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Lucretius writes about the origins of music.

December 3, 2007

From de rerum natura (On the Nature of the Universe), Bk. 5.

Lucretius (c.100-c.55 BCE) was a Roman poet and philosopher. His poem On the Nature of the Universe takes as its starting point the ideas of the Greek philosopher Epicurus.

This extract is from RE Latham’s 1951 translation.

Men learnt to mimic with their mouths the trilling notes of birds long before they were able to enchant the ear by joining together in tuneful song. It was the whistling of the breeze through hollow reeds that first taught countryfolk to blow through hollow hemlock stalks. After that, by slow degrees, the learnt those plaintive melodies that flow from the flute at the touch of the player’s fingers, melodies that took shape far from the busy highways, amid groves and glades and thickets in the solitudes where the shepherd spends his sunlit leisure. These are the tunes that soothed and cheered their hearts after a full meal: for at such times everything is enjoyable. So they would often recline in company on the soft grass by a running stream under the branches of a tall tree and refresh their bodies pleasurably at small expense. Better still if the weather smiled upon them and the season of the year emblazoned the green herbage with flowers. Then was the time for joking and talking and merry laughter. Then was the heyday of the rustic muse. Then light-hearted jollity prompted them to wreathe head and shoulders with garlands twisted of flowers and leaves and dance out of step, moving their limbs clumsily and with clumsy foot stamping on mother earth. This was matter enough for mirth and boisterous laughter. For these arts were still in their youth, with all the charm of novelty.

In the same occupation the wakeful found a means to while away their sleepless hours, pitching their voices high or low through the twisted intricacies of song and running over the pipes with curving lips. This remains a recognized tradition among watchmen to this day, and they have now learnt to keep in tune. But this does not mean that they derive any greater enjoyment from it that did the woodland race sprung from the soil. For what we have here and now, unless we have known something more pleasing in the past, gives the greatest satisfaction and is reckoned the best of its kind.

Lucretius, de rerum natura, Bk. 5, lines 1379-1414.

Lucretius, On the Nature of the Universe, Penguin Books, London, 1994, ISBN 0-14-044610-9. Translated by RE Latham and revised and edited by J Godwin.

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