The swerve of verse: Lucretius' 'Of Things' Nature' and the necessity of poetic form

The de-versification of Lucretius -- treating it as prose -- is an unintended theme of the most famous contemporary account of Of Things' Nature, Stephen Greenblatt's The Swerve: How the World Became Modern (2011). Greenblatt begins The Swerve with an account of his youthful discovery of Lucretius through Martin Ferguson Smith's excellent prose translation. Greenblatt pretty much sticks to citing this prose version throughout his book, despite his nod to Dryden as the best for conveying Lucretius's "ardor" and also noting that he consulted all the translations. 

 Greenblatt provides several pages of lucid, useful, and judicious summary of Lucretius's doctrines in Of Things' Nature (Smith's edition also provides a helpful and detailed outline of each book of the poem).  Of course, I swerve from Greenblatt's basic orientation in his book. The Swerve is principally an engrossing yarn about the discovery of the manuscript of Lucretius’s poem by Poggio Bracciolini in the 15th century. Greenblatt's précis is a text-book case of the heresy of paraphrase -- a heresy, if that is what it is, that pervades the book and its appreciation of Lucretius for his "dangerous" ideas –– ideas that appeal to Greenblatt as much as they do to me for their apparently proto-secular humanism (or proto-materialism).

 I first got hooked on Lucretius in 1971 with The Doors' song, "Atoms in the Void":

Into this world we're thrown
Like a dog without a bone  

 Apart from Greenblatt's swooning appreciation of the beauty of the poem, he does not address why it's a poem or the uses Lucretius makes of poetic form.

 In a review of the superb Ronald Melville translation of Lucretius's De Rerum Natura (I offer here a new translation of the title: Of Things' Nature), Richard Jenkyns gives an explanation of why this work was written in verse. (He repeats this explanation in his introduction to Alicia Stalling's 2007 translation.)

Why was philosophy of such quality, presented in such magnificent dress, so entirely neglected as philosophy? The obvious answer seems to be: because it was written in verse. ... In the Rome of the first century BC serious philosophy in verse, if not quite as bizarre as it would be now, was none the less markedly eccentric. Back in fifth-century Greece, four hundred years before Lucretius, it was still possible to compose philosophy in verse. ... But by the end of that century it had become clear that prose was the natural medium for history, philosophy and science. ... In one respect this was a philosophy which lent itself especially well to verse treatment: because of its immersion in the physical reality perceived by our senses, it enabled Lucretius to celebrate both the immensity of the universe ... and the curious detail of the world. ... Yet to many of his contemporaries, Epicureanism must have given the impression of a peculiarly unpoetic doctrine: the pursuit of pleasure ... might seem to lack nobility, while Epicurus’ remorseless materialism appeared to suck all the magic, mystery and numinousness out of the world. Lucretius counters this by presenting Epicureanism as a poetic faith. ...The doctrine is materialist, but Lucretius’ colouring is religious. ... You cannot command someone into a feeling. ... Lucretius can no more order me to feel myself kin to all nature than he can order me to fall in love with Miss Jones. Instead, he must coax and seduce. His purpose is to recast Epicureanism to show that it can be apprehended religiously and poetically; and the only way to do that was to write a poetic masterpiece. ... The medium really is the message.  [Emphasis mine.] 

Of Things' Nature was written in the first century B.C.E., at the time of Cicero, the greatest advocate (and teacher) of oratorical/rhetorical prose. If the point was to "coax and seduce" readers to accept the truth of Epicurus's and Demosthenes's views, then why not follow Cicero's approach to eloquence and persuasion? For Jenkyns, the reason is that Lucretius's doctrine requires something like religious conversion rather than persuasion by argument. You might persuade someone that a political leader is corrupt but to "coax and seduce" a reader to accept a new (and aversive) cosmology requires nothing short of poetry. But the problem with this account of the necessity for verse in Of Things's Nature is that Lucretius advocated a turning away from religious superstition and seduction and toward reason.

