Monday, December 12, 2011

That sweet artificer, the earth

Back in September I took note here of Stephen Greenblatt's new book, The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, which recounts how Renaissance Europe became acquainted with Lucretius' 1st-century BCE poem De Rerum Nature, often translated The Way Things Are. I haven't read Greenblatt's book yet, mainly because it hasn't appeared on the new book shelf of the college library. But blogging about Lucretius caused me to dig out my copy of Rolfe Humphries' translation of De Rerum Natura and it's been by my bedside ever since.

Lucretius begins with a wonderful paean to nature:
Dear Venus, joy of earth and joy of heaven,
All things that live below that heraldry
Of star and planet, whose processional
Moves ever slow and solemn over us,
All things conceived, all things that face the light
In their bright visit, the grain-bearing fields,
The marinered oceans, where the wind and cloud
Are quiet in your presence -- all proclaim
Your gift, without which they are nothingness.
For you that sweet artificer, the earth,
Submits her flowers, and for you the deep
Of ocean smiles, and the calm heaven shines
With shoreless light…
A prayer of thanks to the gods, Venus in particular? Oh dear, no. The poem takes pains to dismiss the actions of the gods in the affairs of humans, or indeed in the world at all. Lucretius is a fervent Epicurean materialist. Whatever exists is the result of eternal atoms moving in the void. His address to Venus is metaphorical only.

One is reminded a bit of the opening passages of Wordsworth's The Prelude, but again the likeness is deceptive. Whereas Wordsworth is out to exalt imagination, Lucretius is the unwavering champion of reason. It is reason that breaks down the fiery walls of superstition and sets us free from fear of the gods.

If the book begins with a Wordsworthian hymn to all in nature that is beautiful and good, it ends on a note that would be anathema to the English bard -- a chilling description of the horrors of the plague that afflicted Athens during the Peloponnesian War. I doubt if a more graphic and terrifying description of disease has ever been written. Men, women, children, rich and poor, brought low with reeking sores and anguished thirst.
               …All along the streets,
In all the squares, you'd find the bodies, caked
With their own filth, rag-covered, or with skin
The only drapery across their bones
And that almost invisible under the crust
Of sores and ulcers. Even the shrines of the gods
Were charnel houses, and cadavers lay
Where guides had once conducted visitors.
The gods were paid no worship -- no one thought
Their presence worth a straw…
Has the problem of theodicy ever been more poignantly laid bare?

There are no great heroes or heroines in Lucretius' poem, no passionate love affairs, no epic battles with clashing swords, nothing to appeal to the romantic imagination. No one will make a movie of De Rerum Natura. Lucretius is the Homer of cold reason, a poet who is not willing to embellish the world with comforting phantasms of his own invention.

(Tomorrow, a few words on that other Roman poet, of another stripe, who, given my druthers, I would rather curl up with and read -- Ovid.)