2 August 2019: I'm on the side of pleasure.
2 August 2019
Just finished a book I’ve been jokingly calling “dad lit” to my friends: Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve (nb: my dad is a classicist, so this is not just a dig on a Pulitzer prize from a few years back / slightly unfashionable cover design / Barnes & Noble remainder table find, but, in that it is a story about the rediscovery and preservation of a long Latin poem, is actual dad lit for me). I was headed to a stressful waiting room, and the last time I was in a stressful waiting room, I remembered how satisfying it had been to read Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century. I guess when the going gets stressful, I like to console myself with papal schisms and roving bands of mercenaries. But lately, I have been thinking about Lucretius and, vaguely remembering the tone of the book from when I started it and put it down last spring, I pulled it from the shelf and put it in my bag.
It turned out to be the exact right thing. Focusing on the life story of Poggio, Greenblatt turns the admittedly unlikely retrieval of De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things) from near oblivion into a gripping adventure story, rehearsing as he goes a familiar story of rise and fall and…wait for it: rise. Even as I felt Greenblatt comfortably pandering, I gobbled this stuff up.
Having sufficiently exorcised my anxieties (and, yes, gleaned helpful context) from The Swerve, I’ve been turning to the Loeb, and since it is a prose translation, I’m supplementing it with A.E. Stalling’s verse translation for Penguin, which turns Lucretius’s dactylic hexameter into rhyming English fourteeners. I don’t know her original poetry well enough to speak to whether it is my jam, but I’m enjoying her translation of the music of Lucretius into English while I haltingly pick my way through the Latin.
Here’s the first chunk of the invocation to Venus in Latin:
Aeneadum genetrix, hominum divomque voluptas,
alma Venus, caeli subter labentia signa
quae mare navigerum, quae terras frugiferentis
concelebras, per te quoniam genus omne animantum
concipitur visitque exortum lumina solis:
te, dea, te fugiunt venti, te nubile caeli
adventumque tuum, tibi suavis daedala tellus
summittit flores, tibi rident aequora ponti
placatumque nitet diffuso lumine caelum.
nam simul ac species patefactast verna diei
et reserata viget genitabilis aura favoni,
aeriae primum volucres te, diva, tuumque
significant initum perculsae corda tua vi.
inde ferae, pecudes persultant pabula laeta
et rapidos tranant amnis: ita capta lepore
te sequitur cupide quo quamque inducer pergis.
denique, per maria ac montis fluviosque rapacis
frondiferasque domos avium camposque virentis,
omnibus incutiens blandum per pectora amorem,
efficis ut cupide generatim saecla propagent.
Quae quoniaum rerum naturam sola gubernas,
nec sine te quicquam dias in luminis oras
exoritur neque fit laetum neque amabile quicquam,
te sociam studio scribendis versibus esse
quos ego de rerum natura pangere conor
Memmiadae nostro, quem tu, dea, tempore in omni
quo magis aeternum da dicis, diva, leporem.
Now here’s the W.H.D. Rouse edition (rev. Martin Smith):
Mother of Aeneas and his race, darling of men and gods, nurturing Venus, who beneath the smooth-moving heavenly signs fill with yourself the sea full-laden with ships, the earth that bears the crops, since through you every kind of living thing is conceived and rising up looks on the light of the sun: from you, O goddess, from you the winds flee away, the clouds of heaven from you and your coming; for you the wonder-working earth puts forth sweet flowers, for you the wide stretches of ocean laugh, and heaven grown peaceful glows with outpoured light. For as soon as the vernal face of day is made manifest, and the breeze of the teeming west wind blows fresh and free, first the fowls of the air proclaim you, divine one, and your advent, pierced to the heart by your might. Next wild creatures and farm animals dance over the rich pastures and swim across rapid rivers: so greedily does each one follow you, held captive by your charm, whither you go on to lead them. Then throughout seas and mountains and sweeping torrents and the leafy dwellings of birds and verdant plains, striking alluring love into the breasts of all creatures, you cause them greedily to beget their generations after their kind.
Since therefore you alone govern the nature of things, since without you nothing comes forth into the shining borders of light, nothing joyous and lovely is made, you I crave as partner in writing the verses, which I essay to fashion on the Nature of Things, for my friend Memmius, whom you, goddess, have willed at all times to excel endowed with all gifts. Therefore all the more grant to my speech, goddess, an ever-living charm.
