Poet's Pick April 3
Lucretius: "Proem"
Selected by Francesca Abbate
National Poetry Month 2013

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Francesca Abbate's Poetry Month Pick, April 3, 2013

from "The Nature of Things" ("De rerum natura")
Book IV: Proem
by Titus Lucretius Carus (c. 98-55 B.C.)
tr. William Ellery Leonard

I wander afield, thriving in sturdy thought,
Through unpathed haunts of the Pierides,
Trodden by step of none before. I joy
To come on undefiled fountains there,
To drain them deep; I joy to pluck new flowers,
To seek for this my head a signal crown
From regions where the Muses never yet
Have garlanded the temples of a man:
First, since I teach concerning mighty things,
And go right on to loose from round the mind
The tightened coils of dread Religion;
Next, since, concerning themes so dark, I frame
Song so pellucid, touching all throughout
Even with the Muses' charm- which, as 'twould seem,
Is not without a reasonable ground:
For as physicians, when they seek to give
Young boys the nauseous wormwood, first do touch
The brim around the cup with the sweet juice
And yellow of the honey, in order that
The thoughtless age of boyhood be cajoled
As far as the lips, and meanwhile swallow down
The wormwood's bitter draught, and, though befooled,
Be yet not merely duped, but rather thus
Grow strong again with recreated health:
So now I too (since this my doctrine seems
In general somewhat woeful unto those
Who've had it not in hand, and since the crowd
Starts back from it in horror) have desired
To expound our doctrine unto thee in song
Soft-speaking and Pierian, and, as 'twere,
To touch it with sweet honey of the Muse—
If by such method haply I might hold
The mind of thee upon these lines of ours,
Till thou dost learn the nature of all things
And understandest their utility.


* Francesca Abbate Comments:
It’s possible I bought De rerum natura for a class in college, though it seems unlike me to have signed up for anything that would require this masterpiece of Epicurean materialism, since I was far more captivated back then by the very myths Lucretius debunks. It’s more likely that I came across it in a used bookstore. The cover of the Penguin Classics’ version—I’ve had it with me since —shows a fresco of a beautiful Roman woman with a gold hairnet and earrings, pressing what looks like a stylus to her lips, and I can imagine myself taking this graceful, thoughtful portrait for that of a woman scholar—it isn’t, but that’s another story—and marching the book to the counter. If so, I was being pretentious, if optimistic. On that first read, I didn’t flounder through the poem so much as sink, although—judging by the marginalia—I sank at least most of the way through.

“The really poetical passages in the poem of Lucretius… are like oases in a mighty desert… resting places where he girds himself for the journey over the vast dreary stretches of the poem,” R.B. Steele wrote in 1906 in The Sewanee Review. The Proem to Book IV, my favorite of the books, is just such an oasis. How refreshing to find a poet so unabashedly discussing his purpose, and how honest he is! Most of you don’t really want to hear this, Lucretius admits; you wouldn’t swallow these truths without the sweet cadences of Latin hexameter, but, like a sick boy duped by honey, you’ll put the cup to your lips and drink the medicine.

And what are the “somewhat woeful” lessons that we don’t want to hear? That religion is useless bondage: the gods want nothing to do with us, never have, and never will. That we’re foolish to worry about our mortality: when we die, we die, and there is no afterlife. That the universe is material and nothing else. As Steele says, what “once to men seemed animate was to [Lucretius] merely a collection of atoms. The dryads of the trees were dead, and nymphs no longer sported in the waters.”

What we’re left with is the natural world and the ways in which we can attempt to understand it. The Proem begins by celebrating this joyful quest for knowledge via a metaphor borne along by the generative power of infinitives. “To come,” “to drain,” “to pluck,” “to seek”: we go from one seemingly undiminished state of promise to the next. (Not for nothing is the book dedicated, allegorically, at least, to Venus: it’s hard for me not to see, in these lines, an erotics of thought.) That the desired outcome of this “wander[ing] afield” is our liberation as well as “a signal crown” for the poet is part of Lucretius’s appeal. He’s didactic, sure, but he’s also generous—he wants us to understand, to “learn the nature of all things.”

But I admit it: what I love most about Lucretius is the way he teaches, rather than the matter of the lessons themselves. It’s the honey. It’s the illustrations he gives while teaching, the ones Steele calls “flashes of light.” It’s his irrepressible, irresistible astonishment at the world. It’s how, in an examination of the nature of motion, after the stars and the sun and the moon, we get this:

            When boys themselves have stopped their spinning round,
            The halls still seem to whirl and posts to reel,
            Until they now must almost think the roofs
            Threaten to ruin down upon their heads.

Or when, discussing the anatomy of mirrors and reflection, he describes that even in a “finger’s depth” of puddle, “thou seemest to view/ Clouds down below and heavenly bodies plunged/ Wondrously in heaven under earth.”

Steele ends his essay by quoting from Tennyson’s poem “Lucretius,” which takes seriously—as was the case in those days—the myth that Lucretius killed himself after being driven insane by a love potion. Myth aside, when Tennyson imagines Lucretius just before his suicide, he captures something about De rerum natura for me, something horribly, gorgeously brave: “that hour perhaps/ is not so far when momentary man/ Shall seem no more a something to himself.”

No Mortality = No Pity, I wrote all those years ago in the margins of Book III, the one dealing most directly with our fear of death. I’m not sure what I meant, exactly, or who that person was, and—Lucretius would not, I think, approve—there’s a sadness, the sadness of estrangement, I guess, mingled with the relief of having moved so far from her.

About Francesca Abbate:
Francesca Abbate is associate professor of English at Beloit College. Her poetry has appeared in Field, Iowa Review, NEO, and Poetry, among other journals, and is forthcoming in The Laurel Review. Her first book, Troy, Unincorporated, was published this year by The University of Chicago Press.

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