Lucretius's own explanation for choosing verse is that it is the spoonful of sugar that makes the truth of the real go down:

For as with children, when the doctors try
To give them loathsome wormwood, first they smear
Sweet yellow honey on the goblet’s rim,
That childhood all unheeding may be deceived
At the lip’s edge, and so drink up the juice
Of bitter medicine, tricked but not betrayed,
And by such means gain health and strength again,
So now do I: for oft my doctrine seems
Distasteful to those that have not sampled it
And most shrink back from it. My purpose is
With the sweet voices of Pierian song
To expound my doctrine, and as it were to touch it
With the delicious honey of the Muses;
So in this way perchance my poetry
Can hold your mind, while you attempt to grasp
The great design and pattern of its making.  (1:935-40 and 2:11-15, tr. Melville) 

Does this mean that reason is less palatable than superstition? For the modern “humanist” sensibility, prose is more palatable than poetry. Greenblatt, wanting to persuade and cojole us about the importance of Lucretius, necessarily writes his account in prose. A contemporary verse work with Lucretius's purpose and scope would be rejected in today's poetry climate, which prizes poems of personal experience above all else, just as it would be rejected in today's scientific climate, which insists on its own version of empirical prose explanation. Indeed, one of the sentimental appeals of poetry in our time is that it is free of science (and knowledge not earned by personal experience), just the sentimental appeal of science is that is free both of bias and of the jargon of sweetening. Does Lucretius offer a bait and switch: my songs can be as sweet as your myths –– but no bull? Can truth ever be beautiful as superstition? Does truth need to put on luring make-up just to get noticed at the party? Does reason rim us with perverse pleasure? Or is Lurcetius just tipping us off to how it works?  

I propose a radical swerve from Greenblatt’s and Jenkyns’s view. The verse in Of Things’s Nature is there to ensnare, to pull readers into an aesthetic/conceptual experience that cannot be put into prose. It goes beyond the resources of prose in making palpable its (initially) counter-intuitive philosophy, which contests the naturalizing assumptions of superstition and religion. The appeal of the Latin poets in first century B.C.E. ––  Lucretius, Virgil, Catullus -- is their powerful, uncanny frankness, an appeal that remains fresh. For Epicurians, religion is the poison cup rimmed with honey that dispels fear of death at the cost of the appreciation of life as it is. Of Things’s Nature dispels not fear but unnecessary fears, and that is a bitter bill to swallow. The virtue of its verse is that it embodies reason, directing, in rime, your eyes on thing’s nature?

So my questions are – what is it about the poem that is changed by its form? -- or is the form just cosmetic? -- a spoonful of poetry makes the medicine go down. Is the medicine (the doctrine) affected by the verse or is just a neutral candy-coating?

Reason without poetry is like the body without a soul. Verse is the clinamen in action.


Round, angular, soft, brittle, dry, cold, warm,
Things are their qualities: things are their form
And these in combination, even as bees,
Not singly but combined, make up the swarm
—Lucretius, tr. William Mallock  (1900)

 Prose suggests unambiguous
doctrine or
description. Verse 
allows for an 
of in-
determinacy. Verse
is swerve. 
Verse echoes 
Lucretius's cosmology. 
Prose's faster. 

Jane McIntosh Snyder’s Puns and Poetry in Lucrtius’s De Rerum Natura (1980) offers concrete example of how this works. Lucretius’s incessant punning (paronomasia) and figura etymologica (words in a passage that share the same etymology but have different meanings) make sensuous the conceptually challenging view of world-making in Of Things’ Nature. The world play is metonymic of Lucretius's cosmology, fomenting constant etymological and linguistic collisions that engender new meanings.

Think of translations of Lucretius as offering a set of commentaries on his poem. A couple of lines in Book V (lines 735 and 736, below) help to make that point. These lines are difficult to translate for a reason that goes to the heart of what the poem is doing (swerving not saying).  The subject of the passage from Book V can be read as the problem of translating a non-sensuous view of reality into words. A central problem for Lucretius was how to articulate a view of the world that is aversive to (that swerves from) what is visible, that seems to push against what intuitively seems to be the case. This is the Lucretian imperative.

 Lucretius confronts a problem that scientists and mathematicians have faced from well before his time to the present: that their findings seem implausible or counter-intuitive. The world feels flat, waves and particles are irreconcilable, atoms colliding in space could not produce the world as we know it. Let's put it this way: You can't put into believable descriptive prose E=MC2, much less algebra or calculus or, well, non-Euclidean geometry or, as here's the rub, evolution, Mr. Darwin's dangerous theory (or for that matter Mr. Marx's or Mr. Spinoza's).  Once you go beyond the visible reality of "ratio" -- as Blake so powerfully notes in his visionary physics (to use Donald Ault's phrase), all prose bets are off.  The alternative to "ratio" and to the direct evidence of the senses is not irrationalism or religion or superstition -- but reason. And reason is neither visible nor consistent.

