The Early Days of a Better Nation

Wednesday, March 07, 2012

Like some watcher of the skies

It seems to be in the nature of things that people discover Lucretius by sheer accident. Take this typical account:
'Started reading Lucretius, 'On the Nature of Things'. I'd got the book years ago but got bogged down somewhere around the refutation of Heraclitus. This time my interest and the power of the writing carry me over the drier patches without difficulty ...

Finished Lucretius. After it there is something dishonourable about being anything other than a materialist.'
Or this:
In his early teens he had read with delight the poem of Lucretius, in a tatty old paperback published by Sphere Books in 1969 with a Max Ernst picture on the cover. He'd found it in the attic of his parents's house [...] On the inside cover the pencilled words were just legible:

Here rolls
The large verse of Lucretius, who raised
His index-finger and did strike the face
Of fleeting Time, leaving a scar of thought
The rain of ages shall not wash away.

[...] It was an obscure thrill imparted by the lines that impelled him to turn over the pages of the book, and then to read it. He found a great deal in those pages that left imprints on his brain [...]
Actually, I've cheated: the first quote is from my own appallingly Molish diary from 1977, the second is from Intrusion, and I could as easily add a third, a circumstantially fictitious but emotionally accurate rendering of my own response:

For the first time in my life, I had heard good news. I drank that black gospel to the lees.

But this one (coincidentally referring to the very same edition) is genuine:
I had very little pocket money, but the bookstore would routinely sell its unwanted titles for ridiculously small sums. They were jumbled together in bins through which I would rummage until something caught my eye. On one of my forays, I was struck by an extremely odd paperback cover, a detail from a painting by the Surrealist Max Ernst. Under a crescent moon, high above the earth, two pairs of legs—the bodies were missing—were engaged in what appeared to be an act of celestial coition. The book, a prose translation of Lucretius’ two-thousand-year-old poem “On the Nature of Things” (“De Rerum Natura”), was marked down to ten cents, and I bought it as much for the cover as for the classical account of the material universe.

Ancient physics is not a particularly promising subject for vacation reading, but sometime over the summer I idly picked up the book. The Roman poet begins his work (in Martin Ferguson Smith’s careful rendering) with an ardent hymn to Venus [...] Startled by the intensity, I continued, past a prayer for peace, a tribute to the wisdom of the philosopher Epicurus, a resolute condemnation of superstitious fears, and into a lengthy exposition of philosophical first principles. I found the book thrilling.
This was the genesis of Stephen Greenblatt's The Swerve, an acclaimed new book on the consequences of the accidental rediscovery of the only surviving copy of Lucretius in medieval Italy.

As an accidental consequence of reading about that book, I stumbled upon a recent translation of Lucretius that I'd never heard of: a 2007 Penguin Classics edition, translated by the distinguished poet A. E. Stallings into rhyming fourteeners - a project that she herself says 'might seem crazy in modern times'. Naturally I bought and read it straight away.

What can I say? It works, and it's a delight.

There's a lot to be said for good prose translations - the lucid, much-loved and recently-revised Penguin Classic by Ronald Latham, the aforementioned careful rendering (also recently-revised) by Martin Ferguson Smith - and modern verse translations such as Rolfe Humphries' The Way Things Are or the dogged, plodding but sometimes soaring regular metre of Palmer Bovie's long out-of-print, poorly-published but well-received 1974 paperback.

But Stallings' quaint relentless drumbeat is in a class of its own, and is the only version anyone is ever likely to memorise and recite lines from. Her handling of the one line everybody knows, the line that Voltaire said would last as long as the world, is a touchstone:

So potent was Religion in persuading to do wrong.

The rhyme-scheme and metre are the same as those Chapman used for his Homer. Some day, perhaps centuries hence, another poet will write 'On First Looking Into Stallings' Lucretius'.