And finally, Stallings:
Life-stirring Venus, Mother of Aeneas and of Rome,
Pleasure of men and gods, you make all things beneath the
Of sliding constellations teem, you throng the fruited earth
And the ship-freighted sea—for every species comes to birth
Conceived through you, and rises forth and gazes on the ligh.
The winds flee from you, Goddess, your arrival puts to flight
The clouds of heaven. For you, the crafty earth contrives sweet
For you, the oceans laugh, the skies grow peaceful after showers,
Awash with light. For soon as morning wears the face of spring,
And the West Wind is free and freshens, warm and quickening,
The airy tribe of birds, O Holy One, is first to start
Heralding your approach, struck with your power through the
Then beasts, the wild and tame alike, go romping over the lush
Pastureland and swim across the rivers headlong rush,
So eagerly does each pant after you, so do they heed,
Caught in the chains of love, and follow you wherever you lead.
All through the seas and mountains, torrents, leafy-rooted
Of birds, and greening meadows, your delicious yearning goads
The breast of every creature, and you urge all things you find
Lustily to get new generations of their kind.
Because alone you steer the nature of things upon its course,
And nothing can arise without you on light’s shining shores,
And nothing glad or lovely can be fashioned, I invite
You Goddess, stand beside me, be my partner as I write
The Nature of Things, these verses I am striving to set down
For Memmius, my friend, your favourite, whom you would
With every honour and with everlasting accolades—
More reason to endow my words with grace that never fades. (4-5)
I’m always on the side of Venus, which is to say: I’m a believer that there is a generative principle that moves through the universe. As the notes to the Loeb edition helpfully state:
Venus in this invocation is a figure of extraordinary complexity: as well as being the goddess of traditional religion and mythology who was mother of Aeneas and the Roman people, who was loved by Mars, and who appears on the coins of the gens Memmia, she is the Empedoclean principle of Love (as opposed to Mars=Strife), representing the creative forces in the world, and she is the personification of the Epicurean summum bonum, pleasure (voluptas). Lucr. addresses her not only as the power of physical creation, but also as the giver of charm to his poetry (pp 2-3, note a)
I’m on the side of pleasure. And I’m actively trying to purge the residue of Catholicism that recommends hurling myself into a brake of stinging nettles in an embrace of pain that would cool my wicked ardor and return me to the path of virtue.
I also appreciate the ways in which Stallings, in her translator’s introduction, accounts for her choices regarding this translation. There is always, presumably, some kind of temporal lag in translation, but translating across such a gap in time as well as language must present special issues. Stallings:
Lucretius complained of a paucity of scientific and philosophical vocabulary in Latin…English is rich in it. I have not shied away from using current scientific terms where they are most direct, even if technically anachronistic. The translation is peppered with anachronisms, something to make something more immediate to the modern readers (popping balloons rather than animal bladders, bullets rather than leaden missiles, glass mirrors rather than polished metal ones), sometimes because I couldn’t resist (‘news of things hot off the press’ for ‘the hot news of things’, IV.703). And there are quite a few anachronistic literary nods, as if Lucretius were well versed in the English poets. I hope this gives something of the allusive texture of the poem that would have been felt by his ancient Roman audience steeped in the Greek poets and philosophers. (xxvi)
And honoring that someone or other has declared this Women in Translation month (which must surely extend to women who translate as opposed to just female authors whose work has been translated), I’m delighted that A.E. Stallings ends her introduction by observing that the first person to translate this poem into English was a woman. Hutchinson discusses her translation in light of her experience as a mother, Stallings does as well.
I should say that part of why I’m reading Lucretius is that I am writing my own long poem, an epic, and I am reaching for examples. Without imagining that I have her talents, I think of myself as writing into the tradition of Alice Notley’s feminist epic The Descent of Alette. But I’m being catholic—in the sense of universal—about my models, and I’m curious to delve deeper into what is in some ways an epic without a hero or villains or meddlesome gods. Perhaps it will temper my Robert Duncan / HD vapours when I go to my writing desk. Perhaps it will only inflame them. Stay tuned to find out!