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89: DISCOVERING THE NATURE OF THINGS

May 25, 2014

#89:  DISCOVERING THE NATURE OF THINGS.  I once entertained the idea of putting together a mock bookseller’s catalogue consisting entirely of supposed new recoveries from the Atlantis of lost literature: new-found manuscripts of poems by Sappho or Callimachus, for instance, or the rest of Aeschylus’s lost play Achilles; Cicero’s Consolatio, written for himself after his daughter’s death; a complete version of the Satyricon (at last); a good quarto text of Shakespeare’s Love’s Labor’s Won or some of the works of Blake that that idiot Tatham burned after Blake’s death; a manuscript of Rimbaud’s “Chasse Spirituelle” from some schoolmate’s trunk in Charleville, or the concluding chapters of Edwin Drood.  Every serious reader has his dream of “If only”: the putative lost last chapter of Genji, or the correspondence of Rimbaud and Verlaine; the lost chapters of Shen Fu’s Six Records of a Floating Life or a few of those poems Li Po dropped in the river; the manuscript of Dorothy Wordsworth’s Alfoxden Journal that was lost, or the manuscript of Satyajit Ray’s memoir of working on the Apu Trilogy, that was stolen from his hospital room just before his death.  Everyone has their own idea of Christmas.

       This dream of lost books is what animates the humanist fifteenth century that’s the setting of Stephen Greenblatt’s book The Swerve:  How the World Became Modern (Norton, 2011).  Greenblatt’s subject is Poggio Braccilioni, onetime papal secretary to John XXIII, master calligrapher, and, as we meet him, traveler to various European monasteries in hopes of uncovering important and unrecorded manuscripts.  After many minor successes he hit the absolute jackpot:  a virtually complete manuscript, the only one then known, of Lucretius’s De Rerum Natura, “On the Nature of Things,” one of the fabled lost masterpieces of Roman literature.  Greenblatt (who wrote the splendid Will in the World, about Shakespeare) evokes the rawness of that world, the weariness of long travel and the rank stink of papal politics as well as the adoring bibliolatry of the time, and traces how the influence of Lucretius helped propel the work of the Renaissance philosophers, poets and playwrights, to reach all the way forward to its echo in the political writings of Thomas Jefferson, who owned eight copies of it.

      As the divorce between the sciences and the humanities—C. P. Snow’s “two cultures”—continues into our time, it’s difficult to imagine a poem like Lucretius’s ever being written again.  In six books drawing on the thought of Epicurus (whose works were lost) and through him on Democritus, Lucretius proposed an atomic model of the world two millennia before any proof of it was available.  His universe is of a boundless, ramping energy; the swerve of Greenblatt’s title (in Latin, clinamen) is the unpredictable atomic motion that opened the doors for a theory of free will.  This is a meagre nutshell of Lucretius’s science; behind it was his mission to set humanity free of its craven fear of the gods and their displeasure, its terror of posthumous judgment and punishment.  There are no gods in Lucretius’s world, but natural laws; in his poem we find the fascinated stare of the scientist and the vivid image, the varied hexameters, and the delight of the poet in the natural world—its growth, its decay, its overwhelming eroticism.                                             

      Lucretius has survived mediocre translation—Martin Ferguson Smith’s prose version was Greenblatt’s first reading, William Ellery Leonard’s in pentameter verse was mine—as well as translation by famous hands:  Moliere (now lost), John Evelyn, John Dryden.  But we are blessed to have David Slavitt’s sonorous and inspired new hexameter version:  De Rerum Natura: The Nature of Things, done by University of California in 2008.  “The difference, I hope, is that between talking and singing,” Slavitt says, and his version sings with a restrained richness of idiom and rhythm.  It allows us to read Lucretius’s work not as a versified science lesson but as a true poem, and in his translation we hear, once again, poet meeting poet, and a masterwork rescued still again from the forgetting centuries.

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