Sunday Science Poem: Why You Should Read Lucretius

We’re bringing the Sunday Poem out of hiatus and will hopefully, with some publisher cooperation, feature some remarkable poetry by contemporary poets who work with science metaphors.

However, before we return to present day poetry, let’s go back two thousand years and tackle the greatest of all science poems: Lucretius’ The Nature of Things.

Why should you read Lucretius? His poem is one of the great works of classical Latin poetry, one which influenced many subsequent Roman poets, notably Virgil. It has the added benefit of laying out Lucretius’ remarkable thinking about the invisible workings of nature. Reading this poem, you inhabit the ancient mind of a sharp observer who was trying to make sense of the macroscopic world by theorizing about motions of the microscopic one.

Lucretius was conscious of the requirements of good science writing. He was explicitly an advocate of the Mary Poppins method of helping the medicine go down with a spoon full of sugar. Lucretius packed his poem with illuminating metaphors and, like Darwin, was capable of making striking observations of everyday phenomena that most of us would take for granted. He used these observations to make inferences about the world we can’t see. As an advocate of the teachings of Epicurus, Lurcetius connects his observations and inferences to crucial ideas about how we should live our lives and think about ourselves.

The Classical scholar Richard Jenkyns makes this argument for reading Lucretius:

Of all the great poems of Europe – and it is indeed among the greatest – Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura (The Nature of Things) is perhaps the most improbable. Here is a poem without people in it, without any story; instead it offers a treatise on science and philosophy. The philosophy, moreover, is a strict materialism, which denies the existence of anything magical, mysterious, or transcendent. It does not sound like promising matter for poetry at all, let alone for a work of more than 7,000 line. Yet the result is a masterpiece. A key to appreciating this most unlikely success is to understand the nature of Lucretius’ beliefs and the circumstances in which he decided to expound them.

– Introduction to the 2007 Penguin edition, vii

For our reading schedule, see below. To whet your appetite, here is a remarkable passage that shows Lucretius anticipating, in about 55 B.C.E., the idea of Brownian motion:

All bodies of matter are in motion. To understand this best,
Remember that the atoms do not have a place to rest, 
And there’s no bottom to the universe, since Space does not
Have limits, but is endless. As I have already taught
And proved with reason irrefutable, it opens wide
And far in all directions, measureless on every side.
And therefore it is obvious no respite’s ever given
To atoms through the fathomless void but, rather, they are driven
By sundry restless motions. After colliding some will leap
Great intervals apart, while others harried by blows will keep
In a narrow space. Those atoms that are bound together tight, 
When they collide with something, their recoil is only slight
Since they are tangled up in their own intricate formation:
Such are the particles that form the sturdy roots of stone,
And make up savage iron and other substances of this kind.
Of the other particles drifting through the vast deep, we find
A few leap far apart and bounce a long way back again,
Providing us with thin air and the shining of the sun.
And many more besides stray through the void, either out cast
From combinations, or which alliances could not hold fast
In harmonious motions.

				There’s a model, you should realize,
A paradigm of this that’s dancing right before your eyes - 
For look well when you let the sun peep in a shuttered room
Pouring forth the brilliance of its beams into the gloom,
And you’ll see myriads of motes all moving many ways
Throughout the void and intermingling in the golden rays
As if in everlasting struggle, battling in troops,
Ceaselessly separating and regathering in groups.
From this you can imagine all the motions that take place
Among the atoms that are tossed about in empty space.
For to a certain extent, it’s possible for us to trace
Greater things from trivial examples, and discern
In them the trail of knowledge. Another reason you should turn
You attention to the motes that drift and tumble in the light:
Such turmoil means that there are secret motions, out of sight,
That lie concealed in matter. For you’ll see the motes careen
Off course, and then bounce back again, by means of blows unseen,
Drifting now in this direction, now that, on every side.
You may be sure this starts with atoms; they are what provide
The base of this unrest. For atoms are moving on their own,
Then small formations of them, nearest them in scale, are thrown
Into agitation by unseen atomic blows,
And these strike slightly larger clusters, and on and on it goes - 
A movement that begins on the atomic level, by slight
Degrees ascends until it is perceptible to our sight,
So that we can behold the dust motes dancing in the sun,
Although the blows that move them can’t be seen by anyone.

- A.E. Stallings translation, lines 89-141, p. 38-40

The richness of passages like this doesn’t come from the parlor game of seeing how close Lucretius came to our modern concepts; much of the value lies in following the poet’s relentlessly searching train of thought as he struggles to make sense of the world we observe. His sharp eye for detail is matched by his vigorous, inventive imagination.

The translation I’m using is that by the poet A.E. Stallings (whose poems you should read), in the Penguin edition (2007), with a very helpful introduction by Richard Jenkyns (quoted above). I like Stallings’ translation because first, like the original, it is a poem ( I first encountered Lucretius in a much less compelling prose translation), and second, because she is deliberately anachronistic and chooses to incorporate modern terminology and allusions in places. There is a danger in this of course, but Stallings’ justification is that Lucretius explicitly complains of the paucity of technical terms in Latin, and he therefore coins new terms as needed. I think Stallings’ approach works very well, as long as you recognize (and this is more or less true of any translation) that in many cases the resemblance between Lucretius’ ideas and our modern ones is only superficial. (I’ll say it again: the primary pleasure of the poem is not in seeing how much Lucretius ‘got right’.)

So join me for the next three Sundays as we read this great poem. The are six books, and we’ll discuss two each week:

Sunday, January 27th: Book I, Matter and Void; Book II, The Dance of Atoms
Sunday, February 3rd: Book III, Mortality and the Soul; Book IV, The Senses
Sunday February 10th: Book V, Cosmos and Civilization; Book VI, Weather and the Earth

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9 responses to “Sunday Science Poem: Why You Should Read Lucretius

  1. I might have this book, you make me want to go searching for it! I also like your choice of art to illustrate the post.

  2. More on Roman science in a recent book review of Daryn Lehoux’s book What Did The Romans Know?, in Science

  3. My Latin is quite rusty now, but if I was to read this poem I think I’d want to look for a Latin version to read/struggle with alongside the translation – it’d be interesting to see what terms Lucretius has to invent, and how the conspicuously modern terms compare to the original Latin.

    • Now I’m feeling intimidated amongst all of you who read Latin. My high school offered it, taught by a teacher who was a living version of every single Latin teacher cliché you can imagine, and so I avoided it.

  4. Pingback: Lucretius the Epicurean | The Finch and Pea

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