Cambridge Companion to Lucretius and a translation

Stuart Gillespie and Philip Hardie, editors
365pp. Cambridge University Press. Paperback, £18.99.
978 0 521 61266 1

Translated by A. E. Stallings; introduction by Richard Jenkyns
265 pp. Penguin Books. Paperback, £9.99.
978 0 140 44796 5

On the wall of a house at Pompeii are scratched the words “suabe mari magno .
. .” (“It is sweet on the great sea . . .”). These are the first words of
the second book of Lucretius’ Epicurean poem De rerum natura (On the Nature
of Things), and the sentence ends, “. . . to watch from the shore other
people drowning”. The house in question in question overlooks the Bay of
Naples, whose villas and libraries offered Lucretius’ contemporaries a
comfortable daily view of the hazards of seafaring and where Epicureanism,
the Greek panacea that blended soul-soothing with materialist physics,
enjoyed a brief resurgence in the first century bc. Lucretius was no early
promoter of Schadenfreude. His serene spectator enjoyed a higher kind of
pleasure: remoteness from his own suffering.

Though Lucretius revived many of Epicurus’ life-saving mantras – steer clear
of stress, channel your desires safely, don’t be afraid of death, the gods
are not vindictive – this evangelist probably never aspired to convert his
fellow Romans en masse. His was a philosophy of detachment in every sense,
espoused by drop-outs, aesthetes, atheists, scientists and Democritean
observers through the ages: rational scepticism combined with physical
aloofness. (Thomas Gray’s “Far from the madding crowd’s ignoble strife” is a
Lucretian adaptation.)

Epicurean securitas (in Greek, ataraxia), the absence of care, has been the
motto of many a rural or suburban retreat, from Montaigne’s tower to
Frederick the Great’s Sanssouci. Musing in secluded gardens, shunning the
rat race and the hurly-burly, Epicureans have always been an enlightened
minority. But there is nothing enervated about Lucretius’ high-temperature
assault on his Roman audience. Colours, smells and textures rise off his
pages, and metaphors of tracking, pioneering, desire and conquest turn what
could have been an arid treatise into the most adventurous poem in Latin,
one that claims simply to be “about everything”, with its readers not just
vicarious epic heroes, playing out their roles in history, but kings of
infinite space, exposed to strange new perspectives on the knowable world.

Few of his fellow citizens can have been ready for this kind of dizzying
psychic liberation. To Romans like Lucretius’ addressee, Gaius Memmius,
Epicureanism offered an alternative as terrifying as it was appealing:
complete withdrawal from public duty and civil violence, justified as the
contemplation of universal truths and freedom from the shackles of
superstition. A tough nut to crack (he personally demolished Epicurus’ house
in Athens), Memmius was only an extreme representative of a community
resistant to most forms of Greek philosophy. Any cult that urged its
followers to abandon their careers, as well as take on board the materiality
of the body and the mortality of the soul, was hard to square with the
raison d’être of aristocratic existence, rooted as that was in worldly
achievement and the continuation of great houses. Even Cicero, who did so
much to acclimatize reluctant Romans to Greek intellectual developments,
mocked the Epicureans as cranks and made out that their prophetic vision of
a world composed of randomly moving atoms (atomorum turba) bore a worrying
resemblance to the anarchic crowds currently threatening the Roman state.

Lucretius chose verse – more heightened, fluid and resounding than prose – to
convey his missionary message. His master Epicurus, like Plato before him,
distrusted poetry as a vehicle for truth-telling, but this flew in the face
of an ancient tradition that verse bestowed authority, dignity and above all
memorability. If the Romans had had a Bible, it would have been a metrical
one. Yet Lucretius’ well-known image of doctors fooling children into
drinking bitter medicine (hard philosophy) by lacing the cup with honey
(poetry) is probably already a polemic against a “two cultures”-style split
between the proper discourse of science and the seductive associations of
poetry. In his view, discovering the world at one’s lips or fingertips is
the first step to understanding it. The poem opens with a shock – Mars
panting in Venus’ lap – to hook readers with tangible voluptas (pleasure)
before they progress to the more abstract variety.

