ABOUT DE RERUM NATURA--THE NATURE OF THINGS
Stephen Greenblatt, in "The Swerve: How the World Became Modern" re-ignited interest in a long poem by Titus Lucretius Carus, who lived around the time of Augustus. As Greenblatt tells the fascinating story, the papal secretary, Poggio, searching for old Latin and Greek manuscripts, found a tattered copy of the previously unknown De Rerum Natura in an alpine monastery.
Master of church theology, calligraphy and Latin, Poggio recognized the fiery nature of Lucretius' work and gave thought to the fiery nature of the Inquisition. Copies of the manuscript circulated at first only cautiously and only to a few trusted friends. Lucretius' ideas, expressed in noble poetry, challenged thinking of earth as divinely created for the use of man and of a Creator to be worshipped in awe, fear, and trembling.
Lucretius, following Greek philosopher Epicurus & his school, sees everything evolving from the dance of atoms, infinite in number in an infinite space. These irreducible entities cannot be divided, created, or destroyed. The atoms are unceasingly in random motion. Some collide & veer off; some collide and stick. These atomic clusters form other clusters; and over enough time and enough collisions, they form all we know, from galaxies, gastropods and us. When we die, the bonds dissolve, and the atoms continue the eternal dance of creation, evolution, dissolution.
There are, writes Lucretius, no gods and if there were or are, they have no interest in us. So there is no reason for us to sacrifice Iphegenias for fair winds so the Greek fleet can sail from Aulis to Troy, no reason to be afraid of or worshipful to the gods, and no reason, for ourselves to fear of death or anticipate some future mystic bliss.
Six sections form what we have of "The Nature of Things," which ends in the horrors of a plague in Athens. This section is thought by some to be an addition and by others, as evidence Lucretius died before he could revise and complete the manuscripts.
Intended as an explanation of everything, the chapters treat of
--Matter & Void
--The Dance of the Atoms
--Mortality and the Soul
--Cosmos and Civilization
--Weather and the Earth
Thus, the book itself, the creation of a mind striving for reason and understanding presented through poetry of grandeur and nobility. It can make for chicken-skin reading in describing the physical nature of the world although Lucretius's view of human relations makes for X-rated, even blush-raising reading in his discussions of the senses and sexuality.
A. E. Stallings, an acclaimed poet fluent in Latin and Greek, gave herself the challenge of translating the 7,400 lines as rhymed couplets using "fourteeners," a long loping line. "Heptameters are roomy enough," she writes, "to embrace the Latin dactylic hexameter." (p.xxvii). The result has been lauded as smooth, easy to read, flowing. I agree.
She uses contemporary images and language where she feels this best conveys the poem as Lucretius' hearers would have experienced it. "Stop the presses" is an anachronism, for example, one of many and intentional, in addition to word choices somewhat more Anglo-Saxon than Latinate. Few would mistake Stallings' translation for a (hypothetical) one by Dr. Johnson.
And as in Stallings other poems, here and there, she does not resist the irresistable urge to echo more recent poems, such as "Look upon my works, ye mighty, and despair." (see p.253). To me, this makes for an extra bit of fun for the reader, as it probably did for this translator, and for a translation that moves energetically.
I compared Stallings with a highly regarded previous translation, one by Rolfe Humphries, now 40 years old. They're really different. Humphries' blank verse is almost as if Shakespeare's "little Latin and less Greek" permitted him to translate Lucretius. Stallings' rhymed couplets, in contrast and over the 7,400 lines, is startlingly more like rap's driving beats and end rhymes:
Consider, for example, Humphries' in Book II
"Why do you hesitate? Why doubt that Reason
Alone has absolute power? Our life is spent in shadow
And it suffers in the dark."
"Why doubt that reason alone can quench this terror
with its spark,
Especially since life is one long labor in the dark?"
Stallings' voice is both her own and that of Lucretius. They are poets, and in this splendid translation, both sounds and sense are honored.
ANY READER ALERTS? Not really, although as mentioned, Lucretius may have been channeling the Kama Sutra a bit and is forthright in his detailed, acute observations which constitute much of the arguments. It was an age of candour among some poets such as Catullus and Horace.
There's a useful introductory essay and an excellent appendix with notes, also quite different from what Humphries thought telling the reader, the one more oriented to philosophy, the other more to philosophers themselves.
OVERALL: Now I have two fine versions of Lucretius, and would not give up one for the other. Readers who already have their cherished favorite may wish to have as much of a good thing as possible and get Stallings's Lucretius too. Readers coming new to Lucretius, however, might happily consider A. E. Stalling's as their first dance with the atoms.