 I include here two new translations by Richard Tuttle. In 2014, Tuttle and I collaborated on "Echologs," after the poetry match in Virgil’s Eclogs, III (to be published in Fulcrum #8, forthcoming). Tuttle's gleanings are possible because Of Things' Nature is poetry not doctrine. His versions locate precisely Lucretius's poetics.  

Book V: 735/736 
difficilest ratione docere et vincere verbis,
ordine cum videas tam certo multa creari.

root words
difficilest  ratione  docere  et    vincere   verbis,

difficult    rational  teach   and  conquer  words
ordine cum videas tam certo   multa  creari.
order   with  see     so   certain much  created

difficult to teach rationally and subdue words 
seeing so certain an order in so much created

Literal / Tim Chandler (2015)
It is difficult to teach with reason and prevail with words
when you see many things to be created with so certain an order

Richard Tuttle (2015)
It is difficult to accept words can
describe what can repeat itself
but cannot describe what cannot

John Selby Watson (1851)
Further, when you see so many things produced in a certain order, it is difficult to demonstrate by reason, and to evince by argument, why a new moon may not be generated every day ...

John Mason Good (1851)
Both words and reasoning arduous find alike, 
Since things throughout in order flow precise.

H.A.J. Munro (1866/1891)
it is not easy to teach by reasoning or prove by words, since so many things can be born in such a regular succession.

William Ellery Leonard (1916) (line order reversed)
Can be create with fixed successions:
To prove absurd – since, lo, so many things'
Tis hard to show by reason, or by words

W.D. Ross (1924)
... it is difficult to explain by reasoning and to prove in words, seeing that one sees many things produced in so fixed an order.

Martin Ferguson Smith (1969)
Lastly, it is difficult to give any convincing reason why a new moon should not be created every day, with a fixed succession of phases and forms, each new-created moon being extinguished each day and replaced by another: one sees many things created in so fixed an order.  

Ronald Melville (1997)
That is difficult to explain by reasoning
And prove by words, seeing that many things 
Are created in so fixed and sure an order.

Alicia Stallings (2007)
You’d have your work cut out for you to prove it can’t be so,
When so many other things arise in order, as you know:


quo minus est mirum se certo tempore luna
gignitur et certo deletur tempore rursus,
cum fieri possint tam certo tempore multa 

Smith (1969)
Seeing that many things can occur at so fixed a time, it is not surprising if the moon is created at a fixed time and again at a fixed time is destroyed.

Melville (1997)
No marvel then, if at fixed times the moon
Is born and at fixed times again destroyed,
Seeing that in this world so many things
Come into being at so fixed a time

Tuttle (2015)
How great to see uncertainty
when everything else is fixed!


720 versarique potest, globus ut, si forte, pilai
dimidia ex parti candenti lumine tinctus,
versandoque globum variantis edere formas,
donique eam partem, quae cumque est ignibus aucta,
ad speciem vertit nobis oculosque patentis;
725 inde minutatim retro contorquet et aufert
luciferam partem glomeraminis atque pilai;
ut Babylonica Chaldaeum doctrina refutans
astrologorum artem contra convincere tendit,
proinde quasi id fieri nequeat quod pugnat uterque
730 aut minus hoc illo sit cur amplectier ausis.
denique cur nequeat semper nova luna creari
ordine formarum certo certisque figuris
inque dies privos aborisci quaeque creata
atque alia illius reparari in parte locoque,
735 difficilest ratione docere et vincere verbis,
ordine cum videas tam certo multa creari.
it Ver et Venus et Veneris praenuntius ante
pennatus graditur, Zephyri vestigia propter
Flora quibus mater praespargens ante viai
740 cuncta coloribus egregiis et odoribus opplet.
inde loci sequitur Calor aridus et comes una
pulverulenta Ceres et etesia flabra aquilonum.
inde Autumnus adit, graditur simul Euhius Euan.