One of the many paradoxes noted by the editors of the magnificent new
Cambridge Companion to Lucretius, Stuart Gillespie and Philip Hardie, is
that De rerum natura is a “manifesto of modernity in the sonorous voice of
an Old Testament prophet”. This was a calculated choice. And Lucretius’
apology for the shortcomings of Latin as a scientific language must be
disingenuous when his neologisms are not so much technical terms as precise
but luscious descriptive words: largifluos, levisomnus, anguimanus,
diffusilis, ramosus, versatilis, glomeramen, insatiabiliter. Verse offered
him a different kind of clarity. Many of its characteristics – analogy,
metaphor, mnemonic, puns and repetition – are, after all, traditional
weapons in the teacher’s arsenal, even the modern science teacher’s.
According to Virgil, Memmius’ family descended from Aeneas’ companion
Mnestheus, whose name derives from the Greek word for “memory”, which may
explain why Lucretius recycles his best passages wholesale for

Memmius is taken by the hand, like a child in the dark, and prodded, drilled
and teased into a new way of looking at the world, one that builds
connections between perceptible phenomena and imperceptible ones, the
infinitesimally small and the infinitely large. Without the telescope or the
microscope at his disposal, Lucretius conjures up dancing atoms out of dust
mites and the boundless depth of the earth from skies reflected in a puddle.
By rejecting transliterated Greek terms like atomi in favour of metaphors
like semina (seeds) and genitalia corpora (generative bodies), he craftily
presumes the material nature of the smallest units of life in advance of
further proof. And the exaggerated trickle of word into word in his honeyed
verse is the cleverest means of suggesting organic inter-relations in the
physical world, most famously through fortuitous phonetic connections: the
link between lignum (wood) and ignis (fire) “proves” the metamorphosis of
timber into ashes; that between umor (semen) and amor (love) reduces sex to
an exchange of bodily fluids.

Lucretius looks at the world with a poet’s eye, then, as well as a
rationalist’s, and here lie other paradoxical aspects of his writing. He
penetrates to deep universal laws but is also the supreme Roman poet of
surfaces: sheen, moisture, echoes, brambles, fur, worn bronze, twitching
nostrils and steaming breath. He demythologizes nature, yet the most
memorable features of the poem are not the logical explanations (with their
prosaic conjunctions like “moreover” and “in conclusion, then”), but wispy
traces of the discarded world of illusion – tissues, films, chimeras – or,
alternatively, grandiose vistas onto the sublime. Lucretius sharpens our
eyes not just to observe daily miracles, but also to prepare us to confront
the unconfrontable: the moral abyss opened up in Epicurus’ city, Athens, by
universal plague; the degeneration of civilized mankind after its first
grunting, self-interested stabs at a social contract; and the unmanageable
terror of “void”, which means both the vacant parts of the physical universe
and the gaping hole opened up by death.

Lucretius’ Epicurus, according to James I. Porter in the Companion, is a
precursor of those Nietzschean sublime heroes who push back the boundaries
of the world and teeter on the brink of eternal truth or are lost in
contemplation of the emptiness at the heart of things. However, as E. J.
Kenney points out, the same Lucretius debunks the idea of the divinely sent
thunderbolt as a glorified balloon pop, showering its fearful rumblings
(perterricrepo sonitu) with a “douche of logical cold water”. An
unforgettable image of lovers yearning, straining and spilling out their
futile passions follows relentless satire on lisping pet names for their
sweethearts. The poem on “all things” is also a compendium of all stylistic
moods and registers, with an almost organic identity of its own: a shifting
amoeba living out its predicted cycles of growth, decay and rebirth. Where
does the abrupt and gloomy ending among the Athenian plague victims leave
us? Exposed, like trained Epicureans, to the finality of material things or
hopeful of yet another revival – honeybees rising from rotting corpses?

