Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
Lucretius (Titus Lucretius Carus) (ca.94–50 B.C.)
Author:
Harris, W. Edward
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

Lucretius was a Latin poet and philosopher, an exponent of the ideas of Epicurus concerning the nature and purpose of life. He is the author of a single long poem, De rerum natura (On the Nature of Things). Even in translation it has powerful poetic imagery and a capacity to move the reader. The poem was a powerful influence on Whitman who, in the 1830s, outlined it section by section.

The poem is a statement of the materialist theory of Epicurus, arguing that no thing is either created out of nothing or reducible to nothing. The atoms persist, forming and reforming over time in a majestic unfolding of life. Change is the nature of things but all the changes are wonderful and beautiful.

In section 52 of "Song of Myself" we can see the Lucretian influence in the lines "I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love, / If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles."

Lucretius celebrates the Epicurean doctrine of maximizing pleasure and minimizing pain. He argues that this can only be accomplished by knowing the proper nature of life by philosophy which can overcome the fear of death and the gods. Whitman asserts a lack of fear of death and a humanist philosophy of life.

Lucretius's text is not just a philosophical argument but a poetic work of the highest order. We have here an example of one great poet inspiring another over many hundreds of years.

Bibliography

Allen, Gay Wilson. The Solitary Singer: A Critical Biography of Walt Whitman. 1955. Rev. ed. 1967. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1985.

Lucretius, Carus Titus. The Nature of Things. Trans. Frank O. Copley. New York: Norton, 1977.


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