something I wrote for my Lucretius class
Lucretius’ Transformation of Venus in Book I: 1-61 of De Rerum Natura
Book I of De Rerum Natura begins with an invocation to Venus: “Aeneadum genetrix, hominum divumque voluptas,/ alma Venus” (1-2). With this opening phrase Lucretius introduces us to the unprecedented combinations of his poetry, combinations operative throughout the opening passage of the poem. By calling Venus “Aeneadae genetrix” Lucretius both accepts a mythic inheritance and returns it to his reader strangely transformed. The phrase focuses our attention on the overwhelming nearness of Aphrodite to Anchises that produced Aeneas, and seeks to extend the brilliance and force of that strange and momentary relationship of the human and divine – “hominum divumque voluptas” – over the begetting of each of the Aeneadae. But, by an odd sort of logic, the poet’s extending her particular role in the birth of Aeneas over the births of men in general, Venus herself, the brilliant, dissembling, shame-faced goddess who shines in the Homeric hymn is allowed to recede farther from our sphere. The intimacy of Aphrodite’s union with Anchises is evoked mutedly here only to release her from it into the more general and metaphorical motherhood that befits the respectful distance Lucretius grants the gods. By “pluralizing” this union, this highest pleasure of men and gods – “hominum divumque,” Lucretius prepares us to let that “and” assume a more disjunctive and subdued force, in contrast to the conjoining violence at the meeting-point of gods and men which is the center of the Homeric cosmos.
The influence of this “alma Venus” is developed further: “quae mare navigerum, quae terras frugiferentis/ concelebras” (3-4). The compound adjectives “navigerum” and “frugiferentis” characterize her presence as slowly and patiently disposing the elements to their fullest and most fruitful combination, not elated or torn by momentary passion, but filled to the brim by an extended and pacifying “voluptas” which frees the seas for peaceful exchange and the lands for plentiful harvest. At the same time the compounds crafted by the poet by which he characterizes earth and sea imitate the fruitful process of combination over which the goddess presides; and thus gently prepare us to see Venus as his “sociam. . . scribendis versibus” (24). Under her calming influence the inner potential of things for flourishing is brought forth from below (6-7), and earth and sea are transformed by one “diffuso lumine caelum”–a light in which they become expressively responsive – “rident aequora ponti” (8), “species patefactast” (10) – and open to new and continuing development – “generatim saecla propagent” (20).
All of this provides a frame for what is perhaps the most surprising development of all: that Lucretius should seek Venus’ help in disposing a young warrior for the pursuit of natural philosophy! that her presence should contribute to providing for the “offspring of Memmius” the “vacuas auris aminumque sagacem” of a studious disciple (50). Yet this poetic victory is entirely consonant with the image of the goddess that Lucretius invokes, whose influence disposes the developing potential of each thing for its fullest possible embrace of, and interchange with, the calm and harmonious nature of things. These reflections further suggest to this reader that lines 44-49, though surprising, are anything but out of place in the wider arc of the passage, and are elided only to its impoverishment. But that thesis would perhaps require an argument of its own.