Where the Companion really takes off is in its exploration of Lucretius’
afterlife, in antiquity and beyond. A crumbling papyrus from Herculaneum
allows Dirk Obbink to meditate eloquently on our fragmented understanding of
Lucretius’ neo-Epicurean context. Yasmin Haskell reads him as the muse for
Girolamo Fracastoro’s Renaissance didactic poem on syphilis; Valentina
Prosperi, following Panofsky, sees him behind Piero di Cosimo’s haunting
“Forest Fire”. Lucretius seems to have been one of the less palatable Roman
writers, prompting, as Hardie observes, his own very “Lucretian” response:
attraction mixed with repulsion. His successors have tended to split between
uncovering “Anti-Lucretian” (that is, irrational) elements embedded in the
poem and adopting his distinctive voice to reject bleaker aspects of his
philosophy, especially the perceived atheism. The politically active have
enlisted him as a scourge of bigotry and ambition, but scolded and envied
him for opting out. He was a hero of the Enlightenment, especially when the
Lisbon earthquake of 1755 shook faith in providence and sent the philosophes
away to cultivate Epicurean gardens. Frederick the Great, as Reid Barbour
explains, carried Lucretius into imperial battles as a fortifying breviary,
but in repose humbly contemplated animal life as “an accident of nature,
like the dust thrown up by wheels”. Tennyson’s superb, mad “Lucretius”
(1869) transforms Jerome’s apocryphal tale of the lovesick, suicidal poet
into a Victorian fantasy about a soul torn between rationality and the
lingering pull of religion and sexual neurosis.

Scientists have also been ambivalent. James Thomson portrayed Newton as an
Epicurean pioneer: “He, first of men, with awful wing, pursued / The comet
through the long elliptic curve, / As round innumerous worlds he wound his
way”. It was a piquant moment in the history of Lucretian reception when
Einstein in 1924 wrote the preface to a German translation of De rerum
natura. But though Nobel laureates have paid lip service to the Epicureans’
intuitions in their acceptance speeches, modern atomism, with its
experimental basis, has left the ancient variety far behind. The discovery
of subatomic particles did prompt a Lucretian kind of aporia in Wassily
Kandinsky: “The collapse of the atomic model was equivalent, in my soul, to
the collapse of the whole world”. And twenty-first century Lucretius? Both
psychotherapist and depressive? Patron of recycling, organ transplants,
killer microbes and social disintegration?

How to make Lucretius live on and preserve Dryden’s “perpetual torrent” of
poetry? Penguin has replaced its old prose translation with the rhyming
verse of A. E. Stallings. The flow is consistent, an impressive feat in
itself. I looked at her treatment of a favourite passage from Book One,
where Lucretius illustrates the invisible evaporation of water particles
with an image of laundry left out to dry. In the Latin, corresponding words
– uvescunt (moisten), serescunt (dry), suspensae (hung), dispansae (spread),
in litore (on the shore), in sole (in the sun) – are pinned on either side
of eaedem (the same clothes): the transformation leaves the original altered
but intact. Stallings matches this with symmetrical alliteration: “Moreover,
clothing hung out by a breaker-beaten shore / Grows damp, but if you spread
it in the sun, it dries once more”. But what comes outis lost in the wash is
Lucretian intensitydiluted. Gone are the archaisms and the radiance that
beams off the page; in phrases like “distribute [rhyming with “root”] /
Nutrients”, the biblical strangeness goes too. This is Lucretius made
accessible, but the poet’s paradoxical defamiliarizing of the world and his
attempts at the places where words fail – in short, the Lucretian sublime –
have vanished. Contrast this with Tennyson’s voyager hurtling through space:

A void was made in Nature; all her bonds
Crack’d; and I saw the flaring atom-streams
And torrents of her myriad universe,
Ruining along the illimitable inane,
Fly on and crashto clash together again, and make
Another and another frame of things
For ever.

Far from being serene, Lucretius’ language is positively effortful in the face
of contingency and unknowability. His poem should sound like a frail but
tenacious survivor, composed of what Italo Calvino called the “impalpable,
powder-fine dust of words”.

Emily Gowers teaches Classics at St John’s College, Cambridge.


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