Life and Death: A Linguistic and Stylistic Study of Lucretius’s “De Rerum Natura”

  • Introduction

The aim of this study is to examine the translations of “De Rerum Natura” – a poem written by the Roman poet and philosopher Lucretius, in terms of similarities, differences, and how the translations represent the poem’s depiction through the words life and death utilizing both corpus linguistics and stylistics. The corpus linguistic approach is important because as Stefan Gries says “corpus linguistics allows us to study language in context using corpus methods such as frequency lists, concordances, collocations and so on” (2009). In other words, corpus linguistics analyses are based on the evaluation of occurrences of linguistic elements, such as words, grammatical patterns, and morphemes that allow us to retrieve the message conveyed in texts (Gries, 2009). Stylistics, on the other hand, studies style which is “the manner of linguistic expression in prose or verse. It is how a speaker or writer says whatever he says. It refers to the way in which language is used in a given context by a specific writer of speaker for a specific person” (Saleh Ahmed Saif Abdulmughni, 2019). With this in mind, we have decided to examine two translations from the reused data provided by the course by focusing on the words life and death to identify the message conveyed in the poem “De Rerum Natura”.  In addition to analyzing life and death, we also conducted an in-depth analysis of two other translations (that of 1864 and 1872) found outside the data provided from the course. This analysis focuses on the stylistic aspects such as term choice, word choice, structure, grammar, and so on. “De Rerum Natura” represents nature which entails mind and soul, thoughts, sensations as well as the creation, development, and the destruction of the world. The latter is more evident in the poem because as Cyril Bailey says the poem shows “the almost brooding pessimism with which Lucretius anticipates the coming destruction of the world” (1946).  In other words, this paper investigates not only the stylistic aspects of the translations but also how life and death describe the message conveyed in the poem regarding anxiety for nature and human destruction.

  • Background

To conduct our analysis, we used various stylistics, linguistics, and translation theories and methods derived from Jean Boase-Beier “Stylistic Approaches to Translation”, and Tim Parks “A Literary Approach to Translation – A Translation Approach to Literature.” Both Boase-Beier and Parks explain the importance of the stylistic approach and the translator’s role when translating “the translator as a reader of the source text plays an active role in constructing a reading, which involves the construction and modification of contexts.” (Boase-Beier, 2014). To conduct our analysis, it was important to compare punctuation and word choices when examining the differences and similarities between the translations.  That is because when a translator sets out to translate any text, they imprint choices made by them and these choices can differ from the source text and perhaps even be completely new “the translator writes a new text in translating, and so the style of the target text is an expression of the translator’s choices.” (Parks, 2016). However, there are some limitations when it comes to examining what was newly imprinted by the translator and whether the richness, openness and meaning of source texts were successfully conveyed. Boase-Beier explains that not only does the translator translate the text itself, but they also translate the message and the world behind the text “Literary translation can be seen as the translation of style because it is the style of a text which allows the text to function as literature. One way of putting this is to say that the style, as the direct reflection of the author’s choices, carries the speaker’s meaning, both conscious and unconscious, and so the translation of a literary text is the translation of a particular cognitive state as it has become embodied in the text (Brett-Smith1972:29).” (Boase-Beier, 2014). In our study, for example, comparing translations proved difficult to examine since our language abilities do not cover Latin, thus there is no way for us to compare whether the translators could convey the same richness, openness, and meaning to the reader as the source text does. As for the corpus linguistic approach, we already mentioned that corpus linguistics analyses allow us to evaluate texts based on the occurrence of linguistic elements. The empirical analysis is usually conducted using databases of languages,  otherwise known as corpora – usually a collection of written texts. The corpora then are analyzed based on “the frequencies of various words, phrases, and other syntactic constructions encountered in the texts” – a study that we aim to present in this paper along with the stylistic approach (Brysbaert et al., 2017).