John Selby Watson (1851)
And the moon may possibly revolve upon her axis, like a ball3 tinged with shining light only on one side, and may, by turning her orb, present to us her various phases. Thus, progressively, she turns that part which is illuminated, so as to behold us with full aspect and open eye ;4 then, by degrees, she turns away and removes from us the brilliant side of her orb;5 as, indeed, the Babylonish doctrine of the Chaldasans taught, which, refuting the method of the Greek astrologers, labours to support this hypothesis in opposition to it; just as if that, for which each contends, might not be true, or as if there were any reason why you should choose to embrace one opinion less than the other.  

Further, when you see so many things produced in a certain order, it is difficult to demonstrate by reason, and to evince by argument, why a new moon may not be generated every day, with a certain succession of phases and figures, and each moon, as it diurnally arises, diurnally decay, and another be reproduced in its place and station.

H. A. J. Monro (1866)
She may also revolve, like it may be to a spherical ball steeped over one half in shining light, and as she rolls round this sphere she may present changing phases, until she has turned that half which is illu minated full towards our sight and open eyes; then by slow steps she whirls back and withdraws the light-fraught half of the spherical ball; as the Babylonian science of the Chaldees refuting the system of the astronomers essays to prove in op position to them; just as though that which each party fights for might not be equally true, or there were any reason why you should venture to embrace the one theory less than the other. 'Again, why a new moon should not be born every day after a regular succession of forms and regular phases, and each day the one which is born perish and another be produced in its room and stead, it is not easy to teach by reasoning or prove by words, since so many things can be born in such a regular succession. Spring and Venus go their way, and spring's har binger winged zephyr steps on before; and along the path they tread mother Flora straws all the way before them and covers it over with the choicest colours and odours.

Loeb / William Ellory Leonard (1916):
722 Again, she may revolve upon herself,
Like to a ball's sphere - if perchance that be -
One half of her dyed o'er with glowing light,
725 And by the revolution of that sphere
She may beget for us her varying shapes,
Until she turns that fiery part of her
Full to the sight and open eyes of men;
Thence by slow stages round and back she whirls,
Withdrawing thus the luminiferous part
Of her sphered mass and ball, as, verily,
730 The Babylonian doctrine of Chaldees,
Refuting the art of Greek astrologers,
Labours, in opposition, to prove sure -
As if, forsooth, the thing for which each fights,
Might not alike be true, - or aught there were
Wherefore thou mightest risk embracing one
735 More than the other notion. Then, again,
Why a new moon might not forevermore
Created be with fixed successions there
Of shapes and with configurations fixed,
And why each day that bright created moon
Might not miscarry and another be,
740 In its stead and place, engendered anew,
'Tis hard to show by reason, or by words
To prove absurd – since, lo, so many things
Can be create with fixed successions:
Spring-time and Venus come, and Venus' boy,
The winged harbinger, steps on before,
745 And hard on Zephyr's foot-prints Mother Flora,
Sprinkling the ways before them, filleth all
With colours and with odours excellent;

W.D. Ross (1924) (revised M.F. Smith) 
[715] It is also possible that she may revolve in light or with her own light, obscured by the passing of a satellite, of her own, and yet offer various phases of brightness; for there may be another moving body which glides along with her, obstructing and hampering her in all sorts of ways, yet is not visible because it moves without light. Possibly she may revolve like a roundor having a light half and a dark half which face us as she revolves; ball it may be, one half of which is bathed in bright light, and by turning her globe may display the various phases, until that part which is endowed with fire is turned to our sight and open eyes; then by small degrees she turns this behind and takes away the light-bringing part of the spherical ball; which the Babylonish doctrine of the Chaldeans tries to prove as against the science of the astronomers which it refutes; as if that for which each fights might not be true, or as if there were any reason why you should venture to embrace this rather than that.
[731] Lastly, why a new moon should not be always or fresh moons may be made daily, in succession, created with a fixed succession of phases in fixed shapes, why every single day the one which has been made should not vanish and another be restored in its place and station, it is difficult to explain by reasoning and to prove in words, seeing that one sees many things produced in so fixed an order. On come Spring and Venus, and Venus’ winged harbinger marching before, with Zephyr and mother Flora a pace behind him strewing the whole path in front and filling it with brilliant colours and scents.