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Loving this love letter to Lucretius Just stay away from any love-philtres, would ya Ken?:)
In all seriousness, one of the best reasons I have for loving Lucretius (and his master Epicurius)is that they are evidence that atheism and materialist thought have a long pedigree and great antiquity. This matters to me more than it probably should, being of a naturally conservative temperament (forgive me, I'm a recovering Chesterton fan). It's also been a great comeback to those who belittle materialist thought as merely modern, fashionable and shallow thought...with the implication that such mayfly philosophy can't last.
"On the contrary!" I would thunder back: the teachings of Epicurius were found in the dark gothic cloisters of a ruined medieval Italian monastery, in the columned stoa of an abandoned Graeco-Roman city in Asia Minor (the inscription of Diogenes of Oenoanda), hidden away in the secret archives of the Vatican (the manuscript of Epicurius' letters in the Vatican Library), even in the carbonised scrolls of a library in a villa in an Ancient Roman town buried in volcanic lava two thousand years ago (The Epicurean treatises in the Villa of the Papyri in Herculanium)! Materialism does seem to have some staying power, no?

Yeah. I'll probably have more to say soon, because my reserved copy of The Swerve has just arrived at the local library.

One thing I want to write more about is how even when Lucretius is wrong we can see why he's wrong. And we know what he's talking about, whereas when we look into, say, Aristotle's Metaphysics the problem is understanding what he thought was a problem. Form? Essence? Substance? What?

(Yes, I do realise this is my failing, not Aristotle's.)

This seems to be a common problem with studies in the "mainstream" Platonic and idealist philosophy in the West. Aristotle is probably one of the easier examples-part of the issue is that the "books" we ended up with are really compressed lecture notes meant for advanced classes at the Lyceum. Ancient critics spoke highly of the now lost literary dialogues Aristotle wrote, in imitation of Plato, testifying to their clearness and comprehensibility. At any rate, I have a similar response to the idealist philosophers of the North German School: faced with a dense passage from Schopenhauer's "World as Will and Idea", Kant's "Critique" or Hegel's "Phenomenology" (with apologies to Marx), I can only helplessly respond "MY BRAIN HURTS!!!"
However, when I read Schopenhauer's Essays, Kant's "What is Enlightenment?" or Hegel's "Introductory Lectures on Aesthetics", I've found the same authors clear, interesting and fruitful. Joseph McCabe pointed out that theologians and idealist philosophers often confuse the idealist metaphysical categories and constructions they build in their own thoughts with elements of actually existing reality, giving rise to all sorts of self-created 'problems'(BTW thanks Ken, for mentioning McCabe favorably in the blog and getting me interested in his writing).

Great to har that I got you interested in Joseph McCabe! A remarkable man and a great populariser of all kinds of knowledge.

I take your point about difficulty, but Plato is clear enough, it's what he saw as a problem that's harder to get one's head around.

How much has been lost is also a good point. Our picture of the ancient Greek and Roman world must be full of gaps and misconceptions as a result. Speaking of which, what the heck was Lucretius thinking of when he wrote of lead bullets that melt in flight? We know the Romans used lead bullets as ammunition for hand-held catapults, so maybe he saw some that had splattered on a wall or whatever and assumed they had melted.

-The only version anyone will quote from? Setting aside the first complete Eglish translation, done by Lucy Hutchinson in the 1650s (and left unpublished until 1996, partly the implications of Lucretius's text, but also because she was a Republican and a signatory to the death-warrant of Charles I), there's Basil Bunting's 'Overdraft' version of the opening:

Darling of Gods and Men, beneath the gliding stars
you fill rich earth and buoyant sea with your presence
for every living thing achieves its life through you,
rises and sees the sun. For you the sky is clear,
the tempests still. Deft earth scatters her gentle flowers,
the level ocean laughs, the softened heavens glow
with generous light for you. In the first days of spring
when the untrammelled all renewing southwind blows
the birds exult in you and herald your coming.
Then the shy cattle leap and swim the brooks for love.
Everywhere, through all seas, mountains and waterfalls,
love caresses all hearts and kindles all creatures
to overmastering lust and ordained renewals.
Therefore, since you alone control the sum of things
and nothing without you comes forth into the light
and nothing beautiful or glorious can be
without you, Alma Venus! Trim my poetry
with your grace: and give peace to write and read and think.

- - - - -

Harry Gilonis

That's wonderful.

I didn't mean to disparage other translations, quite the opposite. But I do think verses of Stallings' are more likely to be memorised, if anyone again does such a quaint thing as memorise.

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