Illustration: Kate Hazell

Escaping with classics: the literature to help you forget about the lockdown

Time for some Lucretius, Apuleius and Virgil
May 6, 2020

What classical literature provides the best consolation, the best escape, the best comfort in difficult times? My first thought is the 1st-century BC poem On the Nature of the Universe by Lucretius. It’s a wonderful, knotty thing—an epic poem infused with pleasurable metaphors that enrich and complicate his ideas about scientific and philosophical materialism.

Lucretius was an Epicurean, but that doesn’t mean he advocated a life of bodily pleasures and delicious dinners, as the word is colloquially used now. Rather, his aim was to advance rational thinking with a view to relinquishing the grip of superstition, anxiety and fear of death. Following in the footsteps of earlier philosophers, notably Democritus, who lived in the 5th-century BC, and his beloved Epicurus (341-270 BC), Lucretius was an atomist—arguing, with incredible prescience, that the world was constituted from tiny invisible particles, and that, famously “nothing comes from nothing.” Of course, he was right about the atoms, but the world would have to wait for two millennia before Einstein definitively proved it.

There’s something intensely comforting about Lucretius’s vision of us humans as part of a vast unified system, in which we are all—plants, animals, people, the sea, the stars— made up of the same stuff. As physicist Carlo Rovelli beautifully puts it in his own book Reality is Not What it Seems: “There is a sense of luminous calm and serenity about the poem, which comes from understanding that there are no capricious gods demanding of us difficult things, and punishing us.” By the time you’ve ploughed your way through all six books you will be, one hopes, philosophically and emotionally prepared for the rather grim description of the plague of Athens with which the entire work ends.

Frequently, though, it’s escape that I find I want at the moment, and silliness, and laughter. For this I prescribe The Golden Ass by Apuleius, a Roman born in modern Algeria in the mid-120s AD—it is the only Latin novel to have survived in its entirety. It is huge fun, ridiculous and exuberant: full of picaresque adventures, romance, robbers, disguises, disreputable landladies, cruel goddesses, lavish wedding feasts and animal transformations. At its centre sits an embedded story, that of Cupid and Psyche, a wonderful fairy-tale-like narrative featuring a brave princess and her quest to find her lost husband.

Perhaps the middle ground between these extremes of seriousness and silliness might be found in the pleasures of Augustan poetry. Those of us who are lucky enough to be able to do so are cultivating our gardens, and Virgil’s Georgics is the ideal poem to accompany a bit of spadework and pruning. The work—about 2,000 hexameter lines—purports to be a farming manual.

But to regard it as a dry didactic series of homilies enlivened by the odd purple passage would be to vastly underestimate the work’s literary qualities. It skitters between political allegory and knowingly esoteric poetics, influenced by the learned, limpid works of earlier Greek poets such as Callimachus. It offers wonderfully arresting mythical diversions—the story of Orpheus and Eurydice, for example, and that of the beekeeper Aristaeus.

For those who are in confinement, it offers a tantalising glimpse of pinewoods and cypress trees, of deep-wooded valleys and violet-beds—though as ever in Virgil, shadow is never far away from the light, and not far beneath even his most gorgeous descriptions there’s a melancholy, brooding undertow.