needed. And with so little of such language from the original Epicurean philosophers having survived the upheavals of history, we must turn to later authors who have breathed new life into the old concepts—such as the author before us.
Let’s do this with the birth of a child. We know, with Epicurus, that she or he is the latest rearrangement of cosmic particles that have, over eons of time, voyaged a long, long way. As Carl Sagan put it, “We are made of star stuff.” Or, as Mallock, inspired by Lucretius, phrased it:
Observe this dew-drenched rose of Tyrian grain—
A rose to-day. But you will ask in vain
To-morrow what it is; and yesterday
It was the dust, the sunshine and the rain.
This bowl of milk, the pitch on yonder jar,
Are strange and far-bound travellers come from far.
This is a snow-flake that was once a flame—
The flame was once the fragment of a star.
A loved one dies. Rather than honor that person’s memory with the traditional religious utterance from the Book of Common Prayer, “we commit his body to the ground; earth to earth; ashes to ashes, dust to dust,” we might prefer to draw from Book II of Lucretius.
The seeds that once were we take flight and fly,
Winnowed to earth, or whirled along the sky,
Not lost but disunited. Life lives on.
It is the lives, the lives, the lives, that die.
They go beyond recapture and recall,
Lost in the all-indissoluble All:—
Gone like the rainbow from the fountain’s foam,
Gone like the spindrift shuddering down the squall.
Flakes of the water, on the waters cease!
Soul of the body, melt and sleep like these.
Atoms to atoms—weariness to rest—
Ashes to ashes—hopes and fears to peace!
These are words of emotional power. Yet despite this, Mallock’s contribution has become all but forgotten in the twenty-first century. So, to remedy this, I have put together a special digital edition of Lucretius on Life and Death for Humanist Press. It is originally being introduced as a free accompaniment to Hiram Crespo’s Tending the Epicurean Garden.
It is my hope that this century-old book will find use again and, even more, stimulate new efforts to adapt Greco-Roman philosophical thought to today’s literary and artistic forms.
Fred Edwords has, since 1980, worked in such capacities as executive director of the American Humanist Association, editor of The Humanist magazine, president of Camp Quest, and national director of the United Coalition of Reason. In so doing he has lectured and debated internationally and written numerous articles, essays, and reviews.