On the Nature of Things is not an easy read,” writes the literary critic and early modern scholar Stephen Greenblatt of the long classical poem at the heart of his new book, The Swerve.
De rerum natura, by the Roman poet Lucretius, is 7,500 lines of Latin hexameter. “The language is often knotty and difficult, the syntax complex, and the overall intellectual ambition astoundingly high,” notes Greenblatt, describing it as “that rarest of accomplishments: a great work of philosophy that is also a great poem”. Furthermore, he argues, it is “one of the key sources of modernity” and it “permanently changed the landscape of the world”. Some of these claims are more convincing than others.
Almost nothing is known about Lucretius. He might have killed himself after being driven insane by a love potion, or this may just be gossip. But Greenblatt’s book is less about Lucretius than about a “book hunter” called Poggio Bracciolini, “a short, genial, cannily alert man” who was obsessed with the recovery of classical literary works. He had beautiful handwriting, had been secretary to the Pope and was also the author of a book of dirty jokes. One day in 1417, at a monastery in southern Germany, he discovered a copy of Lucretius’ poem and ordered it to be transcribed. From this moment, argues Greenblatt, Lucretius’ ideas spread, first through 15th-century Florence, and then through the western world for the next 400 years.
We are two-thirds of the way through The Swerve before Greenblatt gives an in-depth account of the poem itself, and he does so in bullet-points, an odd choice for so fluid a storyteller. The key idea is one that Lucretius circulated but did not invent: the idea of atomism, which claims that the universe is composed of relentlessly moving atoms. All else flows from this insight: there is no designer to the universe, the soul dies, there is no afterlife, and humans are not unique. Religions are cruel, and “the highest goal of human life is the enhancement of pleasure and the reduction of pain”.
This is a shopping-list of attractively modern and liberal ideas, and Greenblatt clarifies elegantly the philosophy of Epicureanism and the many radical consequences of these apparently simple claims. But this book feels oddly rushed. In the final two chapters Greenblatt hastily traces the impact of these ideas. “The author of Romeo and Juliet shared his interest in Lucretian materialism with Spenser, Donne, Bacon, and others,” writes Greenblatt, and gives a couple of quotations from Shakespeare but no further mention of Donne. Montaigne and Galileo were also interested, Moliere attempted to translate the poem and “Thomas Jefferson owned at least five Latin editions”.
Greenblatt’s central argument is built upon charisma rather than evidence. He is a forceful, seductive writer, and confident enough to draw us into lost worlds. Upon arrival at one monastery, Greenblatt writes, Bracciolini “might have felt a pang for the olives and wine of Tuscany”. Indeed he might, or might not, but this kind of guess is the distinctive note of Greenblatt’s work, most apparently in his speculative biography of Shakespeare, Will in the World.
“I began with the desire to speak with the dead,” Greenblatt wrote in his essay collection Shakespearean Negotiations. When he writes that for Bracciolini, ancient works “were not manuscripts but human voices”, he is really reflecting upon himself.
Bracciolini is an image of the scholar as hero, “a magical healer who reassembled and reanimated the torn and mangled body of antiquity”, and it is hard not to hear Greenblatt’s own longing behind this affectionate portrait of a bibliophile and the poem he found.
Daniel Swift is assistant professor of English literature at Skidmore College, New York, and author of ‘Bomber County’ (Penguin)
The Swerve: How the Renaissance Began, by Stephen Greenblatt, Bodley Head, RRP£20, 368 pages