Apr/May 2009

Our Better Nature

A new verse translation of Lucretius's De rerum natura elegantly counters the superstitions of this modern age.

Paul Grimstad


At a moment in history when God is said to participate in world politics, the pungent ode to nature De rerum natura, composed by the Roman poet Titus Lucretius Carus, can provide a dose of sanity. What the atomist Epicurus called ataraxia—the tranquility of mind achieved when one is freed from the fear of occult controllers—Lucretius transformed into a prophetic materialism. His lyric treatise, published in the first century bce, predicts everything from atomic physics to the existence of DNA and casts it all in melodious hexameters.

Unlike the many prose versions of De rerum natura, David Slavitt's new translation (University of California Press, $15) gives us six-beat English versions of the Latin original. Here's how he renders the passage in which Lucretius acknowledges his debt to Epicurus:

It was long the case that men would grovel
upon the earth,
crushed beneath the weight of Superstition
whose head
loomed in the heavens, glaring down with her
dreadful visage
until Epicurus of Greece dared to look up and
confront her,
taking a stand against the fables and myths of
the gods . . .

Two sets of triple accents balance out the English lines—the first foot an anapest with the accent falling on "long" followed by two iambs with accents on "case" and "men," the second set falling on "grov- ," "-on," and "earth"while the syntax of the Latin (always artful and deliberate in Lucretius) has been cunningly rearranged. But as Slavitt explains in a brief preface, his lines are "slower"; you can hear how the sixteen syllables of the first line—"Humana ante oculos foede cum vita iaceret"—flit in quick succession, while the Saxon-based beats take heavy steps. It's a hypnotic effect, and the English hexameter (practiced in different ways by everybody from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow to Gerard Manley Hopkins) gives off its own weird music.

A crucial moment in the poem's argument is Lucretius's rejection of Anaxagoras's physics. Anaxagoras thinks that since fire can be seen shooting out of logs, the logs themselves must contain fire. It's an ideal example for Lucretius, allowing him to make his point about atoms. Rather than holding the view that logs contain fire and smoke, he thinks that all of it—logs and fire and smoke—is built up from constituent particles. Lucretius elaborates the idea through an analogy: Think of atoms and their compounds, he says, as the building up of different words from the rearrangement of the same letters. The challenge for the translator comes when Lucretius cashes out the wood-fire-letters analogy in the form of the near identity between the words ignis (fire) and lignis (wood). Different translators have handled this moment differently: Cyril Bailey's 1947 edition abandons any pretense of coming up with an English equivalent, simply giving "beams or flames"; W. H. D. Rouse's 1924 Loeb edition hits on "fires and firs" as an approximation; and José Kany-Turpin's 1993 French translation keeps close with the cognates igné and ligneux. Slavitt, though, borrows the French solution—simply quoting ignis and lignis in the first mention of the fire and the wood—and then switches to Rouse's fire and fir:

Just as the letters that make the words can
change—from fir
to fire—the things they name can also change
and be changed.
What it comes down to is this: if you think
that whatever you see
in the visible world cannot come into being
without
some earlier form of similar nature, then it
must follow
that the laughter this argument ought to
engender will shake you with great
side-splitting guffaws until, all but helpless,
you find
salt tears running down your cheeks and
wetting your face.

The passage is typical of both Lucretius's sense of overstatement and Slavitt's inventive, sometimes slangy translation. The enjambed jump "from fir / to fire" conveys the change of state described in the clause, while the larger development from what Lucretius takes to be a bad philosophical argument to "salt tears" marks a second change of state —from a simple rearrangement of letters to liquid spilling from a listener's eyes.

It is important to remember that Lucretius is striving to convince an interlocutor, Memmius, of the truth of Epicurian philosophy. Poetry is thus closely wedded to argument in De rerum natura, since the harsh wisdom of Epicurianism—that the soul dies with the body—needs to be mixed with something sweet if it's going to go down. In a well-known analogy, Lucretius compares his rhetorical strategy to spreading honey ("mellis dulci flavoque liquore") around the rim of a glass of bitter medicine ("taetra absinthi"). The idea is to free the mind from superstition without coercion, as if the music of poetry alone were enough to dissolve the bonds of mental servitude. Lucretius sums up the process in a line: "Religionum animum nodis exsolvere pergo. Rouse gives us "loose the mind from the close knots of superstition," while Bailey offers "hasten to free the mind from the close bondage of religion." And A. E. Stallings's recent Penguin edition reads, "unknot the mind from the tight strictures of religion." But in rendering the line as "loosen the ligatures of religion," Slavitt zooms in on the knot or nodal point ("nodis") at the center of "religion," making a direct link between "ligature" and "religio. In showing Lucretius to be disentangling the sinews of superstition, he uncovers the way the poem makes a false unity intelligible as a loose collection of threads.

In his preface, Slavitt says he hopes the difference between prose versions and his verse rendering is the difference "between talking and singing." Bailey's edition (which Slavitt uses as a contrasting example) takes up three huge tomes, the first a facing translation, the other two an exhaustive commentary tracking Lucretius's allusions back to the original Greek. Slavitt is noting not simply that some of the music gets lost in prose but also that he's offering a true reader's edition that can be enjoyed in Epicurean fashion and without the need to master voluminous commentaries. (But if that's what you're after, Bailey is the place to go.)

Since we seem to be in the midst of an Enlightenment-like debate in which (more or less nuanced) scientific naturalisms are pitted against (more or less nuanced) theisms, a return to Lucretian materialism is appropriate. The poet—who was by no means a simple atheist, but rather a hater of doxa—has long factored into literary and philosophical considerations of these issues, beginning (after the Renaissance rediscovery of Lucretian ideas) with John Dryden's partial translation into heroic couplets. Dryden renders the liberating truth of Epicureanism like this:

So, when our mortal frame shall be disjoin'd,
The lifeless lump uncoupled from the mind,
From sense of grief and pain we shall be free;
We shall not feel, because we shall not be.

These splendid lines may not allow the truth of atomism to go down easy, but this version nevertheless served as a jumping-off point for a series of engagements with the philosophy of materialism for the next couple hundred years. Alfred Tennyson's retelling of the (probably apocryphal) story of Lucretius's succumbing to madness after downing a love philter that "confus'd the chemic labor of the blood," producing in him not sexual reignition but something like an acid trip, describes the poet seeing "flaring atom-streams / And torrents of [the] myriad universe / Ruining along the illimitable inane" (not to mention flames shooting from Helen's breasts). Walt Whitman's nod to earthly loafing in the opening lines of "Song of Myself""every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you"—is self-consciously Lucretian, while Henri Bergson's partial translation of and commentary on De rerum natura anticipates much of the materialist metaphysics of his classic Matter and Memory. And Lucretius was of course the subject of the opening chapter of George Santayana's unlikely best seller Three Philosophical Poets. Santayana praises there the "strange vehemence, and [the] high melancholy," of Lucretius's song to nature. In Slavitt's fresh, musical rendering, that strange vehemence can be heard and felt in every line.

Paul Grimstad is an assistant professor of English at Yale University.

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