  • Data and Method

After an intensive data hunt, we found around 7 translations of “De Rerum Natura”. Most of the translations were found from an online database called Epicurean Friends with the help of Petteri. However, due to the scope of the study and limitations set by our schedule, we decided to closely examine two translations from the re-used data and two more translations from the Epicurean Friends online database. The first analysis is about stylistics and it focuses on the first 50 lines from the first book of 1864 and 1872 translations. However,  limitations during this analysis regarding the source text emerged. We only found one full Latin version of “De Rerum Natura” that we then used as our source text to compare the two translations that were selected from the database. These two translations were selected because they both are from the 19th century with only 8 years difference. As for the corpus study, we used the translated versions of the poem – a text reused data provided from the digital humanities course. The material is retrieved from ECCO which involves more than 200,000 texts. The translations we used for this study include six books from Thomas Creech translations and one book from John Evelyn. At the beginning of this research, we included all six books translated by Thomas Creech, but then we decided to focus only on the first book. That is because the data provides only one book from John Evelyn, therefore, in order to have balanced and accurate results, we decided to focus only on the first one.  The method follows a corpus-based approach where the first step was to process the data to remove the OCR issues found in the texts.  After the first processing of the data, the concordance results were retrieved using the AntConc (Anthony, 2014) corpus tool – a computer program designed to analyze textual data. The concordance lines retrieved from AntConc were then categorized in medical, scientific, and English variables. That is because we aim to analyze the context in which life and death are used. For example, if life and death convey a medical or scientific message.  As for English, given that the original poem is written in Latin, we want to see if the authors preserved anything Latin when they translated the poem. After pruning the data and making the analysis, the ultimate results were then presented through visualizations to see if our findings are complicated, to what extent they are complicated, and to better witness the hidden features that play a huge role in the study.

  • Analysis

In this section, we will be going through the results of both stylistic and corpus linguistic analysis.

  • Stylistic analysis

    For the stylistic analysis, we began by examining the first 50 lines from the first book of 1864 and 1872 translations. We found some differences in structure, word choices, and how natural pauses are represented, which makes the 1864 translation clearly more readable and cohesive than that of 1872. In addition, what we found was that the 1864 translation also attempted to preserve more of the Latin source text. To exemplify, let us first look at some terms and word choices used in these translations. Figure 1 contains the first two lines of the 1864 and 1872 translations.  The results show that the term Aeneadum translated in two different manners as highlighted with blue. 

In figure 1 below you can see the first two lines from books 1 1864 and 1872.

It seems that the older (1862) translation attempted to keep the original terms and names used in the first few lines, while the newer (1872) version used a differing translation, ”Mother of Romans !”. When compared to the Latin source text we used, the 1862 translation came closer to the source text as the Latin version used the same term ”Aeneadum genetrix”.

Another interesting aspect is that the translators translated and used different adjectives for Venus, they also used a different structure and punctuation in these lines, but we will examine the structure and punctuation more later on. The adjective choices prove how two translators created two varying language scapes, which is visible with these word choices joy, darling, benignant and increase-giving.

Figure 2 above showcases how the character’s name Memmius differs in the texts.

In Figure 2, we can see how even the protagonist is represented differently. In the 1864 translation, he is mentioned as Memmii, while the 1872 version referred to him as Memmius. Whilst the Latin source text used Memmi and Memmiadae. It seems that the adae part is a suffix, which indicates ownership. This leads us to believe that the 1864 translation attempts to preserve more of the Latin term choices than the 1872 translation.

Further, we decided to examine the two translations by looking into their structures and punctuation.

In figure 3 below you can see the first 7 lines from the translation 1872 and the first 5 lines from the translation dating back to 1872.

The 1864 translation used en dashes, commas, dots, exclamation marks, semicolons, and apostrophes, while the 1872 version used en dashes, commas, dots, exclamation marks, semicolons, and apostrophes. In the first 7 lines as seen in figure 3, the 1872 translation uses much more exclamations than the other translation, perhaps to emphasize feelings in the poem. The 1864 version came across as more calm in its punctuational expression with the translation as it used commas to represent the breaks.