Martin Ferguson Smith (1969)
It is also possible that as she [the moon] revolves she may shine with her own light and present various phases of brightness. For she may be accompanied by another body, which glides along with her, continually occulting and obstructing her, but which is invisible because it moves devoid of light; [720] or she may possibly rotate like a ball, one half of whose surface is tinged with gleaming light, and by rotating her sphere present her various phases, until she turns to our wakeful eyes the half that is illuminated before gradually twisting back and withdrawing the luminous part of her sphere. This is the theory that the Babylonian teaching of the Chaldaeans attempts to prove in opposition to the hypothesis of the Greek astronomers –– [730] as though the view championed by either party might not be correct, or as though there were any reason why you should venture to embrace the one opinion less than the other. Lastly, it is difficult to give any convincing reason why a new moon should not be created every day, with a fixed succession of phases and forms, each new-created moon being extinguished each day and replaced by another: one sees many things created in so fixed an order. Spring comes and Venus, preceded by Venus' winged harbinger, and mother Flora, following hard on the heels of Zephyr, prepares the way for them, strewing all their path with a profusion of exquisite hues and scents. [740]  

Ronald Melville (1997)
Then gradually as it turns it bears away    725
The luminous surface of its rounded globe.
This do the Babylonian Chaldees
 Maintain, refuting the astronomers,
 And trying to prove their art is all in vain.
 As if each of these contentions might not be true,
 Or there were any reason why you should dare
 To embrace one of them rather than another   730
 Lastly, why should not a new moon every day
 Be created, with fixed phases and fixed shapes,
 And every single day the new creation
 Perish, and a new one take its place?
That is difficult to explain by reasoning
 And prove by words, seeing that many things    735
 Are created in so fixed and sure an order.
 Spring comes, and Venus, and Venus’ harbinger
 Winged Cupid runs in front, in Zephyr’s steps,
 And mother Flora strews the path before them
 With choicest scents and colours everywhere  740

Alicia Stallings (2007):
720 Another possibility: she turns round like a ball,
Only one half of which has been dipped in a radiant glow,
And it is by revolving that the different phases show,
Until the hemisphere that is endowed with a fiery blaze
Is turned towards our open eyes and fully meets our gaze.
And then she turns this face behind, removing from our sight
Little by little the surface of the ball that gives off light,
730 Or so the teaching of the Babylonians avers,
Seeking to disprove the science of astronomers.
(As if the champions of both theories did not have their case,
Or there were any reason one should hazard to embrace
One theory over the other!) Indeed why couldn’t it be true
That each of the lunar phases is a fresh moon fashioned new,
And that each new-created moon then disappears each day,
And another’s formed to take the place of one which passed away?
You’d have your work cut out for you to prove it can’t be so,
When so many other things arise in order, as you know:
Spring and Venus come, and wingèd Cupid leads the way,
And Mother Flora, in Zephyr’s footsteps, scatters a bouquet
Of blossoms coloured bright to catch the eye, and smelling sweet,
740 Carpeting the path that stretches out before their feet.

Web of translations

Of the translations: I prefer Smith's prose to Alicia Stallings's verse, which is too cute and cloying; but I also love the Mallock adaption, which creates a kind of self-help or wisdom verse modeled on Fitzgerald's Rubaiyat.  I like Melville best.

Perseus: bilingual; toggle top English on upper right for William Elory Leonard tr.; links to English translations
Leonard/Guttenberg (1916)
William Mallock's 1900 adaption (note opening here is beg. of book 2)
Martin Ferguson Smith (1969): prose; see intro and outline of themes preceding each book. 
John Selby Watson, prose, and John Mason Good verse (1851)
H. A. J. Munro (1866/1891) (prose) Latin
Cyril Bailey Latin (1920)

See also:

Henri Bergson, Extraits de Lucrèce, Paris, Delagrave (1884); English tr. The Philosphy of Poetry
George Santayana, Three Philosophical Poets (1910)

Jim Hinch, "The Swerve : How the World Became Modern,"  Los Angeles Review of Books

Epicurus (341–270 B.C.): Principal Doctrines | Vatican Sayings | Letter to Menoeceus | Letter to Herodotus | Letter to Pythocles | Letter to Idomeneus | Last Will & also here. Bilingual verison of Principal Doctrines, Cyril Bailey edn

(Jan. 31. 2016, revised Dec. 18, 2017)