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Classics Reissued: Lucretius

Lucretius: On the Nature of Things

translated by Frank O. Copley

W.W.Norton, 2011

Frank Copley’s stately, intelligent translation of Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura first came out in 1977, and we hardly live in an age that’s over-generous in its scholarly reprints (even W. W. Norton, one of the best publishers on the planet, can’t too openly risk offending the ‘Eat This Now!’ mass of morons who constitute the bulk of the book-buying public in the United States). Its re-appearance now – in a lovely paperback with the new title Lucretius: On the Nature of Things – is to be cheered no matter what the reason.

The reason in this case is the simultaneous appearance of Stephen Greenblatt’s preposterous new book The Swerve, in which he blathers at great length about how Renaissance humanist Poggio Bracciolini’s rediscovery of Lucretius in the 15th century somehow gave birth to the modern world. This reminds me of recent attempts to elevate the supremely tedious Hypnerotomachia Poliphili to the  status of some kind of neglected masterpiece – it’s equally dotty and equally doomed.

But Lucretius’ daffy ‘epic’ of Epicureanism is full of happy consequences of less-than-happy things, so the return of this splendid volume to bookstore shelves is to be applauded regardless of the cause. Although it should be noted that virtually everything splendid about it derives from Copley, not Lucretius.

On the Nature of Things intends to be a great illustration of the grand matter of Epicurus, who envisioned a universe of atoms combining and re-combining in infinite diversity. In some ways it’s a very appealing picture, free of interfering, disapproving gods, free of onerous moral obligations, free of guilt. It’s been misinterpreted to be free of proportion or accountability, but in his Introduction (wisely reprinted with this edition), Copley notes that these misinterpretations are as much a matter of ideology as textual criticism and should be taken correspondingly lightly. He’s also clear-eyed about the poem itself, right up front confessing some of its weaknesses:

 The poem as it stands is clearly unfinished; it contains repeated and obviously misplaced lines and passages; its argument, for lack of the final hand of organization, is frequently unclear and confusing.

He might also have added that it’s tedious, repetitive, wilfully obscure, and almost impossible to read for pleasure (literary legend has it that Cicero edited these verses after Lucretius killed himself – if so, Cicero shouldn’t quit his day job). In fact, the most readable version of this poem every produced – including by the author himself – is this version right here. Copley’s gentle, tidal English does quiet wonders with the slipshod original Latin and then girds every word of it with marvellous, incisive footnotes. And even with all that help, there are still innumerable passages that read like this:

 Now I’ll explain why one man’s food is poison

to another, and why what some find harsh and bitter

may seem to others most agreeable.

So far apart these things, so different,

that one man’s meat is another man’s cold poison.

Just like the snake: touched by the spittle of man

it dies: it bites until it kills itself.

Further, to us, hellebore is cold poison

but it fattens the goat and makes the quail grow plump.

That you may understand what makes this so,

remember, first, what I have said before,

that things have atoms in countless combinations.

Don’t exactly say “please, tell me more” do you?

Copley was a warm, self-effacing, courtly presence (still remembered with glowing affection at the University of Gottingen decades after he left, for instance), and through the alchemy of translation, he produced the greatest rendition of De Rerum Natura we’re likely to see in a century. Perhaps Stephen Greenblatt was Copley’s friend or student at one point, and perhaps that explains his odd and unbalanced new book.

Whatever the truth of it, as noted, the result is very pleasing. Its a smiling thing, to have the Copley Lucretius back among us again.