Another aspect to note is that the 1872 translation is structurally longer as it took 7 lines, while the 1864 translation covered the same text within 5 lines. When we compared the same text to our Latin source, we found that the Latin source text covered the same lines within 5 lines as well. Thus, the 1864 version is similar in structure to the Latin source text we used.

We then compared the first two lines from both of the translations to the Latin source text:

”Mother of the Aeneadae, darling of men and gods, increase-giving Venus,”  (Lines 1-2, 1864 translation).

“Mother of Romans ! joy of men and gods,

Benignant Venus !” (Lines 1-2, 1872 translation).

Latin source text: ”Aeneadum genetrix, hominum divomque voluptas, alma Venus,” (Lines 1-2)

The Latin source text seems to also use commas to indicate breaks and the first seven lines as shown in figure 3 had no exclamation marks at all. So, based on punctuation the 1872 version seems to differ from the Latin source text, while the 1864 translation seems to follow not only punctuation but also some of the term choices. In addition, from a reader’s point of view, we found that the older version (1864) seemed to be more pleasant to read and slightly clearer for a modern-day reader to consume. This was based on punctuation and structure. However, what is important to keep in mind, we have no way of identifying whether these translations had been tweaked or modified by someone else since these were found by Petteri from an online database called Epicurean Friends. Moreover, the source text they (the translators) used might differ from the one we used, which can affect the translation, punctuation, and of course the structure.

  • Life and Death: Corpus linguistics analysis

As we mentioned previously, at the beginning of this study we included all six books from Thomas Creech translation and the first book from John Evelyn. AntConc produced 326 hits for life and 293 for death. After analyzing the concordance lines, we realized that the data needed further processing because of OCR issues found within concordances. After cleaning the rest of the data, the results show that there are 321 instances of life and 280 instances of death. However, while removing the OCR problems that complicated the analysis, we realized that Thomas Creech translations involved notes along with the poem. The comments provided in the book increased the number of hits for life and death. Therefore, in order to have the most accurate results for our analysis, we cleaned the data by removing the notes accordingly. After polishing the rest of the data, AntConc produced the final 78 hits for life (Fig. 4a) and 79 hits for death (Fig. 4b).





Figures 4a and b: The number of hits per life and death in Thomas Creech (1682) and John Evelyn (1656) books.

Figures 4a and b show that the overall 79 life hits entail medical and scientific context. There are 9 instances of medical context, 6 instances of scientific context, and all the instances are in English. The medical hits talk about how the plague attacked Athenians and which parts of the body it damaged the most. To exemplify “[…] the PLAGUE did reach the BREAST, And there, the HEART, the Seat of Life, possess’d: 1115 Then LIFE began ro fail: strange STINKS did come From cv’ry putrid BREAST, as from a TOMB: A[…]” (Thomas Creech, 1682). This example shows how terrifying the plague was. It also shows how it affected the body giving it a stink that resembles that of a tomb. This stink shows that life began to fail, none could withstand it – a fact that terrified Lucretius and Athenians. As for the scientific context, the instances show that people struggled understanding this plague. They also couldn’t understand how much it affects the brain, mind, and nerves. Moreover, Lucretius asks whether life can be continued with just a healthy mind and nerves even though the disease was spread all over the body and soul was rusting “[…], when from the L1MBS disjoin’d. Because ’tis spread o’er all, and there preserves 540 Her Life by vital Union with the Nerves.  Nor could the little SEEnD of Soul commence Those fhorr Vibration […]” (Thomas Creech, 1682). Death, on the other hand, has 14 instances of medical context, 16 instances of scientific context and are all written in English. Same as in life instances, Lucretius uses death to refer to the plague they were struggling with. He clearly shows how the fear of death has befallen people and what terrified Athenians the most was the unknowability if the disease was curable – making it thus a medical and scientific mystery “[…]’ry Sense in’ts proper Organ dies. And were the SOUL immortal, would the MIND Complain of Death; and not rejoice to find Her felflet loose, and leave this Clay behind?  As Si.AKES, whene'[…]” (Thomas Creech, 1682). Also, “[…] ight Poetique Threats, and Superstitions fright. But now in vain alass! no help remains Since after death they dread eternal pains: For in this ignorance men live amus’d Whether the Soul be born, […]” (John Evelyn, 1656). After analyzing life and death in all Thomas Creech’s books as well as Evelyn’s book, we continued my second analysis focusing on the first book only to compare Creech’s and Evelyn’s style when translating the poem. Figures 5 (a, b) show the results retrieved from AntConc regarding the number of life and death occurrences and the context-related differences whereas Figures 6 and 7 (ab) show the differences regarding style:

Figures 5a and b: Life and death in Thomas Creech’s and John Evelyn’s first book translations.

As can be seen from Figures 5a and b, there are 8 instances of life and 15 instances of death. Same as the previous results, life and death represent the struggle that Athenians faced because of a disease that was quickly spreading. The unknown symptoms, the damages it caused terrified people. Lucretius constantly asks if there is something or someone who can resist such a disease. He also stresses the fact that those who thought of themselves as the smartest and most powerful fear this plague as they know they cannot withstand it. He uses the example of fire, air, water, and bone to describe the power of this plague or death itself – even nature’s ingredients seem powerless toward death. Lucretius describes this medical and scientific mystery as “[…] r and great:  And we, unless upheld by Meats, fllould die, Swallow’d by treacherous Mortality ; 820 Life , loos’d from Nerves and Bones, long since had fled,  And left the wafted Carcas pale and dead. For […]” (Thomas Creech, 1682). Death, on the other hand, was seen as a death to invade “[…] can ought them free From ruining: For what thing can there be Which may (in such a violence opprest Death to envade) Deaths very teeth resist? Can Fire? or Water? can Air? Blood or Bone? Or any one of thes […]” (John Evelyn, 1656).

Figures 6a and b: Life used in Thomas Creech and John Evelyn translations.

Figures 6a and b show that both authors used life evenly. There are 4 instances of life in both translations. However, Evelyn tends to translate the poem in a more generalized way. John Evelyn, for example, uses ‘human’ to describe life of the demoralized people because of the disease “[…] ur service, swim in full content, Nor our good works accept, nor bad resent: Whilst sometimes human life dejected lay On earth, under gross superstitions sway, Whose head aloft from heaven seem’d t’appear […]” (1656). Creech, on the other hand, uses ‘her’ to describe the human sacrifice that religious people believed to be the solution to their threats “[…] to could ihew. She saw the crafty Priest conceal the Knife From him, blers’d and prepar’d against her Life : She saw her Citizens with weeping Eyes i o Unwillingly attend the Sacrifice. Then, dumb with Grie […]” (1682).

Figures 7a and b: Death used in Thomas Creech and John Evelyn translations.

Figures 7a and b show that there are 10 instances of death in Creech’s translation whereas Evelyn has only 5 instances. According to Creech, nature, spring, river and time are immortal and secure from death “[…]   E s, which compose this A L L, Could for so many Ages paCt endure; They are immortal, and from Death secure; And therefore cannot into N o r H 1 N G fall. 285 Again: the fame Force ev’ry Thing would […]” (1682). Evelyn, on the other hand, focuses more on describing mortality and how powerless humans are towards nature “[…] matter keep it free: And more or less them to their subjects bind, One touch to them a cause of death they’d find. Had bodies no eternal permanence, They would dissolve with the least violence: But sin […]” (1656).

