De Rerum Natura, The Nature of Things: A Poetic Translation
University of California Press, 2008
320 pp., 29.95
The Consolation of Philosophy
Harvard University Press, 2008
208 pp., 45.95
The Nature of Things
Our story begins—but when does our story begin? With the Big Bang? Or before the foundation of the world? Or …?
In the first century before Christ (I quote from the front matter to Ronald Melville's verse translation of Lucretius' De Rerum Natura in the Oxford World Classics edition, here rendered On the Nature of the Universe but better known as The Nature of Things),
Lucretius (T. Lucretius Carus) lived in the terrible times of the collapse of the Roman republic into chaos and civil war … . Nothing is known for certain about his life, but scholars agree that he was born shortly after 100 BC and died between 55 and 50 bc. The gens Lucretia was aristocratic, and he was probably a member of it. His poem shows familiarity with the luxurious life-style of the great houses in Rome, and his deep feeling for the countryside and its people and animals invites one to imagine that his family owned country estates … .
There is a famous story told by St. Jerome that he died of madness caused by a love-philtre, and composed his poem during lucid intervals. This is unlikely.
Don't you love to encounter a figure of whom it can be said, "Nothing is for known for certain about his life"? Lucretius' poem, which runs to nearly 7,500 lines in Latin hexameter, is unfinished or, as some scholars argue, lost a bit in textual transmission. Receding into obscurity for many centuries, the poem was rediscovered in the Renaissance and widely celebrated thereafter, especially but not only in circles where his naturalism was welcome.
Think of the infinite number of atoms
and how, over time, they meet and bump apart, in an endless
and random series of combinations from which they produce,
by their rearrangements in all manner
of ways, all manner of things that exist, the universe that is constantly changing,
So Lucretius says in David Slavitt's splendid translation, published last summer by the University of California Press. Books and ideas are continually being forgotten and rediscovered and forgotten again. There was a long stretch, ending not so long ago, when an educated person in the Anglo-American sphere could read Latin. My grandmother, who graduated from a small-town high school in southern Illinois in 1904, had four years of Latin there. Today, classicists continue to do their work, but in a very different context. Readers like me, who have no Latin, are very grateful for the translators' labors. (When I describe Slavitt's translation as splendid, I'm thinking of its qualities as a poem in English, with reference to other versions I have read.)
Our story shifts now to the end of the 5th century and the beginning of the 6th century, the life-span of Boethius, who wrote The Consolation of Philosophy while he was imprisoned and awaiting execution. We know a good deal more about him than we can know about Lucretius (I quote from the introduction to the revised edition of Victor Watts' translation for Penguin Classics):
Ancius Manlius Severinus Boethius, born in or about AD 480, was a member of an ancient and aristocratic family, the gens Anicia. Since their conversion to Christianity in the fourth century—unusually early for an established and conservative family—the Anicii had risen to great power and wealth, and among his ancestors and kinsmen, besides many consuls, Boethius could number two emperors and a pope.
A child prodigy, Boethius set out as a young man to translate works by Aristotle and other Greek thinkers into Latin, while at the same time he was drawn into civil service, where he distinguished himself. Alas, he became a victim of intrigues at the court of Theodoric the Ostrogoth (intrigues in which the Arian heresy, of which Boethius was critical, played a part, for the Goths were Arians). In 524, after a period of imprisonment, Boethius was tortured and killed.
The Consolation of Philosophy is written in prose with interspersed poetry, most of it spoken in the voice of lady Philosophy, who serves as the narrator's guide. Like Lucretius, Boethius seeks to describe the nature of things. The two writers have much in common: Both write with a mixture of confident ease and a certain hauteur; they write as aristocrats. Both claim to encompass the whole world in their accounts. Lucretius seeks to "free the minds of men from the bonds of their superstitions," while Boethius seeks to free us from vain hopes and desires, pointing us to the only true source of satisfaction. They are also radically at odds with each other, of course: Lucretius writes in a tradition represented today by Richard Dawkins, among many others, while Boethius offers a heavily Platonized Christian account of the soul's ascent to God in a perfectly ordered cosmos. Each book is worth attention on its own, but read together they are much richer.
Which brings our story to September 2008, when Harvard University Press published David Slavitt's translation of The Consolation of Philosophy, with an introduction by Seth Lerer. This is a beautifully made little book that I have taken with me on a number of trips, partly just for the pleasure of holding it. At any time I would be glad to have it. But to hold it in one hand and Slavitt's translation of Lucretius in the other is positively uncanny. I delight in Slavitt's capacity to enter with sympathy into the minds of these very different men. "My method," he writes in introducing The Nature of Things, "has been to read along and translate as I go, letting what I take to be the personality of the poem take over. It resonates in my sinuses, and is, in part, me, but it's certainly not how I ordinarily sound or write. It is an impersonation, a kind of performance that an actor on stage does with lines that are not his but that he tries to give himself to in order to make them his own." Yes, and as C.S. Lewis writes in the conclusion to An Experiment in Criticism (where, by the way, Lucretius is mentioned), this entering into the personality of the poem is the supreme reason we read in the first place—to achieve "extension of being," as Lewis says.
Needless to say, once I have returned from that immersion in other ways of seeing, I find Boethius' account of the nature of things more congenial than the world according to Lucretius, but neither vision is entirely persuasive. As many readers of The Consolation of Philosophy have observed, the narrative is pretty thinly Christian. This is the god of the philosophers. And the tidiness of Boethius' account doesn't square with my own blundering passage. I turn from Lucretius and Boethius to a little-known book that I treasure, The Lord of the Absurd, by Raymond Nogar, op, first published by Herder and Herder in 1966 and reissued in paperback a decade or so ago by the University of Notre Dame Press. It deserves to be read and re-read.
But no book is adequate to the Real. We get glimpses. If you haven't read David Slavitt, who is a superb poet, novelist, and essayist as well as an astonishingly wide-ranging translator, you might investigate, undertaking a little extension of being in that direction. To single out this or that work is misleading, because he is many-sided, but his poem about the death of his mother, "Bloody Murder," has stuck in my mind since I first encountered it in a little magazine more than 25 years ago. Cold grief, controlled rage, and a piercing sense of absurdity are fused with metaphysical wit ("After the burglar bludgeoned my mother to death with a bathroom scale and a large / bottle of Listerine, the police / recommended Ronny Reliable's / Cleaning Service"); unassuagable loss dances with dailiness. You can find it in Change of Address: New and Selected Poems, published in 2005 by LSU Press.
Father, I understand nothing, but the birds are at the window, my wife's hand is warm, and your word is true. Thank you. In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Copyright © 2009 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
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