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Another Reflection on Lucretius

April 19, 2009

The Poetry of Lucretius’ Invitation to Accept “Mater Rebus Certa”

In lines 188-198 of the first book of De Rerum Natura, Lucretius describes the implications of there being a “semine certo”, a definite seed for every kind of thing, that each thing has “sua … materia.” His particular concerns in this passage are: that the developement of things from their seed is gradual (188-90), that they need constant nurture to survive and germinate (192-5), and that such a constant nurture maintains for them their constant (or gradually developing) nature (190). Things have their “principiis” (198), their first beginnings, ever present within them; every stage of their development is part of a process from, yet without leaving behind, their origin of life, their “materia” (191), the mother-substance from which they are continually in the process of being born i.e. “natura” (194). Lucretius invites his prospective student to take comfort in this constant mother-presence which grounds the stable nature of the cosmos in an uninterrupted chain of organic causes (196-7). The calming words of Lucretius thus sound within a mother’s womb that the uncanny can never enter (198) – a womb that one never exits, it is also a tomb (202-4). But it is a tomb so homely and familiar that death is no longer something to be feared, but, rather, its dissolution is only one more stage of a seed’s natural development.

We see already that Lucretius’ philosophical and scientific explication of the cosmos is poetically conceived and animated on its deepest levels – as much (or maybe more so) a matter of pregnant image as it is one of compelling argument: “ut noscere possis”(190), “so that you can become acquainted with,” “recognize” a reality. On every level, then, Lucretius’ verse seeks to reflect and participate in the “natura”, the organic genesis, the poesis that animates the cosmos— the recognition of it itself partaking of that “natura”. Thus his metre slows into a string of spondees as he describes the little-by-little increase of all things: “paulatim crescunt, ut par est …” (189); and the next line repeats the verb, unfolding it in its participial form and drawing its action out into an even more continuous presence (again intoning with the slow spondee): “crescentesque genus servant,” “and increasing they maintain their kind” (190). The complex of phrases – “semine”, “crescentes”, “de materia gradescere alique” (188-191) – is highly suggestive of embryonic growth in the womb.

In the next line, “certis imbribus anni” is a relevant periphrasis for spring or “the rainy season” – the point here is to draw attention to the assurance that would comes with accepting the “certis” (192); if things come to be what they are from a definite relation to intimately present causes and conditions, then that same definite relation will be there to continue support their existence. In this way, we can see a definite relation between the rains and the harvest, the harvest and the “natura” of animal life (192-5): from none of these can that “natura” be cut off, “secreta” (194); all together they constitute its unbroken umbilical cord. On the other hand the interruption of this definite relation of causes by divine intervention anywhere along its line would show the entire cosmos radically indeterminate, irrational, and just as likely to be reconstituted in some other, unknown way. The tie with our nourishing oringins would be cut and leave us floating in a terrifyingly undetermined reality: “sine principiis ullam rem existere posse” (198).

Rather than accept such a prospect, Lucretius proposes a brilliant simile for us, offering us “the letters we see in words” (197). They are of definite kinds; they are familiar and friendly to us; they can be combined in such was as to express all kinds of different meanings. They have this expressive power precisely because they never lose their fixed nature. Like the invisible “corpora prima” of things, they tend to slip by us unnoticed as we read words and sentences; yet all the while the act of reading remains entirely dependent on the fixed relation of words to their “elementa”, the letters. Without this fixed relation, a text becomes nonsense, but within its sustaining matrix an entire world can come to life. Once again it is the image that Lucretius gives that is tantalizing; he draws us in by appealing to a familiar, yet profound, human experience, giving it new sharpness and casting it in an unexpected light. As poet then, Lucretius’ invitations to the reader have value beyond a proposed thesis and faulty argument: they describe and challenge us to acknowledge aspects of our reality that constantly slip away from our attention.

The Passage in Question

… quorum nil fieri manifestum est, omnia quando
paulatim crescunt, ut par est semine certo,
crescentesque genus servant; ut noscere possis 190
quidque sua de materia grandescere alique.
Huc accedit uti sine certis imbribus anni
laetificos nequeat fetus summittere tellus
nec porro secreta cibo natura animantum
propagare genus possit vitamque tueri; 195
ut potius multis communia corpora rebus
multa putes esse, ut verbis elementa videmus,
quam sine principiis ullam rem existere posse.

My Translation

… none of these things, clearly, come to pass, since everything
increases little by little, as is fitting, from a definite seed
and, increasing, maintains its kind, so that you can recognize
how each thing is nourished and grows large from its own materia.
and furthermore, without the fixed showers of the year
earth could not rear up from below her still-generating yield,
and, further, cut off from food, the natura of breathing things
could not propagate its kind or guard its life.
So that you would do much better to suppose that there are a variety of primary bodies
held in common by the whole variety things, as we see letters held by words,
than to think that, without first things, anything whatsoever can exist.

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