  • Discussion

As we can see from the results, Lucretius uses both life and death to display the terrifying fear of death/plague that hit Athenians. Both queries describe how the disease affected people’s bodies, souls, and minds. The poem also represents the terrifying mystery that not only Lucretius but also Athenians in general faced because of the unidentifiable nature of the plague. Lucretius stresses that this plague was so destructible that even the most powerful people believed they couldn’t withstand it. Regarding style, we can conclude that Evelyn tends to translate the poem in a more generalized way. He uses, for example, ‘human’ to describe the life of the demoralized people because of this plague. Creech, on the other hand, tends to particularize by using ‘her’ to describe the human sacrifice that religious people believed to be the solution for their threats, including this disease. It is important to note that a huge difference between Creech and Evelyn is that Creech describes nature as resistant to death even though Lucretius portrays it differently, whereas Evelyn focuses more on describing people as powerless human beings towards death. Our hypothesis is that Evelyn sticks to Lucretius’s idea of seeing nature falling along with people, whereas Creech seems to disagree. This would be an interesting study to research in the future. In other words, it would be engaging to see why Creech firmly translates nature as indestructible even though Lucretius sees it otherwise. Furthermore, it would be interesting to investigate if Evelyn connects nature with humans regarding their destruction to support Lucretius’s claims that nature is made up of particles and so are people, therefore, they die together. 

The stylistic analysis, on the other hand, shows that the 1864 translation appeared more cohesive when it came to structuring and punctuation, it also appeared to preserve the Latin term and word choices more actively than the 1872 translation. However, we faced limitations regarding the Latin source of the given translations. We couldn’t find the original source of all the translations from the online database, therefore, we couldn’t compare the sources. Instead, we used the only Latin version we were able to find. Yet, our analysis is still chunked because “Ideally a translation will leave the text open to as many readings as possible, rather than forcing its reader to accept one interpretation over another.” (Boase-Beier, 2014). Therefore, given our poor Latin skills, we cannot be sure that the translations succeeded in leaving the Latin text open for different interpretations as this would require the ability to actually read the Latin text and compare the possible readings. However, this would be an interesting angle for future studies to examine. 

  •   Conclusion

To conclude, this short study aimed to analyze “De Rerum Natura” from a stylistic and linguistic perspective. It focused on the English translations from the text-reused data as well as from the Epicurean Friends database. The stylistic analysis was conducted by a close reading of the translations from the online database. Corpus linguistic analysis, on the other hand, was conducted using AntConc and analyzing the concordance lines manually on a spreadsheet. After that, the results were visualized in order to have a better picture of the results.

  • Acknowledgement and Limitations

We should disclose that Petteri Moilanen worked on retrieving and processing the data. However, due to personal leave, Egzona had to continue processing the rest of the reused data for her analysis. Also, the visualizations used for this study are conducted by our colleague Jaakko Kuokkanen.

As for limitations found in this paper, we should also disclose that this paper involves only Sara’s and Egzona’s analysis. That is because the other team members, Harri and Tablo, haven’t finished their analysis yet. Therefore, given the deadline, we had to submit the form without them.

  • References

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Abdulmughni, S., A., S. (2019). “Stylistics, Literary Criticism, Linguistics and Discourse Analysis.” International Journal of English Linguistics. Vol. 9, No. 2. Published by Canadian Center of Science and Education. 

Bailey, C. (1946). Lucretius on the Nature of Things. Oxford University Press, Amtn House, London E.C.4.

Boase-Beier, J. (2014). Stylistic approaches to translation. Routledge.

Brysbaert, M., Mandera, P., Keuleers, E. (2017). “Corpus Linguistic.” Ghent University.

Carus, T. L., Leonard, W. E., & Smith, S. B. (1942). Titi Lucreti Cari de rerum natura libri 6. The Univ. of Wisconsin Pr.

Conte, G. B. (1999). Latin literature: A history. Johns Hopkins University Press.

Gries, Th., Stefan. (2009). “What is Corpus Linguistics?” Language and Linguistics Compass 3. Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 1-17.

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McGoodwin, M. (1997). Titus Lucretius Carus: On the Nature of Things (De Rerum Natura). Last accessed on January 12, 2022, at

Parks, T. (2016). Translating style: A literary approach to translation – A translation approach to literature. Routledge.

Segal, C. (1990). LUCRETIUS’S ADEQUACY TO THE FEAR OF DEATH: LOGIC, POETRY, AND EMOTION. In Lucretius on Death and Anxiety: Poetry and Philosophy in DE RERUM NATURA (pp. 3–25). Princeton University Press.

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  • Further References

For more information on the process of analysing the data, check the links attached. They contain all the work from the very beginning of the analysis: