de rerum natura


At a moment in history when God is said to participate in world politics, the pungent ode to nature De rerum natura, composed by the Roman poet Titus Lucretius Carus, can provide a dose of sanity. What the atomist Epicurus called ataraxia—the tranquility of mind achieved when one is freed from the fear of occult controllers—Lucretius transformed into a prophetic materialism. His lyric treatise, published in the first century bce, predicts everything from atomic physics to the existence of DNA and casts it all in melodious hexameters.

Unlike the many prose versions of De rerum natura, David Slavitt’s new translation (University of California Press, $15) gives us six-beat English versions of the Latin original. Here’s how he renders the passage in which Lucretius acknowledges his debt to Epicurus:

It was long the case that men would grovel
upon the earth,
crushed beneath the weight of Superstition
whose head
loomed in the heavens, glaring down with her
dreadful visage
until Epicurus of Greece dared to look up and
confront her,
taking a stand against the fables and myths of
the gods . . .

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