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Lucretius, nothing matters, and Mary Shelley

October 29, 2011

When times get tough, say your small son has died, and your infant daughter has also died, and your step-sister is flirting with your husband, and your father is barely speaking to you, one thing I would not suggest doing is reading Lucretius, even if your husband begs you. But unfortunately I was not around to tell Mary Shelley this and after all these things happened to her, her husband had the bright idea that they should read De Rerum Natura together, famous for those best hit quotes: “Nil igitur mors est ad nos. . .” (Therefore, death is nothing to us) and “Pleasant it is to watch others suffer.” This worked for Shelley because Lucretius confirmed his belief that nothing really matters because we are all going to die soon anyways. And he went right upstairs and wrote a long poem. But Mary stayed downstairs and did not do much of anything for a long time. Death was not “nothing.” It had almost annhilated her. Nor did she enjoy watching others suffer.

Can you tell that this is a hard time in Mary’s life to write about?

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